There's a lot of discussion lately about the power technology companies wield in society. Facebook and Google control about 90% of the online advertising market between them. Uber employees have the ability to track anyone who use their service. Just today, Snapchat released a feature that allows users to track each other.
It's not a new problem we're facing and Dave Eggers' novel The Circle puts an unsettling spin on the whole matter. It's a sci-fi thriller that delves into a world where a single internet company holds immeasurable power.
The story follows Mae Holland, an unsuspecting twenty-something who begins work at the Circle. It's the opportunity of a lifetime, a situation where she's eager to impress. As she becomes more and more involved at the company, the darker side of the internet, privacy and online socialising becomes clearer.
A number of key themes run throughout the book, beginning with the notion of a curated persona. The Circle expects their employees to be hyper social, constantly posting what you're doing, engaging with online activism and recording everything. It becomes a huge issue when Mae doesn't RSVP to a minor event, just as problematic it would be if someone didn't like an Instagram post you're tagged in.
As the story progresses the Orwellian nature of the company begins to show, beginning with their always on, always broadcasting SeeChange cameras. The Circle wants to record everything, store everything and make sure every moment of humanity is tracked, chronicled and stored for posterity.
The events towards the end of the book raise questions of morality, of ethics. Sure, the Circle can record every moment of someone's life, allowing people from all around the world to see, but does it mean they should?
This book holds a mirror up to today's state of internet interaction and shows us the dangers of a world where you give too much to social media companies, where you sign your rights to privacy and self away to these places.
While it relies on a number of straw man arguments and has characters who lack depth and nuance, those aspects provide a vehicle for you to slide into the story, imagining yourself as Mae Holland, passively observing the elimination of any privacy.
In some ways there's parallels to George Orwell's 1984 in their constant surveillance, drive to reach a certain unattainable perfection and total assimilation into the Circle's culture. The parallels get a bit too coincidental when you start seeing maxims like Secrets Are Lies, Sharing Is Caring, Privacy Is Theft emblazoned on the walls of the Circle's office.
I guess when you're making a book like this it's impossible not to have it seem a little Orwellian. Either way, it's a fantastic read about a possible future just around the corner where a single company controls so much of our life.
The movie adaptation of the Circle, starring Emma Watson and Tom Hanks, will be released on July 13 in Australia.