E.M. Forster’s oft quoted epigraph to Howard’s End, “Only connect” remains salient today, particularly with the way the word “connect” has evolved in recent years. In his Pulitzer Prize nominated book The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to our Brains, Nicholas Carr posits that the technology we use actually may reroute our neural pathways. The Internet encourages rapid searches, scanning and skimming rather than conceptualizing, reflection, and contemplation. Carr explores what we may be losing when we gain the bounty and speed of the Internet—the ability to think deeply.
While I’m not quite a digital native, I’m comfortable with technology, and I love what it makes possible. I don’t want to go back to a world in which Google isn’t used as both noun and verb. But we’ve all seen (or been) the people at restaurants who are ignoring those in front of them to interact with others on their phones. And, we’ve all seen (or been) the people trying to document every life experience--from what we have for dinner to the first ultrasound of our unborn children. All this seems benign enough—at least until Dave Eggers writes a book about it all.
In Eggers’ novel The Circle, Mae Holland lands a job at the world’s most powerful internet company. She soon discovers that The Circle is more than a career; it’s a Utopia where all of the world’s knowledge is used for the greater good. The company has developers working to solve society’s greatest ills, and Mae is a part of this. She almost can’t believe her luck. Beginning in CE (Customer Experience), she quickly rises due to her participation in the community—marked by digital smiles, frowns, zings, friends, photos, and ratings. Sound familiar? It should; The Circle isn’t a subtle novel, but neither are most dystopian works.
Mae eventually goes “transparent,” a Circle initiative that will allow almost the entirety of a person’s life to be documented and shared with the world. Just imagine how this would radically transform democracy if all politicians were required to go “transparent.” While Mae gets three minutes for bathroom breaks and may turn her camera off at 10 p.m., every other moment of her life is produced for public consumption. After all, according to Mae herself, “privacy is theft.” Eventually, Mae learns of the Circle’s desire to “complete” or to achieve 100% saturation of the market—a world in which every human has a Circle account.
Reading Eggers’ creepy novel induces a fair share of anxiety, but more importantly it raises some questions. How much of our privacy are we giving away to corporate entities? How authentic are our connections with others? I’d venture to say that if you’re tweeting from the bathroom or checking Facebook during Yoga, you might want to consider unplugging for a bit. Take a digital hiatus. Think deeply. Dig in the dirt. Take a walk. Read. To foster authentic relationships with people in real time, disconnect for a while. I think that E.M. Forster would approve.