What would the world be like if everyone wore Fitbits and felt a throbbing compulsion to overshare? What if privacy was theft—and no conversation or experience was off limits to the public? What if corporations were leveraging the massive amount of data collected about our personal interests, our families—our health—in some kind of global conspiracy?
The true light is not The Circle, but a place of confession of sin, repentance, belief, and true fellowship with God and one another.We don’t really have to ask “what if?”—this is the world we live in (well, maybe not the global conspiracy bit—but who really knows?). These unsettling questions will be raised in The Circle, due out this April starring Emma Watson, Tom Hanks, and John Boyega. Like many movies these days, the flick is based on a book, a Dave Eggers novel in this case. Published in 2013, the book’s premise has become even more real than when I first picked up a paperback cover several summers ago.
Could social media and tech giants really prove the undoing of society as we know it? Could they prove the undoing of the individual?
When it comes to dystopian novels, George Orwell’s 1984 has been the standard for over half a century. It is no surprise that David Eggers’s The Circle feels like an unashamed update of that foreboding work. In fact, Eggers has woven intentional homages throughout. The story is told from the perspective of Mae, a newly hired employee at The Circle (think Google, Apple, and Facebook rolled into one). The Circle is a blur of social media smiles and frowns (likes and dislikes) and constant a barrage of screens. Refusing to be flustered, Mae quickly adapts to the fast-paced culture and becomes determined to excel. As the story progresses, Mae faces difficult choices, each threatening to swallow more of her personal identity. She learns, perhaps too late, that The Circle has quite a voracious appetite.
Eggers presents a society where the general public willingly and enthusiastically surrenders the right to privacy. Throughout the book, The Circle rolls out various new technologies in Apple product-reveal fashion, each more worrying to the reader than the next. However, the exciting prospect of eradicating social evils like crime, child abduction, and disease creates a smoke-and-mirrors situation. The public cannot see past the flash and bang to the real dangers of these unbridled technologies. Each time The Circle rolls out a new concept, society cries out via social media for its instant and unequivocal adoption. And of course, The Circle is more than willing to oblige the cries of the mob.
Like 1984, surveillance becomes a central tool of The Circle’s power. Cameras hidden on every beach, by city block, and in every house encourage conformity and discourage crime and aberrant behaviors. (To put things in perspective, Periscope was just coming out the summer I picked up this novel.) Politicians go “transparent,” wearing cameras at all times to prevent government corruption. Interestingly, in a world where Mae is never alone, we find that she is never fully herself. It’s a society where all citizens lose their true identities as they seek to maintain, primp, and improve their social media identity—the TruYou.
There is certain poetic irony to social media driving individuals further from one another. As the story develops, Mae becomes distant from everyone who matters in her life. By the close of the novel, she loses contact with her parents, her best friend, and her ex-boyfriend because of her involvement at The Circle. She takes solace in knowing that the online community will comfort her.
These days, families are often spotted at restaurants sitting at the same table—all engaged on their own separate screens. Eggers forces us to look at ourselves. Where is the value in garnering the support and “friendship” of total strangers online if it drives a wedge in our real, flesh-and-blood relationships? In The Circle, actual relationships become leverage for boosting social media presence. No love letter is off-limits. No intimate moment is beyond sharing. No time is set aside for uninterrupted fellowship with those we really love.
We are confronted with our own motives: Are our times spent with family and friends just opportunities to create Instagram photo-ops and funny shareable videos? Private text messages, emails, and pictures are all one screen shot away from the all-seeing Internet. A whole new pressure has entered our once private spaces: Is this Pinterest-worthy? How will these decorations look on Instagram? What was that funny thing old Aunt Ruth said? Facebook will get a kick out of that. In fact, we have to wonder how much we have begun to value our family Christmases, birthdays—even church services—for the shareable content they generate for our online presence.
Out of the depths of brainwashed despair, Mae wonders aloud with clarity as the novel comes crashing to a close:
I want to be seen. I want proof I existed. . . . Most people do. Most people would trade everything they know, everyone they know—they’d trade it all to know they’ve been seen, and acknowledged, that they might even be remembered. We all know we die. We all know the world is too big for us to be significant. So all we have is the hope of being seen, or heard, even for a moment. (490, italics original)
The desire to be present on social media, to be seen, to be noticed, is an expression of our heart’s longing to be known by something greater than ourselves. Unfortunately for Mae, she becomes fully known not by a sentient being, but by a corporation—The Circle. Her existence is quantified into digital data—combed and scrubbed and catalogued by an unfeeling computer database. In The Circle, no one is ever known, because knowledge about others is mistaken for actually knowing others.
This desire is common to man. We all want to be known, to know that our existence isn’t a mistake, that we won’t disappear off the face of the earth without anyone noticing we are gone. The Lord designed us to find the fulfillment of this desire in him: “O LORD, you have searched me and known me!” (Psalm 139:1)
Unsurprisingly, the human soul actually does need real relationships with real friends, real families, and real loved ones. But more than that, we can know that our existence is not an accident. We don’t have to clamor for recognized existence by a social network or a giant corporation. God himself knows each of us. He does not quantify our existence or boil us down to a list of experiences, personality traits, and health risks. We are known and loved as holistic creatures, body and soul, made in the image of God.
There’s a certain level of real paranoia that rises as we think about how true much of Eggers’s fictional world must actually be. I cringe to think about what corporations like Facebook and Google will be able to do in the future—and already are doing—with our information.
However, more compelling is the way The Circle depicts Mae’s desperate personal struggle. The world is increasingly becoming a place of isolation, facades, and false friendships. In some sense, The Circle illustrates the Biblical truth that true relationships are always mediated. The more we use screens to communicate with others, the more we realize this truth. However, no matter how much information about your life is spread across the Internet, you will never truly know others until you have come to know Christ Jesus.
In his book Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes, “We have one another only through Christ, but through Christ we do have one another, wholly , and for all eternity” (26). All of our relationships are mediated—not through media, but through a Mediator. This is what John means when he says that “our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. . . . [I]f we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin” (1 John 1:3,7). The true light is not The Circle, but a place of confession of sin, repentance, belief, and true fellowship with God and one another—The Church.