From the scattered and polite applause, it was clear that few in the Great Hall knew who she was. Stenton gave her a stiff hug, and as she stood beside him, her hands clasped in front of her, he continued. “For those of you who need a civics refresher, Congress Woman Santos represents this very district. It’s okay if you didn’t know her. Now you do.” (p. 208)
The Circle depicts an opt-out dystopia. That is to say, characters have a choice of whether they want to participate in the nightmare or not. Mae and her colleagues certainly do. Mercer and Mae’s parents do not. “If things continue this way, there will be two societies—or at least I hope there will be two—the one you’re helping to create, and an alternative to it. You and your ilk will live, willingly, joyfully, under constant surveillance,” says Mercer (p. 370). This is somewhat a-typical for a dystopian society. George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four is certainly not an opt-out dystopian society. SPOILER ALERT Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World depicts a non-opt-out dystopia, until the very end when we find out that there actually is a way to leave. Gamer is not an opt-out dystopia, as Tillman and his peers have no choice but to fight. But unlike protagonists of these other dystopian works, Mae seems disturbingly enthusiastic about what is happening to her.
Hellishly oppressive governments are something we expect in this genre. Thus the absence of government in The Circle sends a powerful message. Eggers rarely mentions the United States, or any other, government. When he does it is usually to point out the incompetence of politicians, or to note how the circlers believe transparency will help fix government. It makes sense that the government of a dystopia based on today’s USA would feature a largely irrelevant government. We are living in a time when government seems unable to address our most pressing social, economic and environmental problems. Why would any of the circlers recognize their own congresswoman?
In this passage, Eggers perfectly captures the relationship between millennial and Congress. Usually this level of political apathy is met with eye rolling. But here no one is blaming our circlers. The government has become obsolete. Their ignorance is not chided. “It’s okay,” Stenton tells them. When the circlers want to engage in political activity they send zing and smiles to support and denounce movements they know little about (e.g. the “We Hear You Ana María” petition on page 244). Enact change through government has become passé.
The government seems to follow the lead of the circle. The circle’s invention of “transparency” puts pressure on government officials to participate in this phenomenon (see page 240). Note that it is not the other way around. Transparency is not something the government has commissioned. Instead, the government is following the lead of technology. This seems to be the pattern today. Our politicians are obligated to use social media to connect with constituents. Some find this to be a valuable tool and I’m sure others do not. But either way, our government officials are expected to use outside technology. In a similar vein, vast amounts of personal internet data were not created intentionally to be monitored by the NSA (or maybe they were!). Instead, the creation of this data is something the NSA happened to be able to take advantage of. It makes sense that a failing and stagnant government would follow the lead of a cutting-edge private internet enterprise. That’s the way it works in both the circle and in our world. The government goes where technology leads it.
Thus without the standard tyrannical dystopian government, there is nothing forcing our characters to comply. We can have both our “Mercers” and our “Maes.” But the absence of this government does feel a bit strange. Especially since every other aspect of the novel fits the Orwellian paradigm so neatly. This all reflects the statement Eggers is trying to make about the current state of our government.