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.

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