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Dave Eggers Gets Trumped
Andrew Leonard | Photo: Illustration by Clark Miller; images via YouTube | April 12, 2017
The author’s dystopian novel The Circle once terrified. Now, remade as a Tom Hanks–Emma Watson thriller, it seems positively quaint.
In a trailer for the new film The Circle, Tom Hanks, playing the salt-and-pepper-bearded CEO of a combo Amazon-Google-Facebook-Apple Silicon Valley tech juggernaut called the Circle, asks Emma Watson, portraying an up-and-coming employee named Mae, a simple question on the merits of the surveillance society. “Do you think you are behaving better or worse when you are being watched?”
In the dark near-future of The Circle, there’s only one allowable answer: “Better.” The success of the South Bay megacorp first depicted in Dave Eggers’s 2013 novel is predicated on a straightforward principle: that infinite transparency will cure all society’s ills. “All That Happens Must Be Known” is the Circle’s corporate mantra, and as we learn just 20 pages into the book, the innovation that catapulted the company to supremacy is a software product called TruYou—“one account, one identity, one password, one payment, per person.”
Because TruYou is linked to your real name and not some anonymous, venomous Pepe the Frog avatar, it magically tames the web. “Overnight, all comment boards became civil, all posters held accountable,” writes Eggers. “The trolls, who had more or less overtaken the Internet, were driven back into the darkness.” The price paid for this return to pre-cyber civility turned out to be steep: the gobbling up of all politics, culture, commerce, and community by one monolithic tech company.
Sounds terrifying, right? But a weird thing happened in the 40-odd months between when Eggers published his novel and when director James Ponsoldt (The End of the Tour, The Spectacular Now) released his film adaptation (which drops April 28). In that brief span, an author’s dystopian vision of the future was usurped by the disturbing reality of the present. Those trolls? They weren’t banished back into the darkness. Instead they got organized, built their own information ecosystem, took over a major American political party, and seized the White House. We, the hapless Maes of the world, watched it all happen on Facebook and Twitter and YouTube. And yet, with all the great transparency tools at our disposal, we could not stop it.
We now live as one nation, violently divided, behaving badly, and ruled by a troll. Where was TruYou when we needed it?
With the likes of Facebook, Google, Apple, and Amazon all vying to be their own version of the Circle, and concerns about the vulnerability of our personal information at an all-time high, you’d think that the 2017 movie version of The Circle might be even more timely than the 2013 novel. But, weirdly enough, the haunting Internet thriller—which is being marketed as The Social Network meets The Firm and also stars Patton Oswalt, John Boyega, and the recently deceased Bill Paxton—now feels ahistorical. Quaint, even.
To understand why, it helps to go way back into the mid-’90s, when you didn’t have to be a Peter Thiel–style libertarian to feel giddy about the transformational power of networked computers. More access to information was generally seen as an unalloyed good; the promise of an unfettered Internet packed a utopian frisson that kept geeks like Mark Zuckerberg coding into the wee hours. Some of us may have been skeptical that digital technologies would chip away at worldwide authoritarian rule, but we understood that the new tools clearly represented progress. The tech executives of Eggers’s book believe that they stand at the dawn of the Second Enlightenment, with the Internet playing the role of Gutenberg’s printing press. You can see their point.
We thought we were getting a future in which access to information delivered liberation. But, as last year’s election made distressingly clear, what we received was a future in which everyone gets to make up their own reality. An essential ethos of The Circle is the proposition that all “truth” is knowable, and that reality is defined by (and monetized via) the things that we click: the crap we buy, the clips we watch, the sites we read, the people we text, Snap, and Skype. However, the political world we live in—a world that even the hyper-prescient Eggers couldn’t conceive a mere four years ago—is resistant to this notion of truth.
Who knew that the democratization of information would combine with echo chambers and filter bubbles and propaganda outlets to deliver an anarchy of fake news, conspiracy theories, and Milo Yiannopoulos? We’re nearly 75 years removed from the fall of the Nazis, and yet anti-Semitism is again alive and well in the United States. Eggers almost certainly didn’t see this coming.
As a journalist who made a pretty good living in the 1990s rhapsodizing about the revolutionary promise of the Internet, I had a go-to argument for explaining why the online future was a welcome one. Think of a closeted gay teen living in a small and conservative town in the middle of nowhere. Imagine how liberating it would be for her to log on and connect to people all over the world who shared her experiences, her fears, her values. An online sense of community could save lives by forestalling the suicidal despair that festered in isolation.
What I didn’t stop to consider at the time was that the same principle would hold true for the isolated neo-Nazi and the deranged conspiracy theorist. Or that there would be Internet forums built to rally online mobs to attack people for their race, gender, sexuality, or religion. The great lesson of the Internet, and the great bug in Eggers’s source code for The Circle, is that access to information doesn’t mean access to “the truth.” In reality, on the Internet, everyone gets their own truth.
At one point in the book version of The Circle, one of Mae’s supervisors shares with her his defining creed: “With the technology available, communication should never be in doubt. Understanding should never be out of reach or anything but clear.” It’s a nice sentiment. But in the real world of 2017, Silicon Valley’s millenarian faith in its own technology is, for lack of a better word, trumped by the startling realization that our communication tools are creating universal misunderstandings. They are militating against the spread of understanding. It’s the most extraordinary paradox—locked inside our echo chambers, we make less sense to each other now than ever.
Transparency? The notion that our ability to watch each other will steer us in a socially beneficial direction? The Circle goes a long way toward exploding this notion, but it doesn’t identify the right demons. Smooth-talking Silicon Valley tech visionaries have their problems, but they are hardly civil society’s worst enemies (aside from Thiel, who is a monster). Populist autocrats are what keep us up at night now. Our own neo-tribalism, weaponized with technology, has ushered in a dark era of politics that would be more familiar to people who lived a century ago in Bolshevik Russia than to Watson’s Mae.
The greatest contribution made by Eggers’s The Circle may not be as an Orwellian political satire, but as a sort of cautionary gadget guide. It demonstrates how companies operating according to the rules of Silicon Valley–style capitalism can snatch up our new tools of liberation and turn them into infantilizing instruments of oppression. A wearable fitness tracker is cool and fine until your insurance company requires you to wear one to qualify for low premiums. Defining your self-worth through Facebook likes is just dandy until an immigration officer uses your social media footprint to deny you entry into the United States. The difference between contemporary reality and The Circle is only a matter of degree.
Lately, reality has outstripped fantasy in its potential to frighten the hell out of us. The world of The Circle is scary. It’s just not as scary as the real thing.
Originally published in the April issue of San Francisco