Google, Facebook, Twitter, Amazon. What if they all got rolled up into one corporation? What if that corporation became increasingly omniscient and swallowed the political world and then the totality of everyone’s quotidian life? Past dystopian novels such as Fahrenheit 451 (which targeted television and the banning/burning of books) plotted the trajectory of an illiterate society ruled by mind-control. The Circle may be as implausible as Fahrenheit 451 in the long run, but it raises a lot of key questions about where we’re headed as a society with the increasing ubiquity of information technology. I can’t think of a better novel to ask these questions through a compelling work of art.
The novel, set in the not-too-distant future, opens with Mae, the main character, beginning a job at the Circle. Openings at the tech firm (which resembles Google) are hard to get and highly coveted. Mae has an inside connection in Annie, her friend from college who has risen to great heights within the company. The new gig rescues her from the dreary job she’s held down at a utility company in the months since graduating. These opening scenes are what I’d imagine the first few days of a new job at Google to be like, only even more cartoonish.
That being said, Mae’s initial job is real work, handling the complaints of companies that advertise and sell products using the Circle and its currency system. Customer satisfaction must hover near 100 percent and reciprocating messages and invitations from fellow workers (inner circle) and followers (outer circle) is expected. Screens on her desk proliferate. The Circle keeps adding digital treadmills under her feet, but she’s remarkably adept—Annie tells her she’ll rise fast, and this sets her up as a kind of ‘chosen one’ figure.
Life outside the circle is painful, complicated, and slow. Mae’s parents struggle with her father’s MS and with battling their insurance company. But Mae still finds some enjoyment in the outside world, kayaking in the San Francisco Bay. These naturalistic interludes stop when Mae gets caught borrowing a kayak from the rental shop after hours by one of the exponentially proliferating “SeeChange” cameras that feed HD video into the Circle. As penitence, Mae decides to “go clear” (an inflection of Scientology) by donning a camera that broadcasts her every move to her growing list of online followers. An increasing proportion of the world’s politicians have gone clear, and the Circle is poised to ensure that everything is known.
What happens to Mae? There are key characters and events I’m leaving out. I don’t want to spoil the book, which really is worth the time. For me, the pages flew by in just a couple of days. I guess you could say I was already pretty receptive to the points that Eggers is making through his fictional craft. Last year I quit Facebook. At the beginning of this year, I decided to stop shopping at Amazon. Recently, I dropped Twitter. My problem with each of them is their tendency to draw humans into their own little marketing-oriented universes. Twitter seemed a bit more useful, as it so easily spits users into other web pages. But it still tracks you for profit and mostly is just a marketing echo chamber. I still use Google, and perhaps this is the company that would be the hardest to avoid since its free services are so ubiquitous (gmail, maps, drive, etc., etc., etc.) and their mastery of the online advertising market is almost complete (“complete” is an important word in The Circle).
Google has a very wide utopian streak. But as Jaron Lanier points out in Who Owns the Future?, the utopian vision has also led to consolidation of money and power. I’d recommend pairing that book with The Circle. In different ways, both authors are calling for underground resistance and disruption of the mega disruptors. Recently I’ve read a lot of Nassim Nicholas Taleb, whose writings—particularly Antifragile—argue against size and speed in favor of things that are decentralized, idiosyncratic, human, ecological. I agree with this line of thinking. I could also see another reader might come to a very different place with The Circle, which is a testament to the book’s understatement. I recommend this book highly.