The Circle, Infomoracy, and the Information Age

Originally Posted in the Weekly Standard // June 3, 2017 – web edition

Earlier in May, Rotten Tomatoes deemed The Circle a cinematic flop. Over at the SubStandard podcast, Sonny Bunch described the book as “mediocre.” And yet, the novel demonstrates what many fear about social media: its uncanny ability to subsume the individual. But should people flee from its potential effects on users, societies, and governments? Or should they approach technology in a different way?

For its part, The Circle seems to suggest the former. With the help of Annie, her former college roommate, Mae gets hired as a customer service agent at the Circle—a highly influential business ruled by the mysterious “Three Wise Men.” Surrounded by the good life, Mae enters into several romances—first with a co-worker named Francis and then with a secretive individual named Kalden. And she gets to see the company’s power first-hand.

Yet, Mae cannot escape her humble past. Her father—a former parking lot manager—is unable to pay for his multiple sclerosis treatment, prompting Mae to put him on her insurance and install the Circle’s surveillance—or rather, “transparency”—technology throughout her parents’ home. A friend warns Mae that the Circle could use this power to punish the opposition, and she dismisses this concern as a conspiracy theory. But when Mae later faces legal troubles, the Circle makes her wear a camera as she publicly declares on social media that “secrets are lies,” “sharing is caring,” and “privacy is theft.”

Eggers’ concern about totalitarianism nevertheless serves as both the book’s strength and its weakness. There is something to be said about a novel with a singular focus. Its narrative is straightforward, its contrasts are stark, and the ideas contained therein are clearly conveyed to the reader. And such is the case as he slowly reveals the Circle’s ability to corrupt the proper relationship between technology, the state, society, and the individual. Here, the cameras go beyond acting as a check on government: the worker has no life outside of the Circle, the individual cannot escape online groupthink, and the country is eventually controlled by whoever supports the company’s interests.

Linear tracks, though, often lead to foregone conclusions. And no one in The Circle ever stops to consider whether there are other ways for individuals and institutions to coexist with technology.

A useful companion to Eggers’ novel is Malka Older’s Infomocracy. Here, Older envisions a future world not configured by the boundaries of the nation-state but by territories of 100,000 people called “centenals.” Technology is also integral to democratic governance: Every few years, there is a global election where each centenal votes for their preferred political party (which may be international or local). An independent monitor called Information then counts the tally, and whoever wins the majority within each location gets to rule over that particular centenal.

Accordingly, the plot follows the various intrigues of organizations like Heritage, Liberty, and Policy1st. As the agents try to gather intelligence on each other, an earthquake strikes Japan, scrambling their respective campaigns. But on voting day, Information unexpectedly crashes worldwide, and there is a break-in at a Tokyo hub. Fearing similar attempts, Mishima—an Information agent—and several others race to figure out who got inside. It then turns out that a major political party might have been involved, raising questions about how the system really works.

And as a political techno-thriller, Infomocracy is a great read. Not only is the action riveting, but Older also puts her academic background to good use, showing micro-democracy’s advantages as well as its flaws.

But even Infomocracy doesn’t answer the fundamental questions about maintaining a proper relationship between the individual, the community, and the state in our current technological age. Not that we should fault Older for this—given the Internet’s mixed political track record, the answer is obviously unclear. Yet, Mark Zuckerberg’s talking points are not enough. And unplugging will not be enough either. Because in the end, inasmuch as the created shapes the creator, the Internet is a tool shaped by its participants. Its problems—and its solutions—accordingly lie deeper than technology itself.

Open to Belief

Originally Posted in the Weekly Standard // October 31, 2016 – print issue
[modified second paragraph for easier reading]

It’s no easy feat to condense the subject of religion, much less comment on its themes, within 256 pages. Similar efforts like Stephen Prothero’s God Is Not One and Huston Smith’s The World’s Religions have done so at nearly twice the length of A Little History of Religion. But Richard Holloway, retired head of the Scottish Episcopal Church, takes the challenge in stride. From Anglicanism to Zoroastrianism, he aims to provide a broad introductory survey while promoting the value of faith. And in a world haunted by secular and religious misapprehension, Holloway certainly has the best of intentions. Yet, for the beginner, does his book actually meet these two goals?

Well, yes and no. On the one hand, he deftly makes his knowledge accessible to the public: Starting with the origins of faith, he uncovers its symbols, its frameworks, and its psychological narratives. Emphasizing themes over chronological order, he covers the next 5,000 years, musing on everything from Krishna and Scientology to violence, authority, and the possible end of religion. In so doing, Holloway vastly improves upon his predecessors. Touching innumerable faiths and denominations, he goes well beyond both Prothero and Smith, including not only the major religions but also the minor cults of Mithras and Eleusis. Where belief and ritual may be emphasized over history (or vice versa), he attempts to balance all three, covering the good and bad alike. Holloway also engages the reader as narrative intertwines with narrative, all the while grounding the cerebral in ordinary, and sometimes deeply personal, experience.

On the other hand, he overlooks key points that could help seekers grasp today’s religious landscape. It is nearly impossible, of course, to survey the breadth (or depth!) of thousands of traditions. But although his text tries to maintain a holistic approach, Holloway applies it unevenly from one faith to another. By dividing primarily between East and West, he is forced to leave out substantial segments, such as African traditions, which don’t fit within his spectrum. And his overviews of the Indian and Abrahamic religions—as well as more modern faiths—fare better than those of East Asia. For while he covers the various beliefs of Confucianism, Taoism, and Shinto, he overlooks their ritual and customary aspects, summarizing the latter as merely “a love for the spirit of the land.”

These are minor points, however, compared with his underlying approach. While not fully explored until the very end, he asserts that a true appreciation of religion requires three principles: a critical mind, a radical openness, and an acceptance of the unity of all believers. Building upon the parable of the blind men who argue over an elephant without perceiving it in its entirety, he laments that people “confuse what is seen [God] with the one who is doing the seeing.” Denouncing fundamentalism as “a tantrum,” he views it as a rejection of humility and rational progress. And he believes that, without these three principles, such notions prepare the way for violence as people “[hide] God behind the thick fog of [religion’s] own cruelty.”

By minimizing theological division, however, Holloway obscures the complex relationship between faith and modernity. While he correctly warns the reader against blind obedience, he oversimplifies the liberal/fundamentalist divide as one of open-mindedness versus obstinacy. But if truth is timeless, then each religion constitutes a different structure of reality that cannot be easily dismissed in the name of social irrelevance. And this downplays the question of whether the faithful can avoid rigidity without following the elephantine tale to its extreme. As Stephen Prothero has noted, “What we need .  .  . is a realistic view of where religious rivals clash and where they can cooperate. .  .  . Both tolerance and respect are empty virtues until we actually know [what] we are supposed to be tolerating or respecting.”

Richard Holloway has nevertheless done a great service for students of religion. This is no dry textbook: With its conversational prose and density of information, it is a pleasure to read. A Little History of Religion may fall short on religious understanding, but the inquirer should use it as a factual resource—a starting point, not the final word.