Book Review Saturday – ‘The Circle’

The first thing I did when I finished this book was to send a Tweet about it. Then, I checked up what other reviewers thought of it on Goodreads. Now (but I’m sure it won’t have escaped your attention) I’m blogging about it.

Is this irony? I’m not even sure myself.

Image: thewire.com

Image: thewire.com

The Circle is probably not the sort of book a person like me should read – a person, in short, who has a fraught relationship with modern technology and who is a bit afraid of the internet and what it’s doing to personal privacy and how it seems like people feel more entitled, these days, to say what they like about others no matter how hurtful or damaging just because they can. I’m fascinated by technology, but at the same time I hate it. At the same time as loving the fact that I can connect with people all over the world through my computer, I want to take off and live in the wilderness away from everyone – but, if I were living in this book, someone would have been there before me and left a SeeChange camera behind.

I really like Dave Eggers. I’ve been a fan since A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, and while I haven’t read all his novels I usually feel like I’m in for a pleasant journey when I pick one up. I enjoyed The Circle for all the reasons I usually enjoy an Eggers novel – good writing (overall), good characterisation (overall), and a plot engaging enough to keep me reading. I didn’t put this one down, reading it practically in one sitting over the course of a grey, rainy Sunday – and it’s over 500 pages, so it did well to keep my attention that long. But I can’t say I enjoyed it. This book disturbed me.

The Circle tells the story of Mae Holland, a twenty-four year old woman who has been working in her local power utility plant for the two years since she graduated college. Her friend and college roommate, Annie Allerton, was recruited by the world’s most sought-after employer, the Circle (a mix of Facebook, Google, Twitter, Amazon and just about any other internet- or tech-based company you can imagine), straight after completing her MBA and – after a lot of encouragement from Annie – Mae eventually applies for a job there, too. Apparently on her own merit, she is successful. She’s employed in the ‘Customer Experience’ department, dealing with queries and complaints from Circle users all over the world. Her salary and benefits are excellent, and her parents are very proud. Mae herself is thrilled to have landed such a prestigious job.

But who, or what, is the Circle?

The Circle has made it impossible to hide behind an internet avatar. Everyone is who they say they are – the TruYou method – and this has (apparently) made internet trolling obsolete, along with cyberbullying and fraud and a host of other crimes. The web is an open, rational, welcoming and unthreatening place. People can do everything through their TruYou account – pay their bills, their taxes, run their businesses, maintain their social media profiles, even cast their vote and insure their vehicle. What’s wrong with that – right?

Mae is welcomed personally to the company. Everything seems so laid-back and friendly. She is trained in the use of her equipment, and it is explained to her that customers will leave feedback and scores on her ‘performance’; if this score is anything less than 100, she is expected to follow up with them and encourage the customer to raise the score. So far, so expected. As the novel goes on, however, we feel the cold hand of entrapment begin to strangle Mae, and us. She is strongly encouraged to take part in the company’s social gatherings – ‘strongly encouraged’ to the point of compelled – and everything she does has to be documented. Photographed. Shared. She must comment on the photographs of everyone else. She must improve her rankings and become one of the top 200 ‘Circlers’ – people whose every purchase is used as advertising, whose every choice is monetised somewhere, whose every ‘zing’ (a Twitter-like social media platform) has no value unless it is rezinged, or commented on, or given a ‘smile’ or a ‘frown’, by hundreds if not thousands of others. How you are seen, whether you are ‘liked’, whether you have followers and influence, matters more than anything.

Every so often a new screen is added to her workspace, another distraction. She has her work to do, but she also has to take part in constant surveys, trying to divide her attention between these surveys and the queries which pile in on top of her. Then, she is expected to train the newer staff, and another screen is added to her desk, one on which their queries appear, colour-coded depending on how urgent they are. She has no time to think or reflect, and eventually she ends up living at the Circle campus, away from her family, self-medicating in order to sleep at night. She works into the small hours, despite the Circle’s declaration that they want to enable their employees to have a perfect ‘work-life’ balance – the way they run their company makes that impossible. It quickly becomes terrifying and claustrophobic – to the reader, at least.

As well as all this, the Circle is constantly developing new technology, all of which is sold as marvels which will transform the world – chips embedded into children to stop them from being abducted, cameras the size of lollipops which can be discreetly placed anywhere – and while we witness the fervour and evangelism of their inventors and the passion of the Circlers, as readers we are thinking: hang on. But what about privacy? What about people who don’t want their every move broadcast to the world? What about these microchipped children who will grow up still microchipped, against their will? Mae’s parents and her ex-boyfriend Mercer are the voices of ‘reason’ here; her parents cover up the cameras in their house, and Mercer runs to the wilderness in an effort to get away from the constant surveillance.

But Mae? She is swallowed up.

She becomes a company figurehead, going ‘transparent’ – in other words, wearing a camera 24/7 which is broadcast on the internet to her millions of followers. Every conversation she has becomes a performance. Every interaction with the world rings false. A rift begins to open up in her psyche, but she stifles it. The Circle’s stated aim – to make knowledge a human right – sounds so good on the surface, but the truth of its cancerous power is gradually revealed as we read. People have a ‘right’ to know everything, regardless of security or privacy or personal objection. The will of the person becomes crushed under the will of the people.

Then, Mae meets a strange man on the Circle campus who is maddeningly elusive – she can’t find him on the staff intranet. She can’t search for him, she can’t figure out who he is. The fact that she can’t know everything about him drives her crazy. But who is he? And why is he important?

Some of this book is irritatingly heavy-handed – the imagery of the shark, for instance – but I thought the rest of it was spot on. People have criticised Mae’s naivety and stupidity, but I think Eggers pitches her just right: idealistic and inexperienced, sucked into the cogs of a large, persuasive and well-oiled machine. I thought the utopian aims and dystopian outcomes of the technology were brilliantly handled, and the tension (and sense of being crushed) amps up at a perfect pace. Technologically, it’s unlikely (if not impossible), but if you can suspend your disbelief that forcing people to use their real names online would crush out cybercrime, the book makes a terrifying and gripping point – do we have the ‘right’ to know everything? Where do our rights overlap with others’, and which set of rights should take precedence? Is it possible to fool all of the people, all of the time?

Read The Circle and find out.

 

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