Saturday, September 26, 2015

Book Review: The Circle by Dave Eggers

The Circle imagines a culture moving towards "total transparency" where everyone can be held accountable when "The Circle" is complete."  A massive social network of the near future, the visionaries at The Circle believe democracy will only work when everyone knows what everyone else is doing.  Drawing upon Orwell's 1984, Eggers refashioned the allegory for the 21st century.

The novel's protagonist Mae Holland, an ambitious twenty-four year old who scores a job at the famous tech company because her best friend Annie is part of the "Gang of 40" who run the company.  They created "TruYou" a social networking site that overthrew Facebook and Google.  "TruYou" is a catch all network where anyone can conduct business, communicate by any means, document every moment of their lives.

The "visionaries" at The Circle aim for a world where privacy is considerd immoral: parents must implant chips in their children, place cameras in their homes to prevent domestic violence, all voting will be online (oddly politicians who oppose them often end up ruined by scandal). Meanwhile, Mae rises quickly with her plucky charm and "awesome" customer service skills.

Eggers is especially scathing on the "workplace culture" of social media companies: Utopian on the surface; cultish on closer scrutiny. Employees receive every perk imaginable; their masters are always watching.

It's a totalitarianism (is the term too 20th century?) with a smiley face. As the book unfolds the Gang of 40's ambitions grow increasingly ominous, suggesting their power will know no limits.  Big Brother may return as Ronald McDonald or some trendy meme.

Eggers also takes aim at the idea everything can be quantified. The Circle believes they can reduce everyone's self-worth to a number (real life recently imitated art with August NY Times story on the Social Darwinist culture at Amazon).  Every aspect of a person's life can be rated.  I imagine Patrick McGoohan screaming at No. 2 "I AM NOT A NUMBER, I"M A FREE MAN!"

Mae makes for a weak protagonist because she never questions anything. Perhaps that's the point. She's silent when her best friend Annie is victimized by the company. She rationalizes their passive-aggressive bullying tactics, just wanting to follow orders and please her bosses. We've seen that before.

What makes novel so creepy is the idea of dissent is repugnant at The Circle: They got the algorithms to prove you wrong.

The Circle is a wicked satire in the tradition of Orwell and Huxley.

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