The Circle by Dave Eggers
Ever wonder what it might be like to live in a world where one tech company was attempting, for lack of a better phrase, to take over the world? I know, I know… seems ridiculous to even read that last sentence. Imagine how I felt writing it. It’s not like there’s tech companies out there right now attempting to do the very same thing by infiltrating every waking second of your life, tracking your every moment and purchase, and slowly but surely making privacy a thing of the past.
Oh, wait… OK, so maybe (maybe) this is sort of thing is happening already. Well, give that idea a serious kick in the pants and you have the incredible and prophetically dystopian The Circle by Dave Eggers. The premise here is that the Circle, a rapidly expanding tech company based out of California (think Google, Twitter, Facebook all in one), has completely overhauled the way people interact on the Internet through the creation of something called TruYou.
Essentially, it combines everything online that had previously been disconnected by creating one identity for each person—one that is the real you, with your real name, credit cards, identification. No more multiple passwords, no more hiding behind fake email addresses, no more varied payment methods. It was all one, all simple. By the time our protagonist, Mae Holland, has gotten a job at the Circle, the focus has spread far beyond simplifying the Internet. No, at this point the Circle has become the place for brilliant ideas, for widespread change. Almost as if every contestant on Shark Tank was given unlimited resources, there’s a seemingly never-ending stream of people and ideas.
Things appear to be overwhelmingly positive: beautiful campus, incredible people, wonderful benefits. Simply put, an absolutely amazing place to work and movement to be a part of. At the heart of the story is the introduction of what the company calls the SeeChange camera—essentially a lollipop-sized device that can be affixed to nearly any location and deliver HD-quality, streaming video with very little chance of being detected. What starts as a fun way to see how traffic might be on the ride home quickly vaults into a way to monitor anyone and anything.
From there, the Circle spearheads a movement to get political leaders to “go transparent” by wearing Circle-produced cameras on their person at all times and broadcast their every movement via their Circle pages. As the first Congresswoman to go transparent declares, “What part of representing the people should not be known by the very people I’m representing?” Soon, Mae is caught in a mildly incriminating situation (one which truly isn’t a big deal) due to a SeeChange camera.
In a meeting that ultimately ends with Mae deciding to similarly go transparent, one of the company’s Three Wise Men asks her, “Would you say you behave differently when you know you’re being watched?” From here, things begin to spiral out of control but you can find that out on your own. There’s secret relationships, friendships at stake, jealousy and all the expected levels of competitive spirit you’d imagine a company like this would foster.
However, more important, are the questions this story raises. What makes the book so appealing, beyond the ever-so-accessible writing style and the fact that this sort of thing seems scarily possible, is that Eggers doesn’t so much force his opinion on the matter at hand as he does present it for your consideration. In fact, if anything, all of this privacy invasion and questions of the value of having “someone” always watching is put forth more often as a relatively good thing—reduce crime, reduce pollution, etc. Or, at the least, not always as the doomsday scenario a more heavy-handed writer might employ.
This is my second go-round with Dave Eggers, having recently finished his memoir A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. While I certainly enjoyed that one, The Circle has what the memoir doesn’t: laser-like focus. It drives relentlessly towards a conclusion, all the seemingly disconnected plot lines having purpose and reason for inclusion. If you enjoyed AHWOSG, find this premise remotely intriguing or simply want to be able to brag that you read the book before the movie comes out (a Tom Hanks, Emma Watson-led film should be in theaters by end of the year), I can’t recommend The Circle enough.
Beyond the obvious elements of fiction we all enjoy (relatable, fun characters, a love story you can get behind, a plot you want to see to the end), what puts this story above most is that it presents some serious questions for you the reader (and not the author) to ponder and, potentially, make some decisions about.
There’s no clear-cut answers here, and that’s precisely the point.