I saw an ad for The Circle several weeks ago in the NY Times Book Review, read the synopsis on Amazon, and pre-ordered it. A few days ago, it arrived on my Kindle. I read it in 2.5 days, as I was unable to put it down.
The Circle is definitely a satirical novel about a not-so-utopian future driven by technology. Lately, I’ve read REAMDE by Neal Stephenson and re-read his Snow Crash. I also tore through Ready Player One by Ernest Cline (a book I felt was written purely to be a movie). So I’ve subconsciously been seeking out these dystopian near-futures that seem to have more than enough roots in our present. I might also point out that during this fiction binge, I also quit Facebook for a while. I only recently semi-returned, albeit not entirely. I mention all this so that you can take my current mindset into account as I talk about The Circle.
The story is about Mae, a 24-year old college graduate who ended up landing a job at a fictional company called The Circle, in what appears to be Silicon Valley (although this isn’t explicitly stated, it is definitely implied). The Circle begins as a fairly accurate amalgam of Facebook, Google, Twitter and Apple. Basically, The Circle is a large, technology-focused company (although they are insistent they are “about humans” and humanizing) that bows to advertisers, sells user information to advertisers, makes an amazing amount of money doing it, and to whom users willing give over our privacy. The Circle has users’ health data, likes, dislikes, hobbies, love interests, education, ancestral history, virtual banking, minute to minute daily experiences – because the countless users provide it. Sound vaguely familiar? The founders of the company are the “Three Wise Men,” who varyingly show traits of Larry Ellison, Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, and wrapped in, some random cult leader whom you can’t help but trust and follow.
Our protagonist, Mae, is a bit of a fool, who falls into situations, not because she is brilliant but because things often go her way, even the bad things. She makes some poor love choices, and I honestly could have done without at least one of the boyfriend sub-plots. Mae also has ailing parents who are fighting the domestic healthcare system because her father has debilitating MS. She has an ex-boyfriend, Mercer, who goes on long rants about the evils of social networking and the always-on mentality. Honestly, I agree with some of what Mercer has to say, but he really does get preachy about it all. Luckily for us readers, it makes Mae want to tune out as well.
The book is divided into three unequal parts. Part 1 had me fired up, ready to defend privacy and everything associated with it. Part 2 was frustrating, because I realized that Mae’s foibles weren’t just from youth and inexperience, but true narcissism, bred by the always-on, always-connected world of her life within The Circle. Part 3 revealed a “secret” character that I’d figured out earlier. Admittedly, some of Part 3 was a little too pat for me, too contrived. But the ending? It surprised me. I expected it to go a certain way but it didn’t.
The book is about extremes. There are the folks such as Mercer, who are determined to go analog to an absolute extreme (running off to the woods with no connectivity or phone). As a reader, you begin to expect his particulate fate, but that fate is suspenseful and well-written. Then there is the extreme of May and her colleagues at The Circle. They are so convinced that “secrets are lies,” “privacy is theft” and that “sharing is caring” with no regard to sense of self. In fact, sense of self, such as Mae experiencing a magical moment in nature on her own, is suddenly considered selfish, greedy. In that instance, Mae was alone, disconnected and not sharing, yet this was interpreted as stealing knowledge by not sharing it.
I was fascinated by how Eggers was able to take privacy and flip it on its side, showing the glass half-full version of knowing and seeing all. The Circle, in the novel, suggests that we should all – from government to the everyday office worker – be walking around with a camera around our neck, sharing all, telling all, and keeping no secrets aside from necessary human functions (like sleeping or using the restroom). Eggers somehow reaches out and foretells what the positive argument might be, yet we can hear the underlying satire.
I was taken aback by this dystopian near-future, which is an effect these Orwellian books tend to have on me. The very possibility of all of this seem so near, and so terrifying. Yet, perhaps I am an optimist. As I read the book, as I got more terrified and more determined to change this process, I realized that we won’t let this happen. The Circle in the book is something that is easily bought into and accepted by everyone. As the company seeks to improve society (always watching each other leads to being our best selves?) and eradicate all evil through accountability and technology, the populace just simply agrees and goes along with it. “Why didn’t we think of this earlier?” they ask. Well, humans are just a little too rebellious for this. We would never agree to this instant and digital subjugation. We want to have our private moments. We want to have our living-out-loud moments. We want both. We won’t easily submit to the privatizing of our governments, our health, and our personal lives.
In the book, Mae sacrifices family and friendships, in ways you can’t even imagine until you read it, for the sake of the completion of The Circle. I am always ever hopeful and I believe that we would never let that happen. The Circle is about the lack of individualism and my optimism requires that I believe, as humans, we’re more than the sum of our parts. We’re more than The Circle. No matter the size of Google. Facebook, Twitter, or the social networks that will follow, we value our individualism and will fight for it.
Read The Circle. It will surprise you and I hope, make you think. People seem to be upset about the book, often panning it in reviews, forgetting that The Circle is about a fictional potential future and not the now.
For me, at least, Eggers raised some interesting points. The Circle reminds us that we are individuals and perhaps do not have to be part of the whole. We can choose to share; we can choose not to, and we can strive to retain that sense of individualism. But conversely, many of the solutions proposed by the fictional Circle for society’s ills were pretty fantastic. The question we may need to eventually answer is just what bargain are we willing to make to get there?