She made her way back to the lawn, where she joined a game the Circlers were calling “Ha,” which seemed to involve nothing more than lying down, with legs or arms or both overlapping. Whenever the person next to you said “Ha” you had to say it, too. (32)
Circle has no heart. I’m not talking about a physical heart (though it’s true) or an emotional heart (though that’s true, too). It has no center, and if we’re looking at hearts as central things, Circle’s heartless, and that’s scary. At least, that’s what Eggers may be suggesting.
Throughout The Circle, Eggers gives us some ideas of things with hearts and things without hearts. Here’s one:
And another, included because of the passage on 79 that reads, “When they arrived at the car, they saw that he was awake, looking up into the interlocking boughs of an unremarkable tree.”
And another, included because of PastPerfect:
And lastly, this, which is a crappy representation of the Ha game, based on its description of people laying down, with “arms or legs or both overlapping.”
For reference, here’s a graphic showing examples of centralized, decentralized, and distributed networks.
Pulled from here.
Three of these things have something in common–hearts. Centers. Cores. They’re all centralized networks–hierarchical structures containing single hubs, with each branch possessing less power than the one before it. The core, of course, has the most power. Remove the core and you destroy the rest of its body–whether that’s the limbs connected to the trunk, the antlers connected to the chain, or the genetic history of the offspring.
But Circle isn’t characterized by any of these three things. We’ve established that Circle is attempting to encompass nature, whether that’s setting up live feeds of Stinson Beach or tracking the pulses of their employees. When Mae posts an image of the antler chandeliers, Mercer’s website is hungrily consumed. Not content with knowing everything there is to know about the state of their employees’ bodies, Circle begins the PastPerfect project. The link between these three things–nature as represented by the tree, Mercer as represented by the antler chandelier, and humanity as represented by the family tree–is not just that they’re centralized networks, but that in being centralized networks, they are able to be destroyed. Throughout the course of The Circle, Circle does end up destroying these things, on one scale or another: Circle strips nature of its mystery and beauty, forces the reclusive Mercer to choose between assimilation and shutting himself off from society, and eventually breaks Annie. Nature, Mercer, Annie, they’re all vulnerable because they represent something that can be hurt, and that leaves us with this:
Circle is a distributed network. The people laying down and playing the Ha game are its nodes. Galloway’s analysis of systems is amazing when you look at Circle like a distributed network because it “ticks” so many of the boxes: it’s definitely unlike “trees or roots;” it’s nothing like the other three examples of networks Eggers has given us. The others have that core; remove it, they die. But Circle has no core because it is a collection of rhizomes, which can break, which can die, which can be removed entirely, but will always “start up again” and continue perpetuating itself. It has no center because it has no beginning and end, and we see this as Circle overtakes more and more things, starts up more projects, and after achieving its goals, digs deeper. Transparency of life was a clear goal, and once achieved, Mae thinks about one day obtaining access to Annie’s mind. There is definitely no end-game in sight because from what we’ve seen, Circle has never said, “Well, we did pretty well. I guess that’s it for now.” After all, Galloway states that a distributed network “grows and overspills” (34). Most importantly, one of the biggest descriptors of a distributed network, according to Galloway and the CEA, is that they arose from older systems, and they have overtaken systems with “hearts.”
Another point he makes is that it gains power via things like expansion, conquest, and capture. It’s “never complete, or integral to itself” (34). While you could argue that Circle has power, its power is in its people, in its rhizomes, in its nodes that force other nodes to attend Portuguese brunches and share personal artwork. When there is conflict, the distributed network wins out over the older centralized network–nature is conquered, Mercer commits suicide, and Annie breaks. Circle isn’t mindless. Everything is intentional. But heartless? Yeah, Circle’s heartless, and Circle’s predatory. I’m thinking of it like a postmodernist zombie (if you can consider there to be a modernist version of a zombie, of course), preying on things with more to lose, spreading copies of itself with every bite and devouring that which stands in its way. Don’t the glassy-eyed, Stepford-esque employees give that away?
You could also consider Circle to be a virus.
I think that the inclusion of these varied network images is intentional on Eggers’ part. I could definitely be reading too much into the tree. I could be convinced that I was reading too much into the family tree. But the antler chandelier and the Ha game? Those are both way too random to actually be random. So based on this, why are they included in here?
I’ve always felt strongly about digital privacy, so this book has been very interesting to me. It has definitely succeeded in muddling my feelings about it by reminding me of all the good technology has done and the good that transparency could do. But I suppose that it goes back to which plane was hanging in Bailey’s crypt of human achievement: was it the Spruce Goose or the Enola Gay? Are transparency and technological domination going to be our Spruce Goose or Enola Gay? It’s one thing to look at a distributed system to be superior to other systems because of its ability to transmit information faster, better. But if it’s the expense of human beings, is it worth it? Is it right, or human, to propagate without end?
To answer this, I suppose we’d have to look at how transparency hurts or helps people in real life, and base future projections on that. We need to kill the zombie–in the brain, not the heart, because a shambling, ever-producing domination system has no heart. And then we need to give it one, to put thought and humanity back into our technology.
And yeah, I’m not happy with my own response, and I’m aware that I’ve given you a very Pollyanna answer, but Eggers did say it best–we as individuals need to be more aware of what we do as a whole. But that’s true for most things, I think, and I don’t think we’ve accomplished much of that yet.
Also, I’m content with not having all of the answers, and while that may conflict with our “knowledge is power” theme, I think that having all the answers wouldn’t make me or any of us human anymore.