“The Circle” & why Facebook can make us immortal

It’s been a while since the dystopian novel “The Circle” by Dave Eggers has been published. It feels like a continuation of the series started by the Russian writer Yevgeny Zamyatin in “We” which was further developed by Aldous Huxley in “Brave new world” and eventually by George Orwell in his epic “1984”. “The Circle” is trying to bring similar concepts across, though the book definitely lacks the philosophical insights of its predecessors.

However, what I like about this digital dystopia is its seeming simplicity which borders on stating obvious things. Don’t expect it to be a literary masterpiece, but get ready to look at things (such as Google search or Facebook) that you are very likely to use every day from a different perspective. Here’re some thoughts on ideas voiced in the book and most insightful quotes.

Why do we use Facebook? To become immortal.

The rise of social media has lead to profound changes in the way we experience our environment and ourselves. Apart from creating a new form of public sphere, social networks have lead us to believe – although mostly unconsciously – that we can leave our own trails through posting, commenting and uploading party pictures and thus become immortal. What we are building on social media are attempts to create digital monuments to ourselves.

So basically, social media are about seeking for proof for existence. In the early days of mankind, we tried to achieve immortality through heroic deeds, destruction of temples or creating art masterpieces that would outlive us. Today, we log into Facebook.

Quotes from “The Circle”:

“You’re not very interesting anymore. You sit at a desk twelve hours a day and you have nothing to show for it except for some numbers that won’t exist or be remembered in a week. You’re leaving no evidence that you lived. There’s no proof.”

“So you think everyone should be tracked, should be watched.” “I think everything and everyone should be seen. And to be seen, we need to be watched. The two go hand in hand.” “But who wants to be watched all the time?” “I do. I want to be seen. I want proof I existed.”

Technology is the new religion

Achieving immortality of the soul is actually the basic purpose of any religion. In my opinion, one of the most important things that differentiates us from animals is being able to understand the finiteness of our own lives. The only being that is immortal and eternal in the way humans understand it is the God (or gods, depending on which religion you profess). This brings us to the next logical step after striving for immortality: trying to become God. Well, this is a very general and rough understanding and theologists might argue with me, but basically every human being has a profound need for transcendence.

Quotes from “The Circle”:

“Now we’re all God. Every one of us will soon be able to see, and cast judgment upon, every other. We’ll see what He sees. We’ll articulate His judgment. We’ll channel His wrath and deliver His forgiveness. On a constant and global level. All religion has been waiting for this, when every human is a direct and immediate messenger of God’s will.”

“You and yours at the Circle”—and here he drew a circle in the air, horizontally, and Mae thought of a halo—“you’re gonna save all the souls. You’re gonna get everyone in one place, you’re gonna teach them all the same things. There can be one morality, one set of rules. Imagine!”

Digital escapism: Turning into digital dummies

Never has it been so easy to escape from reality and at the same time be part of the overwhelming majority. Digital escapism is sweet and easy. By being able to connect to the rest of the world in a second, we are disconnecting ourselves from our actual environments.

There’s an ongoing debate on whether technology is making us stupid. Whereas technology itself is neutral, most people seem to be misusing it. As business and technology writer Samuel Greencard argues in the recent edition of WIRED, “at a certain point, when increasingly smart devices and machines are assigned tasks that humans handle, we are at risk of losing knowledge about the most basic things: how to grow food, how to travel from A to B, and how to build shelter and keep ourselves warm”.

Quote from “The Circle”:

“You comment on things, and that substitutes for doing them. You look at pictures of Nepal, push a smile button, and you think that’s the same as going there. I mean, what would happen if you actually went? Your CircleJerk ratings or whatever-the-fuck would drop below an acceptable level! Mae, do you realize how incredibly boring you’ve become?”

Participatorship: New political regime

When participation is being seen as obligatory and non-sharing is considered anti-social, there’s only a small step towards the dictatorship of the masses which in turn are being manipulated by a few large corporations. This might lead to a new form of global political regime – “participatorship” (participation + dictatorship, German: Partizipatur).

Quote from “The Circle”:

“Once it’s mandatory to have an account, and once all government services are channeled through the Circle, you’ll have helped create the world’s first tyrannical monopoly. Does it seem like a good idea to you that a private company would control the flow of all information? That participation, at their beck and call, is mandatory?”

Is there still place for mystery and romance?

Quantification of everything doesn’t necessarily lead to more quality (do we become better runners if we use an app?). You can’t quantify everything. Love can’t be quantified, hopefully. As love is more than a sum of its parts, so are human beings. At least this is my hope. If someday we are able to upload a person – or their soul – into the cloud and replicate a human being in a digital form, than the very notion of the soul and of being human will change. We will create a new type of civilisation.

Quote from “The Circle”:

“We are not meant to know everything, Mae. Did you ever think that perhaps our minds are delicately calibrated between the known and the unknown? That our souls need the mysteries of night and the clarity of day? You people are creating a world of ever-present daylight, and I think it will burn us all alive. There will be no time to reflect, to sleep, to cool. Did it occur to you Circle people, ever, that we can only contain so much? Look at us. We’re tiny. Our heads are tiny, the size of melons. You want these heads of ours to contain everything the world has ever seen? It will not work”.

What happens next?

How should we handle the breakneck pace of the digital revolution? Do we need to create a new charter of rights for the digital age? A new structure to manage the flow of data and individual contributions of every user? Do we need to rethink how we use social media and communicate, and which data protection measures are necessary? These are the questions which need answers urgently.

Quotes from “The Circle”:

“I expect this is some second great schism, where two humanities will live, apart but parallel. There will be those who live under the surveillance dome you’re helping to create, and those who live, or try to live, apart from it. I’m scared to death for us all”.

“The Rights of Humans in a Digital Age.” Mae scanned it, catching passages: “We must all have the right to anonymity.” “Not every human activity can be measured.” “The ceaseless pursuit of data to quantify the value of any endeavor is catastrophic to true understanding.” “The barrier between public and private must remain unbreachable.” At the end she found one line, written in red ink: “We must all have the right to disappear.”

Summing up

With his ominous The Circle, Eggers is warning us of the possible consequences of current technological developments. Apart from becoming increasingly reliant on technology, we are losing the very ability to judge independently and think deeply.

As another WIRED author, Clive Thompson, points out, these days we try to eliminate slow moments which eventually help us spark our creativity and lead to deep thinking through the use of mobile devices. Shutting down deep thinking and nodding on your phone instead (which is similar to eating junk food) means that we are gradually losing the ability to think critically and concentrate intensely on one thing. Maybe that’s the reason why Steve Jobs restricted the use of gadgets at home.

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