What if you lived in a world of total surveillance, constantly observed by millions of watchers? Such is the premise of the best-selling novel The Circle by Dave Eggers, soon to be a major motion picture. In the novel, a technology company called The Circle has grown to dominate the social media landscape, replacing Facebook, Twitter, and Google, and soon grows into other industries, replacing the likes of PayPal and Microsoft. Along the way to total market domination, The Circle’s unified interface vacuums data from billions of users, and reaps massive profits.
The main character, Mae Holland, gets a job at The Circle in an entry-level customer support position, and soon becomes the leading apologist for a life without secrets. The utopian campus of The Circle has everything Circlers (as workers are called) could ever need, leaving some to move permanently onto the grounds of the campus to devote ever more time to The Circle. As the novel progresses, Mae becomes ever more entwined with the business and philosophy of The Circle. One of the “wise men” who lead the company prompts Mae to proclaim that sharing is caring, that secrets are lies, and that privacy is theft.
While fiction, the surveillance state of The Circle is not far off. Major search engines like Google and Bing process billions of search records each day, and millions of photos and posts are shared on Facebook and Twitter daily. With an increasing market for wearables and trackers, and advances in machine learning and data analytics, it’s not hard to imagine the integration of all our data streams, watched by an ever-present algorithmic eye.
Big data, search engines, social networks, and health trackers all provide useful information, entertainment, and access to the wider world. But at what cost? How much privacy are we willing to trade for the chance to connect to people online, or for the convenience of automated suggestions on our favorite shopping websites? The Circle provides a cautionary tale, that you never know who is watching.