Winner of the 2016 WTM Riches Essay Prize
According to Thomas Mathiesen, “In a two-way and significant double sense of the word, we […] live in a viewer society” (219). This essay seeks to examine the ways in which Mathiesen’s claim is realised in Dave Eggers’ The Circle (2013) in what I have termed as ‘New Panopticism’. This model, I argue, stems from a natural progression from Jeremy Bentham, to Michel Foucault, to Gilles Deleuze’s models of Panopticism, and I will turn to define it momentarily. The essay will demonstrate that ‘New Panopticism’, in contradistinction to post-Panopticism, is a result of the contemporary conflation of the physical and the digital (although it is largely situated in the digital) and has subsequently influenced a new mode of surveillance which infiltrates the body and encourages behaviour as performance. Moreover, this essay will address cases in which both panoptic and synoptic surveillance prevail—a shift which, as Mathiesen also notes, demonstrates an “enormously extensive system enabling the many to see and contemplate the few” alongside the panoptical notion of the few observing the many (219). To what extent, this essay will therefore ask, does The Circle operate as a fusion of both panoptic and synoptic surveillance? And how, exactly, is this conflation of two modes of surveillance, in combination with an infiltration of the body, situated in regard to Transhumanism? In order to address these issues, my analysis will read Eggers’ novel through the lens of several key theorists. With Mathiesen’s The Viewer Society and the three theorists of Panopticism as its starting point, the essay will also particularly engage with scholarship from Sherry Turkle.
Before embarking on an analysis of Eggers’ novel in regard to these key issues, it is important to establish the terminology and core ideas of which this essay will make use. Panopticism, as is widely known, began with Jeremy Bentham, who designed a prison in which an observer in a central tower could watch the prisoners undetected, meaning that prisoners could never be certain if they were under observation or not. Foucault’s model of Panopticism built on Bentham’s. While Bentham’s model was “one that emphasized the intransigence and immobility of the inspector and his family, as much if not more than that of the prisoners themselves” (Elmer 23), Michel Foucault argues that the power of the surveillance lies not in the single observer, or family of observers, in the tower but rather in the “unverifiable” nature of his existence (Foucault 201). Thus, for Foucault, the power of the Panopticon shifts from the tower to the prisoners, as “the inmates should be caught up in a power situation of which they are themselves the bearers” (201). In short, the distinction between the two models is that Bentham’s centres on ‘watching’, Foucault’s on ‘being watched’.  It is from this point Gilles Deleuze develops the theory of Panopticism a step further. In Postscript on the Societies of Control, Deleuze notes the difference between “disciplinary societies” and “societies of control” (5). Disciplinary societies, he argues, centre on the premise of “starting again” (5). An individual in a disciplinary society moves from the household, to the school, to the barracks, to the factory; s/he “never ceases passing from one closed environment to the other, each having its own laws” (3). In a society of control, however, “one is never finished with anything—the corporation, the educational system, the armed services being metastable states coexisting in one and the same modulation” (5). It is in this way, I argue, that The Circle functions as both a realisation of Deleuze’s theory, while also building upon it, becoming ‘New Panopticism’. However, as the essay as a whole will show, it is important to note that the new model I propose differs slightly from, and also contests, aspects of post-Panopticism. The key strand of this multi-faceted theory I wish to address is that, in contemporary society, panoptical surveillance is supplemented by the synoptic, a “reversal of the Panoptical polarity” which, Roy Boyne highlights, “may have become so marked that it finally deconstructs the Panoptical metaphor altogether” (299). My essay will instead argue that this supplementation does not result in deconstruction but in a new, hybrid mode of Panopticism, one which operates both in Foucault’s disciplinary society and Deleuze’s one of control—and also straddles the line between the physical and the digital, bringing Panopticism fully and forcefully into the contemporary age.
Physical and digital Panopticism are both clearly embodied throughout Eggers’ novel. The Circle’s headquarters are comprised of “offices everywhere above, four floors high on either side, every wall made of glass” (Eggers 3), and as Mae enters them for the first time, she looks down to the “immaculate glossy floor” and sees “her own face reflected, looking worried” (3). Thus, The Circle becomes an almost fun-house-like wall of mirrors. No matter which direction she turns, Mae is faced with glass, simultaneously allowing her to be ‘all-seeing’ while also being seen. Even the cafeteria is constructed from glass, meaning that, “at first glance, it looked like a hundred people were eating in mid-air” (15). As such, The Circle’s campus creates a paradoxical environment; in being able to see all, and have all seen, it should follow that this transparency allows for a sense of security to be created in their workplace. Yet, the glass from which the walls are made is an undoubtedly fragile, easily shattered material, and its presence renders every ‘Circler’ a voyeur. Those in the Circle are not freed by their transparency but are rather enclosed in “prisons that permit others to look at you unchecked” (Atwood). Consequently, any sense of security, or indeed community, that could be invoked by the glass walls is as illusionary as the seats on which Mae’s co-workers are suspended.
This level of transparency, and thus ‘all-seeing’ environment, is built upon by Eggers’ rather heavy-handed metaphor of the transparent shark:
It was a bizarre creature, ghostlike, vaguely menacing and never still, but no one who stood before it could look away. Mae was hypnotised by it, its slashing form, its fins like blades, its milky skin and wool-grey eyes. It was certainly a shark […] but this was a new species, omnivorous and blind. (309)
It takes little critical training to be able to read the shark as a clear metaphor for The Circle itself. The shark’s body is glass-like in its transparency, and the description of its “fins like blades” reminds us of glass’ ability to slice the skin with a rough or broken edge. Further, the shark’s lack of sight also indicates The Circle’s own lack of foresight, its ‘blindness’ as to the ethical and social implications of most, if not all, of its projects. A software programme entitled ‘LuvLuv’, for example, is a gross betrayal of privacy. As Mae’s on-again-off-again love interest, Francis, uses her as an example in the software’s demonstration, reams of her personal information come to light, including the places and foods she likes to eat, with Gus, LuvLuv’s creator, proudly gushing to the audience: “Now I click on the place I like, and if she paid through TruYou, I know what she ordered last time she ate there” (124). The presentation continues by highlighting “Mae’s preferences for films, for outdoor spaces to walk on and jog through, to favourite sports, favourite vistas. It was accurate, most of it…” (124-25). The Circle’s blindness to the transgressions of a programme such as LuvLuv results in an audience which grows “ever-more impressed with the software” (125) while neglecting to see its ethical implications. Consequently, this level of surveillance results in a shift in the way in which its subjects are viewed. Humans, like Mae, are no longer viewed as such; rather, they are seen as robot-like beings which can be ‘figured out’ through algorithms and formulae. Thus, Eggers’ novel manifests Sherry Turkle’s assertion that such capturing of data results in us being “asked to treat ourselves and the algorithm as a black box” (Reclaiming Conversation 90). While Mae’s boss Dan insists “We’re not automatons […] We’re a group of the best minds of our generation” (47), it is obvious that the ‘minds’ he views as his colleagues are almost disembodied and machine-like rather than vibrant human beings with a range of likes and dislikes beyond that which have been documented digitally. Consequently, Eggers’ novel raises issues surrounding the idea of Transhumanism, a concept to which I will later return.
While the shark’s blindness is undoubtedly connected to the lack of The Circle’s foresight, I also argue it alludes to a famous metaphor from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s canonical American text, The Great Gatsby:
The eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg are blue and gigantic—their retinas are one yard high. They look out of no face, but, instead, from a pair of enormous yellow spectacles which pass over a nonexistent nose […] into external blindness. (29)
The blind, yet apparently all-seeing, eyes of Eckleburg which brood on the Valley of Ashes are echoed, I suggest, in the “wool-grey” (Eggers 309) eyes of the transparent shark, which viciously devours every creature laid before it in the tank. Its translucent body, through which Mae can view the digestion of its prey, also echoes the very building in which she works. As I highlighted above, the glass walls of The Circle facilitate a voyeuristic mentality; indeed, as Atwood notes, “to see without being seen is, needless to say, the prerogative of the biblical God whose eyes run everywhere, as well as the labour of spies and surveillance agencies.” Thus, we are reminded of the god-like eyes of Eckleburg, which were witness to the goings-on of the ashy wasteland before them. Indeed, in Eggers’ novel the shark itself produces its own Valley of Ashes: “It ate everything, and deposited the remains quickly, carpeting the empty aquarium in a low film of white ash” (Eggers 481-82). So, too, it could be argued, does The Circle, as is particularly evident in the death of Mae’s ex-boyfriend. As he is relentlessly pursued by Mae’s all-seeing technology, Mercer literally drives himself into a valley of destruction, rendering himself “a tiny object dropping from the bridge over-head and landing, like a tin toy, on the rocks below” (465-66), his body now returning ‘ashes to ashes, dust to dust’.
The second manifestation of Panopticism, or at the very least, surveillance, is in the digital world of The Circle. The Circle functions not only as an office and company, one that has “subsumed Facebook, Twitter, Google, and finally Alacrity, Zoopa, Jefe, and Quan” (23), but as a social network connecting the goings-on of the internal office to the external world. Indeed, the social media aspect to The Circle is seen as a crucial one, the participation in which influences an employee’s job performance and position of esteem within the office. Indeed, ‘proper’ participation in the office’s social media is a digital manifestation of the physical transparency in which The Circle claims to abound. This transparency, it seems, can only be achieved through documentation and sharing, by allowing oneself (‘the few’) to be viewed by one’s colleagues (‘the many’), while simultaneously performing as one of ‘the many’ viewing ‘the few’, creating what Mathiesen terms as “a viewer society” (219). 
However, surveillance in The Circle is not strictly divided into the physical and the digital, and indeed there are several technologies which transcend these boundaries and allow for the conflation of both mediums. The ‘SeeChange’ cameras are exemplary of this; they can be installed by “anyone […] It takes five minutes!” (64), can be “manipulated manually or with voice recognition” (65), and are “so small the army can’t find them” (66), allowing for, Mae’s boss Bailey claims, “instant accountability” (66). It is worth noting the implications of Bentham and Foucault’s Panopticism here with regard to my term ‘New Panopticism’. As I outlined in my introductory paragraphs, the source of distinction between the two theories is that Bentham’s focuses on ‘watching’, while Foucault’s focuses on ‘being watched’, and Deleuze’s writing on the subject results in the construction of two distinct social environments: discipline and control. ‘New Panopticism’, I argue, is the conflation of both ‘watching’ and ‘being watched’, of living simultaneously in societies of discipline and of control filled with perpetual ‘viewers’. While in Bentham’s Panopticon “individuals learn to look at themselves through the eyes of the prison guard” (Turkle, Life on Screen 248), the employees of The Circle are simultaneously aware of watching others while also knowing that others are watching them, thus monitoring themselves through the eyes of their peers. This conflation of what has previously been theorised as two separate worlds is facilitated, I argue, by the digital, as exemplified through the technologies available in The Circle.
The nature of the SeeChange cameras raises two issues. Firstly, that of surveillance infiltrating, or at least restricting, the body; secondly, the paradigm of the screen. While I will return to discuss the former later in the essay with regard to Transhumanism, the latter is undoubtedly a key example when considering The Circle’s so-called ‘transparency’ and the effects of the ever-present screens on Mae and her colleagues. In Life on Screen, Sherry Turkle notes, “When we step through the screen into virtual communities, we reconstruct our identities on the other side of the looking glass” (177). In The Circle, Mae does not work from a single screen, but rather from multiple screens simultaneously, connecting her self-worth and job performance to the number of screens she is given. Each screen comes loaded with a social code of hierarchy and expectation. As her first three screens are installed, Mae is informed that “your first-screen CE responsibilities are paramount. We have to serve our customers with our full attention […] on your second screen, you might get messages from Dan, Jared, or Annie […] the third screen is your social, Inner- and OuterCircle” (Eggers 99-100). Indeed, at one point, after ‘going transparent’, she returns to her old desk to discover that “there were now nine screens” (327). The presence of multiple screens thus facilitates a multi-tasking-focused environment, one which, as Turkle notes, “deceives multitaskers into thinking they are being especially productive” (Alone Together 163). As such, ‘Circlers’ are misled into believing that success in their career relies on simultaneously controlling multiple screens. However, the reality is that ‘Circlers’ have instead figuratively stepped from one transparent prison, their offices, into the virtual restrictions of another. Note that, like the walls of The Circle’s headquarters, the screens on which Mae works are made of glass. Moreover, if we read this through Turkle’s claim regarding constructing the self, with each screen she maintains, Mae also maintains another reconstructed identity. “In postmodern times,” writes Turkle, “many more people experience identity as a set of roles that can be mixed and matched, whose diverse demands need to be negotiated” (Life on Screen 180). Subsequently, the paradigm of the screen explored in Eggers’ novel gives way to a consequence of ‘New Panopticism’: identity and behaviour becoming performance.
In Alone Together, Turkle argues that “devices provide space for the emergence of a new state of the self, itself, split between the screen and the physical real, wired into existence through technology” (16), thus indicating an element of both physical and digital performance in contemporary life. ‘Performance’, of course, invokes the idea of performing theatrically, whether an identity or role within the workplace. However, ‘performance’ can also be understood in the sense of metrics, statistics, and ranking success. Indeed, Mae’s life as a ‘Circler’ is linked by both meanings. Take, for example, a meeting Mae has with her boss, Dan, after failing to attend a party due to a family emergency. Having been reprimanded for not sharing her father’s illness with her peers, something termed “an opportunity wasted” by her superiors (Eggers 183), Mae’s guilt and shame for not performing well in her role as a ‘Circler’ results in her questioning her personal self-worth: “She disgusted herself […] Goddamnit, Mae, give a shit! She thought. Be a person of some value to the world” (190-91). As a result of The Circle’s all-pervasive surveillance, Mae throws herself into her job, measuring her “value to the world” through her rankings at work: “In an hour, her PartiRank rose to 7,288. Breaking 7,000 was more difficult, but by eight o’clock, after joining and posting in eleven discussion groups, sending another twelve zings […] and signing up for sixty-seven more feeds, she’d done it” (191). In responding in this way, Mae exemplifies Turkle’s concerns that “when [we] are besieged by thousands of emails, texts, and messages—more than you can respond to—demands become depersonalised […] we treat individuals as a unit. Friends become fans” (Alone Together 168). For Mae, discussion groups and ‘feeds’ are not sources of enjoyment, of intellectual stimulation, or even of deeply connected ‘experience’. Rather, they are “depersonalised” means of achieving not only career success but a sense of self-worth. As a result of her confrontation with both the societies of discipline and of control, Mae finds herself subscribing to the ideology behind the LuvLuv technology which initially horrified her, consequently seeing herself through the ‘prison guard’s’ (that is, her superior’s) and her peers’ eyes simultaneously. Thus, she renders herself a mere number in an algorithmic formula, a cog in a machine. Moreover, as her popularity at The Circle grows, so too does Mae’s need to return to her old job in Customer Experience: “Mae found that she appreciated the rhythm of it, the almost meditative quality of doing something she knew in her bones, and she found herself being drawn to CE at times of stress or calamity” (Eggers 327).
Turkle notes that “Sociologist David Riesman, writing in the mid-1950s, remarked on the American turn from an inner- to an other-directed sense of self. Without a firm inner sense of purpose, people looked to their neighbours for validation” (Alone Together 176). This turn, I argue, is explored in Eggers’ novel. Mae’s compulsive need to return to “CE at times of stress or calamity,” coupled with her compulsive need to improve her PartiRank, demonstrates Riesman’s established theory that her sense of self has become ‘other-directed’. As such, Eggers’ novel amalgamates theoretical ideas from the 1950s, demonstrating that, while this turn is not limited to contemporary ‘New Panopticism’, it undoubtedly remains symptomatic of it. In a televised interview with CBC TV, Marshall McLuhan notes that “we are no longer concerned with self-definition, with finding our own individual way. We are most concerned with what the group knows, feeling as it does, and acting with it, not apart from it.” In the same way, as my analysis has shown, Mae is most concerned with the group, performing at work in ways that will impress her fellow ‘Circlers’. As a result, we see the Mathiesenesque ‘viewer society’ in action; Mae (‘the few’) seeks to watch and perform to ‘the many’, while they also watch and perform to her, subsequently creating a new ‘performance society’.
Further, Eggers’ description of Mae’s return to CE stemming from an ability to do “something she knew in her bones” (Eggers 327) implies that she is more than merely reliant on technology. Rather, it has become a part of her, infiltrating her body and settling “in her bones.” The final part of this essay thus seeks to move away from a predominant focus on ‘New Panopticism’ and will discuss surveillance more generally, including the ways in which it infiltrates and connects to the body and to Transhumanism. Max More defines Transhumanism as “a class of philosophies of life that seek the continuation and acceleration of the evolution of intelligent life beyond its currently human form and human limitations by means of science and technology, guided by life-promoting principles and values” (6). As such, Transhumanism is concerned with enhancing and developing “human intellectual, physical, and psychological capacities” (Humanity+). This enhancement, it is argued, would lead to what has been termed as the Posthuman and could be facilitated in a number of ways, including “genetic engineering, psychopharmacology […] memory enhancing drugs, wearable computers, and cognitive techniques” (Humanity+). These ‘wearable computers’ are, I argue, seen throughout The Circle in various forms. From the first day Mae joins The Circle, her body is almost instantly adorned with and infiltrated by various technologies. At her check-up with The Circle’s doctor, she is shown “a silver bracelet, about three inches wide,” which “‘measure[s] what [The Circlers] like to measure – which is everything’” (Eggers 154-55). Most disturbing, though, is the chip which Mae ingests without her knowledge, the doctor later assuring her, “It’s the best way. If I put it in your hand you’d hem and haw. But the sensor is so small, and it’s organic of course, so you drink it, you don’t notice, and it’s over” (155). In the chip accessing her body, Mae arguably becomes a sort of crude ‘humachine’, a term coined by Mark Poster in regard to the posthuman which, as N. Katherine Hayles notes, “[often] include[s] as a prominent feature the joining of humans with intelligent machines” (312). While the chip may not be as ‘intelligent’ as Artificial Intelligence (AI) with which one can directly interact, it nonetheless is ‘intelligent’ enough to “collect data on [Mae’s] heart rate, blood pressure, cholesterol, heat flux, caloric intake, sleep duration, sleep quality, digestive efficiency, on and on” (Eggers 155). Consequently, the device is presented to Mae as one “guided by [the] life-promoting principles and values” More outlines in his definition of Transhumanism (6), her doctor explaining that “with complete information, we can give better care” (Eggers 156). However, Turkle notes in Reclaiming Conversation that, after using tracking applications, “over time, there is a subtle shift. In some sense, ‘you’ become the number of steps you walked this week compared to last […] You move to a view of the self as the sum, bit by bit, of its measurable elements” (89). Therefore, I would argue that, in reality, as Mae, the chip, and the bracelet coalesce, their combination serves only to exacerbate the focus on the self as a set of metrics that I discussed earlier, while simultaneously invoking a Panoptical sense of self-surveillance and self-monitoring.
The tracking bracelet is not, however, the only wearable technology of which Mae makes use. In the latter half of the novel, Mae chooses to “go transparent” (Eggers 306), meaning that she will wear a ‘SeeChange’ camera around her neck almost twenty-four hours a day. Thus, ‘the many’ are able to view ‘the few’ at any time for as long as they wish. Mae is no longer a mere human employee at the office but is rather “a [synoptic] window into this new world, generally, of the Circle” (309). As such, Mae has transformed into one of the many glass surfaces surrounding her, no longer seen as an autonomous human being but as one through which the false ‘reality’ she constructs is to be observed. Note, too, that the “lens [is] worn over her heart” (309). At the human’s centre, the heart is, arguably, indicative of the soul. Thus, in wearing the camera over the heart, a profound connection is implied between the two. Indeed, the very fact that the lens is worn “on a necklace” signifies the extent to which Mae is ‘tethered’ to the camera, and it is not long before it influences Mae’s behaviour:
The first time the camera redirected her actions was when she went to the kitchen for something to eat […] Normally, she would have grabbed a chilled brownie, but seeing the image of her hand reaching for it, and seeing what everyone else would be seeing, she pulled back. (331)
Here, Mae’s performance for her viewers immediately reminds us of Sartre’s concept of ‘Other Minds’. In Being and Nothingness, Sartre notes:
When I peep through the keyhole, I am completely absorbed in what I am doing and my ego does not feature as part of this pre-reflective state. However, when I hear a floorboard creaking behind me, I become aware of myself as an object of the other’s look. (222)
If we apply Sartre’s theory to the passage above, Mae’s ‘keyhole’ is the screen through which she sees what her viewers see. There is therefore a duality to Mae’s point of view; it is not singularly her own but rather that of millions of others. Indeed, it could be argued that Mae simultaneously peeps through the keyhole while also creaking the floorboard behind her. As such, Mae embodies the goal of Bentham’s Panopticon, in which “individuals learn to look at themselves through the eyes of the prison guard” (Turkle, Life on Screen 248). Yet, apparently ignorant of the chain-like necklace around her neck, Mae believes herself to be free, claiming that “she was liberated from bad behaviour” (Eggers 331). Here the key issues of this essay amalgamate; in addressing what she terms as ‘the tethered self’, Turkle astutely notes:
For Foucault, the task of the modern state is to construct citizens who do not need to be watched, who mind the rules and themselves. Always-on/always-on-you technology takes the job of self-monitoring to a new level. We try to keep up with our lives as they are presented to us by a new disciplining technology. (“Always-On” 130)
Thus, as I conclude, it is clear that Mae is exemplary of a citizen living in a world of ‘New Panopticism’. I earlier discussed Deleuze’s theory that there is a distinction to be made regarding surveillance and societies of discipline and of control. Through the wearable technology Transhumanism associates with human improvement, Mae simultaneously becomes a cyborg-like site of pan- and synopticism. The camera affords the opportunity for ‘the many’ to see ‘the few’, placing Mae in the same class as “the VIPS, the reporters, [and] the stars” which Mathiesen claims are “almost a new class in the public sphere” (219). The rise of such synopticism, Mathiesen argues, “was in a fundamental way enhanced by television” (221). As such, it could be argued that this assertion applies not only to the medium of television itself but rather to any medium in which a screen is involved. While Mae’s ‘transparency’ facilitates this synoptic environment, her behaviour is indicative of a panoptic one; her Foucaultian self-monitoring alters the decisions she makes based on the ways in which she believes her prison-guard-cum-viewers watch her. To a significant extent, therefore, Mae—and The Circle itself—can be considered as a fusion between the pan- and synoptic. This fusion, I argue, serves not to deconstruct the panoptical model, as I noted Boyne argues above, but rather creates a new, hybrid model. This model is, as the essay has shown, undoubtedly characterised by its conflation of the physical and the digital, which together allow for the simultaneous exposition of both being all-seeing and being seen by all. Thus, it has been shown, ‘New Panopticism’ is born.
 Greg Elmer also notes this in the Routledge Handbook of Surveillance.
 These terms are used throughout the essay with Mathiesen’s terminology in “The Viewer Society” in mind.
Atwood, Margaret. “When Privacy Is Theft.” Rev. of The Circle, by Dave Eggers. The New York Review of Books 21 Nov. 2013: n. pag. Web.
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