We Are Poor Passing Facts: Dave Eggers’s The Circle

Eggers’s novel The Circle gave me much to think about. It is about a company that, over time, monopolized internet usage. The founders of the Circle believed that people have a right to have access to everything, to know everything. For that reason, internet privacy and eventually privacy in general was seen as a hindrance to intellectual progress and to realization of an individual’s potential. Privacy in democratic government seemed like hypocrisy. Why don’t you want the people to know what you are up to? What do you have to hide? The book explores the line between public and private, and whether there should be a line. It shows what can go wrong with a “greater good” mentality and suggests that social media is so important to some people because they fear the unknown, forgetting, and being forgotten.

I underlined phrases that described the theme of the book, and I wrote my thoughts in the margins. Here is a compilation of them:

“Overnight, all comment boards became civil, all posters held accountable [when they were forced to use their real names online].” What is being said about the effect of anonymity on behavior?

“There needs to be, and will be, documentation and accountability, and we need to bear witness…all that happens must be known…we’re losing the vast majority of what we do and see and learn.” They hoard memories -> anxiety about insignificance of life. They want to say I was here. Reminds me of favorite quote: We are poor passing facts, warned by that to give each figure in the photograph his living name.

“Transparency leads to peace of mind.”

“We will become all-seeing, all-knowing.” They were talking about positioning live-streaming cameras all over the world. The limitations of being human.

An app sifts through information the protagonist posted online and compiles a list of characteristics– her allergies, favorite foods, etc. “Having a matrix of preferences presented as your essence, as the whole you? Maybe that was [the problem]. It was some kind of mirror, but it was incomplete, distorted.” Disconcerted by the reality of how public her info is, or by the simple itemization of what she assumed to be her complex being.

“Your tools have elevated gossip, hearsay and conjecture to the level of valid, mainstream communication.”

“There’s this new neediness– it pervades everything…you’re not hungry, you don’t need the food, it does nothing for you, but you keep eating these empty calories. This is what you’re pushing. Same thing. Endless empty calories, but the digital-social equivalent. And you calibrate it so it’s equally addictive.”

The Circle requires the protagonist to wear a bracelet that measures and records all of her health information (heart rate, temperature, BMI, caloric intake, etc.). “If we can track all you newbies, and eventually all 10,000-plus Circlers, we can both see problems far before they become serious, and we can collect data about the population as a whole.” Lured by the idea of progress, give up individuality for sense of community.

Remember how, in the beginning of the book, she hated the idea of a 9-5 workday? The company is so demanding, so needy that they need her after the workday is over. Social neediness comes from the fear of being some cog in a machine. The company represents the modern-day social environment, how it is a full-time job to keep up an appearance online.

“And it was great to see you there. But we have no record of you being there. No photos, no zings, no reviews, notices, bumps. Why not?” “Are you reluctant to express yourself because you fear your opinions aren’t valid?” If there is no record of your opinions, they don’t exist and therefore cannot be valued. If you aren’t socially aware, you are absent. You have no presence.

She had been agreeing to everything since the book began. A culture of yes, a culture of accepting established realities.

The Circle measures social presence with something called PartiRank (participation/population rank). Job prospects were tied to her social popularity. Every zing, comment, smile, post in a discussion group adds to the ranking. Quantity not quality. Number-centric culture is a reaction to technological advances that are valued quantitatively. When the profound sense of accomplishment of this quantitative era dies away, and the exhaustion hits, there will be an era of quality. Every other era in history was reactionary. And that’s nature. Everything that requires that life be given to it rises and falls, waxes and wanes, crescendos and decrescendos. Even digital batteries do this.

“…my problem with paper is that all communication dies with it. It holds no possibility of continuity…it ends with you. Like you’re the only one who matters.”

“…what had always caused her anxiety, or stress, or worry, was not any one force, nothing independent and external…It was internal: it was subjective: it was not knowing.” “It was not knowing that was the seed to madness, loneliness, suspicion, fear.”

“And if even a hundred more people wanted to store their every minute– and surely millions would opt to go transparent, would beg to– how could we do this when each life took up so much space?”

Coercion through mere exposure effect. “It had taken a few weeks to get used to sleeping with her wrist monitors…but now she felt incomplete without them.” Adjusting to more technologically-infused lives to achieve a new level of normalcy, as with updates and upgrades (foot in the door phenomenon).

“We all have a right to know everything we can. We all collectively own the accumulated knowledge of the world.”

Data is a one-way conversation and is objective. Though, no matter how objective the info, it will always be absorbed and interpreted subjectively.

“If we can know the will of the people at any time, without filter, without misinterpretation or bastardization, wouldn’t it eliminate much of Washington?”

The protagonist has begun broadcasting every minute of her day with a camera she wears as a necklace. Knowing that people are watching makes her subtly change her behavior. She is portraying a false version of herself which she thinks is the best version, the purest and most noble. Ironically, she meant to be transparent.

Social media is possibly a tool that ensures behavioral norms.

“I think everything and everyone should be seen. And to be seen, we need to be watched.” Faulty logic.

But who wants to be watched all the time?

I do. I want to be seen. I want proof I existed.

Frankenstein: You Get So Alone at Times That It Just Makes Sense

The English department of my university sent a suggested summer reading list. I’m going to write my thoughts about each one so I don’t forget them. First up is Frankenstein. What is this book about? Here’s what I think:

When Frankenstein was a child, he threw himself into the study of chemistry, which was pretty much alchemy in his time. You may remember that alchemists were those medieval scientists who tried to turn common metals into gold, claimed they could raise the dead, and/or searched for the philosopher’s stone. These early scientists were hungry for notoriety, riches, God-like power, and they expected that these would naturally come as reward for their toils in the alchemy arts.

One man’s life or death were but a small price to pay for the acquirement of the knowledge which I sought, for the dominion I should acquire and transmit over the elemental foes of our race.

You can imagine it was a passionate business. The philosophies of alchemy were grand and unbound by the limitations of nature. Frankenstein was wrapped up in and enchanted by the study of this as a youth. It did not help that Frankenstein was a little conceited. “So much has been done…more, far more will I achieve…I will pioneer a new way, explore unknown powers, and unfold to the world the deepest mysteries of creation.” “A new species would bless me as its creator and source; many happy and excellent natures would owe their being to me.” Events ensued that made Frankenstein’s tale a cautionary one. If he had not attempted to give life to a human unnaturally, his little brother, house servant, best friend, wife, and father would still be alive, and Frankenstein would not have been as emotionally and physically anguished as he was for much of his life. Maybe this book is about the perils of misguided ambition.

Seek happiness in tranquility and avoid ambition, even if it be only the apparently innocent one of distinguishing yourself in science and discoveries.

Or maybe it is a story about how having knowledge makes an individual feel responsible for making use of it, and how that can be dangerous.

…how dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge and how much happier that man is who believes his native town to be the world, than he who aspires to become greater than his nature will allow.

In Frankenstein’s case, he used his knowledge to play God. We know how that turned out. In the case of the monster, he was happier and more benevolent when all he knew of the world was himself and the cottagers who lived near him. But when he learned of the world focused on class differences and wealth and connections, he began to question his place in it. He asked himself, “Who am I? What am I?” This self-awareness proved dangerous.

The monster had learned how to make a fire by accident, but even this accidentally acquired knowledge was so destructive that it later engulfed what was the monster’s home and school for more than a year. Knowledge disillusioned him and made him miserable. His misery made him murderous; the monster said so himself.

Frankenstein could be about companionship; more specifically, without equal companionship, one is predisposed to be miserable. Walton, in the beginning of the book, is in great need of a friend who would appreciate his ambitions but will temper them. He found this friend in Frankenstein. The monster was miserable because he was alone. He observed the cottagers for over a year. He loved them like family, and he has hoped that when he revealed himself to them, they would treat him as such after, of course, getting over the shock of his appearance. The very opposite happened, and this was the incident that preceded the first murder in the book. The monster eventually begged Frankenstein to make him an equal.

If I have no ties and no affections, hatred and vice must be my portion; the love of another will destroy the cause of my crimes.

Companionship equals emotional well-being is a major theme.

Additional thoughts

1. In psychology, we learn that behaviors inform our attitudes. There is a good example of this in the book. The monster had been fighting against what seemed to be an evil nature with human remorse and human despair, but when he kept committing monstrous acts, the monster gave himself up to what seemed to be his nature. He reconciled his evil urges with his appearance.

I had cast off all feeling, subdued all anguish, to riot in the excess of my despair. Evil thenceforth became my good. Urged thus far, I had no choice but to adapt my nature to an element which I had willingly chosen.

This is the moment he really became a monster.

2. After Frankenstein’s closest family and friends are dead, he swears revenge on the monster. The monster lets Frankenstein chase him. The monster says that being forced to live in his present state of woe would be greater revenge than being killed. Maybe, by initiating the chase, the monster was helping Frankenstein carry out his vengeance.

3. In the end of the book, the chase takes its toll on Frankenstein and he asks Walton to kill the monster for him. Frankenstein dies, the monster appears at his side, remorseful. That remorse is confusing to me. He had spent the better part of the book making the man miserable, cursing him, but now he seems upset over his death. He suddenly has no passion for being evil, only a desire to end his own suffering.

When the monster framed the girl for his first murder, he thought “the murder I have committed because I am forever robbed of all that she could give me, she shall atone.” I think this logic has something to do with his change of heart after Frankenstein’s death. The monster was angry with humankind for treating him with contempt, for being afraid, for hating him. His victims had to suffer for causing his suffering; the murders were the victims’ own faults. Now Frankenstein, his last victim, is dead. He has no one left to blame for his deeds, so he feels the full force of his wretchedness. Maybe the monster had not been sad over the death of Frankenstein, per se, but what the death meant for the monster. It means an emotional and philosophical transition. He’s no longer fueled by hatred, only remorse for his evil. He resolves to kill himself.

4. You Get So Alone at Times That It Just Makes Sense is a book of poetry by Charles Bukowski.