The Circle by Dave Eggers is a sort of 1984 of the digital age. But whereas Orwell’s book begins in the midst of it all, The Circle starts on the verge of it and we watch in horror as everything slides so easily towards what could end up being totalitarianism.
The Circle is the world’s most powerful internet company. Run by the Three Wise Men, we have Eamon, the public face of the company, easy-going, disarmingly friendly; Stenton is the business mind, the one who figures out how to monetize everything; and Ty, the tech genius on which the company was founded. That tech is TruYou, a sort of “One Ring” for the internet. With a TruYou account you can pay bills and make purchases, use all of your social media accounts, pretty much do anything and everything you need to do on the internet. And because you can’t make a fake account and no one can hide behind screen names any longer, the internet has shaped up to be a nicer place.
Everyone wants to work for the Circle on their sprawling California campus, a perfectly engineered microcosm of order and beauty that integrates work and play and, health and wellness. After a while working for the Circle people start to have a hard time navigating the world “out there” and so more and more of the 11,000 employees want to move into one of the dorm rooms on the Circle Campus.
Into this world comes our narrator, Mae Holland. She had big dreams after college but found herself in a boring job working for the utilities company in her home town. She reaches out to her friend and former college roommate, Annie, who is part of the inner circle of 40 at the Circle, the ones who hear the pitches of inventors and start-ups, the ones who make the decisions and the plans. Annie’s job is to fly around the world, smoothing the ruffled feathers of governments and eliminating road bumps thrown up by regulators. Annie gets Mae a job at the Circle working in Customer Experience, a fancy name for customer service.
Mae is so grateful and wants to do a good job so she doesn’t disappoint or embarrass Annie. She throws herself into her work. Mae is young and innocent and doesn’t see that she is being indoctrinated into a cult. It isn’t long before her whole life belongs to the Circle and all of her old friends and her parents are estranged.
One of the creepy things about those working at the Circle is that very few of them are older than thirty. Sucked in when they are as young and innocent as Mae, believing that technology can save the world, they endorse things like placing trackers in the ankle bones of children so no child can ever be abducted again. Of course these tracking chips then start to be used for tracking educational attainment and health and all sorts of other things. Privacy doesn’t matter if it stops crime or solves health issues.
And soon, in the name of transparency, politicians start wearing cameras around their necks that record 24/7 everything they do and say and broadcasts it to the internet. If a politician doesn’t want to be transparent she is assumed to be hiding something. And it all just keeps getting worse and worse as the Circle works to “close the circle.” What closing the circle means no one really even knows, at least not people like Mae, but they go along with it anyway, the circle must be closed.
What it amounts to, of course, is the Circle running the world. There are even some 1984– type doublespeak slogans:
Sharing is Caring
Secrets are Lies
Privacy is Theft
Mae is given a number of opportunities to see the truth of the Circle but Mae loves Big Brother, er, the Circle, and she wants to make everyone else love it too.
The Circle was a page-turner, the horror of watching Mae get sucked into the hivemind is delicious. It is not a perfect book, however. Eggers doesn’t seem to trust that his readers will understand several very obvious metaphors so he explains them to us. He also doesn’t trust that we will understand that the Circle is aiming for world domination and why that is bad so he explains that to us too. Mae’s father has multiple sclerosis and Eggers gets some of the information about treatment incorrect which was pretty annoying because it could have easily been made correct.
Most of the technology in the book doesn’t exist, or, if it does, it does not exist in such a refined state (facial recognition for instance is still unreliable but in the book, as on TV and in movies it works fast and perfect every time). I don’t have an argument against the technology and how (currently) unrealistic it is. Eggers uses technology to make a point: technology will not create a utopian society and we really need to stop and think about what we are doing and how we use tech before it’s too late. There is a certain technology company we all know whose motto is “do no evil.” Eggers shows just how much evil can be done in the name of doing good.