Wow. This book is terrifying, but not in a stereotypical horror way. Oh no. I imagine it’s similar to what made people scared while reading Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.
I don’t remember where I read about Dave Eggers’ novel The Circle, but I’m glad I did pick it up, even if my crazy book spending of 2016 pushed it to the bottom of my TBR pile for too long. I’ve come to love these books that look at the future, whether really close or farther away, in a different light from dystopias; where there are more similarities with George Orwell’s 1984 vision of the future. I think the difference with Eggers’ novel is that it hits really close to home. While reading this novel, I kept seeing small details that remind me of Facebook. Fortunately, they are only small details. But still, this has been a very thought-provoking read. Before I dive into my review, I want to give the synopsis, which I borrowed from Goodreads and the back of the novel. I will also warn that this ended up longer than I thought and I mostly give insights into the world Eggers created.
Synopsis: When Mae Holland is hired to work for the Circle, the world’s most powerful internet company, she feels she’s been given the opportunity of a lifetime. The Circle, run out of a sprawling California campus, links users’ personal emails, social media, banking, and purchasing with their universal operating system, resulting in one online identity and a new age of civility and transparency. As Mae tours the open-plan office spaces, the towering glass dining facilities, the cozy dorms for those who spend nights at work, she is thrilled with the company’s modernity and activity. There are parties that last through the night, there are famous musicians playing on the lawn, there are athletic activities and clubs and brunches, and even an aquarium of rare fish retrieved from the Marianas Trench by the CEO. Mae can’t believe her luck, her great fortune to work for the most influential company in the world—even as life beyond the campus grows distant, even as a strange encounter with a colleague leaves her shaken, even as her role at the Circle becomes increasingly public. What begins as the captivating story of one woman’s ambition and idealism soon becomes a heart-racing novel of suspense, raising questions about memory, history, privacy, democracy, and the limits of human knowledge.
While I like several different aspects of a couple different social media platforms, like Instagram, I see the danger of becoming too entrenched in a digital life, of seeking validation from others via likes and comments and shares; of connecting with people digitally more over connecting in real life. This idea is only one upon several touched upon in this novel.
“It’s not that I’m not social. I’m social enough. But the tools you guys create actually manufacture unnaturally extreme social needs. No one needs the level of contact you’re purveying. It improves nothing. It’s not nourishing. It’s like snack food.” – Mercer quote, The Circle
Mae, our heroine, at the beginning of this novel is similar to most college graduates – they feel like they’re struggling to find their place in the workforce and in adulthood. I was there just a couple years ago myself! I related to Mae at first because she seemed like this more reserved and shy girl and like her I would probably struggle to become as social and community centered as the Circle demands. Mae actually gets reprimanded for not posting something about her kayaking, about not reaching out to people in MS support groups when her father had a seizure scare. She’s reprimanded because,
“ALL THAT HAPPENS MUST BE KNOWN.”
That’s one of the company’s mottos. They are all about transparency, the sharing of knowledge, and making it so that everyone has the ability to know everything; to see everything. They want to take the idea of Big Brother and go steps further. After her second ‘sit down’, Mae soon becomes obsessed with proving her worth to the company, to not let her friend Annie (who got her the interview) down about not being involved enough. Every employee has several different number rankings based on how many comments, shares, likes, products she reviews, buys, etc.; her heart rate and number of steps among other things are constantly monitored. The company has made the datafication of daily life normal where the only way to know and understand how you are doing in anything at all is to be given a number rating on a scale. The result of that is to worry and obsess over how to improve that rating. What’s interesting is that we’ve already done this: with wearable tracking devices, checking in via Facebook, Instagram, or other apps, and tracking our health in various ways. People talk about how important privacy is yet our actions say otherwise and some don’t even notice.
“And worse, you’re not doing anything interesting anymore. You’re not seeing anything, saying anything. The weird paradox is that you think you’re at the center of things, and that makes your opinions more valuable, but you yourself are becoming less vibrant. I bet you haven’t done anything offscreen in months. Have you?”
When Mae started to become more concerned with the digital world and how her ratings were, she started to become more of a flat character and passive with each new major development in the story. At first, this bothered me and confused me on where the book was going. But when I finished the novel, I think she was intentionally written that way; I think she was written to be an extremely exaggerated form of a person who has a large online and digital presence and how that impacts the rest of their life and their way of thinking. I kind of thought of her as a robot which is interesting because the Circle prides itself on treating its employees like humans, yet some of the side characters reacted very un-human like in certain scenarios.
Slowly, Mae’s life at the Circle and beyond becomes more public, more ‘transparent’ and she believes that knowledge about everything should be open and accessible to all. Interestingly enough, Annie, starts going on a reverse path to Mae’s. When a new project starts that wants to track and find everyone’s lineage and know the past, Annie finds scary revelations about her family making her rethink that we should know everything.
“We are not meant to know everything, Mae. Did you ever think that perhaps our minds are delicately calibrated between the known and the unknown? That our souls need the mysteries of night and the clarity of day?”
As the book progresses, we see the Circle become stronger and gain more influence. They present various ideas and projects that require tracking, cameras everywhere, etc. all with the idea to ensure transparency, no secrets (especially in government), and safety to just name a few. It was scary to see how easy people gave up their privacy, to allow the company to track them, to be recorded on camera everywhere you went for the guarantee of safety for themselves and their loved ones. Their online presence is tracked as well. And all of this information is available to anyone online; everyone is equal and has equal access to everything.
“Under the guise of having every voice heard, you create mob rule, a filterless society where secrets are crimes.”
I actually think this idea is slightly more scary than a Big Brother world because it isn’t the government that watches you, it’s everyone else. It is all normal, every day people that watch you and call you out on things. And those people tend to be far more judgmental and all that power is dangerous, even spread equally.
While not the first book of its kind to look at privacy, democracy, and knowledge in this kind of world setting, I do think its unique aspects, like it being a corporation not a government that created the platform to allow for all of this happen, makes it worth the read. I will say, however, that it was not heart racing or that suspenseful for me, but I think the slow burn ended up having a bigger impact.
Just for fun, I wanted to share what all of my updates were when I was reading this book.
I’m happy to say that I realized a while ago that I do not care about validation from external sources like the number of likes or comments I get and that I don’t think that I need to share every. single. thought. I have about everything.
Have you read this? What did you think? Are you rethinking your online presence at all?
I really wish I could count this for any of my reading challenges, but I’m not sure I can since I started in December and only finished it today (Jan. 2). Oh well. On to the next read!