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The Circle Kindle Edition
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2. People often willingly give up their privacy for convenience, societal benefit, or a needy and self-centered desire for affirmation.
If these premises seem facile to you, you might not enjoy Dave Egger's new novel, the Circle.
The writing is straight, mainstream, third-person limited narration. You won't find any of the layered themes, complex metaphor, formal experimentalism, stylistic prose or psychological lyricism common in modern literary fiction. Whether you'll consider this a bug or a feature is mainly a matter of taste; but it's worth mentioning, given Eggers' McSweeney's pedigree (this is the first book I've read by Eggers, so I wasn't sure what to expect).
The protagonist is Mae Holland, an enthusiastic, naive and downright submissive young woman (surprise) who gets a job in customer service at the Circle, a company which, having subsumed Google, Facebook and Twitter, is on the brink of achieving the complete monopoly mentioned above. Mae does not think deeply or critically about anything that happens to her, and her motivations are often inexplicable. These are qualities that serve Eggers' narrative goals more effectively than they do the reader's enjoyment.
Eggers' goals seem to ride directly on the surface of the narrative. Almost every scene reads like a mini-lesson on the deceptive utopianism of the huge dot-coms, the superficiality and false emotional appeal of online "sharing", or the creepiness of voluntary corporate surveillance. Many passages set the narrative baggage mostly aside and are rendered either as polemic dialogues or speeches delivered by one of the characters. There are also many product presentations, designed to bring the creepiness into maximum relief. There's also a little sex and a lot of longing for a man.
In an interview, Eggers stated (seemingly with with pride) that he did not research technology or technology companies to write the book. The result is a skewed, pop-cultural vision of the corporate campus (few developers are to be seen, and no one is depicted actually writing code); a cartoonish start-up culture that doesn't mine into the strangeness that can be found in memoirs on the subject; and a few truly wince-inducing concepts about computer technology ("the cloud", for example, somehow does not require physical storage).
The lack of focus on the way technology actually works and the way software companies actually think is not a criticism in itself. But it leads to a lack of engagement with the truly complicated moral, social and political issues that arise with online privacy, over-sharing and corporate ethics. The treatment of these issues in the Circle is simplistic and one-sided. And there is little to be found *aside from* the treatment of these issues.
Beyond the transparent preachiness, the most disappointing part of the Circle, for me, was Mae herself. Although Eggers sometimes beautifully documents her thoughts (especially her rationalizations and distorted perceptions of others), she is, at bottom, not much more than a vehicle for what Eggers wants to say. There is no real fight - from Mae, the public or the government - against what the Circle is trying to do. If I should rightly be afraid that a company like the Circle will drive us all off a cliff, I'd be better-served by a novel in which the author doesn't simply hand them the keys.
Eggers wraps his criticism of this phenomenon around a company called The Circle, a thinly disguised version of Google. We experience the inner workings of The Circle through our protagonist Mae who has landed her dream job of being a “Circler,” one of the most coveted and hippest jobs that a young 20-something could hope for.
The Circle is, from the outset, a creepy sort of insulated company in which every possible need of the Circlers (almost all of whom are under 30) is provided for: on site parties headlined by notable performers, clothing stores stocking the latest products, residences and more. Circlers need never leave the campus (and why would they want to? Surely there could be no more exciting place in the world to be). Oh, one catch: make sure to always be participating in the company’s social media at all times; a failure to participate might indicate that you’re not a team player or worse....you might be antisocial. One thing the Circle cannot abide is a lack of complete participation at all times.
Mae quickly adapts to the ways of the Circle, easily embracing each new layer of required transparency and tracking. As a young person with nothing to hide, she can’t see any inherent difficulties in this prospect. Why wouldn’t you want to share as much as possible with everyone? Sharing--in the words of one of the Circle’s founders--is caring. Keeping information to yourself is actually an act of theft. Each piece of information you hide robs someone somewhere of the opportunity to benefit from your knowledge.
The Circle is always debuting new technological marvels, each released to the public in a way that will be familiar to most readers: the dramatic Steve Jobs-style personal product reveal. The applause is always thunderous. Crowds can never get their hands on the new product fast enough. Each new product is pitched as the obvious solution to a pressing problem...child abductions, home violence, neighborhood crime. And on the surface, they are, but there’s always the flip side; each a fresh incursion into privacy, a further reduction in the amount of public space in which people can hide.
Eggers introduces Mae’s ex-boyfriend Mercer as a foil to her unbridled enthusiasm for the works of the The Circle. He’s one of the only characters in the novel to ask questions, to object to this blind worship of technology and electronic monitoring. There are so many turns at which a normal person would be horrified at the prospect of The Circle’s growing power but Eggers allows only one or two characters to ever voice concern. He’s chosen instead to present the view through the eyes of the techno-faithful, showing how acceptance of such privacy incursions could be not only accepted but actively embraced. This point of view is all the more chilling. Mae’s view and that of her fellow Circlers is the perspective of youth and inexperience. They’re exhilarated to be a part of something so dramatically transformative. Their generation will put the world’s ills right. Finally human beings have the tools to fix their world’s shortcomings and they are the carriers of light.
Of course, The Circle is a dystopian novel. Like all such novels it does its best to hold a dark mirror up to present circumstances and encourage the reader to think about what they see. It is ham-handed in places and I occasionally felt like I was being beaten over the head with the message, but then again some of its more outrageous exaggerations of online culture are not really that far off the mark. We do live in a world full of techno-profits who promise to eradicate the ills of society through the aggregation of data...ever growing avalanches of data, what we eat, when we eat it, where we’ve been, what we’ve seen, what we purchase, who we know and what we think.
Eggers shouts at us to step back, take a breath and ask “what have we done?”.