From the beginning of The Circle, it’s clear that the Circle’s operations stretch far beyond those of the typical tech company: it’s working on plans to map the entire world, end corruption in politics, fight crime, increase political awareness, and more. The Circle professes to be, and is widely regarded as, a utopian company, committed to making the world perfect in every way: both by wiping out societal problems like crime and, on a personal level, by pressuring people to be honest, pleasant, and respectful at all times. However, as the novel goes on, we gradually realize that the Circle is nothing of the kind: while many people at the company sincerely believe that they’re making the world perfect, the CEO, Tom Stenton, is a ruthless businessman who uses claims of utopianism as a smokescreen for his own greed. In this way, The Circle suggests that utopianism is a kind of alibi that tech companies like the Circle use to hide their unethical behavior. Furthermore, the novel suggests that the very notion of utopianism—total, around-the-clock perfection—is inherently flawed.
Throughout the novel, there are glimpses of how the Circle uses glib, facile claims of utopianism to hide the fact that it’s a dangerous company. For one thing, the company’s lofty rhetoric of honesty, openness, and transparency helps convince people to surrender their privacy and personal information to the company. For instance, Mae Holland gradually gives up more and more privacy to the company, eventually wearing a camera on her body. Mae does so for two distinct reasons: first, because she sincerely comes to believe that surrendering privacy is the morally right thing to do; second, because she’s certain that the Circle is a benevolent company that would never do anything to hurt her. Similarly, the Circle flaunts its utopian ambitions in order to distract people from the fact that it’s slowly becoming a police state. For example, the Circle warms its employees and users up to the idea of human tracking devices by framing their surveillance program (that is intended ultimately to track all people at all times) as an attempt to protect children from kidnapping by microchipping their bones. While some Circle executives, such as Eamon Bailey, seem sincere in their utopianism, it is clear by the end of the book that the real power-holders in the company are corrupt, greedy people like Tom Stenton, who are now poised to control the entire world. In effect, the Circle—perhaps like any powerful institution that claims to be building a perfect world—has used utopianism to trick people into trusting its authority. Without these utopian claims, people might be more skeptical of placing so much power in a few people’s hands.
While Stenton is clearly corrupt, it’s crucial to realize that, even before he consolidates power, the Circle has already created a nightmarish world: though the characters have deluded themselves into thinking that their lives are perfect, they’ve become neurotic, depressed, and cruel. The Circle has destroyed human happiness by pushing people to adopt the same utopian standard of sociability and morality. In one sense, the Circle’s utopian worldview (enforced by constant surveillance) compels ordinary human beings to try to be perfect at all times. The Circle’s social networking websites, phones, and other electronic gadgets connect Circle users to other users around the world. This creates a de facto surveillance system, in which everyone is always being watched by everyone else. Circle executives celebrate themselves for creating a system in which nobody can get away with being anything less than nice. In doing so, however, they take the vivacity and sincerity out of human relationships. The Circle’s commitment to perfection—understood in the sense of constant human happiness—results in a bland, dull society, in which no one is ever entirely sad or happy.
Similarly, the Circle pressures its user to be honest and law-abiding at all times. While obeying the law may sound like an unqualified good, the novel suggests that, sometimes, human beings need the freedom to break the law and bend a few rules. For example, when Mae “steals” a kayak after dark and takes it out on the water—a totally victimless crime that brings her peace and happiness—the police come to arrest her, thanks to Circle surveillance. The Circle helps enforce the rules, but, it’s suggested, it also limits human freedom and happiness. In general, the novel suggests that true happiness is only possible when people also experience natural amounts of sadness, uncertainty, frustration, and even illegality in their lives. Thus, because the Circle tries to bring about total happiness, perfection, and legality, it ends up creating exactly the opposite world: an unethical police state in which everyone pretends to be happy, but, in fact, is miserable. In the end, then, The Circle’s attack on utopianism is two-pronged. Utopianism can be a convincing alibi for unethical forms of control and domination, as it is for Tom Stenton. But even when utopianism is meant sincerely—for example, by Eamon Bailey—it can take all the joy, surprise, and humanity out of life in favor of bland perfection.
Utopianism and Perfection ThemeTracker
Utopianism and Perfection Quotes in The Circle
The more she looked at it, the stranger it became. The artist had arranged it such that each of the Wise Men had placed a hand on another's shoulder. It made no sense and defied the way arms could bend or stretch.
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."
"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."
Mae caught her breath. She knew this was a demonstration only, but the power felt real. And it felt right. Why wouldn't the wisdom of three hundred million Americans be taken into account when making a decision that affected them all? Mae paused, thinking, weighing the pros and cons. The Circlers in the room seemed to be taking the responsibility as seriously as Mae: How many lives would be saved by killing al-Hamed? It could be thousands, and the world would be rid of an evil man. The risk seemed worth it. She voted yes. The full tally arrived after one minute, eleven seconds: 71 percent of Circlers favored a drone strike.
"Let's cut the video feed," Stenton said to Mae, "in the interest of allowing her some dignity."
He couldn't get enough of the shark, its anxious circling.
"Until next time," Stenton said finally. He nodded to Mae, and then to her watchers, who were now one hundred million, many of them terrified, many more in awe and wanting more of the same.
"But there are a thousand protections to prevent all of this. It's just not possible. I mean, governments will make sure—"
"Governments who are transparent? Legislators who owe their reputations to the Circle? Who could be ruined the moment they speak out? What do you think happened to Williamson? Remember her? She threatens the Circle monopoly and, surprise, the feds find incriminating stuff on her computer. You think that's a coincidence? That's about the hundredth person Stenton's done that to. Mae, once the Circle's complete, that's it. And you helped complete it. This democracy thing, or Demoxie, whatever it is, good god. Under the guise of having every voice heard, you create mob rule, a filterless society where secrets are crimes."
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.