The counterpoint to The Circle’s satire of surveillance is its celebration of privacy. At various points, the Circle’s leaders tell Mae Holland that privacy is dangerous and selfish: as Eamon Bailey says, “Secrets are lies.” In refuting Bailey’s statement, The Circle not only connects surveillance with totalitarianism and abuse, but it also shows that privacy is an important part of the human experience. Private moments are necessary because they can be meaningful and restorative. Without privacy, human beings are reduced to anxious, insecure wrecks.
The Circle argues that privacy—understood as the ability to have information, experiences, or emotions that are not shared with other people—has an intangible and unquantifiable power. Privacy is restorative: being alone with one’s thoughts and feelings builds strength and self-reliance. When Mae kayaks alone, for instance, it is the only time that she is allowed to be physically isolated from the rest of the world, and it helps her to relax, clear her head, and build her confidence. After Circle employees find out about Mae’s “rogue kayaking,” they pressure her to post videos and statuses about kayaking, which effectively ends her private, individual relationship with the activity. Not coincidentally, Mae becomes increasingly insecure and unstable after she surrenders her private time to the Circle. Without the benefit of private time, she’s forced to be “on” at all times, and, since this makes her completely reliant on other people for validation and support, she becomes weaker and more emotionally needy.
The novel further suggests that, contrary to Bailey’s extravagant claims, two people can only engage in mature, stable relationships when they have some privacy from each other. Conversely, when two people have total information about one another, it’s very difficult for them to have a mature relationship of any kind. For example, Annie Allerton volunteers for a program that publicizes her complete family history, and, to her horror, the program reveals difficult information about her parents (for example, that years ago, they witnessed a man drown and did nothing to help him). Afterwards, it becomes almost impossible for Annie to think of her parents as parents: cursed with perfect information, she begins to think of them more distantly, and, after a time, she seems not to think about them at all. Annie’s experience suggests that it is difficult, if not impossible, to see the beauty and dignity in other people when one is bombarded with information about them. Perhaps, then, there are some aspects of the human experience that can only be savored with the benefit of privacy. Total information, The Circle suggests, is overrated: in order to remain sane, humans also need illusions, dreams, and moments alone with their own thoughts.
Privacy Quotes in The Circle
Their first month living together Mae had broken her jaw one twilight, after fainting, flu-ridden and underfed, during finals. Annie had told her to stay in bed, but Mae had gone to the 7-Eleven for caffeine and woke up on the sidewalk, under a tree. Annie took her to the hospital, and waited as they wired her jaw, and then stayed with Mae, sleeping next to her, in a wooden chair, all night, and then at home, for days, had fed Mae through a straw. It was a fierce level of commitment and competence that Mae had never seen from someone her age or near her age, and Mae was thereafter loyal in a way she'd never known she could be.
"It's the worst story," Annie said. "His parents were such fuckups. I think there were like four or five kids in the family, and Francis was youngest or second-youngest, and anyway the dad was in jail, and the mom was on drugs, so the kids were sent all over the place. I think one went to his aunt and uncle, and his two sisters were sent to some foster home, and then they were abducted from there. I guess there was some doubt if they were, you know, given or sold to the murderers."
"The what?" Mae had gone limp.
"Oh god, they were raped and kept in closets and their bodies were dropped down some kind of abandoned missile silo. I mean, it was the worst story ever.”
So what had so mortified her during Gus's presentation? She couldn't put her finger on it. Was it only the surprise of it? Was it the pinpoint accuracy of the algorithms? Maybe. But then again, it wasn't entirely accurate, so was that the problem? Having a matrix of preferences presented as your essence, as the whole you? Maybe that was it. It was some kind of mirror, but it was incomplete, distorted.
"It's not that I'm not social. I'm social enough. But the tools you guys create actually manufacture unnaturally extreme social needs. No one needs the level of contact you're purveying. It improves nothing. It's not nourishing. It's like snack food. You know how they engineer this food? They scientifically determine precisely how much salt and fat they need to include to keep you eating. You're not hungry, you don't need the food, it does nothing for you, but you keep eating these empty calories. This is what you're pushing. Same thing. Endless empty calories, but the digital-social equivalent. And you calibrate it so it's equally addictive."
"'Were you here when that burned?" the man asked, pointing to a large uninhabited island in the middle of the bay. It rose, mute and black, behind them. Mae shook her head.
‘It burned for two days. We had just gotten here' At night, the heat—you could feel it even here. We swam every night in this godforsaken water, just to stay cool. We thought the world was ending."
"That's very understandable. To spend time with your parents, believe me, I think that is very, very cool. I just want to emphasize the community aspect of this job. We see this workplace as a community, and every person who works here is part of that community. And to make it all work it requires a certain level of participation. It's like, if we were a kindergarten class, and one girl has a party, and only half the class shows up, how does the birthday girl feel?"
She thought of the foxes that might be underneath her, the crabs that might be hiding under the stones on the shore, the people in the cars that might be passing overhead, the men and women in the tugs and tankers, arriving to port or leaving, sighing, everyone having seen everything. She guessed at it all, what might live, moving purposefully or drifting aimlessly, in the deep water around her, but she didn't think too much about any of it. It was enough to be aware of the million permutations possible around her, and take comfort in knowing she would not, and really could not, know much at all.
"And I would argue that any place in the world where gays are still persecuted, you could instantly achieve great progress if all the gays and lesbians came out publicly at once. Then whoever is persecuting them, and all those who tacitly support this persecution, would realize that to persecute them would mean persecuting at least 10 percent of the population—including their sons, daughters, neighbors and friends—even their own parents. It would be instantly untenable. But the persecution of gays or any minority group is made uniquely possible through secrecy."
"Okay. I hadn't thought of it that way."
"Was the information he presented incorrect? There were factual mistakes?"
"Well, it wasn't that. It was just . . . piecemeal. And maybe that made it seem incorrect. It was taking a few slivers of me and presenting that as the whole me—"
"It seemed incomplete." "Right."
"Mae, I'm very glad you put it that way. As you know, the Circle is itself trying to become complete. We're trying to close the circle at the Circle." He smiled at his own wordplay. "But you know the overall goals of completion, I assume."
Somewhere in the stampeding applause, Bailey managed to announce the capper to it all—that Mae, in the interest of sharing all she saw and could offer the world, would be going transparent immediately.
She wanted to hear it again, so she said nothing. "Mae."
It was a young woman's voice, a young woman's voice that sounded bright and fierce and capable of anything.
It was a better, more indomitable version of herself. "Mae.”
She felt stronger every time she heard it.
"Mae, they just got up and left. They never called 911 or anything. There's no record of it. They never reported it. But the body was found the next day. The guy wasn't even homeless. He was maybe a little mentally disabled but he lived with his parents and worked at a deli, washing dishes. My parents just watched him drown."
Now Annie was choking on her tears.
"Have you told them about this?"
"No. I can't talk to them. They're really disgusting to me right now"
Mae pictured all this. She pictured the Circle being taken apart, sold off amid scandal, thirteen thousand people out of jobs, the campus overtaken, broken up, turned into a college or mall or something worse. And finally she pictured life on a boat with this man, sailing the world, untethered, but when she tried to, she saw, instead, the couple on the barge she'd met months ago on the bay. Out there, alone, living under a tarp, drinking wine from paper cups, naming seals, reminiscing about island fires.
At that moment, Mae knew what she needed to do.
What was going on in that head of hers? It was exasperating, really, Mae thought, not knowing. It was an affront, a deprivation, to herself and to the world. She would bring this up with Stenton and Bailey, with the Gang of 40, at the earliest opportunity. They needed to talk about Annie, the thoughts she was thinking. Why shouldn't they know them? The world deserved nothing less and would not wait.