In his early modern utopian vision the New Atlantis, Francis Bacon imagined a proto-scientific and technological society fully dedicated to the liberating power of knowledge. Natural and divine revelation would be united “to restore and exalt the power and dominion … of the human race over the universe.” Technological advances such as the printing press, gunpowder, and the compass, Bacon argued, had made possible a new age of learning, peace, and exploration. Humans were “perhaps more ready to contemplate the power, wisdom, and goodness of God in His works.” On the other side of modernity, viewed through Michel Foucault’s dystopian panopticism, scientific and technological knowledge is oppressive power: institutions such as the prison, factory, and school design comprehensive organizational and surveillance systems to control freedom and difference. For Foucault, utopia closes in on itself to become not a technologically empowered house of wisdom but a technologically determined “house of certainty.”
The archive of utopian and dystopian expectations runs deep and grows daily, with visions of our current technological society ranging from digitally enhanced posthumanism to digitally enabled panopticism. The most intense expressions of these hopes and fears are apocalyptic, which is an ancient poetic form for exploring the deepest revelations about knowledge, space, time, and the common good. Dave Eggers’ novel The Circle is an exemplar of the apocalyptic imagination that productively challenges us to think about the nature of wisdom in the digital age. Through apocalyptic realism, Eggers reveals how present technological advances might be used in efforts to transcend current limits of what we know, what we hope for, what we must do, and what it means to be a human being.
Within the book’s first couple dozen pages, the classic apocalyptic dimensions of time, space, knowledge, and community are opened up in this technological morality tale. An epigraph from East of Eden invokes an unlimited future. The first sentences proclaim the Circle Corporation’s heavenly campus and its paradisiacal vastness. Avatars of the company’s leaders, the “Three Wise Men”—a trinity of personalities including “boy-wonder visionary,” “Capitalist Prime,” and a beloved and benevolent “uncle”—appear early. And the novel’s protagonist Mae Holland, the newest member of this elect community, is transported out of the “chaotic mess” of the ordinary world: “The best people had made the best systems and the best systems had reaped funds, unlimited funds, that made possible this, the best place to work.”
The Circle has superseded Facebook, Twitter, Google, and all near-future equivalents by ending anonymity and unifying the online experience: “one account, one identity, one password, one payment system … everything tied together and trackable and simple.” But those leading the Circle seek more—more knowledge and more engagement—for and from its members and users. “We’re at the dawn of the Second Enlightenment,” announces the benevolent Wise Man; “all that happens must be known.” Participation, up to its ultimate form of total transparency, is pressed on Mae, her colleagues, politicians, and the world. Initially Mae is troubled when her preferences are publically exposed, believing she is more than a “matrix of preferences.” Mae also knows that she is, secretly, a troubled person full of anxiety and despair about what she does not know, especially “when and by whom [she] would be touched a certain way.” Fleeing this inner turmoil, Mae becomes absorbed by the demands of Circle, including multiple work-related screens and relationships, and ultimately her “Conversion Rate”—evidence that she is “a crucial and measurable driver of world commerce.”
Before she decides to live an open and digitally streamed life, Mae enjoys a moment of rest—unplugged and drifting alone on a kayak at night—and is content to be open to an unknown future and to know little about the world around her. This liberating moment, however, is one of trespass. The kayak was stolen, a theft caught on camera; but the greater sin is that most of her private adventure was not recorded and shared through social media. The benevolent Wise Man confronts her about her violation of the new Enlightenment creed that “everyone should have a right to know everything, and should have the tools to know anything … any information that eludes us, anything that’s not accessible, prevents us from being perfect.” With an end to the “hoarding of information and knowledge,” he concludes, “we would finally be compelled to be our best selves … we don’t have to be tempted by darkness anymore.” Convinced and converted, Mae publically repents and confesses that “secrets are lies,” “sharing is caring,” and “privacy is theft.” Then she commits herself to transparency and to sharing the Circle’s tools through her streamed life.
Following a presentation about the Circle’s increasingly comprehensive digital archive, Mae is confronted by a divinity school dropout who praises the apotheotic work of the Circle:
You found a way to save all the souls … You’re gonna get everyone in one place, you’re gonna teach them all the same things. There can be one morality, one set of rules. … Now all humans will have the eyes of God. … Now we’re all God. Every one of us will soon be able to see, and cast judgment upon, every other. We’ll see what He sees. We’ll articulate His judgment. We’ll channel His wrath and deliver His forgiveness. On a constant and global level. All religion has been waiting for this, when every human is a direct and immediate messenger of God’s will.
Not everyone is thrilled with the godlike ambitions of the Circle. Mae’s new commitments alienate her from family and friends, and one internal skeptic warns her about her role in creating “a very hungry, very evil empire.” When she discovers that three percent of her colleagues do not find her awesome, Mae experiences a brief and “blasphemous” moment of doubt:
the volume of information, of data, of judgments, of measurements, was too much, and there were too many people, and too many desires of too many people, and too many opinions of too many people, and too much pain from too many people, and having all of it constantly collated, collected, added and aggregated, and presented to her as if that all made it tidier and more manageable—it was too much.
This moment of doubt is replaced with work. When a friend who brought her into the Circle, and whose parents’ sins are being revealed through the Circle’s growing historical archive, sends out a “very strange message” that reads, “Actually, I don’t know if we should know everything, ” Mae is shocked. (Someone else later redacts the message to read, “We shouldn’t know everything—without the proper storage ready. You don’t want to lose it!”)
Mae concludes that not knowing “who would love her and for how long” is the ultimate cause of anxiety and despair: “It was not knowing that was the seed of madness, loneliness, suspicion, fear.” Living transparently, she believes, made her “knowable to the world,” better, and “brought her close, she hoped, to perfection.” The world would follow; “Full transparency would bring full access, and there would be no more not-knowing.” When Mae is presented with a final opportunity to stop what is happening to her and with the Circle, she rejects it:
I want to be seen. I want proof I existed…Most people do. Most people would trade everything they know, everyone they know—they’d trade it all to know they’ve been seen, and acknowledged, that they might even be remembered. We all know we die. We all know the world is too big for us to be significant. So all we have is the hope of being seen, or heard, even for a moment.”
Mae trades the lives of people she knows to save the Circle and avert the “apocalypse” she fears. We are left, with her, contemplating “a world where everyone could know each other truly and wholly, without secrets, without shame.” No corner or moment of life will be hidden in the “new and glorious openness” of the coming world, “a world of perpetual light.”
Mae tries to trade her fear of finitude for the promise of technologically extended knowledge, presence, and power. But the ambition to complete the Circle—a sign of perfection, eternity, God, and infinite meaning—stretches credibility. One is reminded of Dostoevsky’s underground man, who warned the enlightened thinkers of his industrial age that even if they reasoned out and published everything they would not explain the whole of life. Technological advances undoubtedly improve our lives, but the ways they can tempt us toward omniscience, omnipresence, and omnipotence is comedic as well as tragic. The Circle uncovers both dimensions of a technologically inspired hubris that extends back to the primeval city established east of Eden.
In the wisdom book of Job, as the eponymous protagonist waits in the ashes for God to reveal the reason for his suffering, he reviews the many ways humans have discovered knowledge, including mining the depths of the earth to bring hidden things into the light. Human knowledge is limited, he confesses, and true wisdom remains hidden. Only “God understands the way to it, / and … understands its place,” Job concludes, therefore wisdom is fearing God and turning away from evil—or, to put it another way, loving God and others. What Mae misses, and what an apocalyptic work such as The Circle helps uncover, is the extent to which human knowledge is limited and corruptible. Bacon hoped technology and science could reverse the effects of the primordial sin—the desire to be wise like God that led to fear and death—but Foucault saw its effects darkly in our most advanced structures and systems. Moreover, as we pursue our ambitions to extend our attentions and intentions we may, like Mae, miss the communication, community, and communion—the koinonia—that is present and near to us in space and time.
 Francis Bacon, “On the Idols, the Scientific Study of Nature, and the Reformation of Education,” in Philosophy of Technology: The Technological Condition, ed. Robert C. Scharff and Val Dusek (John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2014), 34, 36.
 Michel Foucault, “Panopticism,” Philosophy of Technology, 657.
 In ancient apocalyptic literature, epistemological, spatial, temporal, and moral realities are uncovered by collapsing divine-human dualisms: divine and human knowledge, heavenly and earthly realms, eternity and time, and good and evil powers and communities. See John J. Collins, The Apocalyptic Imagination: An Introduction to Jewish Apocalyptic Literature (Grand Rapid, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1998), 1ff.
 Dave Eggers, The Circle (San Francisco, Calif.: McSweeney’s Books, 2013), 19ff., 30.
 Ibid., 21, 67, 125, 195, 250ff.
 Ibid., 286ff.
 Ibid., 395.
 Ibid., 401.
 Ibid., 410.
 Ibid., 435.
 Ibid., 465.
 Ibid., 485.
 Ibid., 489ff.
 See Job 28.23 (ESV).
 Brent Waters, Christian Moral Theology in the Emerging Technoculture: From Posthuman Back to Human (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2014), 234.