First-year students were invited to participate in an essay contest in order to further engage with the themes of the 2016 Penn State Reads selection, The Circle by Dave Eggers. The winners, Dan Bisi and Olivia Muly, each received a $100 Penn State Bookstore gift card and had the opportunity to meet Eggers during his campus visit in October.
by Dan Bisi
The meaning of freedom is different to every person based on his or her perspective. An immigrant family traveling to the United States in 1900 usually looked upon it with hope for a prosperous life. Someone living in North Korea may see it as a dangerous ideal that threatens their culture. In The Circle, Mae Holland viewed it through a prism of equal access and global connectedness. When I think of freedom, my mind takes a trip back to the American founding, and in particular, to the words of the Declaration of Independence. The goals of the colonists can be summed up in one famous sentence. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” It is in this context, with those “unalienable Rights” in mind, that I processed the lack of freedom displayed in The Circle.
Throughout history, technological changes have affected how people live and created externalities. Take the example of the cotton gin. Before this invention, processing cotton was tedious work, making the cotton industry unprofitable. This changed in the early 1800s when the cotton gin was introduced to the market. The cotton industry grew at an astronomical rate in the lead up to the Civil War, and cotton became the United States’ leading export. However, negative side effects in the form of increased slavery arose. The growth of the Circle has this same effect. There is no disputing that certain aspects of life are better. Holland’s father, and everyone else, gets better health care. Knowledge is more accessible than at any other time in history. People are safer. These improvements are significant, yet minuscule, when compared to the negative externalities the Circle generates. A telling passage from the novel comes when Holland presents SoulSearch, a tool used to track down fugitives by alerting other persons to their location in order to hunt them down. This creates literal mob rule in which due process is an afterthought. Of course, privacy rights are also extinguished. Even the most intimate aspects of human life are broadcast to the whole world; just ask Mae’s parents. One of the saddest aspects of the society is how it treats dissenters. Mercer, who simply wanted to live an existence apart from the technology dominated world, was driven mad by its incessant intrusion into his life. No societal gains are worth the abandonment of freedom and liberty.
The Circle not only changes societal norms, but also affects personal emotions. In the world of complete transparency, each person’s self-esteem is a result of how the public views him or her. In other words, one needs positive attention from the public to be happy. Annie, Holland’s best friend, was mentally and physically destroyed because millions of people learned that her ancestors owned slaves and her parents allowed a man to drown. Of course, Annie herself wasn’t involved in either of these cases. But in a culture in which people base happiness on how they are perceived, their emotions no longer belong to them. In a sense, everyone lives like a politician analyzing opinion polls. What misery! Along with Annie, Holland is also a victim of this neediness. She desperately wanted every one of her co-workers to vote that they liked her. Even though 97 percent voted that Mae was “awesome”, the 3 percent that didn’t enraged her to the point where she was obsessed by it. Obviously, every person wants to be liked to some extent. It becomes dangerous when this natural feeling turns into the entire conception of one’s happiness.
One may ask the question, “How do we prevent our society from becoming like the one in The Circle?” The answer lies in a key difference between these two societies. Our government is very different from the one in the novel. The government in The Circle is corporatist in nature, meaning that special interests (corporations in this case) work with puppet governments to run the country. The “Wise Men,” from their desks in California, work with Washington to serve the Circle’s and country’s interests. The United States’ actual government was founded with the idea of separation of powers to keep this kind of scenario from occurring. A court could stop a future corporation like the Circle when it violates privacy laws and aspects of the Constitution. Thus, without an enormous undoing of the United States’ constitutional structure, a society like the one in The Circle isn’t possible.
Dwight D. Eisenhower once said, “If you want total security, go to prison. There you’re fed, clothed, given medical care and so on. The only thing lacking is freedom.” The Circle provides society total security. Mob rule and omniscient surveillance lower crime rates to the point where it’s no longer of concern. Along with crime, freedom and true happiness also meet their deaths. The brave American colonists would be ashamed of this. They realized that freedom is society’s greatest virtue. A person without it is like a bird without wings. It can manage. It can survive. But it can’t live as it is destined to.
by Olivia Muly
My high school English teacher endlessly extolled the virtues of symbols in writing. In the eyes of the class, who often had discussions among ourselves about her bizarre conjectures, she was deemed as either a genius or mystifying. Most students simply didn’t get it. The speculations themselves oscillated wildly from probable to outlandish. Crows foreshadowed a coming murder, a beam of light spilling into a dark room most certainly meant that a character spoke the truth, and triangles were phallic objects meant to challenge our perception of the antagonist’s sexuality. “Every essay, novel, epic, or poem is an argument” she would say, eyes quibbling with the class’s obvious boredom, “symbols are the clever way to say: here is where contention begins”. I daresay she would be proud of my brisk thoughts on symbolism within Dave Eggers’s novel. Generally her method started with assigning meaning to the simple and ordinary, shapes and colors, before exploring the obscure. Interestingly, Eggers does this for us, naming the company, the very entity intent on creating societal integration, the Circle. Circles represent unquestionable unity, not incidentally the biggest moral conflict present throughout the full 497 pages. Yet unity is simply one side of the proverbial coin. Once “the circle” is flipped, so to speak, another interpretation emerges. There is no beginning nor end to a circle. As a more cynical reader might point out, no escape. At its foundation, there lays a warning that unity, in all its smooth and silky glory, is also inevitably a trap.
Connecting society has countless applications and benefits, the sum of which the cons could never hope to compare to when aggregated. Therefore, it falls to the magnitude of each con to make the case for connectivity as a lurking, insidious evil. This is no easy task with the evidence presented. Even acknowledging the foreboding of society for encompassing systems, the benefits seem to outweigh the drawbacks. One of the strongest arguments for consent to the Circle’s omniscience is the situation of Mae’s father. We are given detail after detail of the horrific, living purgatory he must endure before the Circle’s intervention. Not only was the man completely miserable, but his condition sowed misery in every interaction with those around him. Based on personal experiences, I am deeply sympathetic with the Circle’s intrusion on his behalf. It was in middle school that I first observed the fiendish medical struggle characteristic of chronic diseases. At midday, the school’s lunch bell would sound and a river of angsty teenagers would flow from the classroom into the cafeteria. I would sit with my group of friends, fascinated by the smartphones and iPods they would check periodically, unintentionally ignoring the flow of conversation. In retrospect the experience was eerily similar to The Circle‘s socially disjointed world. Occasionally we were joined by a special girl, with glossy black hair and a radiant smile, who charmed everyone at the table. I remember scrutinizing her strange routine of pricking a finger, then myself squirming as she squeezed the blood from the wound onto an odd-looking monitor. In my naivete the word diabetes meant nothing to me. After a quick assessment of the novelty, it passed through my mind quickly enough. Then in winter, as another year of middle school was sidling by, a news story hit the school with the force of a nuclear bomb. The special girl with the raven hair and kind eyes had died in her sleep, not yet fifteen years old.
Years later, after reading about the plight of Mae’s father, I found myself wondering, could the Circle have saved my friend? Could technology, if we simply gave certain allowances, have altered her disease’s course into a manageable condition? The presence of cameras in every house, back alley, pub, school, and square would eliminate death by accidental injury. Health monitors like Mae’s would alert patients to any dangerous biometrics. Preventable death would be minimized. We would all live longer lives, but would they necessarily be fuller?
Society assumes that life’s length is intrinsically valuable. That begs the question, if it is simply years that determine worth, are children less valuable than their older counterparts? Almost everyone would answer no. Life’s worth derives from something less quantifiable. So we must question the very premise of the Circle’s righteousness. The Circle claims that to gain extraordinary benefit, one must cede life’s flavor. It is my belief that loss of freedom and privacy depreciate life’s value more significantly than the misfortune of time cut short, maybe for reasons I nor any person will ever understand. An autocratic eighty-year long serfdom means little compared to a fourteen year long adventure, which had brimmed with liberty and choice. We are trapped by this desire for years, for time. We incorrectly assume that breadth is automatically equivalent to a better taste of life, when in fact, mindless safety and dependence is the most tasteless existence of all. I cannot imagine that Mae’s life was somehow superior to Mercer’s, merely because his ended earlier. The circle is false. Although there is no beginning nor end to a circle’s shape, individuals decay and end, with nothing but their choices to define them.