The circle – book review and thoughts on privacy and transparency

One of my students was reading this book by Dave Eggers, and I decided to read it too so that we could discuss it in class. I don’t always do this, but I thought the book looked interesting and I was looking for something new to read. Fortunately the library had a copy, and it didn’t take me long – I was done in a couple of days!

Mae Holland has a boring job until one day a college friend helps her to get a job at the Circle, the most influential technology company in the world. Exciting projects, recognition, rewards and opportunities are waiting for her, but even on the first day, things aren’t quite right or what they seem. As Mae becomes more and more involved, she looses touch with her old life and even though her family is proud of her at first, her new life and career leaves no room for her relationships, made worse by the fact that the company provides help for her family that Mae would never have been able to give on her own.

The new projects, whilst exciting, become increasingly intrusive and sinister. Slowly the company swallows up competitors and silences anyone who would stand against it.

I won’t spoil the ending for you, but it wasn’t the ending I wanted. Still, it was believable and I suppose these dystopian novels never end well!

There is a film too with Emma Watson, but I haven’t seen it so can’t comment. I only read the book – the original was in English, but I read the German version.

Overall I think the book explores some interesting topics such as the potential dangers of a world in which one company has the power to affect every area of life, what happens when people are completely “transparent” and there is no privacy, and what happens if an idea is taken further than it was ever intended to go.

There are some interesting characters, even though I felt the main protagonist was a bit of an idiot at times! I think we can see clearly how she was brainwashed, but it would have been good if the author had developed the sense of being torn between two completely different points of view a bit more. Did she really never lie awake at night questioning some of the things she was told?

I can believe that some people are so taken in that they’ll believe anything once the organisation has got its claws in, but it would maybe have been good to have some other figures to put the alternative point of view. We did have her ex, who made a good case, but maybe one of the other politicians could have made a stand too about why it’s not good to have every single meeting or discussion in the public domain. Why were there no legal challenges about secret cameras being installed everywhere, including in people’s homes? It felt for me as though some corners were cut here, even if the overall end result would have been the same. At some points, the narrative moved too fast, and the lack of resistance made it less believable for me.

It certainly opens up the discussion around privacy, who really owns your data, surveillance, the right to be forgotten, and how much of ourselves we should be willing to share.

The problem I have though, is that often people are unwilling to accept responsibility for their own part in the problem. Ok, if large companies are misusing data, selling data unlawfully, not adequately protecting data from theft or abuse by third parties, they should be called to account for it.

But if you have a public profile and publish your full home address on it, and I have seen someone doing that, then I hope nothing happens to you. But if you then post on that public profile that you’re going on holiday for two weeks, you’re not doing yourself any favours.

The bloggers that I follow don’t do this, and people have different thresholds for how much information is too much information, but I’ve seen things that people post on social media about their children that have made me cringe –things that most people would only want members of the family or close friends to know – not any random that they may have added on Facebook. Private things, that, if the kid found out about it in ten or so years, could leave them feeling unduly exposed or betrayed. I don’t mean general things about struggles they’ve had, but things that are intimate or deeply personal and their own story to tell if they want to. Blogging gives a certain extra layer of anonymity that social media sites don’t, particularly if you’re operating under your own name.

If people go to random websites and give details of their home address, phone number, date of birth, or anything else for that matter – without checking out the site first – of course it’s wrong that the sites exist, but would you give all this information to a random person on the street?

If people sign into all kinds of apps and games with their Facebook account, without checking out what other permissions they are agreeing to – of course it’s not ok if that data is then used in some illegal or morally dubious way, but some responsibility has to lie with the person who clicked the “ok” button, or just used their Facebook login because it was easier.

So yes – large companies need to be held to account, but on a smaller scale, we all have a role to play too. We’re not just mindless passive players, being swept along with the current – or if we are, we shouldn’t be.

When I was taking part in a feedback exercise for my university, I was amazed at a section of the group that was so anti social media because it was so scary and dangerous. I don’t see that in my day-to-day life. I work online and my friends generally don’t feel that way either. Some concerns may be valid, and I wouldn’t just dismiss all of them, but writing it off completely seems like saying “cars are dangerous because you could get run over by them” Let’s not educate people about safe driving. Let’s just ban them all together.”

The danger I see with books like this is that half the population will go running scared and feel vindicated because this is where we’ll all end up you know when the big tech companies take over every part of our lives, and the rest think it’s exaggerated and will never happen. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle.

Checks and balances should be in place. The law needs to keep up with the advancements in technology as some things are only not illegal because the current legislation hasn’t caught up with what’s now technically possible (for example, existing harassment legislation had to be amended to specifically address stalking, which includes activities associated with cyberstalking, as these became more prevalent..)

But on the other hand, dumping vast amounts of previously classified information online without considering possible consequences, or saying “I have nothing to hide so I don’t care what’s known about me” are both somewhat naïve.

It’s like so many things – balance is important. A couple of the early ideas in the Circle had potential to be useful, but when taken too far, they weren’t.

I think some things are close enough to real life to make you smile as you relate to something, like going through 101 reasons someone may not have responded to you when the real reason was just that they hadn’t been glued to their phone and hadn’t seen your message or post. Or, even though we don’t have a bunch of screens on our desk for every single app, the juggling act you do when there are multiple ways for people to keep in touch with you and you have to keep on top of all of them. (Yes, message me on WhatsApp and I still may forget to reply!)

Mae comes across as very naïve and gullible, and she never questions or says “no”. Maybe that’s the path we take when our digital footprint becomes more important than anything else, but real life is rarely so black and white. Some parts of the novel reminded me of my teacher in year 5 “you’ve got some good ideas Kirsty, but this is just the skeleton. His bones are fine, but now put some meat on him!”

Maybe it was meant to be more of an easy read, but I was left wanting to unpack the issues a bit more, or to get a bit deeper into some of the characters which felt a bit superficial.

Have you read this book or seen the film? What did you think?

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