The Circle

The Circle Book Two, part 1 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
At Book Two opens, Stenton has returned from his expedition to the Marianas Trench, and he brought with him a hitherto undiscovered species of shark, which he displays in a tank at the Circle campus. Mae’s new job at the Circle is to show her watchers the shark, along with the other attractions on the campus, and talk about her experience of “going clear.” A voice in her headset tells her where to go. Anyone on the planet can watch her, whenever they want.
In the time since the end of Book One, Mae has become a tour guide for the Circle. However, her real job is to be a mascot for the Circle’s anti-privacy ideology. The fact that Stenton has captured a shark further symbolizes the growing omnipresence of the Circle in general—its power reaches all the way to the bottom of the ocean. Last, the term “going clear” seems to be a reference to the Church of Scientology, an opaque and cultlike religious organization that indoctrinates members through promises of ultimately “going clear.”
Themes
Surveillance and Transparency Theme Icon
Privacy Theme Icon
Totalitarianism and Indoctrination Theme Icon
Utopianism and Perfection Theme Icon
Mae has been at the Circle for nearly a year, and during this time, there have been some major changes in the company. People talk about the concept of Completion—the idea of everyone on the planet having a Circle account. 90 percent of the government is transparent, and most of the Circle’s employees are either transparent or in process of becoming so. Mae loves the experience of being watched by millions of people every day—as a result, she’s always ranked in the top ten for company popularity.
Completion is a mysterious concept—no one in the novel seems to know what, if anything, will happen when everyone on the Earth has a Circle account. But nobody (or at least not Mae) seems to find it disturbing that one company controls the world’s information flow. Constant social networking has indoctrinated Mae. She seems not to miss privacy.
Themes
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Utopianism and Perfection Theme Icon
Mae walks back to the shark tank, where she greets a marine biologist named Georgia who has come to feed the shark. Georgia throws various sea creatures—including many creatures the shark has never experienced before—into the tank. At one point, the shark leaps out of the water and snatches a lobster from Georgia’s hand, nearly biting her. Georgia holds out a sea turtle for the shark—it occurs to Mae that sharks might not be able to digest turtles’ shells. But a voice in her headset says that she should allow Georgia to proceed with the feeding. The shark unhooks its jaw and swallows the turtle.
The shark is one of the key symbols of the novel. In a simple sense, it represents Tom Stenton and the Circle’s boundless ambition. Like the shark, the company devours anything that stands in its way: human freedom, privacy, Senator Williamson, etc. In a more abstract sense, the shark could be said to represent human greed. Although Mae is certain that the Circle will use its vast power for good, the novel seems to suggest that the Circle’s executives will use their power for their own benefit.
Themes
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As Mae watches the shark, she sees a figure standing by the aquarium—it’s Kalden. Mae hasn’t heard from Kalden since she went transparent. Mae tries to follow Kalden—she walks by the aquarium tank, outside to the lawn, and she sees Kalden heading to a building. The voice in her headset asks where she’s going, and Mae says she’s just wandering. Suddenly, her phone rings—it’s Kalden, who says, “we have to meet.” He explains that her watchers can hear her, but not him. He says “The Circle is almost complete, and Mae, you have to believe that this will be bad for you, for me, for humanity.” He hangs up. When the voice in her headset comes in, Mae says the call was from “some lunatic babbling about the end of the world.” Mae realizes that she wants to see Kalden. She wonders if Kalden’s call is some kind of test, to see if she’d do anything to prevent the Circle’s “Completion.”
As the novel goes on, it becomes harder and harder for Mae to communicate with Kalden without attracting attention. At first, Kalden seemed like a fairly ordinary employee of the Circle, but now it’s becoming clear that he’s opposed to the company’s basic agenda and he is trying to enlist Mae’s help to stave off Completion. It’s a sign of Mae’s indoctrination that she seems not to take Kalden’s warning seriously. She is so used to being watched at all times that she’s not worried about what will happen when the Circle can watch everyone in the world.
Themes
Social Networking and the Internet Theme Icon
Surveillance and Transparency Theme Icon
Privacy Theme Icon
Utopianism and Perfection Theme Icon
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Later in the afternoon, Mae goes to her Customer Experience office. After going clear, Bailey asked her to remain working in Customer Experience for a few hours a week, to prove to her watchers that she’s “humble.” In Customer Experience, Mae feels totally relaxed—her office is the only place where there are “no unknowns.” She works there for a few hours, and one of the people who messages her with questions about using the Circle adds, “I’m watching you!” This Circle user proceeds to message Mae other questions—she asks Mae to join her professional network, professes to feel “devalued” when Mae doesn’t respond to her message immediately, and then—when Mae joins her professional network—writes a message on Mae’s professional profile. Mae thinks, “the customers made her better”—she feels happier and more generous because she knows that people are watching.
The fact that Mae is at her most comfortable in an environment where there are no unknowns symbolizes the way that Mae has rewired her brain to fit with the Circle paradigm. No longer does Mae accept that there are some things she doesn’t need to know, or that uncertainty can be a liberating feeling. Like the company itself, Mae hungers for information and certainty. Even after her customers—total strangers—harass her to respond to their messages, Mae continues to believe that it’s acceptable for them to behave in such a way. Mae has, in short, become a slave to her own audience—she always has to be perfectly poised and polite.
Themes
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Mae also finds that being watched changes her behavior on a second-by-second level. She doesn’t eat as many fattening foods or take as many aspirins because she can see that she’d look like an unhealthy person to her watchers. Going transparent, she thinks, liberates her from “bad behavior.” As she works, Mae’s headset asks her survey questions. When she doesn’t answer them immediately, she hears her own voice, saying her name as a reminder. Mae no longer finds hearing her own voice to be weird: on the contrary, she finds this voice to represent “a better, more indomitable version of herself.”
Mae’s transparency limits her personal freedom in tiny ways: she finds herself reshaping her behavior to fit with what she knows is expected of her. This process of reshaping is symbolized by the voice in Mae’s head: one could say that the voice symbolizes the “better self” that Mae is trying to become: a polite, poised, eerily perfect person whom Mae impersonates while she’s on camera.
Themes
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In the evening, Mae attends an improv show and participates in a fundraiser for schools in Pakistan, which amasses millions of “smiles” for the school. Afterwards, she goes to her dorm where she’s been living for more than a month—it no longer makes sense to drive to and from work every day. After ten pm, transparency is optional, so that night, Mae turns off her camera and says goodnight to her watchers. As soon as the camera is off, Mae feels a deep “tear” inside her. She messages Annie, but gets no response, so she tries to entertain herself by watching footage from SeeChange cameras around the world. She also tries to find Kalden online, but, as usual, she can’t, since she doesn't know his name.
As Mae becomes more invested in the success of the Circle, she begins cutting off all ties with the external world. At the same time, the passage makes it clear that Mae has become addicted to transparency: she can’t tolerate being alone (i.e., deprived of watchers). As a result, even after 10 pm, she continues to message friends and watch videos.
Themes
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The next day, Mae wakes up and greets her watchers. She sees a news notification about how the world’s foremost health agencies and companies will now be sharing all data with each other, and with the Circle. She recalls that today is the day that Annie returns from her months in Europe and Asia where she was “ironing out some regulatory wrinkles.” Mae notes that, since becoming transparent, Annie has become less communicative with her—she claims to be busy at all times.
One tragedy of the novel is that, as Mae becomes superficially happier and gains more online friends, she sacrifices her more traditional and profound friendships, spending less and less time with Annie. (Also, notice that the Circle will now have access to everyone’s medical records—an alarming violation of privacy that Mae finds totally uncontroversial).
Themes
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Mae proceeds with her touring of the campus. She greets a man named Terry who is working on the Circle’s upcoming educational program—he explains that the Circle will be responsible for developing a new testing system for all students. The Circle has also developed a program that counts the number of words a child hears every day in order to predict children’s success in the classroom. Mae also speaks with a Circle employee named Jackie who demonstrates a new program for ranking students across the country to determine their chances of getting into a good college. The voice in Mae’s headset instructs her to ask Jackie about how the program “intersects with TruYou,” so Mae asks and Jackie leads her to speak with Francis. Francis, whom Mae hasn’t seen in weeks, greets Jackie and Mae and explains that he’s been working on a program to track children. By combining his program with Jackie’s, parents will be able to measure their children’s total knowledge: every fact, word, and date they’ve ever learned. As Mae watches Francis and Jackie talking flirtatiously, Mae realizes that Francis and Jackie have been rehearsing their conversation—suddenly, she feels sick.
Terry and Jackie’s educational programs represent horrible violations of children’s freedom to develop at their own pace. Even though some children are late bloomers, the Circle’s education programs operate under the assumption that, once a child is behind in mental development, it will remain behind for the rest of its life. Francis’s program for tracking children seemed more understandable (since it was done for the greater good of protecting children from kidnapping), but now it’s being combined with other, less ethical programs. Mae doesn’t seem to find anything unethical about the Circle’s violations of children’s freedom; instead, she’s more interested in the chemistry between Francis and Jackie.
Themes
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Later in the afternoon, Mae thinks about Francis. He’s unattractive, and she knows that he has problems with premature ejaculations. However, Mae suddenly finds him attractive again because she senses that Jackie is attracted to him. As she thinks about Francis, Mae continues leading tours: she shows her watchers a sculpture by a Chinese dissident. Mae thanks watchers who have sent frowns to the Chinese government and she adds, “You can bet that has an effect on the regime.” The sculpture, commissioned by Eamon Bailey, is uncharacteristically earnest, optimistic, and monumental—it’s altogether unlike the artist’s early, sardonic work. It seems to resemble a human hand reaching for a computer screen.
It’s a sign of Mae’s indoctrination that she finds Francis attractive simply because other people seem to find him attractive: by spending so much time online, Mae has allowed herself to be swayed by the herd mentality. Also, this passage satirizes Internet politics. Mae’s sanguine claim that sending frowns to China will affect the regime makes it seem likely that, in fact, the Internet campaign will do nothing to make things better in China. Also, it’s implied that the Circle is twisting artists’ aesthetic principles to reflect their own agenda—one of the hallmarks of a dictatorship.
Themes
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Mae remembers that she has to see Dr. Villalobos in ten minutes. Suddenly, she sees Annie walking by in the distance and calls after her. Annie turns and smiles a “practiced, exhausted smile.” Mae asks Annie about her trip and Annie (who, Mae can tell, isn’t enjoying talking to Mae’s watchers) says that it was great. She adds that she’s working on a program to digitize every photograph and newsreel in history. Annie asks Mae to go to the bathroom with her.
In this poignant section, we see the toll that social networking has taken on Mae’s friendships. She has millions of online “friends,” but her actual, flesh-and-blood friends are becoming an increasingly marginal part of her life.
Themes
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In the bathroom, Mae is allowed to turn off her microphone, though she leaves her camera on—the “rules” give her up to three minutes of silence. In the bathroom, Annie compliments Mae for “killing it,” but Mae detects a note of envy in her voice. Annie explains that she’s jetlagged, and that she needs a few nights to herself before she spends time with Mae. She mentions that the Circle is nearing Completion, and that the Wise Men are trying to find a guinea pig for a secret program, preferably someone whose family has been in the U.S. for hundreds of years (since the Circle will need historical records dating back a long time). With these words, she walks out of the bathroom without saying goodbye. Mae walks out, then walks back into the bathroom, turns off her audio, and cries.
Surveillance has become such a basic part of the Circle employees’ lives that their only opportunities for privacy come in the bathroom. Annie seems to be growing jealous of Mae’s popularity with the company. Where previously she was warm and kind to Mae, she’s now cold and distant, bragging about her insider knowledge of the Company’s programs. (It’s worth noticing that, in spite of the Company’s supposed commitment to transparency, it keeps its own operations secret). The Circle has driven Mae and Annie apart, and Mae feels terrible about it.
Themes
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Mae walks to Dr. Villalobos. Because she’s so beautiful, Dr. Villalobos has become popular with Mae’s watchers, and Villalobos seems to enjoy her popularity. Mae notices that she’s wearing a blouse that displays her ample cleavage. Villalobos begins by talking about a program called CHAD, designed to measure the health of its users so that the Circle can isolate people who have the flu in order to prevent outbreaks. Villalobos tells Mae that, based on comments a user has sent in, Mae should stop eating so many nitrates.
Instead of focusing on her patient—as one would expect a good doctor to do—Dr. Villalobos is clearly performing for Mae’s watchers. Mae seems not to care that Villalobos is violating her Hippocratic Oath by sharing details about Mae’s personal life and health with thousands of strangers. And, outrageously, Villalobos doesn’t use her training as a doctor—instead, she just responds to users’ comments about Mae’s health.
Themes
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Dr. Villalobos next tells Mae that there’s a problem with her parents. The Circle has installed cameras in Mae’s parents’ home, but her parents have placed covers over most of these cameras. Mae is appalled by her parents’ rudeness, and she promises to speak to them personally. Dr. Villalobos points out that Mae hasn’t seen her parents in over a week and she advises Mae to visit them as soon as possible.
Instead of standing up for her parents, Mae trusts Dr. Villalobos’s advice and promises to talk to them. It’s disturbing that Villalobos knows so much about Mae’s personal life. Furthermore, the fact that Mae hasn’t seen her parents in a week suggests that she’s distancing herself from her pre-Circle life.
Themes
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At five, Mae drives to visit her parents, furious that they’ve disrespected the Circle. She begins to wonder what Annie—who, she’s convinced, is jealous of Mae—will do to use Mae’s embarrassment about her family to her advantage. She remembers that Annie’s family has been in the U.S. for a very long time. She also remembers an unpleasant dinner at Annie’s house, during which Annie’s aunt taunted Mae for living near Fresno and derided Annie’s freshman year roommates for being Pakistani.
Mae is becoming more loyal to the Circle than to her own family or friends. Instead of thinking fondly about Annie, Mae focuses on her most negative memories of Annie and Annie’s family. Similarly, she doesn’t even give her own parents the benefit of the doubt; she immediately assumes that they’ve done something horribly wrong by going against the Circle.
Themes
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Mae thinks back on her first days of living transparently. Her watchers sent her thousands of messages providing advice for how to interact with loved ones suffering from MS. Tonight, as she greets her parents in their home, she notices that they’re adjusting their behavior to reflect the fact that people are watching them from around the world. She asks her parents if there’s been a problem with their cameras; they laugh and say, stiffly, “we’ll get them fixed right away.” Mae’s mother notes that she has received thousands of messages since Mae went transparent—far too many for her to answer. Mae’s father points out that some “neurotic” watchers have begun complaining that he and his wife aren’t responding to their messages.
From Mae’s perspective, her parents are uncooperative and old-fashioned; from her parents’ perspective, the Circle’s demands for total transparency are unreasonable, unethical, and unwarranted. Where Mae welcomes messages from total strangers, her parents recognize these messages as what they are: the babbling of people with too much time on their hands. Notice that Mae doesn’t seem to feel warmth or love for her parents anymore, only a strong sense of exasperation.
Themes
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After dinner, Mae’s parents request that Mae watch a movie with them. They do, and afterwards Mae says that she should get back to the Circle. Mae’s mother gives her an odd look, which Mae interprets to mean, “finally.” She also gives Mae a letter from Mercer. In her car, Mae opens the letter, in which Mercer explains that he wants Mae to read his letter on camera. From now on, Mercer explains, he can’t see Mae. He says that the Circle has exhausted Mae’s parents and harassed them with constant messages. He helped Mae’s parents cover the cameras with fabric because “They want to be alone. And not watched.” Mercer predicts that, “if things continue this way,” the world will split into a society of people who live under constant surveillance and a society that refuses to play along. Mae refuses to read any more of the letter. Her watchers send thousands of messages about Mercer being a “zero.”
Mae’s interactions with her parents become increasingly distant and unfriendly. She even gets the sense that her mother wants her to leave as soon as possible (although Mae could be projecting her own exasperation). Mercer’s letter is one of the only times in the novel when a character voices a strong, eloquent opposition to the Circle’s program of transparency. He claims, very reasonably, that some people, such as Mae’s parents, have no interest in being seen by millions, and, more importantly, have no obligation to be seen. Mercer’s point of view is clearly unpopular, though—it seems as if he’s the only one who’s worried about the Circle.
Themes
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Mae decides to drive back to her parents’ house to talk to them. She walks inside, but she doesn’t see her parents. Upstairs, she walks into their bedroom, where she sees her mother holding her father’s penis in her hand. Mae turns away, but it’s too late—people around the world have seen her father naked. Horrified, Mae calls Bailey and begs him to erase the footage from the Circle’ cloud. On the phone, Bailey casually tells Mae that it’s impossible to delete the footage. He assures Mae that everybody will forget about the footage within a few days.
Mae’s parents have every right to live in private—they don’t need millions of people watching them at all hours of the day. When Mae accidentally broadcasts her father’s nakedness to millions of people online, it becomes clear why the right to privacy is so important: all human beings have the right to feel protected, secure, and unembarrassed. However, as Bailey makes clear, the Circle doesn’t care about its users’ embarrassment or security.
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Mae drives back to the Circle, thinking, “home was madness.” She finds it difficult to be off-campus—there are homeless people, smelly people, ugly machines, ugly buildings, etc. The outside world seems more and more like the Third World every time she sets foot there. Mae checks her desk and finds a message from her parents: “Please, no more.” Mae ignores the message and proceeds with customer questions. Her customers recognize her as “THE Mae,” and seem very excited. One customer begs Mae to recommend his daughter for work at the Circle: “No pressure, but we’re counting on you.”
Instead of being furious with Bailey for denying her pleas for help, Mae directs her rage at her family, her home, and the non-Circle world in general. Even though she spends all day receiving adoring messages from people around the world (including an invasive, inappropriate request that Mae recommend someone’s daughter for a job), she clearly has no compassion for people who aren’t like her. The Circle has trained Mae to embrace the utopian ideal of perfection—anything that doesn’t meet that ideal is abhorrent to her.
Themes
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Mae feels a tear deep within her. She can’t stop thinking about Mercer—his sanctimonious letter, and his “disgusting” fat body. She tries to distract herself by answering survey questions and responding to customers, but she continues to feel the tear. When she pauses, she hears her own voice in her headset, prompting her to answer the questions. The voice sounds calming—indeed, “it felt like home.”
Mae is clearly upset about growing apart from her family, Mercer, and Annie, and she tries to fill the void within herself with online friendships and customer queries. The voice in Mae’s headset, which she finds soothing, urges her to continue trying to be perfect, which essentially means to ignore her old friends and family and bury herself in the Circle.
Themes
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After leaving her office, Mae “found herself” in Francis’s room. She goes to Francis because everyone else in her life has abandoned her. Francis listens to Mae’s complaints about her family and friends and tells her he’s sorry. He explains that he has scanned all of his old photographs and used Circle technology to track down everyone who appears in the photographs. Mae and Francis act out a sexual fantasy, in which Francis pretends to be a lost teenager and Mae pretends to be a lonely housewife. Francis become so excited during the course of the fantasy that he throws Mae to the bed and, a few seconds later, ejaculates in his pants, “emitting a brief squeal.”
Robbed of any real human connections, Mae turns to the one person she has left: Francis. Francis is as shallow as ever (he has nothing of substance to say to Mae, only “I’m so sorry”), but he provides Mae with the minimum amount of human contact that she wants. Francis’s inability to have sex with Mae could symbolize the decline of intimacy and human contact in the Internet age: Francis is more interested in simulations of romance—i.e., the sexual fantasy he acts out here—than in actual intimacy.
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Afterwards, Francis asks Mae for a second fantasy: he wants her to rate him from 1 to 100. Impatient, Mae says that he’s “fine,” and Francis finds this offensive. Mae corrects herself: Francis is “great,” a perfect 100. Francis smiles, kisses Mae, and goes to sleep.
Absurdly, Mae gives Francis a perfect rating of 100 for his premature ejaculation—obviously, she’s just trying to placate him. But the exchange is a sign of how quantified human relationships have become, thanks to the Circle.
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The next day, Mae goes to a large glass building, where she greets the Gang of 40, the group that approves new Circle projects. Eamon Bailey greets her warmly, but Annie does not greet her at all. Previously, Mae has been told that the meeting must seem natural and unrehearsed to Mae’s watchers, so she tries to act casual. Bailey calls the meeting to order and announces that thousands of leaders around the world have gone transparent. He admits that there have been some problems with the political transparency project: instead of making the political world more ethical, transparently elected leaders have become mere “figureheads,” shielding the backroom from view”. However, Bailey insists that this problem will change soon.
In this passage, we’re reminded that Annie and Mae are growing apart—they’ve become jealous of one another, thanks to the Circle. Also, it’s important to notice the irony in Bailey’s remarks about imperfect transparency: he laments that politicians have become mere figureheads, while corrupt, non-transparent figures continue to influence politics from behind the scene. However, it’s heavily implied that the Circle is the backroom that transparent politicians are shielding—the Circle is becoming an all-powerful, monopolistic corporation that controls the world.
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Bailey announces his next major project: automatically registering all Circle users to vote. Mae raises her hand and suggests that Bailey take this idea one step further: require every voting-age citizen to have a Circle account. A few people at the meeting seem to find this a bad idea, but Mae insists that it’s not so different from requiring adults to send their children to school. As Mae speaks, other members of the Gang of 40 murmur their agreement. Encouraged, Mae suggests that Circle users be required to pay their taxes online, too.
Bailey seems to be manipulating Mae into proposing an idea that Bailey and the other Wise Men already support—forcing voters to register through the Circle—in order to make the meeting seem more improvisational and open-ended than it really is. Mae doesn’t seem to consider the strong possibility that the Circle will be unable to maintain political neutrality if it controls the voting process.
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Annie disagrees with Mae’s point: why bother building a “wraparound service” when the government could do so? The Gang of 40 snickers; condescendingly, Stenton explains that the Circle is in a much better position to build a good, user-friendly online voting service. Annie nods, her expression a mixture of anger and fear. Mae continues: using an online voting system would allow politicians to know how their constituents feel about their political positions at all times. Stenton agrees—if the Circle makes voting online, Congress could become irrelevant.
That Annie has some reservations about Mae’s proposal (which are met with snickers) is a sign that Mae is “in” and Annie is “out.” The Circle’s executives are so accustomed to thinking of themselves as more powerful and better than the government that they’re confortable with the idea of making American government altogether irrelevant. The Circle is no longer a company—it’s becoming an all-powerful, totalitarian government.
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