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In his new book, The Circle, Dave Eggers has imagined a near future that could be our own. A young twentysomething, Mae Holland, has been hired to work for the Circle, a massive Internet company in the Bay Area that has absorbed all other social networks and search engines. Mae thought she was in heaven, working for what seemed to be the most innovative, greenest, humane corporation on earth. A central innovation was the development of TruYou, which was “one account, one identity, one password, one payment system, per person… no more passwords, no multiple identities…one button for the rest of your life.” Another technology–again, not at all far off–was a network of millions of cheap HD digital cameras (SeaChance) providing a real-time video capture of every nook and cranny of planet Earth.
The Circle celebrated this seemingly humanitarian form of surveillance with such credos as: “All that happens must be known.” “Sharing is caring.” “Privacy is theft.” The protagonist Mae, working as she does in “customer experience,” worked to amass thousands of “smiles” (likes), constantly under the surveillance of a complex technology infrastructure that rewards increased sharing, transparency, and lack of any work-home boundaries.
Orwellian allusions abound in The Circle, though Eggers has captured our uniquely modern preoccupations and anxieties in his fable. There are obvious references to Google. Some employees have “gone retinal” in their workstations, forgoing their archaic tablets and laptops. The architecture of the Circle’s campus features plated glass because it’s all about transparency. Of course, it isn’t merely transparency, as we discover, but surveillance and control.
The glass in the Circle is more like the glass of an aquarium, glass that contains a prison of sorts, complete with edible plankton, small fish, and one large shark. At one point, an exasperated Mae proclaimed that “the volume of information, of data, of judgments, of measurements, was too much, and there were too many people, and too many desires of too many people and too many opinions…all of it constantly collated, collected, added and aggregated, and presented to her as if that all made it tidier and more manageable — it was too much.” Without giving anything away, we discover that increased levels of transparency and data collection have their downsides. Which is another way of saying everything turns into a totalitarian nightmare.
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Bruce Poulsen, Ph.D., is the Director of Training for the clinical psychology internship program at Primary Children’s Hospital in Salt Lake City. He also supervises child psychiatry residents in the PCMC pediatric residency program at the University of Utah School of Medicine, and he is an adjunct assistant professor in both the School of Medicine and Department of Educational Psychology. Poulsen is a past president of the Utah Psychological Association. He also maintains a private practice in Salt Lake City.