A beautiful campus. Enthusiastic employees. Endless money. Complete control of the internet. All the resources and initiative to change the world.
Welcome to the Circle.
Mae Holland had lived a boring life. She graduated college with a degree in psychology and no ambition. She returned to her hometown, and worked in a burlap cubicle in a utility company. Mae’s roommate in college Annie, on the other hand, jumped out of college and into a high-up job in the “the only company that really mattered at all”: The Circle. When Annie pulls some strings and Mae is offered a job, she cannot help but accept. “My God, Mae thought. It’s heaven.”
Mae falls deeply, blindly, in love with The Circle. She went from nothing to everything, and so she couldn’t tell anyone no. Her feverous naïveté is overwhelming. And, as the book progresses, increasingly frustrating. As Mae falls deeper into the Circle, as new screens are added to her desktop, she encounters things, blips in the “perfection” of the Circle. But each time, instead of stopping and rethinking the Circle’s dystopian philosophies, she is convinced (and convinced easily) that it is all for the greater good. So desperate to move closer to the Circle’s inner circle, Mae throws herself at the philosophies of the Three Wise Men, the idiosyncratic trio that started the Circle. She goes so far as to introduce catchy phrases that capture The Circle’s new age, with no sense of how much influence they could have:
SECRETS ARE LIES
PRIVACY IS THEFT
ALL THAT HAPPENS MUST BE KNOWN
Mae changes the world. And if it was not obvious from the start, Eggers makes it abundantly clear that she did not change the world for the better.
Of course, the foundation the The Circle’s philosophy, the unadulterated pursuit of knowledge, is not inherently bad. In fact it’s often a very noble pursuit. From the eyes of an everyday consumer, all of the Circle’s goal appear to be good. The Circle encourages politicians to go “transparent” to eliminate political corruption and backroom transactions. They install small “SeeChange” cameras all over the world to catch criminals, keep an eye on one’s home, check how the waves are for surfing, and experience Kilimanjaro or The Eiffel Tower or the Galapagos Islands without ever having to leave your sofa. Mae’s friend (and lover) Francis develops a child tracking chip to prevent kidnappings and child abductions. PastPerfect tracks one’s family history, and gives one access to every file, letter, photo, bill and transcript that has touched their bloodline.
The process, naturally, is what is corrupt. SeeChange cameras allow random people to spy on Mae’s parents. The child tracking chip allows for helicopter parents to truly take control. The PastPerfect reveals dark moments in Annie’s parents’ past, aiding her fall into a catatonic psychosis.
Dave Eggers gives a stomach-churning take on what it means to have too much of a good thing. The Circle fictionalizes a philosophical debate that has existed since the very beginning of the Internet: what are the boundaries of our privacy? What does it means to have an online identity? Where should we draw the line between “real” life and our “online” life? Who am I?
The Circle’s commentary on the nature of identity is its strongest quality. What does it mean to be alive in a digital age? Traditionally, identity is defined as one’s collection of thoughts, perceptions, feelings, actions, and discourse. We each have an inner narrative, a life-story, tracks on which we move through the universe. So what happens to this fundamental narrative when every aspect, every thought, feeling, action, is shared with the world? The Circle took Mae’s narrative and made it external. Turned it into a collection of things, materials, likes and dislikes, people she smiled at, parties she attended. Ultimately, the fault of The Circle is not the deconstruction of privacy, or the monopolization of the tech industry, but rather the destruction of self. Without a barrier between what you know and what everyone else knows, there is no distinction between one individual and the next, and the world, although it may operate with machine-like perfection, has lost all diversity. Egger’s has produced the most realistic apocalyptic fiction - and it is terrifying.
One fault in Dave Eggers’ process is his lack of research. As a reader with little to no knowledge of computer science, Eggers’ ad-libbed technologies seemed wholly realistic. However, to a programmer or engineer, there may be faults in The Circle’s “Unified Operating System” and “Retinals”. I would not suggest this book to anyone would be frustrated by technical ambiguity.
I would recommend this book to anyone who is curious possibilities of the future. Someone who participates in modern debate about about privacy, human connection, and freedom. Someone who does not mind being afraid.
The Circle By Dave Eggers. Fiction. 491 pp. Alfred A. Knopf/McSweeney’s Books.Dave Egger’s is a philanthropist, publisher, novelist, and screenwriter. He is the founder of publishing company McSweeneys in San Francisco. His first book was the critically acclaimed Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. The Circle is Dave Eggers’ 10th work.