Week 10 -Literature, Social Media and Privacy – The Circle

We’ve covered a lot of ground already in this course and much of it is relevant for our reading of Dave Egger’s The Circle.  Here we encounter a shift from the fairly festive, performative possibilities of social media technologies with Midsummer Night’s Dreaming to a more critical approach in Eggers that is interested in helping us understand the potential social, economic, and political ramifications of their widespread use.  Some of the broader issues considered already are:

  • the loss of a meaningful distinction between public and private
  • the economic value of aggregated personal data
  • biopolitical issues arising from the tracking of medical information
  • the possibility that targeted advertisements and personalized search engine results could lead to a phenomenon called the filter bubble that reinforces existing perspectives and ideological frames rather than encouraging pluralistic civic discourse and debate
  • the complex political and economic uses of concepts like transparency, and much more.

Released in 2013, The Circle has already gained increased relevance with the European Union’s Court of Justice decision in May of 2014 regarding the so-called “Right to be Forgotten”, which sided against Google and on the side of an individual who sought to remove from search engines personal information that he argued was no longer relevant.  The decision will neither bring an end to legal battles or answer numerous policy questions regarding this right but it has spurred numerous newspaper and magazine articles, several of which find Egger’s novel The Circle worthy of mention in this context.

In addition, the novel again allows us to  ask questions regarding the effects of an increased emphasis on hyper attention over deep attention that we first read about in Katherine Hayles’s essay, as well as those issues raised in Langdon Winner’s essay “Mythinformation” regarding the unclear relationship between digital technologies and political emancipation.  Thinking those two essays together, now, we might even ask the question: does a world in which hyper attention is all-pervasive allow for sufficient critical thought about economic and political issues?  Can it develop citizens with the necessary skills in deep attention that are required to think through these fundamental but increasingly complex issues?

Blog Prompt

For your blog post this week, pick one of the following quotes from the novel.  Develop an argument to explain its context in the novel and the relevance it has with one or more of the issues above:

1. “All of it felt like something from another time, a rightfully forgotten time, and made Mae feel she was not only wasting her life but that this entire company was wasting life, wasting human potential and holding back the turning of the globe.  The cubicle at that place, her cubicle, was the distillation of it all.  The low walls around her, meant to facilitate her complete concentration on the work at hand, were lined with burlap, as if any other material might distract her, might allude to more exotic ways of spending her days” (11).

2. “And those who wanted or needed to track the movements of consumers online had found their Valhalla: the actual buying habits of actual people were now eminently mappable and measurable, and the marketing to those actual people could be done with surgical precision.  Most TruYou users, most internet users who simply wanted simplicity, efficiency, a clean and streamlined experience, were thrilled with the result.  No longer did they have to memorize twelve identities and passwords; no longer did they have to tolerate the madness and rage of the anonymous hordes; no longer did they have to put up with buckshot marketing that guessed, at best, within a mile of their desires.  Now the messages they did get were focused and accurate and, most of time, even welcome” (22-23).

3.  “She often did this when she was far from any shore–she just sat still, feeling the vast volume of the ocean beneath her.  There were leopard sharks in this part of the bay, and bat rays, and jellyfish, and the occasional harbor porpoise, but she could see none of them.  They were hidden in the dark water, in their black parallel world, and knowing they were there, but not knowing where, or really anything else, felt, at that moment, strangely right…and they would watch each other, and she would wonder if the seal knew, as she did, how good this was, how lucky they were to have all this to themselves” (83).

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