Surveillance is another important aspect of contemporary culture that The Circle explores. Over the course of the novel, the Circle rolls out a series of programs that cause virtually the entire industrialized world to be placed under surveillance. At the same time that the Circle places the world under surveillance, the Circle’s executives, especially Eamon Bailey, promote the philosophy that surveillance is an inherent good, and that allowing oneself to be watched at all times (or “going transparent”) leads to enlightenment. In reality, Bailey’s doctrine of transparency is just a thinly-veiled version of the familiar totalitarian mantra, “if you have nothing to hide, then you have nothing to fear.” In sharp contrast to Bailey’s ideas, The Circle shows how surveillance and the culture of transparency interfere with human freedom and human nature.
The premise of The Circle’s critique of surveillance culture is simple: the book shows how surveillance destroys the nuance and beauty of human interaction. Surveillance damages human behavior by encouraging (and later forcing) people to perform for their watchers rather than allowing them to live without worrying what other people will think. In addition, Eggers suggests that the beauty of face-to-face interaction is that it’s spontaneous, instinctive, and meant specifically for the other person. However, when two people “go transparent” (i.e., when they speak face-to-face, but with millions of people watching), they tailor their behavior to fit with the expectations of their audience. The novel shows, for example, how Mae Holland loses her connection to Annie Allerton, one of her oldest friends, after she goes transparent. The friendship between the two women becomes strained and distant, since it is mediated by Mae’s watchers at all times.
In addition to showing how surveillance homogenizes human behavior, the novel shows how surveillance, despite seeming harmless to begin with, ultimately violates human freedom. Perhaps the greatest danger of surveillance is that it’s pleasurable. By glamorizing the culture of transparency, the Circle tricks its users and employees into surrendering their old ways of life voluntarily and embracing a shallow, unsatisfying replacement. In a sense, Mae is like a drug addict—at first, she freely chooses to try surveillance, but she quickly becomes a slave to her own desire. The analogy isn’t as inappropriate as it might sound: when Mae is deprived of her watchers for even a minute, she goes through clear symptoms of withdrawal. The novel shows how the Circle uses Mae’s addiction to manipulate her into carrying out the company’s unethical agenda. In other words, what began as Mae’s voluntary decision to be watched at all times devolves into her complete loss of freedom—even the ability to think for herself. This is all the more frightening because Mae believes that she’s acting voluntarily, even though she’s being manipulated into doing what the Circle wants.
It’s never entirely clear what the Circle intends to do with its surveillance power, but Eggers hints that the Circle will become a tyrannical and dangerous organization, since it can watch anyone in the world. Even without knowing the Circle’s endgame, though, the danger becomes clear by the end of the book. For instance, a Circle-sponsored surveillance program sends a bloodthirsty mob after a suspected murderer, and another Circle-sponsored program promises to blacklist all people with a high likelihood of committing a crime. Perhaps most tellingly, Eggers makes it clear that, for all their emphasis on transparency and surveillance, the Circle’s executives refuse to reveal anything about their own intentions for the company’s future, and are therefore—according to their own arguments—lying and evil. In the end, however, The Circle’s most important insight about surveillance is that it’s a slippery slope: at first it seems harmless and even pleasurable; later on, when it’s too late to fight back, it becomes clear how dangerous surveillance really is.
Surveillance and Transparency ThemeTracker
Surveillance and Transparency Quotes in The Circle
Now Bailey cleared the screen again, and stepped toward the audience. "You know what I say, right? In situations like this, I agree with the Hague, with human rights activists the world over. There needs to be accountability. Tyrants can no longer hide. There needs to be, and will be, documentation and accountability, and we need to bear witness. And to this end, I insist that all that happens should be known."
"'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."
"Okay. Can you drink this?" The doctor handed Mae the dense green liquid she'd been preparing. "It's a smoothie."
Mae drank it down. It was viscous and cold.
"Okay, you just ingested the sensor that will connect to your wrist monitor. It was in that glass." The doctor punched Mae's shoulder playfully. "I love doing that."
"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?"
"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."
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.
Later that day, a headache appeared—caused, she thought, by eating less chocolate than usual. She reached into her bag, where she kept a few
single-serving aspirin packets, but again, on her screen, she saw what everyone was seeing. She saw a hand searching her bag, clawing, and instantly she felt desperate and wretched, like some kind of pill-popping addict.
She did without.
"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.