The Circle is a satire by Dave Eggers that describes how a private Internet company morphs into a totalitarianism monopoly in the United States. Unfortunately, Eggers chose to serve his point, rather than the story, so this novel is not his best work. (If it’s your first encounter with Eggers, give him another chance with his earlier books.) However, for all of its literary missteps, The Circle is worth reading, for its point is relevant and worthy of consideration and conversation.
The novel tracks the rapid rise of Mae, a bland twenty-something woman, from entry-level Circle employee to a person of power and celebrity via her willingness to first broadcast her life in real time and then share her idea of how to “perfect” democracy with those able to implement it. Unfortunately, what makes Mae a great candidate to promote the vision of the Circle and its founders (i.e., a vapid cheerleader who is all-in for everything the Circle does, including surgically inserting a chip into a child’s bone in order to track his or her whereabouts, therefore, preventing abductions) makes also for a rather vapid character. She comes across as a rather naïve, lusty, and not terribly intelligent 16-year-old, especially in her romantic relationships. She’s quick to trust, quick to disrobe, and quick to forgive when her nerdy love interest films his climax on his phone and publicly analyzes her suitability as his mate during a corporate presentation of LuvLuv, the company’s dating site creation. Her other love interest is a mystery man, whom, despite not even knowing his last name, she not only trusts but thinks is a savant. She also comes across as part Valley Girl, speaking in superlatives (things are “astounding,” “like heaven”) and part pathetic high school wannabe, so desperate to be “in” that she puts up with a prank and insults at the hand of her so-called bestie, Annie, a bigwig in the Circle. Completing this characterization of Mae is the additional insult of adding stereotypical traits, such as overreacting (she says her friend Annie has gone “haywire” for volunteering for a program that will digitally track, record, and make available to all one’s genealogy—although it was perfectly rational for Mae to become “transparent,” wearing a camera nearly 24/7 for the amusement of her followers) and buying shoes (twice a month, really?).
Yet this is the woman in whom Annie, the mystery man, and Mae’s former boyfriend, an outlier opposed to everything Mae and the Circle represent, confide in. And this drone is the one who comes up with the grand ideas for the Circle at the close of the book.
Just as Mae’s character and the implausible trust others put in her conveniently serves the plot, there are some events that don’t ring true in order to do the same. For example, although Mae doesn’t remove her camera while it records yet another Francis climax, her followers never comment. And, Stenton, one of the founders or Three Wise Men as they are called, who justifies the broadcasting of everyone’s private events, including death, inexplicably cuts the video feed of an arrest of a fugitive “in the interest of allowing her some dignity.” I think, too, some logic is missing with the Circle’s concept that transparency via the placement of cameras everywhere—on people, on location—will eradicate crime, for isn’t it true that some criminals commit crimes for the publicity? And would imbedding tracking chips in children’s bodies really keep them safe from sick, sick people? (Consider the true story of the thief who couldn’t wait long enough for his victim to take off his watch, so he simply cut off the man’s wrist and hand.) You would think the characters in this novel would be logical enough to consider these problems.
The Circle was a quick, easy, absorbing read. More importantly, its message that a sheepish lackadaisical acceptance of evaporating privacy at the hands of a private corporation via its takeover of the Internet, social media, and any other means or methods of recording, following, tracking, broadcasting, and digitizing people’s lives leads to a total relinquishing of privacy and authenticity (or unscripted reality) might be better digested in a piece of fiction than in an essay. The extremes to which the Circle pushes its influence and harnesses the privacy of its characters will never come to be. But could we come close? Consider the privacy issues with Facebook and other social websites (not to mention the government), the tracking of our purchases online and offline (Do you have a Smartphone? You’re behavior is being tracked.), and the compilation and sharing of data that we don’t always agree to have compiled and shared. And scripted reality? Yeah, we know how real those reality shows and Match.com profiles are.
As for the mantras of the Circle: All That Happens Must Be Known, Secrets Are Lies, Sharing Is Caring, and Privacy Is Theft, would we really be surprised if these popped up as taglines for a company? More frighteningly, would we care?