Reviewed by Robert Goodman
Imagine if Facebook, Twitter, Apple, Google and Microsoft were all hoovered up into a single social-media driven, tech-savvy organisation. The Circle is Dave Egger’s vision of this technological and social singularity. Run from a Google-style campus in Silicon Valley where along with work you can swim, exercise, eat organic, listen to lectures from visiting luminaries, have your dog cared for and party with fellow ‘circlers’.
Into the Circle steps middle America escapee Mae Holland. Her best friend from college, Annie, is one of the ‘Inner 40’, the power behind the Circle. Annie has used her clout to swing Mae a job in ‘Customer Experience’, the area where customer inquiries are dealt with, with promises of bigger and better things. The key to Customer Experience is not only solving problems but making sure the caller provides feedback. If the feedback is lower than 95%, seeking feedback on the feedback. Mae, on her first day, achieves a feedback score of 98 and is immediately buoyed by the positive response from the company and her peers.
Mae is both seduced and rigorously socialised into the world of the Circle. Early on in her time she is upbraided for not attending a party of the Portugal support group, her membership of this group made automatic by a trawl of her travel photos. This is a world of constant feedback and response, a world in which everybody knows everything about everybody else, a world in which everything is watched.
Each time Mae she takes another step upward the screens on her desk multiply, the amount of information she is processing increases, her personal views and reviews become more influential and she has less time to try and process what it all really means. As Mae rises through the company she comes to the attention of the ‘Three Wise Men’, the founders of The Circle who between them are a combination of Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, Larry Page and Steve Jobs and various other techno-billionaires.
Mae is not a complex character and her journey is predictable and inevitable. She is almost as naïve at the end of the novel as she was at the beginning, avoiding all of the glaring, flashing warning signs to sublimate herself to the company. It is Mae, starry-eyed, who comes up with the idea of making it mandatory for people to have a Circle account in order to be able to vote. And Mae eventually takes on transparency, agreeing to wear a camera 24/7 (she gets to turn it off in the toilet and at night) for global consumption.
There is plenty of commentary here on the evils of group think and loss of privacy. Where these issues are brought to the fore in the action, particularly those incidents involving Mae’s parents, best friend and ex-boyfriend (also fairly one-dimensional characters) they are obvious and heavy handed. And then there is the extended metaphor that Eggers uses to ram the message home involving sharks and seahorses, which is so obvious as to be counterproductive.
The Circle is not a full-on satire, although sometimes it feels like one. For example the buildings at the Circle are named after historical periods (Renaissance or Cultural Revolution) which get increasingly ludicrous. It is more a cautionary tale about the interconnectedness of all things digital, about the dangers of coupling the commercial and the social, and about the slippery slope from good will to totalitarianism. Because, while The Circle is polemically pro-privacy, it also seeks to understand the drivers behind the calls for information transparency. Chip every child and you can prevent kidnapping, put cameras everywhere and you can prevent crime, make politicians wear cameras round their necks and you can prevent corruption. There is egalitarianism and social good in there somewhere but the ultimate outcome is a police state where everyone becomes the police and thought crime is punished.
There are obvious echoes of 1984 all through The Circle. From Mae’s first encounter with The Circle campus with its slogan ‘All that happens must be known’ to the point where she coins her own Orwellian slogans: Secrets are Lies and Privacy is Theft. While Orwell’s technology sprang from a thought experiment, Eggers is arguing that all of the technology that we need to make it real either exists or soon will. That in 2013 we are probably much closer to a 1984-style world than we were when that book was written That the motives might be different but the results are the same.
Okay, yes, there is some irony involved in posting this review of Egger’s book on-line, even more so if it ends up in a Twitter feed. But The Circle, overt and heavy-handed as it is, does make you think twice about your on-line presence, about how much information we are giving away, what people might be using that information for and what happens when we try and reclaim our privacy. Eggers’ does not want to tear down the internet, that horse has already bolted. But, as Orwell did in 1984, he sets up an extreme to illuminate the dangers of going too far, to remind us that any form of social control, even with the best intentions, can become totalitarian.
Hamish Hamilton/Penguin Books, 2013
512 pp, pricing variable
Reviewed by Robert Goodman