So this is my first, and possibly only, book review I'll do, but I felt I had to write something about The Circle.

The Circle came to my attention through the monthly book club I attend. Someone recommended it, so I got the audio book and dove in, not knowing much. It turns out The Circle will probably be my favorite book of the year.

The Circle is the story of a massive corporation, called The Circle, that has built a social network to rival all others. Throughout the book we learn that they have surpassed and then purchased Facebook, Twitter, Google, et al. Various technologies they have built are described, such as a real identity system, online payments, ad networks, analytics, and more. Basically everything that Google, Facebook, and Twitter already do, but taken to the next level. The Circle strives to know everything about everyone.

At the same time, everyone loves them, because they outwardly project the cool Silicon Valley lifestyle. They have a hip campus with gyms, dorms, cool architecture, amenities for all of their employees, etc. They hold free events and support artists. The goal is to portray it as the coolest college campus you can imagine. Everything they do is about being open and transparent, so some of the buildings are made entirely of glass or some glass-like substance. Walls, floors, and ceilings are transparent, so you can see everyone in the building. I guess in this place, no woman dares to wear a skirt.

The story follows a twenty something named Mae, who is excited to start working at The Circle. She managed to get a job through her friend Annie, who is one of the high ranking employees there. There are other secondary characters, but oddly, I didn't find the characters that important to the story being told. All of the characters could be boiled down to two types: pro-Circle and anti-Circle. The pro-Circle people are ridiculous narcissists, unbelievably jealous, juvenile, short-sighted, and easily manipulated. The anti-Circle people are thinking of the future and others, but are oddly slow and dull witted. Using these two primary types, the story easily sets up the conflict of transparency versus privacy.

Using transparency as its battle cry, The Circle starts infiltrating people's lives. The first step is through building a platform basically the same as Facebook. Share your status! Share your feelings! Send meaningless "smiles" and "frowns". Sign online petitions. This all leads to people feeling good about themselves by sharing and "taking action". A world built on empty gestures.

Next, they go a step further by placing webcams all over the world, and using them as cheap surveillance. Anyone can log on and watch them. The video is preserved forever and can be replayed by anyone. The Circle is documenting everything, everywhere, all of the time.

The third step is putting the camera on actual people and broadcasting everything they do. The Circle gets a US Senator and Mae to wear the devices and broadcast constantly. Again, using transparency as a battle cry, The Circle coerces all government officials to wear the devices and share their unedited lives. Those that don't find themselves embroiled in scandal from information found on their computers.

The finale is when Mae helps The Circle come up with a plan to make registering with The Circle the law worldwide. By using their real id system and all of the information they have, they become the de-facto means of voting. Anyone that doesn't register is harassed and chastised. The harassment even leads to a few, heavily telegraphed, deaths.

In the end, The Circle "wins", and privacy is no more. Everyone is tracked constantly, monitored, and recorded. Secrets are no more.

All in all, I would recommend everyone read this book. It sums up the nightmare scenario for all privacy advocates. One company taking over everything.

Obviously, the plot is a bit far-fetched, but not as unlikely as some might think. Certainly, the road to such a corporation controlling all information would be long and difficult, but if you really think about it, companies all over have enormous troves of information about individuals. People log in to Facebook daily and write about everything that is happening in their lives. People check-in on Foursquare and let a company track their movements. Google Now actively monitors everything you do, and predicts what you might do next.

All of these services have some use for consumers, otherwise they wouldn't use them, but you have to weigh the costs and benefits. What are you really getting out of Foursquare? What are you gaining from telling Facebook all of your favorite bands, movies, tv shows, brands, etc? What minor time savings are you getting from Google Now?

Most people assume they'll just be shown ads, and that is the end of it, but it's not. Companies are building massive databases on individual people, and that information can be used for anything. What happens when the next Joe McCarthy comes along and goes on a witch hunt? What happens when someone accesses the information and decides to blackmail you? What happens when you rely on one of these systems and they shut you out? Lastly, what happens when they violate laws or outright lie about what they're doing and pay almost nothing?

In the end, each person has to make the decision for themselves. I personally believe in being wary. I share very little on Facebook and only use the iPhone app. I don't use Google+, and don't stay logged into Gmail on my primary browser. I use a browser extension to block tracking from social networks and ad networks. All of this is to say, you don't have to completely disconnect from everything, but you have to be careful about what you do connect to.

Be skeptical.

AuthorMichael Cantrell