May 1, 2020
Dave Eggers’ Techno-Dystopian Novel ‘The Circle’ Gets Some Things Right, But Only By Accident
A large, benevolent start-up company called “The Circle” has become the preeminent, global provider of technological services … but all is not well at the benign Circle. What was a technological utopia becomes a dystopian future—practically overnight. Wait! We at Happy Nice Time People know what you’re thinking: “I’ve read this. Or, was it something really similar? Or maybe it’s something like the book my roommate’s mom is writing?” Well, we don’t think so. The eerie familiarity of Dave Eggers’ “The Circle” may be because it’s just a shade too close to some of the discussions, completely rooted in current-day reality, that are ricocheting around the interwebs – Eggers may have (inadvertently, given his boasts of a complete lack of research) stumbled upon the logical extension of some of the hottest trends in tech and politics: the Internet of Things, gamification, transparency, and a whole host of other thorny issues.
Eggers’ contribution has caused a lot of buzz — or received a lot of “zings” as his Circlers might say — but many of the reviews have been lukewarm at best. But reading those reviews one hears the whisper of the bastardized quote from Shakespeare about dothing and protesting too much, in the face of Eggers’ argument is that technology doesn’t actually need to become consciously aware to become a Skynet-style presence oppressing and controlling human beings, as we’re quite capable of that kind of despotic technocracy all on our own, thank you very much.
Mae Whogivesashitaboutherlastname (because she is clearly what those in the ‘biz’ call a plot vehicle) is aimless after completing her college education. We’re not sure what she learned at college, but critical thinking was definitely not a part of the curriculum. She bumbles her way into a job at the tech company that fixed the Interwebs — through the process of de-anonymization. Suspend your disbelief for the moment that all websites everywhere would suddenly move to requiring a single account, the TruYou account, stripping trolls of their super-flaming powers by linking their supersecret identities to their real world selves, because that shit is already happening, and instead focus on the first substantial project that Mae stumbles upon, in the form of one of the book’s awkward, unrealistic and unnecessary love interests (because we all know that the ladies never learn anything about their workplace without accidentally sleeping with the d00d that tells them about it).
Anyway, this project, aptly named “TruYouth” involves micro chipping all the precious children to ensure their safety. See where this is headed…Oh yeah. Hold on, are you thinking this all sounds ridiculously far-fetched? Well, as it happens, it’s not even ahead of its time, because we’ve already decided to microchip our children, albeit through a slightly less intrusive fashion than a microchip in the bone.
Because critical thinking was apparently completely absent from Mae Whogivesashitaboutherlastname’s college education, she thinks nothing of the tyrannical breach of privacy posed by micro chipping children and continues on her merry way, blundering across increasingly more repressive projects, all of which she accepts without critique. Throughout it all, Mae occasionally goes kayaking, which is probably some meta-point about the importance of the natural world over the virtual. Mae is pressured to contribute to the online community by documenting these trips, until suddenly she gets caught on the ever present video cameras stealing a kayak to escape the increasing burdens she is facing both at home and at work. This theft facilitates a discussion about the importance of shared experience, which in the abstract sounds like a fine idea, until it gets creepy. Because, taken to the nth degree, the fallout of the importance of shared experience is that if you don’t share, you’re stealing your experiences from others who can’t have them, prompting the slogan “Privacy is Stealing.” As a result of this misdeed, Mae is plucked from obscurity, and becomes “transparent,” which essentially means wearing a video camera around your neck at all moments and allowing the unwashed masses to approve or disapprove of your every action.
At this point, we never again hear about Mae’s kayaking. This is either a subtle point about the pressures of the digital world subsuming real world experiences, or it stopped being a useful plot vehicle. Mae’s transparency is a turning point in the book, when the reader can no longer miss the dangers of centralizing information. Rapidly (far too rapidly, given the brief time span of the book) the Circle begins to integrate its many projects, each of which alone is only slightly creepy, but upon centralization foreshadows a truly terrifying, tyrannical reality. With virtually no research it turns out that Eggers repeatedly hit on existing technologies that, when centralized and taken to their logical extreme, turn out to be instruments capable of creating a totalitarian nightmare.
Eggers has been accused of plagiarizing from Kate Losse’s autobiographical account of her early work for Facebook. Let’s address that critique: IT’S INSANE. Factually, the work being done at “The Circle” is far more in keeping with Google’s more outrageous projects (hello, Calico!) but more importantly: Kate, if you’re seriously identifying with Mae Whogivesashitaboutherlastname something is terribly wrong in your world, because Mae might actually be the most naïve woman on Earth. Not to mention, considering how all of Eggers’ characters in “The Circle” are strangely one dimensional, we aren’t one hundred percent sure that Eggers had ever actually met a woman. The passivity of the book’s characters is so consistent it might be intentional, illustrating the importance of users in shaping the trajectory and boundaries of new technologies. And, really, it’s almost a nice touch – that there is a female protagonist in a techy sci-fi book written by a man…except that Mae is a terrible human being. And, for the vast majority of the book, she seems to only talk to her friend Annie about the men she is inexplicably sleeping with.
Let’s see, what else has Eggers been critiqued for? Oh yeah, not understanding the technology. Well, listen, it’s not exactly a textbook on how the internet works, and there are moments where one may think, um, where exactly are the server farms and why do you think modularized storage will come in the form of oversized red boxes, each of which is dedicated to one particular person’s raw data and not distributed over many servers? But, hey, William Gibson’s “Matrix” didn’t exactly conform to an extension of the 1984 version of the Internet and “Neuromancer” is still the best cyberpunk book ever written. It’s not like Eggers’ world isn’t internally consistent or suddenly breaks the laws of nature – and quibbling over his technological sophistication is kind of missing the forest for the trees, particularly if the forest was spelling out “wow, this narrative is heavy handed and all of the characters are one dimensional.” In fact, we would go so far as to argue that these weirdly specific, tech-heavy critiques of the book actually inadvertently highlight the argument Eggers is making about the increasing importance of participating in the online, technological world to the detriment of real world interactions.
Somewhere in Eggers’ dizzyingly heavy-handed portrayal of technological wizardry there is an equally heavy-handed social commentary. Eggers explores problems of health care and insurance, information overload, the pressures of social media, cyber bullying, and privacy, culminating with the (fairly obvious) problems of turning over essential government responsibilities to private enterprise. That sounds pretty awesome, right? Well, in one sense it really is. “The Circle” is a sweeping commentary on technological trajectories and the impact of technology on society. Is it a good book? That really depends on what you’re looking for: if you’re looking for a near-future narrative that skillfully weaves social commentary with interesting, multi-dimensional actors, you might be barking up the wrong tree. The book jumps between different technological improvements and their attendant social dangers with too much speed to really give a complete read on any single element. But if you love conceptual fiction with a great premise, rooted in current-day issues, that illustrates the dangers of taking the centralization of information to its extreme, logical conclusion, this book might well be right up your alley.