Dave Eggers’ The Circle is widely believed to be anti-utopia (Jarvis; Seeger & Davison-Vecchione). The book shows how, under certain circumstances, society can easily subjugate individuals’ lives and how the latter have a desire and even a need to give up personal space. For the sake of certain benefits, a person is ready to give up their personal life and exist around the clock at the sight of video cameras. The book’s main heroine goes from an ordinary girl from the working class to the best employee of a giant monopoly corporation, who hangs on herself a micro-camera and broadcasts every step of her life to the whole world. Mae’s main fear is not realizing her potential in society.
To understand how Mae’s identity changes throughout the book, it is helpful to use panopticon and surveillance concepts. Today we live simultaneously in two spaces: real and virtual. In both spaces, individuals want to move freely and communicate, enjoy real and informational benefits, and feel safe at the same time. The panopticon tends to reduce repression, focusing not on overcoming resistance by rough physical coercion but on soft technologies that involve the impact not on the body but the soul. Thus, while the panopticon appears to be a blessing for individuals, the latter change their identity towards the observing entity (society as a whole in the book) by changing their thoughts, actions and beliefs.
Mae’s company promotes the benefits of giving up personal space. At the very first meeting, the director presents the micro-cameras developed by the employees and explains how much benefit it would be if such cameras were placed on every corner around the world. They would be virtually invisible to the eye but would be able to view anywhere in the world. Such an innovation would help to more accurately search for people in seconds, for example, criminals. In turn, if criminals know that a crime will be detected immediately, they will not commit them.
Gently, the Circle employees tell Mae that it would be nice to start communicating with the company’s team on a large social network: answering colleagues’ questions, sharing their impressions during the day, and this is presented as a way to establish closer relationships in the team. All the members are awarded points for their communication activity, and the more one communicates with society, the more information one shares, the more points they have, and hence the authority and gratitude. Mae also learns that on weekends the company hosts various events. Therefore, it is better to spend her own vacation with the company of colleagues.
The author shows how unobtrusively the integration of society into private life takes place. Moreover, personal information is not used for profit. Normality and life under surveillance are simply justified. For example, the fact that a person has not shared a life event with colleagues on social networks leads to a question from the outside about why a person does not share their experience with like-minded people. In the course of reflection, Mae concludes: if you hide some knowledge from society, deprive it of the opportunity to experience these impressions with you and analyze your experience, you are actually “stealing” from society. Thus, in Egger’s panopticon, withholding knowledge is stealing.
Mae’s next step in changing her identity comes after sneaking onto the boat base at night and steals a kayak to relax and get her thoughts in order. Accordingly, the micro-cameras placed next to this base detect this, and it became possible to quickly find and rescue her at the moment when she got into a dangerous storm. In a public lecture, Mae asks for a speech and tells her conclusions from the incident.
She says she acted unwisely and concludes that she would not have acted so recklessly if she knew she was being watched. As a result, it turns out that a person behaves better under the supervision and thinks more about the consequences of their actions. However, the fact that a person cannot freely act without regard to society’s opinion does not occur to Mae. The panopticon is intended to serve the purposes of management, to produce “obedient bodies” – methodically, gently, and, if possible, unnoticed. This is not a quick response mechanism but a set of sophisticated long-term tactics for managing society.
In the end, May decides to hang a micro-camera on herself, to be continuously supervised. This act is approved by the whole society, colleagues, and members of the social network. Everyone considers her a real hero and creator of history. The book ends with Mae being in her sick friend’s room, watching the color spots that mark her brain activity and regretting and even being angry that she cannot find out what is going on in her friend’s head. After all, according to Mae, this deprives, limits collective opportunities, and even insults.
One of the book’s most essential ideas is the subtle and non-violent distortion and change of identity in favor of an orientation towards the collective good. The key conclusion that May made for herself on the way to a complete change of identity is the following: if you keep your life experience for yourself, you steal from the whole society.
Eggers, Dave. The circle. Art People, 2015.
Jarvis, Brian. “Surveillance and Spectacle Inside The Circle.” Surveillance, Architecture and Control. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham, 2019. 275-293.
Seeger, Sean, and Daniel Davison-Vecchione. “Dystopian literature and the sociological imagination.” Thesis Eleven, vol.155, no.1, 2019: 45-63.