Review: The Circle by Dave Eggers

A Horror Story for Introverts

Welcome to The Circle!
Imagine getting hired by the most successful company in the world. Moving to California’s Silicon Valley and laboring in a magnificent theme park replete with castles of gleaming glass and steel, abundantly diverse flora and fauna, wandering minstrels, concerts, competitions, technological wizardry, and all the comforts of home — plus free health care, meals, and clothing. As a valued member of a powerful community that is making the world a better place to live, by making more information available to more people more easily.

This is what happens to Mae Holland, the 20-something, starry-eyed protagonist in Dave Egger’s new techno-thriller, The Circle. It is a dream job for her. Awed by her first visit to the corporate campus, she proclaims “This is heaven” in the book’s opening sentence. She is eager to contribute to this vibrant community, to join in, to learn, to adopt their causes and values, though every once in a while she feels a “tiny tear” in some essential “black cloth” deep within her psyche that keeps her fears at bay, and the inklings that something is very, very wrong.

The Circle looks through an early-21st-century lens at themes it shares with the George Orwell classics Animal Farm and 1984, most notably the evils of totalitarian rule. Big Brother still looms, watching and listening. But what if, The Circle posits, we were Big Brother? What if we liked to be watched? What if we were complicit in our own subjugation, freely relinquished more and more privacy, shared increasingly personal data to help others watch us more efficiently? Would sharing more free society from the effects of uncertainty gnawing away at its core, from the anxiety of not knowing? Would criminal and illicit behaviors disappear? What if it were possible to live completely “transparently”, sharing everything, constantly collaborating via our vast online interconnections – all shiny, happy citizens of our shiny, happy planet? What if, for the integrity of “the big picture”, this were mandatory?

Sound creepy? It’s meant to. The Circle is a fast-paced, cautionary parable set in California’s Bay Area at a social media company called the Circle, which is obviously meant to be Google/Facebook/Twitter/Instagram merged into one magnificently architected megacorporation. If you’re much of an introvert, The Circle is a horror story, plain and simple. Parts of this book scared me as much as any Stephen King book I’ve ever read.

What would it take to turn your online life into a horror story, you ask? I’ll tell you, with minimal spoileriness, after the jump.

Will the Circle Be Unbroken?

(c) John Sabo
In only six years of existence, the Circle has gained a 90% share of the social media market, made possible by its revolutionary Unified Operating System, which merges all of an Internet user’s many dissimilar accounts so they work together. Led by three founders reverently referred to as The Wise Men, the company also has a vision: To interconnect everyone in the world and make all information sharable, or as they call it, “Completing The Circle”, which will lead to a “Second Enlightenment”.
Completion...would bring peace, and it would bring unity, and all that messiness of humanity until now, all those uncertainties that accompanied the world before the Circle, would be only a memory.

The Circle’s flagship software product, TruYou, has abolished anonymity on the Internet and single-handedly elevated the level of online discourse and collaboration. Developed by one Wise Man to improve netiquette and democratize information distribution, it has spawned the rabid proliferation of portable, networked apps that facilitate our every transaction. Which has inspired a second Wise Man to declare a war on private data — “all that happens should be known” — and launch a bold initiative for all the people on the planet to document everything they ever think and do.

The book begins with Mae’s first day on the job, which she gets through a networking recommendation (of course!) from her former college roommate. She starts out in Customer Experience handling support calls. Her duties quickly expand; each new set of responsibilities is accompanied by yet another dedicated screen on which to track all related communications. Her performance is monitored, measured, and evaluated continually, and feedback is constant. She wears a bracelet that also tracks her vital signs and her participation in company activities. She soon learns that use of social media tools and attendance of “optional” non-work events are mandatory, as well, and measured with a Participant Ranking (PartiRank) score that requires constant vigilance to maintain. They begin tracking her Conversion Rate (how many of her online actions spur purchases by her followers) and Retail Raw (how much revenue those purchases generate) scores. Competition is fierce within the company for top rankings. She masters each new level of social interactivity quickly and soon becomes the corporation’s public face, the media darling who delivers its message to customers in the most personal way.

Totalitarianism (c) John Szabo
It seems like a dream come true to her parents, too, who brag that their daughter has a job at “the hottest company on the planet and has full dental”. The Circle magnanimously extends to them full health care as well, freeing them from the endless tedium of arguing with insurance companies over expenses for the father’s debilitating illness. But in return, the Circle’s lollipop-size, wireless, high-definition cameras are installed all over their house. The same cameras that have become ubiquitous around the world as traffic cams, weather cams, home and neighborhood watch cams, crime prevention cams, and (I would assume) peeping Tom cams. Her parents become part of The Circle, and their lives change dramatically.

The Circle follows Mae’s continuing indoctrination into the Circle’s all-consuming culture, and its effects on her family and friends, as she guzzles the Corporate Kool-Aid and embraces her role in ushering in a Brave New World. Whom can she trust at the Circle? Do the threats posed by her online activities outweigh the benefits? Will she recognize any dangers to herself and others? And if so, what will she do in response?

Rebranding Doublethink for the iWorld

At the Circle, the platitudes of 1984War is peace, Freedom is slavery, Ignorance is strength – are updated for the cloud generation.

Drinking the Kool-Aid

All That Happens Must Be Known.

To Heal We Must Know. To Know We Must Share.

Secrets Are Lies.
Sharing Is Caring.
Privacy Is Theft.

It is selfish not to share everything you do with others who might be interested. Depriving persons with physical handicaps the opportunity to enjoy vicariously the thrill of paddling a kayak across a bay or climbing a mountain is shameful. Information is not property, according to Mae’s boss, and no one can own it. Here’s where the concept of information communism emerges – he convinces company employees (Circlers) that no one has the right to keep anything private. It’s small-minded and hurtful to others, and maybe one day illegal. Sharing heals and unites.
Suffering is only suffering if it’s done in silence, in solitude. Pain experienced in public, in view of loving millions, was no longer pain. It was communion.
But as Mae increases her online presence and grows a huge, international audience, she becomes less of a real-life person. She loses her real-life connections: to herself, to her parents and former friends, who worry about her as they begin to avoid her.
You’re always looking at me through a hundred other people’s eyes.
All the focus on PartiRank scores and incessant broadcasting makes it so easy for Mae to ignore the sense of impending dread, to squelch those niggling doubts lurking beneath the layers of ceaseless interconnectivity, to muzzle that struggling inner voice. Maybe people don’t need to know, aren’t even physiologically capable of knowing, everything. Maybe some things are best left private. Maybe we’re all leaving ourselves terribly vulnerable to anyone who can get their hands on our information. Or not. Nevermind, there are 12,000 new “smiles” and comments and invitations and survey questions to distract her!!

Pay no attention to that tracking satellite and cash register behind the curtain!

Tempting “Stuart Smalley” Flavor:
“I’m good enough. I’m smart enough.
And doggone it, people like me.”
(Photo source)
People are willing to give up privacy for many things, and at first glance some of them seem worth the barter. These things make us feel safer, facilitate our financial transactions, help us know where our kids are and communicate with our families. We gain efficiency, productivity, security, and validation. We might even think we are Helping our Fellow Man and Making the World a Better Place To Live. But knowledge is power, and those with access to all that information can easily exploit it for their purposes.

Many books explore themes related to loss of privacy and where to draw the line between private and public, but The Circle also examines the ease with which people sometimes toss aside their privacy and even embrace each new loss.
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.
It cautions us to focus a more discerning eye on the trade-offs, to recognize the insidious nature of the networked tracking technologies that increasingly infiltrate every corner of our lives, luring us to divulge more about ourselves to a larger audience. How easily they could be integrated with online applications used by schools, hospitals, corporations, and governments. The possibilities are endless. Think about that.

The Circle also asks us to reflect on the quality of our online accomplishments. Are we fulfilling basic, human needs that predated the technology or those created by the technology? As Mae’s ex-boyfriend tells her:
The tools you guys create actually manufacture unnaturally extreme social needs. No one needs the level of contact you’re purveying. It improves nothing. It’s not nourishing. It’s like snack food... Endless, empty calories, but the digital-social equivalent.
As a result of Mae’s countless hours of online participation, she has an elite PartiRank status and is a Circle celebrity. What is that really worth? Is she perhaps conflating her sequestered, sedentary online activities with living an active, interesting life?
You sit at a desk twelve hours a day and you have nothing to show for it except for some numbers that won’t exist or be remembered in a week. You’re leaving no evidence that you lived... The weird paradox is that you think you’re at the center of things, and that makes your opinions more valuable, but you yourself are becoming less vibrant.

A Simple Book About a Complex Message

The Circle is fast paced. The message is its entire reason for being, and Eggers wants to be sure you are not distracted from it. He doesn’t spend time fleshing out characters and situations beyond what is needed to get his point across. The upside to this is his book is an effective, entertaining, and fast read. There are some memorable, skillfully executed, and chilling scenes that make me want to turn off every gadget I own and walk away. Right now. The downside is that his characters seem flat to me and their conversations do not seem authentic — they all sound like they’re reading a script.

Mae’s co-workers sound like Stepford Employees, mindlessly regurgitating the corporate values statements. Victims Customers eagerly (and apparently cheerfully) adopt each new product rollout and update (or is it just me who finds these sorts of things tedious and exasperating?). Her ex-boyfriend is the reluctant Everyman who, in Garbo-esque fashion, just wants to be left alone.
Did you ever think that perhaps our minds are delicately calibrated between the known and the unknown? That our souls need the mysteries of night and the clarity of day? You people are creating a world of ever-present daylight, and I think it will burn us all alive.
The company is also one-dimensional. We get the PR-approved view only, where employees blissfully engage in a 24-hour/day circus with big smiles plastered on their faces. It’s a utopian fantasy inhabited by brainwashed workers force-fed a soundtrack of ceaseless self-congratulation for their awesomeness — just one big, digitally touchy-feely family. Not one of these geniuses sees the sinister possibilities they are enabling.
It was like a well-curated organic grocery store: you knew, by shopping there, that you were healthier; you couldn’t make a bad choice, because everything had been vetted already. Likewise, everyone at the Circle there had been chosen, and thus the gene pool was extraordinary, the brain power phenomenal. It was a place where everyone endeavored, constantly and passionately, to improve themselves, each other, share their knowledge, disseminate it to the world.
Also unrealistic — no one at the Circle appears to be writing product code. No one is slaving away in the test lab through the weekend to meet a deadline. (Some real high-tech companies at the forefront of bleeding-edge technology might question why employees had any free time to spend socializing.) This isn’t real high tech, it’s a marketing brochure. The sense of entitled intellectual exceptionalism found in some corporate cultures is dead on, but products don’t magically metamorphose from half-baked suggestions into test and production versions overnight, while the whole gang merrily parties at a smorgasboard of teambuilding events and prattles away online.

Resistance Is Not Futile!
But these characters and their company were written for the express purpose of delivering the author’s message, and they deliver it well. Sometimes they club you over the head with it, but it’s an urgent message. Despite the simplicity, there’s a lot to think about here. (And despite what some recent book reviews appearing in high-tech media are telling you, it doesn’t matter if the details of the technology aren’t just perfect. They’re missing the point(s).) I thought the story was a bit too predictable at times, but the continually evolving uses for the technology were always thought provoking, and I was most pleasantly surprised by an interesting twist near the end that I didn’t see coming.

My biggest regret is that this book glosses over or omits many conflicts and subplots that would arise if the story occurred in real life. Many powerful people have strong, vested political, financial, or corporate interests that are different than the Circle’s. How would they be lured on board and assimilated? How might they try to use it for their own purposes? How might concerned citizens attempt to opt out, individually or en masse?

The author wants us to heed his warning, to recognize the threat, to think before we plug in. That’s step 1. He even provides instructions for disengaging from the grid! But he is leaving other authors the opportunity to write books that expand upon ideas that were hatched but not developed here, add details and subplots, and flesh out the ending (or maybe several endings).

In the meantime, Eggers has done a fine job of entertaining us and warning us to heed the elephant in the room. And by room, I mean our gadgets, and by elephant, all those friendly little apps that blink and smile and poke at us from within.

My Rating

If you’ve read this book, what did you think of it? Have you read other Eggers books? (This was my first, so I am unfamiliar with his style, though I understand this is not his usual genre.) What dystopian thrillers you have enjoyed?


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