The morning after having sex with Kalden, Mae wakes up in her dorm room. She calls Annie and tells her that she had sex with Kalden, but still doesn’t know his last name. She assures Annie that Kalden does, indeed, work at the Circle—he has access to lots of places, and he left her with a phone number. She lies and tells Annie that they had sex in her dorm room. To her surprise, Annie becomes very serious; she asks Mae to figure out “who this guy is” as soon as possible. Mae calls the phone number Kalden left her, but doesn’t get an answer or a voicemail. She remembers how the night ended—Kalden walked her back to her dorm and then disappeared into the night.
It’s not clear why Annie is suddenly so serious about finding Kalden: is she merely insecure, as Mae was, about not being able to identify another Circle employee? Or does she have orders to investigate anyone on the Circle campus whose identity is unknown? In either case, the Circle’s commitment to total information transparency is becoming increasingly sinister.
After lunch, Mae meets with Pete Ramirez, per Josiah and Denise’s requests. Ramirez explains that he doesn’t have a lot of time. He puts a headset over Mae’s head and explains that, throughout the day, she’ll hear questions in her headset. Whenever this happens, the Circle wants her to answer the questions with a verbal answer or, at times, a smile or frown. Ramirez stresses that the “CircleSurveys” program wants Mae to answer about five hundred questions a day. When Mae doesn’t answer a question promptly, she’ll hear her own voice in her headset—which Mae finds very disorienting.
In this disturbing section, Ramirez gives Mae a device that, for all intents and purposes, brainwashes her into immersing herself in social networking and online activity. In a manner consistent with what we’ve seem from Circle managers so far, Ramirez never explains why, precisely, Mae needs to wear the headset. It’s possible that the headset’s primary purpose is to train Mae to become an obedient social networker.
Back at her desk, Mae hears a voice in her headset asking her questions about her ideal vacation, including how much she’d be willing to pay for such a vacation. She answers well over five hundred questions a day, and she finds that CircleSurveys distract her from thinking about Kalden, “the only man for whom she’d ever had real lust.”
While the novel never says, it seems likely that Mae’s headset questions are designed to help marketers and businesses sell more products to Mae and her colleagues at the Circle. If this is true, then forcing Mae to answer questions is an absurd invasion of her privacy. Notice, also, that the passage draws a clear dichotomy between Mae’s relationship with Kalden—a real, flesh-and-blood human being—and her relationship with her virtual customers and questioners. She’s losing all contact with the real world.
One day, Mae sees Kalden walking into her office. Just as she’s about to greet him, she hears her voice in her headset, asking her to answer a question. She hesitates, and Kalden walks out of the office. Mae tries to follow Kalden, but doesn’t see him. When she returns to her desk, she finds Francis waiting for her. Seeing Francis in person, Mae realizes that she finds him “disgusting”—weak and needy. She asks him if he’s deleted the video, and he says that he hasn’t. He adds that Las Vegas has approved his ChildTrack program. Mae congratulates Francis, and feels a sudden wave of sympathy for him, but then tells him that she’ll talk to him later.
Mae’s relationship with Francis is characteristic of the kinds of relationships fostered by aggressive social networking: unstable, volatile, and deeply unsatisfying. Mae is well aware that she doesn’t really like Francis. But she’s so overwhelmed by sympathy for Francis that she’s willing to overlook her strong dislike. Meanwhile, entire cities are using child-tracking programs, which reflects the Circle’s growing power.
In the following days, there’s a lot of news about the Circle taking over the administration of San Vincenzo, a nearby town whose main industries are hotels and housing for Circle employees and campus visitors. There’s also a rumor that Circle engineers have found a way to replace chaotic dreams with “organized thinking.” The main development at the Circle is that many elected leaders, both in the U.S. and around the world, are “going clear”—i.e., becoming totally transparent. To increase the availability of cameras for “going clear,” the Circle’s manufacturing plant in China adds another factory. Pundits begin to criticize politicians who don’t go transparent—clearly, they must be hiding something.
The Circle isn’t just introducing programs in other cities—it’s actually taking over entire towns for its own purposes. The Circle has long-since ceased to be a mere company: for all intents and purposes, it’s now a society, run by a powerful, even tyrannical, government. Furthermore, the Circle seems to be wielding a lot of power over the American government—it’s already been suggested that the Circle “took down” Senator Williamson, and now it seems possible that the Circle is using its information access to manipulate other politicians.
Meanwhile, the Circle itself becomes a transparent campus—cameras are installed everywhere. People Mae hasn’t talked to in years see her working and message her. She begins to put more thought into her appearance, knowing that people are watching her around the world. She hears from a college friend named Tania Schwartz, who’s begun an activist campaign to raise awareness about a renegade paramilitary group in Guatemala. Tania asks Mae for her help building a campaign to denounce the paramilitaries. Mae decides that she “needs to make a stand,” and posts online about her hatred for the paramilitary groups. She learns that she’s one of tens of thousands of people who’ve “frowned” online about these groups.
In this passage, Eggers satirizes Facebook politics. In recent years, there have been many online campaigns to raise money and awareness surrounding unjust regimes in other countries—“Kony 2012” was one of the most famous of these campaigns. Many people, Eggers included, have criticized Internet campaigns for being superficial and for doing nothing concrete to solve problems. In the case of Tania’s Guatemala campaign, Mae’s support doesn’t seem to do anything to get rid of the human rights problems in Guatemala. A digital frown is just a digital frown.
On the same day that she “frowns” about the Guatemalan paramilitaries, Mae gets a call from a blocked number while she’s in the bathroom. It’s Kalden. He says that he needs to see her, and that he knows where she is. He kisses her and has sex with her in the bathroom stall. As Kalden walks out, Mae manages to photograph his arm and fingertips, “the rest of him already gone.” Afterwards, Mae texts Annie about having had sex with Kalden.
As the novel goes on, Kalden and Mae’s relationship becomes increasingly discrete, and one is left with the suspicion that Kalden is hiding from something or someone. In contrast to her relationship with Francis—many parts of which were either public or surreptitiously recorded—Mae’s relationship with Kalden is secretive and she can’t even record it when she tries to.
Back at her desk, Mae finds Gina. Gina explains to Mae that the Circle needs to generate revenue by advertising for other businesses. As Gina speaks, Mae openly messages Annie about Kalden—Gina seems intensely jealous that Mae talks to Annie “all day.” Annie asks Mae for Kalden’s last name and photo, Mae doesn’t give either to her. However, she lies and claims that she knows his last name and that she has confirmed that he’s an employee of the company. Gina explains to Mae that Circle employees can encourage other people to buy certain products by posting about them online. From now on, Mae’s “Retail Raw”—the total number of dollars that Mae convinces her online friends to spend—will be listed with her PartiRank. She adds that the minimum expectation for Circle employees is a weekly Retail Raw of 45,000 dollars.
Several things to notice here. First, the Circle is becoming more aggressive in its pursuit of capital: it’s now requiring its employees to generate revenue (a major conflict of interest, since the Circle also handles information flow!). Second, and similarly, the Circle is becoming more demanding in its relationships with its employees. The Circle is requiring them to generate money for the company via social networking (confirming Gina’s earlier claim that social networking is a part of Mae’s job). Third, notice that Mae is “protecting” Kalden from Annie’s questioning. She seems to enjoy keeping a secret and giving Kalden some privacy from the company. Fourth, Mae finds it hard to complete a face-to-face conversation without checking her messages; however, she wields power over Gina because of her friendship with Annie. This is a sign that connections are more important than talent at a place like the Circle.
A few nights after her meeting with Gina, Mae drives out to see her father, who’s now using Circle insurance. When she greets her father, she notices that he seems stronger and more confident, and that he’s wearing a wrist monitor. Her parents say that they have a lot of extra time now that the Circle is handling their healthcare needs and “cutting out the middleman.” Mae notices a chandelier made of out antlers, which she recognizes from Mercer’s store. To Mae’s surprise, her parents tell her that Mercer is coming for dinner. Mercer arrives, and Mae immediately compliments his chandelier. She takes a picture of the chandelier and posts it online, thinking that she’ll give him new business.
The Circle’s healthcare is providing Mae’s parents with a higher quality of life. However, the wrist monitor that her father is wearing is an ominous detail. Furthermore, Mae believes that she can combine her work assignment (generate revenue for the company) with her personal life: thus, she takes a picture of Mercer’s chandelier with the goal of generating business for his company.
At dinner, Mae’s mother raises a toast to Mae, thanking her for providing her father with health insurance. Mae checks her phone and sees that, in mere minutes, she’s built a lot of international support for Mercer’s chandeliers. Mercer seems irritated, and he says that he didn’t give Mae permission to post a photograph of his work. He accuses Mae of being “batshit crazy,” and he asks her if she thinks it’s a coincidence that whenever politicians criticize the Circle for being a monopoly, they’re ensnared in a scandal. Mae fires back that she’s proud of working for the Circle, a good company, and she calls Mercer paranoid. Mercer tells Mae that she’s become incredibly boring since working for the Circle.
Here, Mae and Mercer come to an impasse: neither one can understand the other’s position. Mae can’t understand Mercer’s philosophy of individuality and personal property—as far as she’s concerned, Mercer’s property is hers to advertise and post about however she sees fit. Mercer continues to be a mouthpiece for traditional ideas of privacy and rationality—he’s the only person in the novel sensible enough to see the obvious truth that the Circle is a dangerous monopoly that takes out anyone who stands in its way.
Driving away from her parents’ house, Mae thinks about how much she dislikes Mercer; he’s fat and anti-social. She vows never to help him again. Mae drives to the beach, even though it’s very late at night. To her surprise, she sees a kayak leaned against a fence. Mae assumes that someone has been late in returning a kayak from Marion’s rental shop. She decides to take the kayak out to sea. She does so, but finds that, even while she’s on the water, she can’t stop thinking about how much Mercer irritates her.
In the traditional sense, Mercer isn’t particularly anti-social at all. However, from the twisted perspective of the Circle’s employees, who are required to “socialize” electronically at all hours of the day, he’s exceptionally anti-social. Notice that, as the novel goes on, Mae’s kayaking trips become less and less effective for clearing her head. This is a sign that she’s becoming increasingly tied to the Circle and social networking.
Mae hears a sound and turns to see a harbor seal swimming behind her. The seal stares at her intently. Then, she sees a boat coming toward her—presumably the Coast Guard. Mae crouches down so that the Coast Guard won’t see her silhouette, and the boat passes by. Then, she rows out to the abandoned island that the elderly couple told her about. On the island, she imagines the animals that must live there and watches the tankers sailing by in the distance. Staring back at the San Francisco bay, it occurs to her that the entire area had been underwater millions of years ago. She wonders what’s drifting in the dark water all around her—somehow, it comforts her to accept that she “doesn’t know much at all.”
In this pensive scene, Mae gains a measure of control over her life by contemplating the natural world. It’s crucial to notice that Mae meditates on the fact that it’s impossible to know everything about the world, and that’s okay. Eggers suggests that there is something both humbling and relaxing about accepting one’s own limitations and allowing some things to remain mysteries. However, such a feeling of humility doesn’t mesh with the ideals of the Circle.
Afterwards, Mae kayaks back to the beach and drops off her kayak. Suddenly, a voice yells, “Stay there.” Two police officers handcuff her. Mae explains that she’s one of Marion’s customers; the officers call Marion, and Marion corroborates Mae’s story. Marion drives down to the beach and explains that Mae’s not a thief. The officers explain that they’ve received two separate phone calls about a possible theft—one from one of Marion’s cameras, the other from a “citizen who doesn’t wish to be identified.” Mae is highly embarrassed—if she’d been arrested for stealing the kayak, she could have been fired, and then her parents would lose their health insurance.
Mae committed a silly, victimless crime—she took a kayak out after dark because it had already been left out. She would have gotten away with it, had it not been for the Circle’s surveillance cameras. Perhaps people need a certain amount of flexibility to break and bend the rules—however, in the era of mass surveillance, such flexibility is no longer possible. Notice that the police don't reveal who it was that tattled on Mae—we’re left to wonder whether it was another employee who called the police to make Mae more loyal to the Circle.
The next day, Mae goes into work as usual and gets a message from Dan. Mae enters Dan’s office, and Dan immediately tells her, “this is very serious stuff.” He tells Mae that by stealing the kayak, she’s committed a crime. She should have known that Circle employees installed a SeeChange camera at the beach, and she should have posted about visiting her parents that evening. He says that Mae’s actions make him feel sick to his stomach and he adds, “felons don’t work here.” Sighing theatrically, Dan tells Mae that her irresponsible actions inspired Eamon Bailey himself to meet with her—Mae will meet with Bailey that evening.
By this point in the novel, it’s clear that Dan is every bit as condescending and belittling as Mae’s previous boss, contrary to what she’d hoped. It’s important to see that Dan is disappointed with Mae not just because she broke a law (albeit in a victimless, harmless way), but also because she didn’t post about her experiences in the evening.