Data-Self and Neo-Panopticon in The Circle

The Circle follows protagonist Mae Holland, a recent college graduate who had been slogging away in a cubicle in her hometown up until her friend Annie was able to secure her an entry-level job at the Circle, one of the biggest and most influential technology corporations. The Circle as a corporation makes clear nods to companies like Google, Facebook, and the general culture found in tech start-ups: everything is beautifully designed, the workplace is a “campus” with parties and endless amenities, and total participation in the group culture is required.

Mae starts out working in Customer Experience, where she fields questions from businesses that use Circle services. As the book unfolds, we are introduced to many of the technologies that Circle has developed (see below). And as Mae becomes more and more embedded at the Circle, she is consistently surrounded by more screens and becomes more engulfed in her data self, the gameification of socializing, and cult-ish devotion to the company.

The only pushback Mae gets to this acculturation is from an ex-boyfriend, Mercer. She sees him after pushing particularly hard to climb the PartiRank social system, but he tries to point out the fallacy of that so-called “social” interaction: “It becomes like we’re never alone,” he tells her. “Everytime I see you, there’s a hundred other people in the room. You’re always looking at me through a hundred other people’s eyes…Endless empty calories, but the digital-social equivalent. And you calibrate it so it’s equally addictive.” (132-134).

This reminded us of our first readers post, where we wrote about the dynamic between a self constructed out of data and your embodied self. Through this first part of the book, there seems to be a lot of tension within Mae between her embodied self and data self — in the LuvLuv demonstration where Francis put her data self on display, in the way Circlers interact on social feeds, and the way total sharing online is encouraged (Mae is scolded for going kayaking and not posting about it).

We wanted to couple the data-self concept with the idea of a neo-panopticon. We have discussed Foucault’s panopticon before in the course and Circle technologies certainly bring up the issue of total surveillance. However, an interesting development is that in the Circle world, there is not necessarily one centralized power or one central “guard tower.” Instead, the neo-panopticon can be reconceptualized as prison cells that are completely transparent and filled with prisoners who have the ability to police others and well as be policed by others. It creates a situation of tyranny of the majority and adherence to rules not because of the threat of vertical exercise of control but because of the incredibly (scary) high degree of social cohesion (arranged horizontally).

(In this line of thinking, all of life becomes a neo-panopticon that does not have specified guards — anyone around you could has the ability to exercise power over you if you step out of line. However, while there are no guards in the model, the prison is still owned by a totalitarian, capitalist monopoly aka Circle)

Our question for discussion layers these two concepts: taken in the landscape of neo-panopticon, what happens when the data self overtakes the embodied self?


Here is an overview of the technology introduced in the first 200 pages of The Circle:

TruYou: “one account, one identity, one password, one payment system, per person. There were no more passwords, no multiple identities…unbendable and unmaskable.” (21). The biggest aspects of TruYou is that is makes anonymity online nearly impossible and has supposedly rendered the web a completely “civil” place free of trolls.  

SeeChange: “[the cameras] are so small, they’ll never know for sure where they are, who’s placed them where and when. And the not-knowing will prevent abuses of power.” (66). These are tiny cameras that yield extremely high-definition live footage that the Circle plans to retail for under sixty dollars.

LuvLuv: “Scans the web and uses some high-powered and very surgical search machinery to ensure [know who your date is and where to take them].” (121). Dating for the data-selves. Match.com on steriods.

Total cloud storage: “Your music, your photos, your messages, your data. It can never be lost.” (43).

ChildTrack: chip your children in their bones, like dogs, to be able to constantly track their whereabouts so that crimes against children become “impossible.” (90).

InnerCircle/OuterCircle/PartiPank: the gameification of social interactions; participation in the social feeds boosts the Participation Ranking, which is while not technically required of employees is implicitly required to display that they “fit in” with the campus culture.  

Health Wearable + Ingestible Sensor: swallow a sensor (without informed consent) in order to track heart rate, blood pressure, cholesterol, heart flux, caloric intake, sleep duration, sleep quality, digestive efficiency…and on and on. The stats then display in a wearable bracelet. (155).