- Dave Eggers
- 504 pp.
- Reviewed by
- October 18, 2013
A Google-esque super-company aims to knock out personal privacy with the help of an unwitting protagonist in this novel by the author of A Hologram for the King.
Dave Eggers’ The Circle follows that well-worn narrative arc: young ingénue joins a shadowy enterprise, brimming with hope for her future, and soon finds that she’s among people with world domination in mind. It’s the plot engine that’s driven a million spy thrillers, horror stories, romans à clef about publishing houses, war novels, and pulp paperbacks. The difference here is that Eggers’ “antagonists” aren’t intentionally insidious; they aren’t out to conquer the world with bullets, or even sharks with frickin’ laser beams strapped to their heads — they’re the programmers and developers behind the titular technology company, which built and maintains a Google-Facebook hybrid known as the Unified Operating System.
The novel’s protagonist, Mae Holland, spends much of the narrative on the Circle’s bucolic campus, which bears a marked resemblance to the real-life ones that headquarter Google, Facebook and Apple. The cafeterias serve organic meals; the wide lawns host games and events; every whim — from dry-cleaning and swag bags to doggy daycare — is tended to with brisk efficiency, all so employees can spend more time coding the Circle’s software. Many of the Circle’s employees brim with self-righteous fire, fueled by the belief that they’re changing the world for the better by building social applications that open up everybody’s lives for their friends’ approval.
In a short interview posted on McSweeney’s, Eggers disavowed any connection between the fictional Circle and Google or Facebook. “The book takes place after a company called the Circle has subsumed all the big tech companies around today,” he wrote. “The Circle has streamlined search and social media into one system and that’s enabled it to grow very quickly in size and power.” He claims to have never visited any of the big tech companies in the Bay Area, nor interviewed any of their employees.
“I didn’t want to be influenced by any one extant company or any actual people,” he added. “But I’ve been living in the Bay Area for most of the last twenty years, so I’ve been very close to it all for a long time.”
Through the fictional lens of the Circle and its people, Eggers does a remarkable job of capturing the tone and pace of so many tech firms in this period of easy venture-capital funding and rapidly evolving platforms: there’s the surface optimism, the conviction that software and hardware can “disrupt” the planet for the better, which often obscures—at least to those on the outside—the spectacular viciousness of Type-A personalities fighting every moment of every day for stock options, cash, fame and the best restaurant reservations. The employees of the Circle aren’t quite as tooth-and-nail as their real-life counterparts, but they’re likewise blinded by surety of purpose to a degree unseen since the conquistadors. The only difference is that Circlers come armed with tablets and smartphones in place of pointy steel and religious icons.
The Circle produces some fictional technology that seems all too real, given current trends. Near the end of the novel, for example, Mae helps the Circle introduce a crowd-sourced fugitive tracker that operates quite a bit like a corporate version of a Reddit witch-hunt. (When a monitoring demonstration ends in tragedy, it doesn’t even come off as much of a surprise.) But in his quest to dissect what makes his characters tick — and wave a bright red flag over how much we’re letting our privacy leach away in these ultra-connected days — Eggers also sidesteps the real-life trends that are preventing (or at least slowing) his vision’s march to reality. (That’s not to say Eggers isn’t funny — his take on social networks is hilarious at moments. Ultra-dour Orwell, he is not.)
In the novel, the Circle’s Unified Operating System is the software that officially pacified the Web. There’s no more anonymity; everyone online has his or her social and financial data linked to a single account tethered to a real identity, which makes it easy for the Circle to track (and monetize) user behavior. There’s some real-life justification for such a fictional creation: Google has already taken some steps in this direction by linking search, email and social networking to user accounts, and other tech giants aren’t far behind. On the government front, NSA has built several massive data centers to collect and analyze the petabytes of Web and phone traffic it pulls down every week. The idea of living life without an online presence, at least in the West, has become a fairy tale that office drones tell one another to get through yet another week.
Despite that interlinking, however, the Web will always support anonymous behavior. The quest to build tools that free people from online surveillance will never cease — in fact, given the needs of illegal commerce in an era of constant government spying, it’ll only accelerate over the next few years. The feds may have shut down Silk Road, an online black market that specialized in drugs and guns, but similar hubs exist; people like to cruise the Web (and sometimes buy things the government says they shouldn’t) in secret. Businesses and governments also enjoy communicating online in stealth, for various reasons, which has led to a handful of commercial and open-source tools for cloaking digital identities.
The tech giants realize they can only strip-mine so much personal data before the public begins to push back; others realize there’s money to be made — or at least cachet to earn — by appearing to care about user privacy. As a result, Web browsers now come with do-not-track options, and social networks allow you to nuke your account (and presumably all its data) with a couple of clicks. Real-life executives and developers are constantly aware of how intrusive their services can potentially become; a few years ago, for example, a leading engineer of a major search engine told me that his company had the ability to anticipate and direct users’ queries in ways that seemed almost precognitive — a capacity they refused to switch on, out of fear that it would creep out too many people. Every time a Web giant does something perceived as too intrusive, the subsequent debate over privacy and security rages on for weeks, if not months; and often as not, the giant ends up rolling back or blunting its earlier initiative.
With the exception of Mae’s ex-boyfriend Mercer, who’s determined to live as much of an analog life as possible in a digital world (and who ends up paying a steep price for his neo-Luddism), few characters in The Circle really seem to wrestle with these philosophical dilemmas, or the immediate repercussions of these tools. Mae doesn’t really seem to have much of an inner life at all, aside from seesawing feelings of guilt and ambition (and an obsession with software-generated statistics about her performance). That simplicity makes the novel feel at moments like a parable more than a finely nuanced narrative — which, to be fair, seems like Eggers’ ultimate intention. But there’s also a fine novel awaiting the writer who wants to plunge into the thornier thickets of all these issues.
Parable or no, Eggers’ fear that we’re shedding our privacy wholesale seems a tad alarmist. There will always be pushback. On the human side of the equation, though, he manages to perfectly capture the sort of hubris that demands the whole world become more “open.”
Nick Kolakowski is an editor at Slashdot. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, McSweeney’s, The Evergreen Review, Satellite Magazine, Carrier Pigeon and Washington City Paper. His first book, a work of comedic nonfiction titled How to Become an Intellectual, was published in 2012.