Shame and surveillance in David Egger’s "The Circle"

Whereas most early writings of dystopian futures rely on surveillance through terror and punishment, David Egger’s The Circle is a true exponent of 21st-century exhibitionism. While in Orwell's 1984 the author develops the idea of the fear of the State, Eggers’ fear concerns the conglomerate. The circle is a multi-branch tech company that unifies their users' digital information, ranging from social to financial, into a single account that operates from within their system. Its mission in the novel is to achieve absolute knowledge so that nothing can stay hidden and thus hinder the progress of human potential. The way the company achieves the collection of knowledge largely relies on the implementation of a belief, that, given the right approaches and utilities, humankind can be disciplined into perfection. In case of The Circle, the right approaches are verbalized as: ‘SECRETS ARE LIES’, ‘SHARING IS CARING’ and ‘PRIVACY IS THEFT’ (Eggers, 2013, 224). These truths in slogans, that so resemble the world of 1984, rely on the public’s understanding of their own insecurities and shame and their desire to have a better and fulfilling life. This article will observe how it is through shame that the main character, Mae Holland, is manipulated and rendered vulnerable into accepting the Circle’s endeavor of transparency.

Shame is an emotion of introspective nature, and according to Jean-Paul Sartre is conducted under the surveilling eye of The Other (Sartre, 1943, 264). Whilst this emotion is often attributed to producing negative effects on an individual, it can further be described as an intersection of being seen and the desire to not be seen, in situations deemed unseemly. Although the ideological backbone of the company, Aemon Bailey, conceptualizes it as nothing more than a behavior that almost everyone performs, the Circle’s surveillance technology monopolizes on shame. Bailey, the CEO of the Circle, continuously underlines the importance of the awareness of being watched. Looking at the earliest forms of surveillance, such as in Bentham’s panopticon the subject can only assume that they are being watched. In this circular structure of cells, designed by 18th century philosopher Jeremy Bentham, the surveilling tower is erected in the middle. On the other hand, in the Circle, the technology of the devices implemented brings an unfaltering awareness of being watched. The company executes this through an event called ‘going transparent’, which entails the subject wearing a camera around their neck and livestreaming their daily lives (Eggers, 2013, 224). Bailey, the cunning genius behind the Circle, goes on to argue that human behavior can be monitored and perfected only through external aid of surveillance. Secrecy, thus, is deemed by the corporation to be a primary ‘enabler of antisocial behavior’ – which goes against the Circle’s moral stance on the accessibility to information and the right to know whatever one wants (Eggers, 2013, 187). Shame is mentioned only briefly, and in reference to secrets by demystifying it superficially, as an issue of not knowing, rather than knowing, in that once ‘we admit that it’s something we all do, it loses its power to shock’ and a move towards a more ‘honest society’ is possible (Eggers, 2013, 214). The genius behind the Circle, is the ability to market information gathering for strictly economic means. This entails conceptualizing a person as ‘objects of information, rather than subjects of communications’ as a path to abolishing all the negative behaviors and finally creating a perfect society (Foucault, 1995, 198).

Model of Panopticon by Adam Simpson
Model of Panopticon by Adam Simpson

Shame, however, is not a stranger emotion to Mae. Throughout her first months at the Circle, her inner monologue certainly assumes a self-deprecating tone, a remorse of not being a ‘good daughter’, of not ‘giving a shit!’ (Eggers, 2013, 64). These are the emotions that ultimately lead to Mae’s “promotion” as the spokesperson, an emblem to the Circle. Meanwhile, throughout her promotion Mae becomes aware of a ‘black tear’ inside of her (Eggers, 2013, 164). A plot device, undoubtedly pointing towards the inevitable corruption of her spirit. The tear makes several appearances and its sensation intensifies just before she goes fully transparent. To silence her sensations, Mae drowns herself in work. ‘It is the fear of not knowing’ she convinces herself, which contributes majorly to her ‘anti-social’ behavior (Eggers, 2013). However, the fear of the unknown, and the void it can produce, can’t be filled with the erratic data usage that the Circle is indulged in (Eggers, 2013, 180). This is proven by the enlargement of the tear, by the unreal experiences that she has with Francis, in hopes for ‘something like a real sexual experience’ (Eggers, 2013, 302). ‘There is no time to know everything’ Bailey muses and expresses his dismay in knowing so (Eggers, 2013, 212).

The Circle's aim is to achieve absolute knowledge. Before Mae fully embraces the company’s values and showcases the details of her daily life through transparency, she is questioned by the company’s employers two times about her lack of social networking with a passive aggressive tone. The technologically advanced environment employs tolerance and acceptance as a veil, under which the surveilling eye collects all information and seeks to abolish individualism. Importantly, Mae’s reactions to these setbacks, such as the Portuguese lunch incident and the conscious desire to belong to the T2K, the prized members of the 200, are emotional self- withdrawal and overcompensation in her work. To drown the shame, caused by her lack of attention and aspiration, Mae submerges herself in the puzzle of several screens and erratic interaction with endless data. Thus, the Circle has convinced Mae that privacy is irrational and a hinderance to her growth. Secrets, as consciously withholding information, are in direct opposition with the Circle’s ideas of how the future of the society will thrive to become an embodiment of the cloud, where no space is left to quiet introspection.

Truth slogans of The Circle

In the novel it is clear how Mae was not ashamed into giving a public talk with Bailey, during which she praises, with blind adoration, the company’s incentive of transparency. Yet, in this passage, the reader witnesses a partial coercion taking place from Bailey's side. The friendly and rational tone of Bailey, who is keen on making Mae realize just how much her actions have hurt her, leaves the protagonist with no other information but the one about her current state of mind and behavior which endanger her own self. This, in turn, contributes to her willingness, or rather, desperation to change herself and by extension those who surround her. From the very beginning of the novel, Mae feels unworthy of her job at the Circle and inferior to her peers who work there. Mae joins the transparency movement to prove that she can be a functioning citizen of the company, and by extension of the world. According to a study by Jonathan Finn, surveillance inspires ‘a culture of emotions’ and creates cultures of suspicion, fear, and anxiety (Finn, 2012, 67). In Mae’s case, however, she is so far withdrawn from her privacy, that at the point of her complete transparency it is only conceivable to her as an imaginary tear in the void. Being watched, truly becomes for her ‘a way of seeing, a way of being’ (Finn, 2012, 78). And by extension, she promotes the same lifestyle for her watchers. Complete honesty, no secrets and privacy that creates soldiers, who are ready to pursue the standard ideal.

Moreover another critical factor that contributes to identify shame as the emotion through which the Circle grips the power-ledger, is the inversion of the notion. Authority of The Circle implements the creation of technology where shame and individuality get locked away into the depths of a person. In his canonical work Being and Nothingness published in 1943, Sartre denotes shame as an internalization of the shaming look ‘through self-reflection’, where ‘the observed subject not only becomes the object of her own surveillance but also the judge of herself’ (Sartre, 1943, 258). Where the need for a structure such as Panopticon might have been required centuries ago, the self, through careful indoctrination can execute surveillance herself. SeeChange cameras, which are scattered throughout the globe, and the ones around Mae’s neck lift the responsibility of self-reflection which in Sartre's theory carries as much of a transforming effect, as a negative one (Sartre, 1943, 264). It is in this regard, that Mae ends up being a desensitized shell seeking constant information to fill up the emptiness that the repression of shame produces.

David Eggers' The Circle: illustration by Wesley Merritt

The negative effects of shame are the features which the Circle takes a subversive advantage of, in relation to privacy: the secrecy of everyday survival, where small actions are performed by individuals to maintain their subjectivity are reduced to collective effort in keeping up with the flow of the information. The Circle, thus, by implementing the ‘culture of control’ that the sociologist David Lyon has widely discussed about, creates a society of shameless numbers by making its citizens desire to be the subjects of the same control (Lyon, 2017, 826). Inside the Circle, the contemporary illusions of keeping one’s data secure, by ‘safely entrusting [it] to big corporations’ dissolves, instead, into the strife to make it as public as possible (Lyon, 2017, 828). This strife is encouraged by the insistence of the Three Wise Men who, being aware of the ongoing events, will ultimately improve every aspect of life, starting from commodities such as checking the ocean waves by the SeeChange cameras, to exposing political delinquents in their misbehavior. However, the price that needs to be paid for such commodities is compromising an entire sphere of human existence. A space where mistakes and regrets are often expressed involuntarily into overwhelming patterns of self-sabotaging behavior. To escape this space, Mae exposes every aspect of her daily life, and finds the disquiet that liberates her from herself. She no longer has to depend on her conscience to make better choices, as the bad patterns of behavior get eliminated through the opinions of the collective.

By dispersing the means of surveillance into the ensemble of the different aspects of being, The Circle achieves a perfect illusion for its dedicated users. The mirage of individuality masks the control that is being exercised upon individuals. In Deleuze's conception of a control society, which moves away from Foucault’s idea of a disciplinary society, power and authority are diffused through scattering the means of surveillance in a way that enables all information to be ‘tracked and encoded [and] interpreted into patterns that are either acceptable or unacceptable’ (Deleuze, 1992, 37). Thus, the cloud holds all the relevant data in determining the value of this binary branching of good and bad, but for the users of TruYou, the illusion that they are making a change prevails. Mae is deluded into externalizing the surveilling eye. She, as well as other employees at The Circle, develops a sense of entitlement that leads to Mercer’s ultimate death, her rejection of Kalden’s plan, and the finishing thoughts of the Novel: ‘The world deserves nothing less [than knowing the thoughts of any given individual, even if unconscious].’ (Eggers, 2013, 358) Here, the ‘world’ reads like an umbrella term for ‘I’ magnified into the peak of self-importance.

David Eggers' The Circle: illustration by Wesley Merritt

To conclude, the Circle inverts the self-surveilling aspect of an individual, which often produces the emotion of shame. By acknowledging its negative effects, and the negative effects of secrecy and lies, the Three Wise Man, through indoctrinating speeches of Aemon Bailey, convince their audiences that shame is unnecessary and obliterable. However, the transparency and the cameras only contribute to the externalization of surveillance, and the shaming look. Where in fact, The Circle and the advocates of its ideology depend on shame, and on self-surveillance to achieve a perfectly monitored society, where the burden of morality and corresponding actions are diffused.

Bibliographical references

Deleuze, G. (2017). Postscript on the societies of control. Surveillance, Crime and Social Control, 35–39.

Eggers, D. (2013). The Circle. Knopf.

Finn, J. (2012). Seeing Surveillantly: Surveillance as Social Practice. in Doyle, A., Lippert, R. K. & Lyon, D (Ed.), Eyes Everywhere: The Global Growth of Camera Surveillance (pp.67-80). London: Routledge.

Foucault, M. (1995). Discipline and punish: The birth of the prison. New York: Vintage Books.

Lyon, D. (2017). Surveillance Culture: Engagement, Exposure, and Ethics in Digital Modernity. International Journal of Communication, 11, 824–837.

Sartre, J. P. (1943). Being for Others. In Being and Nothingness (pp. 247–276). London: Routledge.

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