Monday, October 21, 2013

The Circle, Dave Eggers

Dave Eggers' latest novel, The Circle, imagines a company that has combined and successfully monopolized elements of Kickstarter, Facebook, Google, Amazon, and Twitter, to name a few. It's reach among young citizens the world over is unparalleled, and it is seen as the most exciting company to work for. Mae Holland is hired in with the assistance of her former college roommate Annie, who has been climbing up The Circle ranks for a number of years. Starting in the Customer Experience department, Mae learns the ropes, and sees that working for The Circle is an understatement; employees are expected to participate within it's social network and community as much as they are responsible for performing their work duties.

The universal operating system that is The Circle has increased online efficiency in an unprecedented way. All purchasing, banking information, personal data, anything attributed to an online presence has been unified in a system that forbids anonymity, seemingly taking the drama out of internet interactions by making the individual accountable for any and all web deeds. Without anonymity, no one can escape responsibility for nasty comments and identity theft, or so goes the theory.

Indeed, privacy is seen by the Three Wise Men (as the three tops of the company are referred to) as selfish; every piece of information and experience should be made accessible to all citizens the world over. They imagine a Utopia of data sharing, where nothing is off limits and class structures are erased by the power of information sharing.

The skeptical reader will raise an eyebrow when Mae is called into human resources for problem mitigating because she didn't attend a party she was invited to online and her dedication to the company is questioned; or when Mae's health stats become a part of her online presence, viewable by all Circle account holders; and when The Circle produces webcams that are cheap enough to put in just about any location, and enable live feeds from every camera to be accessible to all Circle members. The level of surveillance and transparency The Circle aspires to is terrifying.


Mae's success within the company skyrockets when she agrees to go fully transparent, wearing a camera around her neck and providing a live feed of every move she makes, only stopping the feed's audio when she uses the bathroom, and only going offline after 10:00pm if she's going to sleep. Thousands watch her day to day around The Circle campus, as she participates in massive parties, has access to unreleased products to test and rate online, and witnesses The Circle digest the brainchild of countless young thinkers, dying to have their products/concepts manufactured and marketed by the omnipotent Circle.

The Circle is not without it's naysayers though; an enigmatic man habitually questions Mae, and begins to demand that she use her online presence to warn the masses of the dangers inherent in dedicating so much of their lives to their Circle accounts. Mae's family is given free health care, taking a monumental financial load off of her father, who has been struggling with MS. The cost, however, is that they live with these webcams all over their home. The Circle feels that they should want to share their experiences with others who deal with the disease, but they quickly cover the cameras with fabric, attempting to maintain some privacy.

Mae's ex boyfriend, still a presence in her parents' lives, also takes issue with The Circle, believing that it dehumanizes and belittles actual one-on-one interaction. Indeed, Mae is so busy on her phone "smiling" or "frowning" at her followers' comments that she can barely participate in dinner conversation. Sound familiar?

 Mae's naivete and oftentimes vapid outlook make her a very difficult protagonist to read. There are so many situations where her ambition and need for authentication via The Circle's social sphere lead her down a very shortsighted, selfish path. Inevitably it is that very naivete and selfishness that drive the novel right into the frightening territory Eggers' wishes to suggest our web-obsessed culture is doomed to take us.

While I certainly appreciate what this novel seeks to accomplish, the metaphors are so obvious it feels awkward. There just wasn't much finesse to how the novel was imagined. It doesn't really delve into any great depths, so much as offer a summary of the varying problems such a monopolizing, totalitarian social network could have on humanity. One is left at the end of the novel at the foothills of the mountain that is Singularity, vaguely aware that an internet creation so all-encompassing can have no other direction in sight.

It's a very straight forward telling of some very complex questions that need to become a part of everyone's discourse. Eggers' true achievement in this novel is that it is imagined only a few years out from what we are currently living. What he's created isn't much of a creative leap, so much as a surreal foreshadowing.

“We all know the world is too big for us to be significant. So all we have is the hope of being seen, or heard, even for a moment.”

No comments:

Post a Comment