Dave Eggers’ latest novel, “The Circle,” offers not-so-subtle social commentary on the increasing role technology companies play on our lives, for better or worse, and how our relationship with them could potentially impact what it means to be a citizen.
Circle is a fictional company that resembles a composite of Twitter, Facebook and Google led by a “don’t be evil” virtue. Its collection of data to better provide custom services and social media features that allows users to share information and build engagement rankings is at the front of Eggers’ commentary into the world of civic technology.
Transparency, collaboration, social clout, cultural obsession with validation via social media and FOMO, or fear of missing out, are central themes of Eggers’ commentary as well as the role all this plays in civic technology and our roles as citizens.
“The Circle” centers around protagonist Mae Holland, who joins the company as a customer service representative, but quickly becomes its public face by going “fully transparent” and livestreaming her own personal life, especially life as a Circler, to millions of viewers around the world.
The experiment quickly ventures into the gray area of privacy and technological hubris dictating what might be best for citizens with Circle, and its hundreds of millions of users, as the ultimate platform that could lead us all to a more perfect, direct democracy.
Our first encounter with civic technology begins with Congressman Olivia Santos, who becomes the first politician to take a step towards ultimate transparency by wearing a video camera medallion that captures her every move and interaction. Quickly, politicians from around the world follow suit.
“Now this new era of transparency dovetails with some other ideas I have about democracy, and the role that technology can play in making it complete. And I use the word complete on purpose because our work toward transparency might actually achieve a fully accountable government,” says Circle co-founder Eamon Bailey.
Bailey imagines a world of full engagement and Circle playing a central role, even the central role. The company’s ability to successfully develop a platform for social engagement and collaboration leads to its assumption (hubris?) that it can change the dynamics of participatory democracy overnight or, at least, “change at the speed our hearts demand,” as Eggers puts it.
“It tells you that the Circle has a knack for getting people to participate. And there are a lot of people in Washington who agree. There are people in DC who see us as a solution to making this a fully participatory democracy,” says Bailey.
One solution is TruYou, one of many Circle features:
“With TruYou, to set up a profile, you have to be a real person, with a real address, complete personal info, a real Social Security number, a real and verifiable date of birth. In other words, all the information the government traditionally wants when you register to vote. In fact, as you all know, we have far more information. So why wouldn’t this be enough information to allow you to register? Or better yet, why wouldn’t government–our government or any government–just consider you registered once you set up a TrueYou profile?”
Bailey suggests that adding features such as disabling your Circle account until you vote would be the equivalent of other compulsory civic requirements, such as registering for the draft, jury duty, getting a license before you drive, while Eggers posits, through another Circle co-founder who begins to question the ultimate goal of “full completion,” could also create the world’s first “tyrannical monopoly.”
There are anecdotes where users crowdsource the capture of a wanted criminal within minutes through Circle’s platform. Its petition and engagement tool Demoxie allows the masses, especially the disenfranchised, to voice their opinions for political consideration.
Through “The Circle,” Eggers brings to mass consumption the ideas and issues many of those who have followed the role technology plays on civics for some time.
“I tried to write a book that wasn’t so much about the technology itself, but more about its implications for our sense of humanity and balance,” says Eggers in a brief interview with his own publishing company McSweeney’s.
“The Circle” isn’t just about technology, but how we’re developing and using it and what that means for society in the future. It’s an important commentary into all of this, especially how it might influence the way we engage with government and the private companies that facilitate many aspects of our civic life.
Increasingly, the latter is playing an important role, and “The Circle” helps us consider and weigh those implications.