The Company That Knew Too Much

“Mae didn’t know enough about antitrust laws to have an off- the-cuff opinion. Was there really no competition out there? The Circle had 90 percent of the search market. Eighty-eight percent of the free-mail market, 92 percent of text servicing. That was, in her perspective, a simple testament to their making and delivering the best product. It seemed insane to punish the company for its efficiency, for its attention to detail. For succeeding. “

      -The Circle, Pg 189

Eggers wrote The Circle to describe the modern condition in which information is plentiful, jejune, and accessible in an unprecedented manner. Illustrating this through Mae’s thoughts and the reaction of people to the Circle, Eggers showcases the modern thinking in regards to freedom of information and the necessity for societal improvement. By writing in short, direct, statements, Eggers demonstrates how technology has affected our syntax and understanding of the world. The idyllic initiatives of the Circle are counterpointed by the unmentioned personal and economical violations they encourage. Throughout most of the novel, the negative aspects of the Circle’s systems are downplayed or not acknowledges at all.

It’s important to note Eggers’ purpose of using this language is to showcase the effect of The Circle’s total transparency and recall. Information is pumped to the Circlers who in turn minimally process it, regurgitating it as simple, inalienable truths. Though the information is unconfirmed and accepted with little comprehension, Mae stores it to inform and define the new world around her. This leads Mae with loads of specific, ultimately incomplete, facts that morphs her very thought process to these facts. Eggers presents this by limiting Mae’s trains of thought in the novel.

Her thoughts reach a formula; “a) This is what I know, b) this is what they tell me, c) therefore this is how it should be.” Nowhere in the formula is there space for critical thinking. Mae’s mode of thought is designed to reject complex notions if it interferes with a or b. C, “therefore this is how it should be”, is the first part fully realized to which a, and b are formed to encourage. Mae’s had been convinced beforehand (by information manipulation) to think that the Circle is infallible. In fact, like in this passage, Mae often ignores her own facts (or lack-thereof) in favor of other information that agrees with her supposition. After hearing about the anti-trust action taken against The Circle, Egger’s offers that “Mae didn’t know enough about antitrust laws to have an off- the-cuff opinion.” Then Mae offers the facts she is aware of, Circle’s majority control in searches, emails, and texting, but it is presented in the mindset of the Circle. As far as Mae is concerned, the Circle is closer to a free-market think-tank, than a monopolizing market force. All the achievements of Circle have been in their own merit, progressing the world and damning old market-based economics in favor of a virtual cacophony of progress. The passage, broken down, can be rewritten as “a) Mae didn’t know enough, b) but Circle controls a majority of the texting, searching, and email markets, c) therefore it was a simple testament to their making and delivering the best product.”

This has such a great impact because it is directly against critical thinking. Mae offers no analysis into Circle’s business practices. To be critical in any degree, the sources must be considered and opposing opinions acknowledge. The Circle’s unprecedented access to not only information, but opinions as well, allows for a thought process where opinion is presented as fact  superseding analysis. These opinion-facts are then delivered in soundbites for easy comprehension and recollection.

The format of 240 character truths leads the Circlers to speak in irrefutable tidbits. Mae’s language in this passage is typical in many conversations she has with other Circlers. Mae’s facts do not extend beyond 10 words and offer no context to the Circle’s practice as a whole. “The Circle had 90 percent of the search market. Eighty-eight percent of the free-mail market, 92 percent of text servicing.” This habit of short, absolute, thoughts is seen within every Circler.

This is no more evident than when Mae has two conversations simultaneously in person and online. While discussing a new system component in person with Gina, Mae is also conversing with Annie about her illicit affair with Kalden. In both conversations, each recipient (Mae and Annie respectively) is looking for the facts. Along with that, each benefactor is only looking to present the recipient with the baseline facts and encourage modes of thinking constructed in support of those facts. The passage (269-275) has two conversations that fit the formula mentioned before. The conversation between Gina and Mae is as follows: A) “Companies have been tracking, […], the connection between online mentions […] and actual purchases.” B) Circle developers have figured out a way to measure the impact of these factors,[…], and articulate it with the Conversion Rate.” and C) “Followers trust their recommendations implicitly, and are deeply thankful for the surety in their shopping.” The conversation lasts only a minute wherein Gina empowers Mae with conclusive, half-formed, “factual” ideology.

While that conversation is happening Mae imparts the same to Annie, whose conversation can be constructed like so: A) “Give me a distraction.” B) “In a bathroom.” C) “And he was VIGOROUS.” Out of context this makes little sense, but within the context of the novel this passage can be read as such: A) I [Annie] know you have been up to something. B) I [Mae] had sex with Kalden in the Bathroom. C) It was great. What’s important to note is how few words were used to impart this information to Annie. As the conversation continues, knowing the facts is not as important to Annie as knowing the facts exist. Mae constantly dodges Annie’s attempt to get any evidence, but Annie is consoled just knowing that Mae does possess Kalden picture and contact information. It is important to note that Annie’s naive belief in Mae is reflected in every Circler. Annie has been lied to but takes everything Mae says at face value, just as Mae believes that “Followers trust their recommendations implicitly, and are deeply thankful for the surety in their shopping.” when talking to Gina, or when hearing the antitrust actions and thinking “it was a simple testament to their making and delivering the best product.”

Egger’s point is that the convenience of information is creating an illusion of relevance and honesty. Information is readily consumed through blogs, forums, videos, and tweets with no oversight by a fact-checking authority. These avenues for information have an air of legitimacy to them that discourages any further investigation to the matters they address. When taken seriously (which they often are) internet news sources ruin lives and communities before they are denounced by a legitimate news source. This was demonstrated on a national level with the 2010 Boston Bomber Case in which Reddit users crowd-sourced pictures looking for the terrorists. They unintentionally caused the harassment of three innocent bystanders.

This general acceptability of internet information is typified by a type of internet advertising called astroturfing. These are phony grassroots campaigns that generally contain false or misleading information. These are run, or sponsored, by corporations and governments seeking a pr boost. They are successful because the internet makes it inefficient to fact check information. Society on the internet encourages fast moving constant information, so the user taking time to analyze what is given to them finds themselves behind the rest of the crowd. These astroturfing efforts present themselves in a conclusive, unquestionable and unconfirmed manner relying on the behavior Egger’s represents in the Circle. They require the populous to the see their astroturf, process the bullet points, and regurgitate it with conviction. In society, currently, it’s an inconvenience; unconfirmed information occasionally swaying popular opinion and distracting legitimate news sources. In Egger’s world of the Circle it is social suicide to ignore the ever-flowing ideas and inventions. Those who have fallen behind the times are relegated to relics. Eggers point is that there is a point in the technological age where culture and information are totally interchangeable, with perceived truth overshadowing the facts. When that shift occurs from information and culture influencing each other, to being each other, our perception of the world will be permanently unconfirmed, leaving truth at the wayside.  As the adage goes “ignorance is bliss” and no one is more ignorant than the one who thinks they know everything.

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2 Responses to The Company That Knew Too Much

  1. narrativeandtech says:

    You make a very perceptive observation here. I hadn’t noticed during my read of the novel how the Circle’s ideology was influencing Mae’s ability to think critically. Mae doesn’t know enough about antitrust laws to form her own opinion, so she takes the Circle’s opinion. It’s made all the more interesting when you consider the fact that Mae works for the Circle: a company that wants knowledge to be easily accessible to everyone. Mae could have easily researched antitrust laws on her Circle issued phone or tablet and formed her own opinion, but she doesn’t even bother. The disparity between access to information and actual knowledge seems to be an important theme in this book.


  2. Very interesting, and I’m esp. intrigued by how you noted the relationship b/t Eggers’s prose and modes of online discourse. There is surely more to explore here.


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