It’s the night after Mae’s meeting with the Gang of 40, and Mae feels wonderful: she’s been praised and validated by the Gang, and her proposal to allow people to vote online has been widely celebrated. She meets up with Francis, who congratulates her on her “poise” during the meeting—“you were a 100,” he says. Francis takes Mae to a local brewery, and as they walk there, people point and wave at Mae. After having a drink, Mae and Francis wander to another bar, where they encounter a man in his fifties who tells Mae that she’s going to “save all souls.” The man, who claims to have been a divinity student, predicts that soon there will be “one morality, one set of rules.”
Mae is happy with the praise she receives from the Gang of 40—it doesn’t seem to occur to her that she’s been manipulated into proposing a project that the Circle’s executives were already planning. Francis continues to rate Mae on a numerical scale, symbolizing how the Circle has reduced all human emotion to facile metrics. Finally, the ex-divinity student’s talk of one morality reflects the utopian ideals of the Circle. Like every totalitarian government, the Circle is committed to the idea of making the world perfect. In effect, they want to make transparency the new religion.
The next morning, Mae wakes up in her dorm room lying next to Francis and her phone rings. She sees that the caller ID is blocked, and knows that it must be Kalden. She doesn’t answer, and Kalden calls a dozen more times. For the rest of the morning, Mae receives messages explaining that her proposal will be instituted very soon—it’ll be called “Demoxie,” and it will be required for Circle users everywhere.
Mae doesn’t want to talk to Kalden because she strongly disagrees with his reservations about the Circle. Meanwhile, the fact that the Circle is already preparing an online voting program further suggests that the company was working on such a project before Mae proposed it.
Mae goes into work and she gets an invitation to the development room where she meets a man named Sharma who is working on Demoxie. He shows Mae a screen with a question about serving more vegetables at school lunches. Mae answers the question and the screen informs her, “more veggie options will be provided.” The “will of the people,” Sharma gushes, will be clear worldwide. As Mae walks out of the development room, a group of Circle employees walk up to her and tell her that, before Mae, they’d had no interest in politics. Now, they’re excited to be part of a fully engaged populace. Kalden continues calling Mae, and she continues ignoring him.
It’s altogether unclear how the Circle’s voting program is going to work: when users vote for certain options, does the Circle have any way of instituting their choices? What if users overwhelmingly vote for something that’s illegal or unethical—does the Circle (or what remains of the government) have any obligation to act on such a vote? Instead of exploring such questions, Mae and Sharma gush about the “will of the people,” demonstrating their naïve trust for the Circle.
Around 12:30, Mae works up the confidence to answer Kalden. Kalden tells Mae that he’s rigged things so that nobody will be able to hear his voice over the phone. She hangs up and rushes to the bathroom; in the bathroom, Kalden calls her again and she answers. Kalden explains that Demoxie is the last step in closing the Circle—when it’s instituted, the Circle will become “the world’s first tyrannical monopoly.” One company will control the flow of all information. Mae protests by quoting something that Ty said: the Circle is totally democratic and free. Kalden responds, “the Circle has to be reined in or broken up.” Mae accuses Kalden of being a spy for another company. Kalden asks Mae to think of the last time she was able to have a meaningful conversation with her friends or parents. He encourages her to speak out against the Circle at the next meeting of the Wise Men—the whole world will be watching. He adds, “They’ll write songs about you.”
Kalden and Mercer are the only characters in the novel who criticize the Circle articulately. Much as Mercer attacks social networking for creating vacuous, one-dimensional relationships, Kalden implies that the Circle has destroyed Mae’s relationship with her parents and her friends. Furthermore, Kalden argues that, when the Circle has total power over people’s information, it will use its power for its own benefit, instead of remaining impartial and neutral. Kalden insists that Mae has the power to change the Circle—she has millions of watchers around the world, and if she says anything to criticize the company, then her loyal watchers will hear about it right away.
Mae hangs up and makes her way to the Great Hall, disgusted with Kalden. In the Great Hall, there’s a demonstration of Demoxie on the screen, and the audience is cheering. The Demoxie app sends out questions for the audience to vote on: some are political, others are about the audience’s taste in music, but all are “yes” or “no” questions. Then, a longer question pops up on the screen: should intelligence agencies send a drone to kill a terrorist in a rural area of Pakistan, considering the likelihood of “moderate collateral damage?” Mae appreciates the gravity of this question, and she senses that the Circle employees in the room do, too. After one minute, the results of the vote appear onscreen: 71 percent favor the strike. The next question onscreen is, “Is Mae Holland awesome or what?” The results come in: 97 percent of voters think Mae is awesome. Mae immediately becomes very uneasy—the survey results suggest that approximately 368 people think she’s not awesome.
The Circle encourages its users to vote on thousands of complex, nuanced questions. Although Mae is convinced that Circle users will answer these questions thoughtfully and carefully, it’s obvious that they won’t—it only takes a minute for people to vote on the death of a terrorist (a decision that should require careful, informed deliberation). The passage also reiterates another problem with social networking: it makes people insecure and addicted to the validation of their peers. Mae is so used to receiving praise from her watchers that the idea of 368 people not liking her is almost physically revolting to her.
Suddenly, Mae sees Annie and embraces her. Annie immediately informs Mae that she’s been working on PastPerfect, a new Circle project. Sensing that Annie is speaking to Mae’s watchers instead of Mae, Mae asks Annie about PastPerfect, and Annie says that she’s become the Circle’s first volunteer for the program, which will document a person’s entire genealogy. Mae detects that Annie is bragging. Annie asks Mae about her parents, even though she knows perfectly well that Mae hasn’t been in touch with them in weeks (indeed, the last contact Mae had with her parents was a message in which her parents told her that they were “fleeing”). Mae claims that her parents are “fine” and then wraps up her conversation. Walking through campus, it occurs to her that Annie must have begged Bailey for the privilege of volunteering for PastPerfect. Mae begins to feel jealous of Annie. She suspects that the Wise Men would have offered Mae the privilege had her parents not “slipped off the path”—or, perhaps, if 368 people hadn’t said that they didn’t approve of her. She wonders if the 368 people “preferred her dead.”
Mae and Annie can no longer talk to each other—instead, they’re forced to talk to the thousands of watchers witnessing their conversation. Annie seems to be trying to hurt Mae’s feelings, perhaps because she’s envious of Mae’s status as a transparent mascot for the company. Mae and Annie’s jealousy reflects a common strategy that authoritarian governments use to consolidate power: they dangle rewards and honors in front of their subjects, encouraging them to become less loyal to one another and more loyal to the state. The passage also reiterates a point Eggers has already made: social networking makes people insecure by making them addicted to the praise and encouragement of their peers.
Back in her Customer Experience office, Mae proceeds with her work. She zings about her customers, creating a huge Retail Raw. Some of her customers ask Mae about getting a job at the Circle, but Mae directs them to the HR department. Other customers beg Mae to attend their relatives’ parties, like their photos, and express support for their projects. Suddenly, Mae realizes that it’s 10:32—she’s been working for six hours.
Mae has become so addicted to Internet communication that she loses all concept of time: she craves likes and shallow friendship from her millions of watchers, followers, and customers.
Mae goes back to her dorm, where Francis is waiting. He kisses Mae, and Mae wonders if, this time, they’ll have “a real sexual experience.” But instead, Francis ejaculates in his pants. Afterwards, he asks Mae to rate him, and she gives him a 100. Mae wakes up early in the morning, thinking of the 368 people who want her “dead.” She explains her frustrations to Francis, who is surprised. He tells her to look up which people “frowned” her, which she can do because the Circle is totally transparent now. Mae feels happy with this news—surely democracy will be “purer” when people aren’t afraid to be held accountable for their votes.
Mae continues her unsatisfying relationship with Francis. With Francis, Mae’s happiness and gratification are always deferred, perhaps reflecting the false closeness she feels with her online friends. Meanwhile, Mae doesn’t bat an eye when she hears that the Circle has made voting transparent. Private voting is one of the hallmarks of a thriving democracy—when voting is public, people can be pressured and even bullied into choosing certain candidates.
Later in the morning, Mae attends the startup meeting, in which young startup managers present their research to the Circle in the hopes that the Circle will buy them out. Bailey and Stenton attend the meeting in person, while Ty appears via video feed. Mae remembers what Kalden has told her: speak out against the Circle while she has a young and influential audience watching her. Instead of saying something, Mae messages her 2 million watchers that she’s “excited” to be there.
Mae seems to be going along with her Circle directives rather than listening to Kalden’s advice. She has a huge platform from which she could denounce the Circle for its unethical behavior, but instead, she chooses to throw her support to tyrants.
The startup managers present to Mae and the Gang of 40. One presenter has an idea for a program that will allow police officers to see who is most likely to commit a crime based on past criminal records. This program, the presenter insists, will cut down on unethical “stop and search” procedures. The presenter suggests using Francis’s child tracking program to identify suspects. Stenton approves of the idea, saying, “It’s the community’s right to know who’s committed crimes.” The next presenter discusses an idea for eliminating crime: SeeChange cameras will identify anyone in a neighborhood who “doesn’t belong.” Stenton likes this presenter’s idea, too; he insists that there will be no legal problems.
It’s frightening that the Circle’s presenters frame their proposals as solutions to unethical police procedures, even though the solutions they’re proposing are even more unethical than the policies they aim to replace. Nobody questions Stenton’s claim that communities have the right to know who has committed crimes, even though it’s future crime that’s at stake. Stenton’s confidence that there will be no legal problems whatsoever suggests the growing power of the Circle over the government and the court system.
A third presenter announces a surveillance program that identifies anyone who’s moving in an unorthodox or violent way. While demonstrating the program, the presenter plays a loud alarm. Stenton is furious that the presenter would play the alarm, to the degree that he nearly sends the presenter out of the building. However, Bailey encourages the presenter to continue and, a few moments later, Stenton is calmer. He says he likes the idea of being able to pinpoint potential troublemakers. Mae’s viewers send her messages saying, If only this had been around ten years ago.”
Each presenter offers an idea that controls and monitors human behavior on a more intimate and invasive level—the third presenter’s proposal, for example, would force people to rethink the way they move their bodies. It’s telling that Stenton is furious when the alarm goes off. Perhaps he’s furious because he wants to preserve the illusion that the Circle’s surveillance programs are gentle, calming, and peaceful. The alarm disrupts this illusion and reminds the Circle’s employees that the Circle’s surveillance programs are frightening and dangerous.
When Mae returns to her desk, she sees a message, written on paper, from Annie. The message asks her to come to the bathroom as soon as possible. Mae does so, and Annie enters a few moments later. They sit in adjoining stalls, so that the cameras don’t capture one another’s faces. Annie tells Mae that PastPerfect is going public soon, and that it’s gotten some “pretty disturbing” results. Apparently, Annie’s ancestors from the Middle Ages were “blackhearted people” who kept slaves. Annie is extremely embarrassed with her genealogy. Mae tells Annie that their time without audio is almost up. She encourages Annie not to worry about her distant ancestors. Annie hesitates and replies, “Sure.”
Annie’s problem (that she doesn’t want people knowing about her slave-owning ancestors) illustrates a further hole in the Circle’s celebration of transparency. In her time of need, Annie turns to Mae for comfort and support, but Mae (both because of her growing alienation from Annie and because the Circle’s surveillance systems make it almost impossible for her to express sympathy) can only give Annie shallow advice that echoes Francis’s failed attempts at comforting Mae.
The next day, the Circle releases Annie’s ancestry. Some people find it disturbing that Annie’s distant ancestors owned slaves, but most don’t care. Annie seems to be “taking it all in stride.” On Friday, however, Mae receives a long letter from Mercer. In the letter, Mercer tells Mae that Annie is “on the verge of ruin.” He goes on to explain that the Circle’s mission is fundamentally wrong—it’s nonsensical to try to fill “one human head” with “everything the world has ever seen.” He compares Mae’s startup meeting to a viewing of Triumph of Will (a Nazi propaganda film), and tells Mae that he’s going to travel north to escape the Circle’s growing number of surveillance cameras. He concludes, “I’m scared to death for us all.” Mae rolls her eyes, and her watchers send her derisive messages.
In much the same way that Mae couldn’t do anything after she accidentally broadcast footage of her father’s penis, Annie can’t do anything after the Circle publicizes her ancestry. In both cases, Mae and Annie have no choice but to wait and see what happens. Mercer has become so fed-up with the Circle’s totalitarian ambitions that he’s going to move away from the country in an effort to escape the Circle’s cameras. Mercer seems to be the only person left with legitimate fears about surveillance—surveillance has become an accepted part of modern life.
The next day, Mae goes to the bathroom and sees the tip of Annie’s shoe in the next stall; immediately, she turns off her audio. Annie, her voice very rough, tells Mae that her genealogy has become even more embarrassing: apparently, some of her more recent ancestors owned African slaves and fought on the Confederate side in the Civil War. Annie’s mother refuses to leave the house. Annie wails that she’s getting hate mail from around the world accusing her of being a racist.
Annie’s genealogy continues to reveal embarrassing facts. Thanks to the Circle, Annie has to deal with harassment and bullying for the crimes of people who lived hundreds of years ago. This is a clear example of the dangers of surveillance and information transparency, and also of the way that the Internet can magnify bullying.
The next day, Annie zings, “We shouldn’t know everything.” Mae and Annie meet in the bathroom again and turn off their audio so that they can talk privately. Mae is appalled that Annie, a poster child for the Circle, is criticizing the idea of total transparency. Annie, breathing heavily, tells Mae that she hasn’t slept in two days. She’s learned that her parents were in an open marriage they and had sex with other people in the nineties. Furthermore, the Circle is about to reveal that, when Annie was six years old, her parents witnessed a man falling off a pier and drowning to death, and did nothing. Annie has begged Bailey to delete this information, but Bailey has told her there’s nothing he can do. Weeping, Annie tells Mae that her parents disgust her now.
Notice that Mae doesn’t express any genuine sympathy for Annie—on the contrary, she’s horrified that Annie would dare to suggest that people shouldn’t know everything. (Mae seems to have forgotten about accidentally posting footage of her naked father online.) Moreover, Annie’s discovery that her parents witnessed a man drowning is a perfect example of why human beings shouldn’t know everything about each other. Annie knows everything about her parents now, but the knowledge hasn’t made her any happier or wiser—it has just torn her away from her family.
Mae returns to her office, where she sees her coworkers working furiously. She feels a sudden rush of pride that her coworkers are so committed to transparency. Suddenly, she realizes the “solution” to Annie’s problem: enlist the millions of Circle users to express their support for Annie. Speaking to her millions of watchers, Mae explains that she just had a secret conversation with Annie about her family history. She begs her watchers to send Annie their sympathy and support. Some of Mae’s watchers send “smiles” and supportive messages, while others write messages about how “there is evil in DNA,” meaning that Annie will need to prove that she’s not a racist. She zings the positive messages to Annie, but gets no reply.
Even when Mae tries to express sympathy and support for Annie, she does so through social networking. The idea of providing Annie with face-to-face emotional support seems not to occur to her. Mae’s plan backfires (of course), because not all of her watchers express their support for Annie—indeed, some of them continue to harass Annie and spout lies about how racism is genetic. Mae has tried to comfort Annie, but because she’s turned to social networking to do so, her plan has partly failed.
Later in the day, Mae meets with Bailey in the Great Hall, where she’s about to give a solo presentation. Mae explains what she did for Annie, and Bailey smiles and compliments Mae on her foresight. Then, Mae walks out onto the stage and greets the audience of Circle employees. Mae explains that she’s introducing a new program called SoulSearch; in her ear, she hears Stenton’s voice, directing her on what to say next. It is unjust, Mae explains, for criminals to hide from the law—therefore, the Circle has a moral responsibility to track down criminals and fugitives.
Over the course of the novel, Mae goes from an audience member to a participant to an enthusiastic presenter in the Great Hall. Indeed, readers can track Mae’s moral decline based entirely on her role in successive Great Hall presentations. Here, Mae is actively involved in selling Circle employees on the ethics of a program that, as we’ve seen, targets suspects before they’ve committed a crime.
A picture of a woman appears on the screen, Mae explains that the woman is a wanted murderer and a fugitive from justice. Mae challenges the billions of people who use the Circle to find this woman in twenty minutes, and the audience cheers. Immediately, Circle users begin sending in possible photographs of the woman, and other users vote on each photo’s likelihood of being real. Within a minute, a Circle user has identified someone in Wales who looks a lot like the woman; Circle users vote that this woman must be the fugitive.
The Circle’s tracking program is, in theory, a great tool for tracking down criminals. However, it seems entirely possible that the Circle will use such a program to track down people who aren’t criminals at all—perhaps, people whose only crime is speaking out against the company. Furthermore, notice that there’s no certainty about whether the woman is, in fact, the criminal—Circle users simply vote on whether or not they think she is.
A Circle user in Wales posts a live video of the fugitive. When the fugitive realizes that she’s being filmed, she turns and runs away. Mae screams, “follow her!” and the Circle user follows. A few minutes later, the fugitive is standing against a wall, surrounded by at least twelve Circle users. One of the Circle users yells, “Lynch her!” but Stenton whispers to Mae, “She must be kept safe.” Mae tells her watchers to call the police, and a few moments later the police arrive and arrest the woman. Stenton whispers, “Let’s cut the video feed in the interest of allowing her some dignity.” The entire process of arresting the woman has taken ten minutes.
The Circle’s tracking program brings out the worst in its users—it encourages people form an angry mob and threaten to lynch others. However, Stenton and the other Circle executives are trying to conceal the true brutality of the tracking program. Absurdly, Stenton claims to be cutting the video feed to provide the woman with some dignity. It’s clear, though, that he just doesn’t want his audience to develop any sympathy or compassion for the victims of Circle surveillance.
The audience shouts, “Another!” This time, Stenton suggests that Mae try a regular civilian. Mae posts a photograph of Mercer, and hundreds of additional photos of Mercer appear on the screen. Mae smiles and says that Mercer is a “fugitive from friendship.” Within a few seconds, a Circle user has posted about seeing Mercer near his grocery. Mae urges Circle users to check real estate records and credit card accounts in order to figure out exactly where Mercer is living. Two minutes later, Circle users are gathered around a house, yelling, “Is Mercer Madeiros here?” An unfamiliar man steps out of the house, and Mae realizes that the Circle has led people to the wrong house.
Mae is so indoctrinated in the ways of the company that she doesn’t realize that she’s harassing Mercer, and (as evidenced by the fact that Circle users go to the wrong house) endangering other people in the process. She’s so accustomed to communicating with strangers via social networking that it doesn’t seem to occur to her that she’s sending an angry lynch mob after her ex-boyfriend.
Moments later, other Circle users post about finding the right house. A crowd gathers around a house in the woods yelling, “Mercer, you in there? You in there making some chandeliers?” A car pulls out of the garage, and someone attaches a SeeChange camera to the window. Mae can see that it is, in fact, Mercer inside. Mercer begins driving away, looking furious and frightened. He sees the camera attached to his window and he rolls down the window so that no one can see him.
Even after she sees that Mercer is frightened, Mae continues sending a lynch mob after him. She seems to believe that she’s doing the right thing by bringing Mercer back into the world of surveillance and social networking.
Mae shouts, “Release the drones!” and, in three minutes, every private drone in the area is flying after Mercer. The drones send audio from Mae’s presentation to Mercer. Mae says, “Mercer, it’s me!” and her audience roars with laughter. Other drones send audio from other Circle users, screaming for Mercer to stop driving. The audience laughs and cheers. Suddenly, Mercer, his face looking serene and determined, swerves off the road, and his car plummets into a gorge. Mae senses that, “there could be no survivors of such a fall.”
Mae’s efforts to track Mercer lead to his death, apparently by suicide. He seems to crack under the pressure of being watched all the time. However, it’s not entirely clear why Mercer drives off the road: perhaps Mercer is frightened and not thinking clearly, thanks to the angry mob Mae has sent to track him down. It’s also possible, in light of his calm appearance, that he intends his suicide to be an act of protest against the Circle and the unethical surveillance system it uses.