I am immensely enjoying reading Dave Eggers newest novel, The Circle. It is set in the near future, when a very ‘google’ like company called the Circle has become virtually all encompassing, touching every area of every person’s life on a day to day, if not minute to minute basis. In part the book is such a good read because you can see in it where we are all heading, with our constant use of connective technology and our seemingly quenchless thirst for information (albeit in soundbite form). In a way reading the story has me wondering if I am already living in ‘the Circle.’
The plot revolves around the company’s attempt to complete some vast project that makes all data available to all people at all times and in all places. Characters become ‘transparent’ when they decide to broadcast, via a tiny camera, every single second of their waking hours. The same tiny cameras are placed in strategic locations all over the globe by secretive Circle workers, and the feeds are broadcast for all to see. Don’t look now, there might be one in your bedroom, or at least in your kitchen! The higher-ups in the company keep referring to the completion of this vast data project as ‘completing’ the circle. Closing the loop – in other words, transparency for everyone, all the time. Can you imagine a world with absolutely no privacy? Eggers has imagined just such a world in his book, and it is eerily prescient in the way it echoes so many of the trends we see in our own world today.
As I’ve been reading, the circle metaphor has been reminding me of the story ‘The Missing Piece,’ by the great Shel Silverstein. In the story a circle is missing a piece (think of a pie with one piece cut out). It roams the globe, looking for its missing piece. Because it is not a complete circle, it can’t roll very well, so its meandering takes a long time. But in that time the circle sees the world. It watches the flowers grow in spring. It appreciates the wind in the trees, and the soft sounds of a babbling brook. It meets friends, welcomes the seasons, and ‘lives’ a full life.
Then one day the circle finds its missing piece. It becomes whole, a circle unbroken, perfect in every way. But now, as it moves about the world, it moves at a great speed. There is no gap in its circumference to slow it down. It moves so quickly that it misses the flowers when they bloom, it loses its friends because they can’t keep up with it, and it realizes that the life that it loved, a life that was challenging at times, but thrilling and moving and true and real – that life has been lost. And so the circle makes a difficult decision. It lets its missing piece go. It is no longer complete, perfect, or whole. But it can live in the real world with all of its beauty and blessing.
That is the world we live in. Incomplete, with flaws, mistakes, regrets, with mystery, with doubt and sometimes fear, but in all of that with our humanity. Will technology really one day close the circle, and perfect the world? And if it does, when that happens, will the people of that time and place still be familiar with Shel Silverstein’s marvelous fable? Will they have the wisdom to take out their missing piece, and lay it aside?