Monday, November 11, 2013

Dave Eggers' 'The Circle' Raises Questions & Confirms Fears About The Future of Technology...

It's no secret that technology is taking over the world, and more and more people are embracing that notion rather than running scared simply because of the sense of security its ease and connectability lulls you into. But Dave Eggers can see through all of the surface-level "likes" and sharing to the deeper, darker co-dependence and control such technology brings with it. His new novel "The Circle" looks at a not-too-distant future where one tech company is monopolizing the game with its insanely fast ability to adapt to the ever-increasing demand for merging technologies. While things start out shiny and exciting enough for even the most cynical of audiences, with talk of modern working conditions and an emphasis on a "humane" customer service experience (seriously, that's revolution, right?), let alone a bracelet that monitors your exercise and nutrition in order to adjust as you go and therefore prevent any health catastrophes, soon even the least savvy readers who may have been swept along with stars in their eyes can't help but see how screens are not only taking over the protagonist's life but how the information on said screens could mean downfall, not uprising as these tech leaders so preach, of humanity. 

Eggers' way into the story and the company itself is through a well-meaning but aspirational young woman who gets a job within this company because a friend from college is currently a high-powered executive there, and she basically calls in a favor. This young woman, Mae, that we follow starts low-level in the "Customer Experience" department, where she is expected to answer customer questions and assumedly complaints, though immediately this company is painted with such an amazing brush it doesn't seem they ever have any complaints-- the reader's first clue something is amiss in the "even if they're pumping something into the air at the company, how can the outside world also have drunk the Kool Aid!?" way. Gradually, though, her responsibilities increase-- first from the obvious training of new CE employees and following up with customers who didn't give her a perfect score on the CE survey after their initial interaction. This, too, should be a giant red flag. The emphasis on perfection is bad enough, but following up with a customer who scored you 99 to see why it wasn't 100 is basically a passive aggressive way to bully them into giving you the 100. And yet everyone we encounter does it, and Mae's score continuously increases. Not one person rolls their eyes and gets annoyed and actually scores her lower. It's as if the outside world are already sheep, and since when are people so nice to customer service representatives!?

But this is all done to show the golden girl that Mae is about to become within the company. From there her responsibilities start to move into bizarre things that you should never expect people to get paid for, let alone be requirements in their work day. She has to wear a headset and answer an average of 500 questions a day about her consumer habits; she has to respond to every message from other employees, lest they feel ignored or worse, she insubordinate; she has to comment on strangers' pages and photos, marking things with "likes" or "frowns" and keeping dialogues going about even the most mundane things. And she's being scored on all of it. Her social ranking increases with every interaction, and an obsessive desire to rise to the top takes over. A number is assigned to everything at this company, most of all a person's worth.

In the early days, Mae does what most of us in a new job would do, and she focuses on CE-- her actual job-- rather than attending work functions (of which there are so many it seemed hard to figure out how any work actually got done at all) or even starting her social profile at all. She gets dinged for it and brought into meetings not only to assuage a co-worker's concerns when she didn't show up to his party (that she didn't even know he was having because she hadn't set up her profile yet and therefore didn't receive his messages and God forbid he should walk down the hall and ask her about it) but also to basically admit she was being "selfish" when she didn't post about her solo kayaking trip because "sharing is caring." There are some merits to the technology, and there were some valid points to why someone might want to share their life and their adventures, even with complete strangers. The one that resonates the most is the one where people can learn from each other's experiences and support each other through tough times, such as when Mae checked out for a weekend because her father who suffers from MS had a seizure. She could have posted about it and received a ton of supportive thoughts from strangers, as well as a wealth of information on medications and the disease. But not everybody needs that support, let alone wants it. Clearly Mae didn't at the start or she would have thought to do that. She made a choice to keep something private, but at this company, that privacy is not an option. Mae was not really reprimanded so much as reprogrammed. At a certain point she was even convinced she was not being present in a moment because she was not sharing that moment online. It was a baffling and insane thing to read-- because she bought into it. But so did the thousands of others who also worked there as well as millions of civilian strangers pressing their noses to the glass, salivating at the thought of being a part of what was surely a revolution, just not necessarily one of which we can feel good about being a part.

And in the early days, the technology the company is combining certainly seems like it will change things for the better. They require everyone to use their real name and other identifying information when signing up for an account, which then becomes a one-stop shop for everything from paying bills online to email to social media. This removes anonymity and multiple accounts so that everyone is accountable for whatever they say and do online. It should make the internet a friendlier place. But they don't stop there; they have a hand in camera technology and have created something the size of a finger to provide real-time, perfect-image streaming views, so they start planting the cameras all over the world-- without permission, capturing locations and behaviors without anyone knowing. They have a hand in biotechnology and are developing a chip to implant into every child to track them through GPS. They have facial recognition software that tags someone not only in archives of photos and videos so you can literally stalk someone through history but also in real-time footage, so anyone can be tracked down-- be it criminal on the run or unsuspecting private citizen. It's widespread, irresponsible uses of technology that only gets further complicated when the company decides to work with the government to make it as mandatory for those private citizens to use as it is for the members of the company. Some of the ideas may be good in theory, but so was communism: it's the tyrannical execution that makes them problematic.

Staying with Mae as she gets more and more entrenched in the company's plans for the future means we are cut off from the outside world the same way she willingly allows herself to be. She moves onto the "campus" full-time, giving up her apartment for what basically sounds like a cell disguised as a hotel room, and the only family and friends she had spoken of prior to taking this job ask her to stop coming around because of what she has become. And because part of her job now includes wearing a camera around her neck to broadcast her whole life, live, every day, all day, and they are not comfortable with that. Obviously the technology she is immersed in is not helping her connect at all but rather creating a lot of "lookers" and "followers" who are ultimate voyeurs while she is losing the only real connections she did once have. But additionally this way of telling the story means the readers lose their connections with the outside world, too-- even the least cynical person is going to expect some conflict to arise-- some complications for the company to achieve their goals-- but the ones that are hinted at are solitary individuals, not a whole movement, and because Mae isn't privy to the details, they are shut down easily, further perpetuating the illusion that this company is mostly beloved, and that is just plain baffling. How mind-numblingly complacent and stupid is technology making us that we will get to a point in the near future where we are these mindless robots? Eggers captured what should be our worst fears, but he also put a lot of faith in his readers that they weren't that far gone yet, especially because the natural inclination is to relate to and root for a novel's protagonist and this was one who gave into the cult-like mob mentality of just wanting to belong so badly to detriment of losing herself, let alone dooming a nation.

Eggers is really telling two stories within "The Circle": the emotional, personal one of one young woman as well as the global "what this really means" greater piece. But because we're in the thick of it with Mae, distracted as she is by thousands of messages, nine screens, and a camera around her neck, we're not truly in the innermost circle (ironically) and still have a lot of smoke and mirrors to keep us from seeing-- let alone wanting to see-- how all the dots really connect to make that circle complete. The readers can and will make assumptions on what it all means based on their own understanding and/or love or distrust of technology and the people who build it out, but the bigger picture seems less important for much of the time because of the intense focus on the fame Mae achieves by becoming such a public face of the company. It's a clever tactic to distract in a "pay no attention to what's behind this curtain!" kind of way, and it meant spending much of the book wanting to slap Mae awake so she'd start asking the questions any reader with any common sense had been asking for pages.

Mae, though, got swept up. Hers is a hyper-version of the fame anyone of us achieves the minute we become active on social media and people we don't actually know start paying attention to us, making assumptions about us, and thinking they know us. We currently choose what we share online and therefore what side of ourselves these strangers are seeing; the goal for Mae and her company, as they claim, is "transparency" so that everyone is completely honest and open (because "secrets are lies"). But if that were entirely true, then the camera would be around Mae's neck as she sat at her desk and answered CE messages for the majority of her day, when instead she is given the assignment to walk around campus showing it off, meeting with interesting people, basically being pitched the projects being worked on-- she ends up a mouthpiece for the awe-inspiring image the company wants to send.

More often than not, it unbelievably frustrating how willing and naive and grateful Mae was to go along with everything-- so much so that she found herself apologizing more than she should have and playing into set-ups for revealing certain information and espousing ideas that the company's leaders were thinking but if they said out-loud would come across more like dictators than CEOs. The reader was privy to alone time with Mae, even when she was "transparent" as an entity and had that camera around her neck (she could shut off the audio for three minutes in the bathroom, for example, for dignity, and she could turn it off completely after 10 p.m. for sleep or other nighttime activities-- most of hers which sadly included her going back to her screens to continue to raise her rankings), so we had the unfortunate voyeur perspective of watching someone spiral without any self-awareness. Mae spoke of a "tear" inside her that would get louder and let more light in at times of stress or discomfort without ever looking deeper to figure out why or what it meant; she would exhibit frustration at her previous loved ones for not wanting the "gift" she gave them of support from thousands of strangers without acknowledging how hypocritical she was being that she wanted them to thank her for stripping their choices and privacy away from them while when that was done to her early on in her work at the company by an employee who filmed a dalliance between the two of them, she was scared and livid and shut him out of her life; she would hear of opposition to the company having their computers seized with horrible things on them and never once think the giant tech company who is changing the world could be behind it. 

As the pages dwindled down it became clearer that Mae could not be turned off from technological puppet mode and would not be the hero of this story, and that made everything that much bleaker. She may just be one woman, but she's an every woman, and we should expect more from people today. The knowledge is all there at our fingertips because of this kind of technology, and yet, here she was never once asking questions or considering consequences or ramifications. It's haunting to think that the majority was like her here and could possibly be in our real world, too. How many people want to look past the shiny fancy packaging of something? Even when directly faced with the truth of what something means, how many people want to face it, rather than just bury themselves in Hallmark words of encouragement? Who doesn't get swept up in the outpouring of interaction, because even when it's exhausting, it's also a little thrilling, and it's definitely all-consuming? At the end of the day (and story), it wasn't the technology that doomed us all: it was those with the knowledge and power to execute it and those with the willingness and complacency to just sit back and be "wowed" instead of to ask questions or raise concerns. And in showing that so deftly, Eggers raises the toughest question lingering out there that we have to be willing (unlike Mae) to grasp and analyze and deeply consider): if in fact in the right hands and in moderation, this technology could actually save the world, whose are the right hands? Who can we really trust with such powerful weapons?

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