Late in The Circle, Dave Eggers’s 2013 novel set in a near-future that is both staggering and entirely too plausible, the Google-like tech company referred to in the title proposes a small brand extension: Its next goal is to conquer the entire democratic project. Once a few trifling details are worked out, the Circle will take care of all balloting and tabulation, then disseminate the results. Oh, and voting will become compulsory, because that will obviously produce a better America than the one created by our current, half-interested populace. “We’re calling it Demoxie,” says a chipper executive. “Democracy with your voice and your moxie.”
Who could possibly oppose moxie, much less democracy? Left unstated is that the secret ballot will become a relic of the past. Also unmentioned is that we will all wind up voting exactly how the Circle wants us to vote: the company possesses so much information that it is inching nearer to absolute power. Already a few lawmakers raising concerns about the company’s reach have been defenestrated, in each case because inconvenient details about their private lives happened to leak out from their computers into the public sphere.
The novel, which has been adapted into a film of the same name (due out April 28) starring Emma Watson and Tom Hanks, is a vital work that ought to become standard conservative reading. It’s as if Brave New World and 1984 had a baby, and that baby’s nanny were Liberal Fascism. Eggers combines Huxley’s vision of a pleasure-saturated dystopia with an Orwellian take on propaganda and distorted language, all managed by smiley-faced authoritarians. Eggers might as well have taken as his starting point the George Carlin remark Jonah Goldberg explicated so wisely in Liberal Fascism: “When fascism comes to America, it will not be in brown and black shirts. It will not be with jack-boots. It will be Nike sneakers and Smiley shirts.”
Reading Eggers’s book today underlines the flaws in the Left’s hysteria about supposedly nascent Trumpofascism. If an authoritarian element is to insinuate itself into American life, it will do so not externally, with scowling generals and tanks on Maplewood Drive, but internally, invisibly, and to a large extent voluntarily. Bullets won’t be fired; they won’t have to be. And it’ll be hip, young, compassionate, sincere, globally minded progressives such as the Silicon Valley go-getters in The Circle who take us to our new destination, all the time insisting — believing — that stripping away one liberty after another in order to centralize power is what’s best for everyone.
We are introduced to the Circle through the eyes of a new employee, Mae (the Watson character in the movie, which I haven’t yet seen). She’s a recent college graduate who in the early going is a kind of New Economy update of Charlie Chaplin’s factory worker in Modern Times, rendered more and more hapless by the expanding array of gadgetry she is meant to master. An entry-level customer-service rep, she is beleaguered by the burgeoning number of screens installed on her desk, the urgent communiqués deluging her through various instant-messaging systems, and the many requests to participate in social-media groups. These become indistinguishable from demands in the tech world’s passive-aggressive culture of team spirit.
Mae’s soul is being hollowed out by the fizz and rattle of nonstop meaningless interaction, and her weakened state is essential to her being first seduced, and then weaponized, by the Circle. Sinister elements appear gradually, in each case vigorously defended by company bosses such as an avuncular co-founder, Eamon Bailey (Tom Hanks). Bailey and the other two founders are known within as the Three Wise Men, one of many hints that the Circle is misappropriating spiritual motifs even as it attempts to displace religious faith in the lives of its flock. Bailey (who has a stained-glass ceiling in his library) is relentless in his quest to immanentize the eschaton. He proposes the Circle as a kind of substitute for God’s eyes, asserting that everyone would live a moral life if he knew everything he did was being watched and recorded on the company’s servers. There is much joyful talk of the fast-approaching heaven on Earth called “Completion,” in which the Circle will have at last achieved all of its goals, to the presumed betterment of us all. Politicians and others are at first encouraged, then nudged, and then shoved into “going clear” (a sly reference to a central dogma of Scientology), meaning volunteering to wear cameras around their necks that record all of their interactions throughout their waking hours. (When using the bathroom, one is allowed to turn off the sound for three minutes.) Eggers dryly reports without comment that the Circle’s own internal deliberations are, meanwhile, cloaked from public view: “Those meetings are full of sensitive intellectual property,” exclaims one employee.
Mae is at first doubtful but, like Winston Smith, proves no match for the cascade of propaganda and gradually internalizes all of Bailey’s teachings, which culminate in a kind of show-trial-cum-TED-talk. Mae is publicly interviewed, or re-educated, by Bailey, in an auditorium full of her fellow employees looking on as he coaxes from her key admissions helpfully projected on a large screen: “PRIVACY IS THEFT.” “SHARING IS CARING.” “SECRETS ARE LIES.” In tech world, no torture is necessary; people like what is happening to them, and even sign up for it. At most they might need to be offered a $10 Starbucks gift card in exchange for ceding some heretofore-sacred modicum of privacy. One key figure in the Circle’s rise expresses disbelief that his most outlandish ideas, despite being self-evidently dangerous, grew not only popular but revered: He likens the situation to placing a guillotine in the town square and being shocked when people line up to put their necks in it.
Eggers, a supporter of both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, has the kind of ideological credentials you would expect from a well-heeled Bay Area career ironist. Yet The Circle demonstrates that the progressive-authoritarian direction of American culture today can hardly be misread by any serious thinker, even someone who is mostly on board with the liberal agenda. Mercer, Mae’s Luddite ex-boyfriend and one of the two figures in the novel who see clearly the ramifications of the Circle’s growing clout, denounces the insistently progressive company as “Digital Brownshirts” who worship a “golden calf,” comparing the meeting that hatches the idea for the Circle’s takeover of democracy to Triumph of the Will. In a letter he writes Mae that she broadcasts to the world, Mercer pleads for a reversal, a renewed commitment to freedom and individualism. In response, the Internet scoffs. “One watcher in Missoula,” Eggers writes, “had already read it while wearing a powdered wig, the background filled with faux-patriotic music. That video had been seen three million times.”
It must be painful to a hipster icon such as Eggers to admit it, but in a brave new tech world, the ideals of the men in the powdered wigs become more, not less, crucial.
— Kyle Smith is National Review’s critic-at-large.