I’m quite torn by this book. It’s certainly readable and makes some persuasive arguments about the perils of an increasingly connected society. It is also over-simplified and one-dimensional, with allegory as subtle as being smashed across the face with a house brick.
Google, Twitter and Facebook have all been swept aside by ‘The Circle’. It’s the unifying piece of social media that just about everybody uses. It was created by a Mark Zuckerberg figure, and led to the founding of a company that everybody in the world wants to work for. The novel opens with Mae Holland’s first day as a ‘Circler’. She’s thrilled and more than a little overawed. Her role is in customer satisfaction. Her aim, to ensure everybody rates her and the company 100. Anything below 97 is cause for concern. Mae has the perfect job in the perfect company, where her employers fulfil her every need and every night is party night. What could possibly go wrong?
The more I think about the book, the more I remember what I liked in it. Eggers is very good at stripping down our social media habits and examining each part. With a small amount of extrapolation he shows them for the absurdities they are. For example, the fact that 95% satisfaction is something to be concerned about; job threatening even. Clearly ridiculous, yet in the online age, anything less than 100% on feedback is considered a slight. And we’re encouraged to feedback on everything all the time.
So it is for Mae, only more so. When she fails to feedback, she finds she has upset her colleagues and friends at the Circle. She becomes obsessed with liking the right stuff, and ensuring she ‘smiles’ enough of her Circle’s posts, to at least give the appearance of engagement. Sound familiar? Further to that, much of The Circle is devoted to the idea, that seeing/hearing about somebody else doing something is the same as doing it yourself. Seeing pictures of a World Heritage site is as good as experiencing it yourself. This too is barely fiction.
The novel is set in the near future where the increased availability of cheap cameras, microphones and data storage, make it possible for complete access to a person 24/7. The aim of The Circle is greater access to information and data, all the time. Transparency of thought, action and desire.The company claims it makes the world a better place, whilst at the same time, they use the data to monetise just about everything. It’s a world view very similar to the one created in Aleana Graedon’s The Word Exchange. Mae is chastised by her superiors for taking some private moments. She is preventing countless others from learning from her experiences. Secrecy causes the world’s problems, one of the company’s three CEOs claims in a persuasive polemic. The technology anaesthetises us into going along with him.
The novel highlights the possibility of the world sliding into a capitalist totalitarian state, with the hearts, mind and wallets of the population ensnared by degrees. It does all sound frighteningly plausible, yet I’m not convinced. The novel is delivered very much from a single perspective. There are almost no dissenters, and the one person who does dissent is too rabidly anti The Circle. He’s a caricature.
I agree with Eggers that many people are sleepwalking to the point where they’ll no longer be able to find their way back from the shops without their phones, but there is a large slice of population, old and young, who are wide awake and fighting off the digital chloroform. The book is over long. Perhaps this is to make the gradual erosion of Mae’s common sense in the face of her employer plausible. Death by a thousand cuts maybe, but each slice takes us over the same ground and it becomes tedious.
Worse is the reveal that isn’t a revelation, and a aquarium based interlude that contains the least subtle allegory since the resurrection of Aslan. Not only is this a breeze-block to the nose, I strongly suspect it would be impossible in reality. I’m not a marine-biologist, but even a rudimentary understanding garnered through watching the Octonauts, tells me the impossibility of the fish-tank Eggers created. To have something so fundamental so glaringly wrong threw the whole book out of kilter for me. With something so transparent and stupid included it’s hard to take the rest of the novel seriously.
Whilst I liked many of The Circle’s assertions, I was left disappointed by the novel overall. By the end Eggers sounded a bit too much like a madman standing on his soapbox in Hyde Park. Yes I think he has legitimate concerns, but his portrayal of them is not the measured, balanced response I might have expected. In the parlance of his creation, this is neither Smile nor Frown. I’m just bemused that the good and indifferent can lie so closely together.
For similar reads this year see also:
(and the already mentioned Word Exchange)