We live in an age of escalating surveillance–one in which personal privacy is increasingly rare, and more and more of our lives are shared publicly on the Internet. So perhaps it’s no surprise that The Circle, by Dave Eggers, takes things a few steps further with his novel, introducing us to a very Google-like company named The Circle, in which they are at the forefront of technology, with seemingly endless resources available to make their bold visions a reality. The Circle’s goal is to capture all human knowledge and make it available to the masses. But this type of all-encompassing information-gathering comes with a high cost.
The Circle focuses on Mae Holland, a newly-hired employee, as she begins her career with the technology company. It’s immediately obvious that The Circle is an analogy to modern-day Google, with its over-the-top benefits, campus-wide parties, and nearly anything employees could desire available to them–day or night. As Mae settles into her new position, she’s overwhelmed by how lucky she is to be part of this amazing group, especially after spending her first two years out of college working in a drab cubicle at a utility company in her tiny home town. She not only feels incredibly lucky to be part of The Circle, but somehow undeserving of the job. The first few chapters are a whirlwind of introductions to resources available on the campus, and to how much information the company collects–and expects their employees to contribute. At first, the comparisons to Google are obvious, but the novel quickly moves beyond even what Google currently provides, into a different level entirely. Oddly, this is both one of the novel’s strengths, as well as its weakness; as more and more statistics get introduced, it nearly overpowers the narrative of the story, becoming instead a list of social media “to-dos”, rather than a functional story.
Much of the book is spent introducing concept after concept; TrueYou, SeeChange, ChildTrack, SoulSearch, PastPerfect, Demoxie, and countless other names are thrown around, with each new program introducing increasingly pervasive levels of surveillance, until there’s no such thing as privacy any longer. Politicians are forced to wear cameras at all times, streaming their entire lives to the world, or face persecution for failing to do so. All of these programs are well-intentioned, but the ramifications of them are far-reaching and disturbing beyond measure. Indeed, a totalitarianism is hinted at, as politicians who voice criticisms of The Circle suddenly are found to have child-porn on their computers, or some skeleton in their closet–buried in their past–is suddenly uncovered, leading to their ruin. Perhaps these events are coincidental, but people seem to accept the explanations as fact. After all, The Circle is incapable of fault, right?
What makes this novel so intriguing isn’t the outlandish invasions of privacy that The Circle is able to obtain, but that Eggers paints a portrait of Orwellian society in-the-making–one that is all too believable, considering the current state of technology. Already, today’s Internet companies have extraordinary access to data, and the ramifications of this is just beginning to come to the public consciousness. The Circle takes current events just a little bit further, and serves as a cautionary tale to show what might happen if these companies’ aren’t reigned in before it’s too late.
Despite the intrigue, the novel does have its share of faults. The main character, Mae Holland is rather naive,and her idealism leads the reader to question her sanity from time to time. It’s often a frustrating read, to have the author point out more and more disturbing revelations, only to have Mae rationalize things and accept the latest egregious assaults against civil liberties. She seems forgetful of things that are rather crucial, and even cold-hearted as she turns her back on her past to embrace The Circle wholeheartedly. Eggers introduces so many concepts and spends so much time detailing how many ‘screens’ the characters use, that it sometimes feels like a diary of going to work each day–albeit at an amazingly generous company–to the point of feeling mundane. Entire plot points get left out, like the treatment of her father’s illness, and their lack of participation in the newest programs of The Circle. There are times it’s particularly unbelievable that society as a whole is embracing what The Circle has to offer, yet they seem to do so–in increasing numbers.
Despite its shortcomings, however, The Circle is a must-read novel, if only to highlight the strange nature of today’s society, and how the information we share can be used. Internet companies probably know more about us than we do ourselves, and the more we share, the more they learn about not only us, but our friends and loved-ones as well. It’s a thought-provoking adventure into a what-if future. It’s one of today’s 1984-style novels that should be read, discussed, and argued. After all, that’s what makes a good book transcend the genre and become a great book.
Reviewed by Bradley K. Brown