It seems perversely ironic to finish reading Dave Eggers’ The Circle and then immediately turn to the Internet to see what people thought about it. But that’s what we did.
Many reviewers compared it to 1984, because of the information society and monitoring and all. On the other hand, it’s also like Atlas Shrugged. That is, if Atlas Shrugged were about social media rather than about trains. Sharing is the norm; wanting to keep things to yourself is considered antisocial and selfish. The Circle even has its own John Galt.
If The Hunger Games is the logical extension of reality shows, The Circle is the logical extension of social media companies such as Google, Facebook, Twitter, and Klout. In what may be the only book to celebrate the call center, The Circle demonstrates what can happen if a company — even an apparently benevolent one like the eponymous company of the book — can get too much power and people share too much information.
The protagonist, from whose point of view the entire book is told, is Mae Holland. If Eggers were a woman, Mae would be a “Mary Sue” — you know, the plucky young woman author surrogate who not only saves the world but has all the heroes madly in love with her. (Unfortunately for The Circle, the heroes are kind of a weird lot, and Eggers could use some work in female character development.) Mae’s naiveté provides the opportunity for a number of characters to have “As you know, Bob” exposition scenes explaining to her what’s going on. She also becomes the mouthpiece for some increasingly out-there ideas and speeches that sometimes seem to come out of left field. (See Atlas Shrugged.)
In the book, The Circle is growing rapidly and making it easier for people to share information – both their own and that of other people. Mae – helped out by her friend Annie, who is in the inner circle of The Circle but who appears to be the victim of some mysterious malady that is never explained – is riding the wave of all this, both victimizing others and becoming a victim of this relentless openness. The Circle is a benevolent dictator, offering its employees the most amazing benefits (including never having to go home) and only wanting the right thing for the world, whether it’s saving the rain forest or ending child abductions.
Anything described in such glowing terms must have a downside, and The Circle does, but it’s essentially collateral damage. Though software developers in general can sometimes be the most strident civil libertarians out there, nobody ever seems to object or point out the flaws in the company’s plans. And in a world that seems to lack red states, the digital divide, the EFF, or the ACLU, few other people object, either, and the ones that do are typically presented as Luddite outliers.
To people who aren’t familiar with cutting-edge social media, much of this book might seem like science fiction, but it has a ripped-from-the-headlines verisimilitude that includes all sorts of real-life incidents, like the guy who camped out at AOL for two months without actually working there. Though, of course, it leaves out other real-life incidents that don’t promote its point of view. Not to mention the fact that women play so prominent a role in the book. We could only dream that Silicon Valley were that gender egalitarian.
But in a book that seems intended to do for social media what The Andromeda Strain did for biology, it can be hard to read it as a dystopian fantasy when so many aspects of the world it describes sound so darn neat. It might end up giving Google, Facebook, Twitter, and Klout some new ideas.
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