The subject matter of “The Circle” proved itself relevant to me when I became very self conscious while reading how often I paused to check my phone when it buzzed from a new email or stopped to check Twitter. For those who embrace it, the digital age is constantly splitting our attention between what’s in front of us and what’s happening online. Experience takes on an inauthentic feel if it’s not captured, shared and commented upon in some way. We thrive on the validation we get from the amount of followers we have, comments received or likes given. This has produced a dramatic shift in how we relate to other people, measure self esteem, process the world and define what is considered private. Dave Eggers imagines a not too distant future where an ambitious woman named Mae joins a rapidly growing search and social media tech company called The Circle that is in the process of transforming society by eradicating privacy altogether.
As a wide-eyed young professional who has been stuck at a very non-tech-savvy company Mae is thrilled by the advanced organization at her new job. Not only do they have all the latest gadgets and live on a utopian-like campus of wonders, but the social structure of the company is meant to support and reinforce employees’ productivity through engaging them as a community. Soon Mae realizes that the optional after-hours social activities aren’t so optional when given a firm talking to by terrifying representatives from the HR department. Employees are ranked by the amount they participate at events not physically but through photographing, posting, commenting and giving emoticon reactions to them on their social media site. As Mae feels pressure to keep up and learn the way to advance her ranking she rapidly becomes wholly involved in the company and turns into a voice box and lynchpin that could see The Circle become a mandatory way of life for everyone everywhere.
A lot of the concepts and technological developments imagined in this novel do feel very real, but the rapid adoption of them by large governmental organizations and the population in general didn’t. The narrative perspective is very much an inside view of this world so Mae’s flurry of supportive comments from around the world is, of course, largely positive. However, I found it difficult to believe that people would generally be so in favour of surrendering their privacy. It’s true that large swaths of people readily post what would usually be considered intimate details and photos about their lives on the internet where anyone could access them. But this information is usually strategically uploaded and shared as part of constructing a particular projection of a person’s identity. I find it hard to believe that so many would enthusiastically give all-out access to every moment of their lives without kicking up a fuss.
I appreciated it more when the novel points out how acolytes of The Circle showed an overinflated sense of users influence on government policy such as the statement “We’ve sent over 180 million frowns from the U.S. alone, and you can bet that has an effect on the regime.” Believers in the project revere their ranking and statistics so much that they think these numbers equate to real-world changes – as if passively clicking a button to make a frown face will convince a dictatorial government to reverse their policies. Also it felt very true when Eggers' describes the endless demand for more attention and prickly egos that come out with interacting with virtual strangers online. When Mae comments on someone's status there are effuse thanks followed by demands for more attention or requests for favours in relation to other friends. The web is like a black hole down which you can pour endless amounts of attention and it will never be enough.
However, there is something about the simplicity of the central protagonist Mae which felt troubling to me. Eggers must make her naïve so that she is particularly susceptible to believing the company's good intentioned visions of eradicating crime and child kidnapping even when it means installing cameras everywhere on the planet and planting microchips in children's skulls. However, it's slightly unsettling to me that her choices between championing The Circle's dubious technology or rebelling against the totalitarian possibilities inherent in its appropriation are distilled by the author into her two romantic pursuits in the book. One man stands for the company's values and the other stands for opposition to it. Who will she choose? This seems to me a very old fashioned way of solving a female protagonist's moral dilemma.
“The Circle” is an entertaining and easy read, but I didn't feel like it lived up to it's potential. I've never read this author before but I expected slightly more literary finesse from someone who has been so influential and popular in the book world. Eggers presents a dystopian modern version of a Brave New World that makes privacy a crime. The questions it asks are important ones we should continue asking ourselves while technology advances and is adopted by the general population so rapidly. It's an exaggerated vision of how reality could go, but I feel it doesn't fully engage with the complexity of the ideas it raises.