Monday, July 6, 2015

The Circle Book Discussion Guide

Book:    The Circle
Author:  Dave Eggers
Edition:  Softcover, First Vintage Books, 2014

A novel that hits you over the head with its message of power and the power of controlling information right through the final soliloquy that spells the message out directly. The soliloquy may be directed at the reader who missed the obvious symbolism and direct commentary throughout the book, or, more likely, the reader who skim-read and needs to get the main points for English class tomorrow. 

Regardless, I thoroughly enjoyed the story, perhaps more so because I listened to it. The audio book reader is particularly adept conveying the frenetic pace of information overload.

The Circle offers a superb platform for high school English class discussions of the pros and cons of the volume of information collected and stored today and the power wielded by those who control it. Hopefully those youthful discussions can tease out the middle road: how to ensure a glass half full balances the collection, control and use of information today. 

Even though it completely lacks subtly and the primary characters are flat caricatures, adults may well enjoy this book as a launching point for discussing how we can balance the benefits and drawbacks of social media, gathering personal information and tracking individuals. And even more importantly, how to retain the humanity of relationships alongside our consumption of information.

Internet Resources

There are an abundance of resources on the changing face of privacy in the age of ubiquitous technology.  From the multitude of Ted Talks alone, here are two focused on why privacy matters that you can watch before your book discussion or even as a group and discuss them in real-time.

In his Ted Talk, Why Privacy Matters, Glenn Greenwald talks about how the internet has become a zone of mass indiscriminate surveillance and shares directly why there is harm in exposing privacy even when there is “nothing to hide.”

 The second talk is by Alessandro Acquisiti who talks about technology trends in surveillance and how we can do things differently.

The NPR podcast the Ted Radio Hour has a whole podcast on privacy, which includes sections of Acuisiti’s talk.  The show presents differing perspectives around the same issues, and helps to frame a discussion that laypeople can participate in without understanding the technology underlying the online privacy debate.

In addition, there are articles reflecting on all aspects of privacy from relationships to EU entanglements with Google, here are three from Wired:

Major Characters

Mae Holland, new employee to The Circle who becomes a spokesperson when she becomes the second Circler to become transparent
Mercer, one of Mae’s boyfriends in high school and college who doesn't share Mae's views of openness
Vinnie, Mae’s father, suffering from MS
Bonnie, Mae’s mother 
Annie, Mae’s college roommate and in the gang of 40, part of the inner Circle
Jared, Mae’s trainer as a new employee
Ty Gospodinov, The Circle’s boy-wonder visionary and founder, one of the Three Wise Men
Tom Stenton, The Circle CEO, cunning, and one of the Three Wise Men
Eamon Bailey, public face of The Circle, acts the stooge, and one of the Three Wise Men
Kalden, mysterious man whom Mae meets and turns out to be Ty

Discussion Topics

The following are offered as starting points for discussion to see how much variance and awareness there is among your book group members on technology. If you watch the Ted Talks or read the Wired articles or listen to the Ted Radio Hour, you will likely start many threads of conversation before you even have time to glance at the ones that follow.


How do you view relationships and the quality of relationships?  Is there a balance in your view between the quantity and quality of relationships you have? What is required to develop and nurture relationships?  How is this helped or at odds with new technologies?
“Every time I see or hear from you, it’s through this filter. You send me links, you quote someone talking about me, you say you saw a picture of me on someone’s wall…It’s always this third-party assault…. I just want to talk with you directly.  Without you bringing in every other stranger in the world who might have an option about me.” page 131-132


“I have yet to conjure a scenario where a secret does more good than harm. Secrets are the enablers of antisocial, immoral and destructive behavior.” page 291
“when there’s something kept secret, two things happen. One is that is makes crimes possible. We behave worse when we’re not accountable. That goes without saying. And second, secrets inspire speculation. When we don’t know what’s being hidden, we guess, we make up answers.” page 299.
Do you believe these are always outcomes of secrets?  Are there any scenarios you can imagine where sharing a secret is more harmful than beneficial?

If you have read The Death of Bees, People of the Book, or Sarah’s Key talk about the secrets and why they were kept and what harms and benefits followed from keeping or sharing the secret. Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain, presents a secret as a struggle between competing parts of the brain. 

The March 2014 issue of the Atlantic summarizes six studies on secret keeping in a short article titled "Why You Can't Keep a Secret".

Value of Solitude

When and where do you find solitude? What types of technology are you comfortable invading that space?  None? Your smart phone? Your computer? A friend’s smart phone? A public camera? A drone?

Public Safety versus Individual Privacy

TruYou creates “one account, one identity, one password, one payment system, per person.” page 21.
Baily talks about everyone having “a right to know everything, and should have the tools to know anything” page 288.

The Circle creates ubiquitous, wireless cameras as small as a blade of grass.

How do you see each of these perspectives benefitting life for humanity?  How do you see each hindering our lives, either individually or collectively?  How can we balance the power of technology with the power of humanity and privacy?

How can we balance the value of important issued being raised with the loss of privacy that has emerged with the ubiquity of smart phones and their photographs and video? When and where should we have a right to privacy? When and where should we not expect to be able to be incognito? Do the circumstances vary more by place or by activity or by notoriety of the individual or by another dimension? 

Technology Trade-offs

Beyond safety and individual privacy there are a multitude of others tradeoffs around technology from power to expediency to comfort to control and on and on.  Which aspects of technology do you most value? Which do you find most threatening?

How comfortable are you with sharing information about yourself? Where are you aware of sharing your personal information? Where have you been surprised that your privacy has been invaded in the virtual or physical world?

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