Of the many chilling scenarios Dave Eggers lays out in his futuristic novel, The Circle (Vintage; 512 pages; $15.95) the one that scares the dickens (not Charles!) out of me popped up in emails recently from two fundraising political groups, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) and the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee (DSCC).
Eggers is not a great writer of fiction (a bit clunky and shallow) but his warning about tyrannical forces growing at Internet companies like Google, Amazon, Apple, Facebook and others is both visionary and truly terrifying.
The story follows Mae, a talented Internet worker who lands a job answering customers’ questions at The Circle, the most powerful corporation in Silicon Valley.
The perks there are plentiful, some unusual — not just state-of-the-art fitness programs, gourmet cuisine, a daycare center, famous people giving TED-type talks at lunch; but also a bocce court, dog kennel, dormitory, all-night parties, national candidates holding town hall meetings and fantastic art everywhere (a Calder mobile hangs in the 40-foot atrium).
Business terms at The Circle have been renamed to reflect a warm, happy, never judgmental, always positive and inclusive atmosphere. Mae isn’t employed by a corporation, for example — she’s part of a “culture.” The Circle doesn’t exist on company property; it has a “campus.” Mae doesn’t work in Building A, B or C; she works in a glass-and-oxidized-copper environment called Renaissance.
How can Mae best rate her job success? Well, no stuffy performance reviews are conducted, no boss makes impatient demands. Instead, customers respond to surveys after Mae helps them, and soon questions from The Circle pop up in her email, such as (I’m paraphrasing), “Do you understand why you might want a 99.5% success rate rather than a 99.4?”
But the best part of The Circle is its elaborate network of social groups. There seem to be hundreds of them, and no matter who you are, a perfect fit is possible for all sorts of people with multiple interests.
Say you’re a parent with a disabled child; a lover of bridge who likes to hike; a French-speaking gourmet who plays left-handed tennis. Groups are available to help you improve every hobby/recreation/pastime/career/recovery program/golf swing/wine appreciation/spiritual interest/Ken Ken score.
And if you forget to join a group, don’t worry — The Circle knows, and soon a query arrives (still paraphrasing): We’ve noticed your love of word games and research on chlamydia make you a perfect candidate for the Scrabble Fans with SIDs group …
And so the net descends. One needn’t have read George Orwell’s novel, 1984, to know that routine collection of information about employees’ professional and personal activities can become a way of life without anybody blinking an eye. Soon everything about you is known to somebody.
I don’t work for a company like Mae’s but recently started wondering about the a net descending from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC).
I subscribed to these websites for updates and have contributed small amounts of money. Soon emails for more donations arrived — fine, that was expected — and with them came the phony “personalized” plea in which a computer shoves your name in the text to make you feel appreciated.
The tone sounded a little desperate –
“Look, you’ve received a number of emails from us about all of this — but this is deeply important. PATRICIA HOLT”
– but who cared. I was accustomed to the increasingly sensational declarations (“Mitch is FURIOUS,” “Boehner is CRYING”), and to the fact that “they” — the anonymous operators behind these websites — liked to show that an official file existed on me with a long and important- sounding identity code:
“Name: Patricia Holt
Supporter Record: VN96C9W3FW0″
And “they” liked to use hyperbole (“we actually have SERIOUSLY INCREDIBLE news”) and suggest that tiny invasions of privacy had already been accomplished:
“We know that everyone from President Obama to Sen. Warren has emailed you…”
(It’s funny: I expected Obama’s name, but Elizabeth Warren? Let’s leave her out of this.)
And soon they liked to demonstrate that I was being watched a little more blatantly than usual:
“PATRICIA HOLT: According to our records, you haven’t chipped in yet to fight Boehner’s lawsuit.”
Maybe it was the word “yet” that did it, meaning they’re waiting for me to kick in. The voice wasn’t terribly Orwellian, but it did have a hint of swagger, of knowing too much, of applying pressure and expecting right behavior.
So I unsubscribed (not that it’ll do any good), but I keep wondering: Is this how it starts? A tone that gets increasingly personal, a dismissal of privacy, a hint of something threatening? — and will I ever really get rid of them?
In The Circle, Mae makes the mistake of trading a bit of her identity for every step up the corporate ladder. By the time she reaches the inner circle, we worry that her voice — once so independent, so insightful — will sound like everybody else’s.
Eggers, however, is not only saying that power is seductive. He’s saying that that today, right now, we the people are giving away our power for really stupid stuff.
You think grocery-delivering drones from Amazon are a cute idea? Watch them turn into darling mechanical stalkers near Mae’s office. Don’t we all want more transparency from public figures? After reading The Circle, we’ll wish for more Anthony Wieners. Won’t “company towns” (nearby housing) give Internet employees more time to create new ideas? Exactly: soon office and home will be so comfortable that nobody will venture off-campus again.
You can’t help looking up from the book to ask similar questions of real life: For example, aren’t micro-donations of $5 or $10 the new thing today? Don’t they stand for the kind of democratized funding that balances the scales against billionaire bigots like the Koch brothers? Isn’t this version of “one-click” the new way to rebuild the Democratic Party?
Well, maybe that’s the way quickie $5 donations started. But then like so many Internet phenomena, it wasn’t enough. Sign a petition, fill out a survey, give a few bucks, put your signature on Obama’s birthday card (huh? why, I would never … ) and “they” have their hooks in you for more and more and more. Emails were pouring in, ostensibly from Nancy Pelosi, Joe Biden, Harry Reid, GOP Shutdown Watch, Democrats 2014, requests@dscc, rapid-response@dscc, alert@dscc, updates@dccc, urgent@dscc, breaking@dscc, Democratic Headquarters, DCCC Rapid Response, Stop the GOP, polling-alert@dscc, paul@dscc, Patrick McHugh, Matt Kehres (DSCC Digital Director), Kay Hagan, Julia Ager (DSCC Rapid Response Coordinator), Jennifer O’Malley (Senior Advisor), DSCC Grassroots Victory, Democratic Victory, Emily Bittner (DCCC National Press Secretary) and many others including (sob) Elizabeth Warren, all with addresses going back to firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.
For me, this guilt-inducing, name-calling, threat-evoking, whack-a-mole approach to fundraising ain’t the Democratic Party I want to support. And, sorry to say, faced with similar emails from others, I’m close to feeling that way about Emily’s List, Food Democracy Now, MoveOn, Credo, Courage Campaign, Environment California and a bunch of groups I used to believe in.