Last month I finished Dave Eggers’ latest novel The Circle, the first work by a bona fide literary light that takes on our relationship with today’s Internet technology and, in particular, our relationship with corporations like Google.
It took me a while to start The Circle, mainly because of its poor word of mouth. Most of the folks I know who mentioned it, did so in an unfavorable light. “Eggers doesn’t get our industry,” was one theme of the commentary. “He did zero research, and was proud of it!” was another. I wanted to let some time go by before I dove in, if only to let the criticism ebb a bit. It struck me that it’s not a novelist’s job to get an industry *right*, per se, but to tell a story and compel us to think about its consequences in way that might change us a little bit. I wanted to be open to that magic that happens with a great book, and not read it with too much bias.
Once I began, I found the novel engaging and worthy, but in the end, not wholly fulfilling. I found myself wishing Eggers would reveal something new about our relationship to technology and to companies like Google, Facebook, Apple – but in that department the book felt predictable and often overdone.
But first, a bit of background. “The Circle” refers to a fictional company by the same name, a rather terrifying monolith that arises sometime in the near future. The Circle has the arrogance and design sensibilities of Apple, the ‘we can do it because we’re smarter (and richer) than everyone else’ mentality of Google, the always-be-connected-and-share-everything ethos of Facebook, with a dash of Twitter’s public square and plenty of Microsoft’s once-famed rapaciousness. The Circle is, in short, a mashup of every major tech-company cliche in the book, which to be fair kind of makes it fun. It’s run by the “Three Wise Men,” for example, a direct nod to Google’s ten year rule of the “triumvirate” – Page, Brin, and Schmidt.
The story revolves around Mae Holland, a young woman who jumps from a dull job at a local utility to the golden ticket that is an entry level gig at The Circle. Mae is overwhelmed by her luck and eager to please her new bosses. Early on, reading was a lot of fun, because the patter of the Circle employees feels so…familiar. Every problem has a logical and obvious solution, and nearly all of those solutions involve everyone using The Circle’s services. All employees of the Circle become citizens of the Circle, wittingly or not. They live, eat, sleep, fuck, and party with others from the Circle, because that’s how they get ahead. Mae is swept into this culture willingly, losing sight of her family, non-Circle friends, and most of the facets of her life that once defined her. And so the story is pushed along, as Mae slowly becomes a product of the Circle, even as she (unconvincingly) rebels from time to time.
This phenomenon is certainly not foreign to any young tech worker at Google or Facebook, but Eggers takes it to extremes. He nails the breathless “save the world” mentality that often accompanies the pitches of young tech wizards, but offers no counterpoints save perhaps the reader’s own sense of improbability. For example, one exec at The Circle is working on a plan to implant a chip into every newborn’s bones, so there’d be no more child abductions. Another ruse is the sweeping adoption of “Transparency” by elected officials – every public servant uses The Circle’s technology to be “always on” while attending to their duties, so that anyone can check on them at any time (Mae ultimately goes transparent as well). Toward the end, much of government is close to becoming privatized through The Circle, because it’s more efficient, transparent, and accountable. And various ridiculous mottos espoused by The Circle – “Privacy Is Theft,” “Secrets Are Lies,” “All That Happens Must Be Known” – are readily accepted by society. All of these examples are offered as matter of fact, logical ends serving greater social means, but as readers we smirk – they are likely never happen due to issues the book fails to consider.
Then again…It may be that the lack of contrarian views is intentional, and if you can suspend disbelief, you find yourself in the a place not unlike 1984 or Animal Farm – a twisted version of the near future where absolutists have taken over society. And it’s for the creation of that potential that I give The Circle the most credit – it litigates the idea of the corporation as Paternitas, the all seeing, all caring, all nurturing force to which individuals have forsaken themselves so as to allow a greater good. It’s too early to say whether The Circle will stand with such classics, but certainly it does stand as a warning. I found myself disturbed by The Circle, even as I found it easy to dismiss. Because its predictions were too easily made – I couldn’t suspend disbelief.
But perhaps that’s Egger’s point. The Circle forces us to think critically about the world we’re all busy making, and that’s never a waste of time. And besides, the story has all manner of enjoyable and outlandish contours – if you work in this industry, or just find it fascinating, you’ll leave the book entertained. A worthy read.