“The first time the camera redirected her actions was when she went to the kitchen for something to eat. The image on her wrist showed the interior of the refrigerator as she scanned for a snack. Normally, she would have grabbed a chilled brownie, but seeing the image of her hand reaching for it, and seeing what everyone else would be seeing, she pulled back. She closed the fridge, and from the bowl on the counter, she selected a packet of almonds, and left the kitchen. Later that day, a headache appeared – caused, she thought, by eating less chocolate than usual.” – The Circle, page 331
If we knew what the essence of humanity was, I know without a doubt that it wouldn’t be perfect. It wouldn’t even come close to good. Even if you knew the essence of any one incredible human being, it still wouldn’t touch perfection. One of my English professors once said that if you asked a room full of people to list their good qualities, their strengths, you would get absolutely the same generic answers from everyone. If you asked the same group to list their vices, you would get something unique from everyone, something that actually makes them who they are. “We are our vices,” he said. I absolutely believe that, and, from reading The Circle, Dave Eggers does, as well.
Mae isn’t allowed to be human anymore. In the excerpt above, Eggers explicitly states that the only reason Mae doesn’t get a brownie is because “the camera redirected her actions”. Notice: he didn’t say that “people” changed her actions, but that “the camera” did. In The Circle, cameras have become these enforcers of protocol.
Time to bring Galloway into the picture. There’s a reason that he discusses protocol in terms of machines: because protocol doesn’t allow for the deviation of humanity. It’s a rigid structure that everything inherits from, and it doesn’t allow for the uniqueness that comes with being human. In The Circle, however, people are turning into objects of protocol, and that’s the main problem with the “utopia” that is The Circle.
Mae turns herself over to be controlled by the cameras by viewing herself as a stranger would, by being able to see the camera’s view on her screen. It’s also important that Eggers doesn’t discuss the reason she’s reaching for a brownie, because that’s not what’s important, it’s not what makes her change her mind. This isn’t metacognition, this is putting on a show. Since Mae sees her camera’s view, her life becomes unreal. It becomes a video game, where she needs to make the correct choice to get to the end. It doesn’t look good for Mae to be pulling a brownie out of the fridge, so she gets something else. Since she normally would have gotten a brownie, this vice has now been erased. Part of her humanity is now just gone, because of the camera.
Eggers even goes so far as to have this injury to Mae’s humanity manifest in a physical way, in the form of her headache, that develops as a direct result of not indulging in her vice. Then, when she is about to get rid of her headache with aspirin, social protocol strikes again, and she soldiers on. She gets stuck in a loop of following what she thinks she needs to do, so she never indulges. When everyone is an object of the same protocol, no one will deviate. You inherit the same generic good qualities, and your vices are abandoned, which benefits everyone but yourself, and so ends up benefitting no one.