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How Much Caring Goes Into Your Sharing?

March 17, 2018

GBM-The Circle photo 2-Black & White Crop.jpg

When we wander into Dave Eggers’ 2013 novel The Circle, the first thing we must do, akin to adjusting a watch when landing on faraway soil, is reexamine the notion of “Sharing Is Caring.” Eggers paints a portrait of a massive social-media corporation—The Circle—that gradually but relentlessly redesigns society, extending its circumference from its sylvan California headquarters outward to the city, the nation, the world. The engine of this radical growth is the corporation’s capacity to make the absurd seem inevitable. In smooth rhetorical steps, it reframes service to the company as service to society, privacy as theft, and erasure of self as selflessness, trusting that nobody will wade into philosophical waters to ask whether one can be selfless if there is no private self from which to give. The Circle’s guiding principle is “All That Happens Must Be Known,” but those grand words are dependent on the more innocent slogan, “Sharing Is Caring.” Those words provide the pseudo-ethical foundation for every step the company takes, for the most outlandish actions of its leaders, for Eamon Bailey’s overweening dreams and Tom Stenton’s cynical schemes. They also offer a window into the way we live today.

At first the phrase seems innocuous, or even, in a bumper-sticker sort of way, wise and loving. But upon closer examination, within the specific context of The Circle or, more importantly, the broader context of life in the age of social media, it develops shadows, first around its edges and then at its very heart. In these contexts, “sharing” does not mean what it seems: It does not connote the voluntary handing over of some portion of one’s worldly goods and privileges to another who is in need. For the most part, it also does not signify the voluntary, mindful sharing of one’s time and effort to help or console a person, animal, or community in need. Rather, the ancient ethic of opening one’s door to the stranger is invoked here only in the most cynical of ways: In The Circle, the knock on the door comes from the new governing authority—The Circle itself—the opening of the door is far from voluntary, and the one who knocks seeks not your aid and hospitality but your will and identity. In the broader social-media context of our lives outside Eggers’ book, there is a less direct sense of an authority barging in with its bogus warrant, but in its place there is often a more insidious type of authority at work: A bland but almost binding cultural rule of the road that we must leave our doors open and consent to being raided, observed and robbed. Our time, attention, data, creativity, and sense of self are suddenly available for the taking, like so many old possessions scattered on the lawn for a garage sale.

What does “Sharing Is Caring” mean when the sharing becomes obligatory (you have no choice but to share), ceaseless (you cannot stop sharing), unvaried (you cannot decide what to share and what not to share), and ubiquitous (everyone shares everything all the time, so that any effort to opt out is socially deviant)? In our world outside The Circle, of course, this sort of sharing is less obligatory, and we have more choices about when, how and what we share. But do we tend to allow the “Sharing Is Caring” ethic to become a sort of de facto rule in our online lives? Does yielding our time, attention and data become a custom so ingrained in our way of life that it is difficult to opt out, or even to consciously grasp what exactly we are yielding? Are we in the grips of McLuhan’s Narcissus Trance, so consumed by a communications medium that we no longer understand the way it controls the pace, scale and pattern of our lives? Have we become Dallas Smythe’s Audience Commodity, a resource ripe for harvest?

In ancient monastic traditions, the notion of voluntary self-emptying is a path to enlightenment. The ego yields and the individual dedicates self to something (God, spirit, community) larger. The bumper-sticker value of “Sharing Is Caring” is built upon its subtle association with this saintly ethic, half-remembered from old tales and dusty sermons. But The Circle uses the phrase as part of a cynical bait-and-switch. When “Sharing Is Caring” is based on obligation (in The Circle) or mindless surrender to cultural norms (under the de facto rules of our online lives), sharing cannot be caring. Caring implies that one has been careful—full of care—in ones choices, particularly in the willful decision to serve another. When sharing is obligatory or mindless, it derives not from caring but from obedience or reflex. It is demonstrably not caring. Sharing, in this case, is set above caring. It does not really matter whether you care or not.

There are times when the notion that “sharing is greater than caring” might be useful: Think of reasonable taxation that allows us to maintain a judicial system and build schools and foster public safety and protect the nation and stitch together a social safety net. There is no admonition in the Constitution that we must care—with all of the individual will and empathy the word implies—in order to give our government the necessary resources to “establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty.” Paying for these things is the price of admission for Americans. We can shift the shape and scope of our public expenditures through political action, but short of revolution, civil disobedience and garden-variety tax avoidance, we cannot selectively opt-in or simply opt out. In the broad sense, when it comes to paying for the upkeep of the nation, it once again doesn’t matter whether you as an individual care or not. Your tax bill arrives all the same.

But we have traditionally drawn the line between such sectors of life where sharing is greater than caring and those where sharing is the outgrowth of caring. We cherish a private sphere, a zone of self-ownership. Traditionally, we share the details of our lives with those whom we care about and who care about us. We try to make conscious choices about how we spend our personal time and who we invite to share that time. We choose our causes. We devote ourselves with care. We express solidarity when we feel it. We guard our thoughts and experiences and convey them to others when and if we’re inclined to do so. When it comes to sharing the content of self, we like to believe that we pick our moments, control our message, and choose our audience. But do we? How much do we share by reflex? How much do we share out of a sort of numb conformism? How much to we share without even knowing we’ve shared? How mindfully do we empty ourselves? Is our sharing unconscious? Or is it conscious but cynical, as we craft alternative selves, identities designed and constructed to suit the norms of our online community—the circle we live in, one that does not need Eamon Bailey to set the agenda because we ourselves help set it every day. Are we reshaped by the alternative selves we construct? Are the alternative selves, that is, constructing us? Are we sharing or being shared? Do we care?

– Greg Blake Miller

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