In order to have any hope of enjoying Dave Eggers’s The Circle, I had to put aside two major reservations right from the start. The first is the fact that the online social network at the heart of the book is built on the premise that if everyone uses their real name online, civility will reign supreme. Anyone who thinks that hasn’t been on Facebook. Or lived in the world. However, I can see how linking everything to your real name and making everything you say easily findable by employers, spouses, parents, and so on, might stop some people from making nasty remarks. (It might also silence some good and useful speech, but lets leave that aside. We’ll have to for the novel’s premise to work.)
My other reservation was my distaste for the main character. She immediately struck me as a terrible snob. She quit her job at a public utility in her hometown to take a job at The Circle, the social network that has subsumed all other social networks and all online commerce. Of course, I can’t fault her for wanting to take on what seems like an incredibly exciting opportunity, but her attitude toward what seemed like a perfectly good but ordinary and somewhat dull job put me off. Sorry, honey, a stable job like that is hardly a “gulag” and preferring to tell people you’re unemployed rather than working at a utility company only makes you look bad, like you think you’re too good for honest work. (You’re not, Mae, you’re really not.)
As it turns out, though, Mae needs to be terrible for the story to work. Her job at The Circle depends on her competitiveness and need for constant affirmation. Her employers are able to manipulate her into centering her whole life on The Circle because of the sort of person she is. Mae is not alone in falling into The Circle’s trap. Many other employees have given their lives to the company, making it the center of their social lives and even taking up residence in the company-provided dormitories. But Mae’s especially quick rise at the company is surely partly attributable to the fact that she cannot be content to be ordinary. Adding to my distaste, Mae gets involved in a couple of sexual relationships during the novel that don’t make even a speck of sense to me. One in particular is bizarre because the mysterious character she gets involved with is, well, mysterious and therefore interesting, but all she seems to think about is the sex. Any questions about who the guy is or why is he there are fleeting, because the sex is supposedly just too good. (I was utterly unconvinced on this point.)
But enough about Mae. She’s awful, both because she’s awful and because she’s sometimes awfully written. Let me tell you about The Circle. The Circle is a sort of composite of all the social networks we already know and love/hate. People share status updates, endorse others’ posts by sending smiles or sharing Zings about them, launch protests by starting petitions or sending frowns, and find kindred spirits by creating social and support groups around shared interests. All online activities happen under one umbrella, making it easy for The Circle to know just about anything about anyone who bothers to build an online presence.
The Circle’s campus might look to some like a dream office—it certainly does to Mae. There’s great food, fitness facilities, social groups for almost any interest, great entertainment and educational options brought in free. The health plan is comprehensive, and Mae is even able to get her parents on the health plan, which is a wonderful benefit given her father’s struggles with MS. It has always seemed to me that a company that makes it possible to get all your needs met at the office may not want you to leave the office, and that’s certainly the case at The Circle. Mae’s activities are carefully monitored, and when she leaves campus without reporting in on her activities, even if just through posting a photo taken while kayaking, she loses rank within the company. (Climber that she is, Mae cannot accept a low rank.) Employees are expected to share everything because “Sharing Is Caring” and “Privacy Is Theft.” As the book goes on, it becomes clear that this kind of open, “transparent” life is not meant to be limited to The Circle’s employees. Soon, no one will be able to hide.
The argument Eggers is making is not a subtle one, nor is it particularly original. I think anyone who spends time online has given some thought to the implications of our sharing culture. But he puts some interesting spins on the topic that will probably give some readers pause. How much is too much to share, and how much control should we have over our own information? What responsibility do we have for other people’s privacy? How much data is too much? In some cases, the work of The Circle seems helpful, for stopping crime or promoting health, but what becomes of personal choice and privacy? How does constant monitoring affect our behavior? If everything we say and do is monitored, can we ever be truly ourselves? Or will we become our best selves? If so, is it worth the price? What happens when the entire world is a panopticon?
So The Circle is nowhere near perfect. It has some serious flaws, but it’s an entertaining ride. The characters never seem quite real, especially if they’re connected to The Circle, which may be intentional. It’s a long book, around 500 pages, but it moves quickly, and I certainly wanted to see how far The Circle in The Circle would go. There are a couple of twists toward the end, one a serious eye-roller and another that I enjoyed. And there are some hilarious moments. One of my favorites involved the constant pressure Mae is under to endorse anyone who asks—and make it snappy, Mae, so you don’t get frowned at publicly. (So much for authenticity in transparency, right?) I don’t think it’s as important a book as some of the press around it makes it seem, but it does add to a conversation we need to keep having as we put more and more of our lives in the cloud.