Luddites, Hackers and Dissent in The Circle

Note: This is my second required blog post

“Dear Mae,

Yes, you can and should read this on camera. I expect that you would, so I’m writing this letter not only to you, but to your ‘audience.’ Hello, audience…

[T]his tool, which is far more insidious than any human invention that’s come before it, must be checked, regulated, turned back, and that, most of all, we need options for opting out. “

Dave Eggers, The Circle, pg. 368 (Hardcover)

In The Circle, Dave Eggers portrays the interface between two factions—Circlers and anti-Circlers—much as Alexander Halloway describes the activity of hacking in Protocol, in that the refusal to participate is documented by participants, and thus these anti-Circle Luddites inadvertently become hackers. The Circle saturates and surveils society such that non-participation is an active threat against the system and not a passive, personal choice. Nowhere is this more knowingly demonstrated than in Mercer’s letter to Mae.

The Luddites were a group of British industrial workers, mainly in the textile industry, who protested against and even destroyed the machines that were reducing demand for factory labor beginning in the early 19th century. Since, the term has become synonymous with anyone who opposes technological culture change. Meanwhile, Halloway describes hacking as “an index of protocological transformations” whose practitioners “do not forecast the death (or avoidance or ignorance) of protocol, but are instead the very harbingers of its assumption.” The primary distinction to be made here, is that Luddites reject technology, whereas hackers turn technology (and thus protocol) against itself.

Based on this definition, the character of Mercer (whose letter to Mae and her watchers is quoted above) fits very neatly into both the cultural definition of exactly what a Luddite is, and Halloway’s definition of exactly what a hacker is not. But while his intentions are antithetical to the hacker ethos, his medium—his choice of how to convey these intentions—is in perfect agreement with Halloway’s protocological definition of hacking, because of its opening line.

I posit that the Circle’s many methods of data collection are a kind of protocol. The way that people behave in the presence of SeeChange cameras—which can be expended to include the way that Mercer writes, knowing that his message will be broadcast and recorded by the Circle—is in accordance with a set of standards. Namely, these are the ideas that everything is a conversation, that transparency is inherently good and that everything you do is subject to inspection by anyone.

Mercer’s letter may be grounded in language that excludes this wider audience, as evidenced by his personal addresses to Mae and his use of first person, but there’s something very knowing about the letter. He is relating his feelings about the Circle, and more importantly, he is dissenting. It seems like exactly the kind of communication that the Circle fosters. The company celebrates its ability to make all voices heard; when fellow Circler Gina installs Mae’s third screen at her CE desk, she says “we consider your online presence to be integral to your work here.” And just twenty pages before the contents of Mercer’s letter are publicly revealed, Mae shows her watchers a relatively tame commission by a Chinese artist known for his controversial sculpture criticizing the Chinese state.

This is where the Circle’s hypocrisy and weakness lies. They idealize dissent, and endorse it nominally, but never consider its true implications because they are so accustomed to the unconditional approval of their followers. They endorse the sculptor as a symbol of wild creativity and subtle dissent, and yet force him to toe the line, and produce a sculpture wholly concomitant with their ideals. When I see the hand reaching through the Plexiglas screen, I think of Shostakovich’s bombastic, plain and mock-heroic 5th Symphony: the product of a coercive force and a subversive spirit.

Mercer’s letter embodies the individual voice and spirit of controversy that the Circle claims to value immensely, and he even allows for his rudimentary, epistolary technology to be translated into their beloved HD video-streaming. He is speaking the Circle’s language, or rather, following their protocol. This is why despite his rustic image and rejection of technology, he is not a Luddite but a hacker. He is not throwing a wrench in the gears of the SeeChange transparency program, he is introducing a new and irreconcilable piece of information that sends the system into disarray without necessarily damaging it. After all, attempts to destroy the Circle are small, futile, and easily reparable.

Mercer hypertrophies the Circle’s insatiable and deeply democratic desire to consume all opinion by introducing dissent of an unprecedented magnitude, calling TruYou a tool “which is far more insidious than any human invention that’s come before it.” His message does not compute with the Circle’s philosophy, even though the medium does. Thus, a disgusted Mae puts down the letter halfway through. This very deliberate, pen-and paper message need not be recorded, further exposing the Circle’s hypocrisy: all that happens must be known, and yet only that which does not impede their progress is known.

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One Response to Luddites, Hackers and Dissent in The Circle

  1. devilzadv0k8 says:

    Perhaps in a decade or two when the world becomes a little more tech savy the word “hacker” will come to mean “one fights a system using that system,” or something along those lines, rather than “internet bad guy.”

    But Mercer’s goal doesn’t seem to reflect that of a hacker. Although he is still using it to his advantage, Mercer still hates the system he is playing into. If he had his way there would be no more circle. Hackers have the utmost respect for their medium, enough to learn it better than anyone else. Hackers do NOT want to abolish protocol. Mercer would love to abolish the data collection methods you compare to protocol.

    Just to be clear, I think your comparison of Mercer and Galloway’s definition of Hacker is very insightful. I just thought I’d point out this one difference.

    Like

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