In his great and prophetic novel "1984," George Orwell laid out his vision of what totalitarianism would look like if taken to its logical extreme. The government — in the form of Big Brother — sees all and knows all. The Party rewrites the past and controls the present. Heretics pop up on television screens so they can be denounced by the populace. And the Ministry of Truth propagates the Party's three slogans:
WAR IS PEACE.
FREEDOM IS SLAVERY.
IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH.
Dave Eggers' new novel, "The Circle," also has three short, Orwellian slogans, and while I have no special insight into whether he consciously modeled "The Circle" on "1984," I do know that his book could wind up being every bit as prophetic.
Eggers' subject is what the loss of privacy would look like if taken to its logical extreme. His focus is not on government but on the technology companies who invade our privacy on a daily basis. The Circle, you see, is a Silicon Valley company, an evil hybrid of Google, Facebook and Twitter, whose cultures — the freebies, the workaholism, the faux friendliness — Eggers captures with only slight exaggeration.
The Circle has enormous power because it has become the primary gateway to the Internet. Thanks to its near-monopoly, it is able to collect reams of data about everyone who uses its services — and many who don't — data that allows The Circle to track anyone down in a matter of minutes. It has begun planting small, hidden cameras in various places — to reduce crime, its leaders insist. The Circle wants to place chips in children to prevent abductions, it says. It has called on governments to be "transparent," by which it means that legislators should wear a tiny camera that allows the world to watch their every move. Eventually, legislators who refuse find themselves under suspicion — after all, they must be hiding something. This is where The Circle's logic leads.
Of course, nobody who works for The Circle thinks what he or she is doing is evil. On the contrary, as with many a real Silicon Valley executive, they view themselves as visionaries, whose only goal is benign: to make the world a better place.
"We're at the dawn of the Second Enlightenment," says one of The Circle's founders in a speech to the staff. "I'm talking about an era where we don't allow the majority of human thought and action and achievement and learning to escape as if from a leaky bucket." It believes if it can eliminate secrecy people will be forced to be their best selves all the time. It even toys with the idea of getting the government to require voters to use The Circle — to force them to vote on Election Day. And, of course, it has found multiple ways to monetize the data it collects. As for the potential downside of this loss of privacy, it is waved away by Circle executives as if too trifling to even consider.
Is this vision of the future far-fetched? Of course it is — though no more than "1984" was. "The Circle" imagines where we could end up if we don't begin paying attention. Indeed, what is striking is how far down this road we have already gone.