Saturday, September 9, 2017

The Circle

The Circle
2013 Dave Eggers
507 pages

Sharing is Caring.
Privacy is Theft.
Secrets are Lies.

Imagine an internet transformed by a company  so innovative and ambitious that it had swallowed Facebook, Google, etc. whole.  It began with TruYou, a common login that allowed people to use one login for virtually everything online, from their hobbyist forums to their bank accounts.  It ends....well, that's up to you and me. The Circle combines 1984 and The Social Network to present a dystopia-in-the-making,  one most users of internet service will recognize in their own habits. Funny and alarming,  it's easily the most riveting novel I've read this year.

The Circle as a novel begins with the arrival of Mae, a frustrated twenty-something to the customer service desk of the company. As the novel progresses, her willingness to adopt to the Circle culture and work hard to perpetuate it,  take her to the heights of power, to the company's own inner circle. Readers witness her transformation as she grows to ignore the concerns of her ex-boyfriend and her parents that something isn't right about the world the Circle wants to build.  At the center of the Circle are the Three Wise Men -- a reclusive young genius,  a charismatic public face, and an avaricious  financier.  Between the three of them, they want to bring about a techno-utopia by allowing for -- and even mandating -- total transparency.  The Circle isn't just a social network/search engine/marketplace on steroids, it's also an Apple-esque technology company that produces new tools -- tools like small, discrete cameras that allow for live-streaming from multiple locations. The network and its tools grow throughout the novel to allow for technocratic control of society:  child abductions are thwarted by chip implants,  politicians begin wearing bodycams to prove they aren't sitting in smoking rooms hatching conspiracies, and neighborhood watch programs alert residents every time a non-registered person enters their block. Mae's own ascent into the elite happens when  she leads a campaign to turn the Circle political, to make its platform a voting mechanism. When one person drives off a bridge to get away from the Circle, their response is to wistfully say that would have never happened if we could make everyone give up automobiles that aren't self-driving.

The Circle is both warning and dark comedy, mocking compulsive users of social networks while building a threat that is more ominous than hilarious. In an early scene, Mae is called into her supervisor's office to resolve a serious dispute between her and another coworker -- one she has never met, but who invited her to a party for kindred hobbyists, and one who was deeply hurt when she never responded, not even to say "Sorry, no can do".  The world of the Circle demands constant interaction, constant attention, constant sharing.  It's not enough to go to after-work parties: there have to be pictures, shares, tags, likes, and tweets about the party. Mae first approaches her position like a nine to five job; she does her work, she goes home or goes kayaking, she returns. This is not the Circle way. The Circle's social demands  are such that some people simply live on campus, and even when they leave, the idea that they've left the Circle is almost blasphemous. Mae went herself? She didn't tell everyone she was going so they could send her Smiles, and worst of all...she didn't record anything. No one can benefit from her experience except from Mae!  What selfishness.

Although I have my doubts about how effectively this novel could happen (the NSA has problems with storage and cooling, and it's not coping with hundreds of thousands of simultaneous camera feeds),  Eggers' novel makes obvious two dangers of the growing social network apparatus. First, there are people whose histrionic obsession with social media make them not far removed from Circlers. Two, the role that some companies have as web infrastructure -- principally Google,  with its search engine, browser, cloud storage, email, control of YouTube and blogger --  poses a threat to free communication. Google is not a neutral actor; it has an agenda and does not brook dissent, either external or internal.  Facebook is no less threating to privacy; the reclusive genius used in The Circle is a transparent clone of Zuckerberg, complete with hoody.   The greatest problem shown by The Circle is what happens when these two factors combine -- the needy child-mob on social networks, and the infrastructural control they rely on and enabled.

For what it's worth: I maintain a Wordpress copy of this website in case Google ever gets really nefarious.

4 Alternatives to Google


  1. I've picked this up a few times as a possible read and put it down again. I'm guessing that too much about it would feed into my own prejudices and continually annoy the heck out of me.

  2. Most of the people in this book would drive you crazy, I think. There's one sane man who tries to talk Mae out of the Circle cult (in a hand-written letter, to boot), and a few other people are iffy...but most of the characters are Mae's coworkers, and they're all crazy for the Circle.

  3. this seems like a scary book... then i wonder what i'm leading into as i sit here typing...


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