Book Review: “The Circle” by Dave Eggers, published by McSweeney’s, 2013
Imagine an all-encompassing global tech company responsible for creating “one button for the rest of your life online”—integrating and synchronizing all of your activities on the Internet, from shopping and banking to social media and entertainment, and possibly voting, too. The company is called the Circle in this wonderful satire for our tech-crazy, social-media-addicted times.
Mae Holland, a naïve but ambitious young woman, is swept to the center of the utopian workplace when she’s hired as an entry-level staffer at the Customer Experience department. Mae answers customer questions online by the hundreds. Her performance is monitored and rated at all times.
Off hours, she attends parties and other events in the company’s sprawling campus. She even sleeps in one of the dorms when she works late. Whether she’s working or not, she keeps up with the social media—sharing her experiences and photos, posting comments and questions, zinging (the equivalent of tweeting), liking, and following people in order to keep her PartiRank to an acceptable level. She also answers surveys all day long—as many as 991 questions daily.
Mae starts out with three computer screens at her desk and eventually works with eight screens. She’s the perfect company woman, a consummate team player whose life is overrun by her powerful company. The Circle is involved in everything. It’s working on technologies that will replace random nighttime dreaming with organized problem solving, disassemble tornadoes as soon as they are formed, and track every child to prevent abduction.
Although Mae is very busy, her love life sizzles. She has two paramours, one clingy and boring, and the other, mysterious and passionate.
The Perfect Company
As the Circle’s power grows, it also becomes more and more intrusive. Its motto: All that happens must be known. Everyone must share all of their information online in the name of community building. Surveillance is good because it prevents crime and deters bad behavior. Total transparency should be the goal.
As Eamon Bailey, one of the three founders of the behemoth company, explains: “A circle is the strongest shape in the universe. Nothing can beat it, nothing can improve upon it, nothing can be more perfect. And that’s what we want to be.”
Soon Mae is wearing a camera at all times, so the world could follow her. “Sharing” her life becomes her full-time job. It’s only a matter of time before her blind loyalty drives her parents away and her ex-boyfriend to his untimely death, while her best friend suffers a mental breakdown.
Imagine combining the power of Google, the ubiquity of Microsoft, the popularity of Facebook and Twitter, and the prestige of Apple, and you’ll have a fraction of the Circle’s essence.
Eggers pokes fun at the tech giants while also imparting a cautionary tale about the dangers of letting a monolithic entity run society, no matter how benevolent its intentions. He covers a vast territory in this novel, from the importance of privacy and individuality to the perils of overreliance on technology and zealotry.
For me, this novel hit home maybe because I work for a software company. I’m all too familiar with how important numbers and statistics, rankings, ratings, sales conversions, surveys, and the use of social media can be to tech companies.
But you don’t have to be in the high-tech field to enjoy Eggers’s humor and cleverness. And if you’re a techie, don’t overanalyze the technical side of the story and don’t expect the software and various projects mentioned to add up. Just take this novel for what it is—a satire—and enjoy the ride!