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Book Review: The Circle

October 20, 2013

the_circleI really wanted David Eggers The Circle to be the dystopian novel of our time.  It isn’t – it is all at once too approachable, too light-handed, too inclusive and, oddly, too believable to be truly menacing.

And that’s a shame, because the subject of The Circle is an insidious one, a true and deadly threat, and worthy of a dystopic classic.

Here’s a spoiler-free summary of the book: In a future fairly near to now, a company named “The Circle” – a combination of Facebook, PayPal, Twitter, Google and others – dominates the worldwide internet.  The core of the company’s success is an authentication service called “TruYou”.  TruYou can be used by any third party application, much like Facebook’s OAuth-based service does today.  However TruYou purports to allow unique, real-world people only – no invented IDs allowed; when you login with TruYou, you can only operate as your actual self.  The great benefit of TruYou is supposed to be the greater transparency (get used to hearing that word if you read this book) and authenticity it promotes.  No longer can trolls, scam-artists, sexual predators and the like hide behind IDs like “rockrDude882”.

Into the world of The Circle enters Mae Holland, the every-person protagonist required by a dystopian story.  Mae is in her mid-20s, in a job at an old-school company she finds unsatisfying.  To the rescue comes Annie, Mae’s college roommate, who in the four years since she’s last seen Mae has had a meteoric rise in the management ranks of The Circle.  Annie gets Mae a job at The Circle, something incredibly hard to do as an outsider.  Annie does want to do a favor for her pal, but mainly she wants allies; even from the first few pages you see The Circle has a cruel corporate culture, though of course officially performance-minded and caring. Mae’s job is in “customer experience”, essentially a customer-service phone rep, as was explained to Mae by her trainer:

"Okay, as you know, for now you are just doing straight-up customer maintenance for the smaller advertisers.  They send a message to Customer Experience, and it gets routed to one of us … When you figure out the answer, you write them back…

“Now, that doesn’t mean you just paste the answer in and send it back.  You should make each response personal, specific.  You’re a person and they’re a person, and you shouldn’t treat them like robots … you should always be sure to inject humanity into the process.

Humanity, however, is the last thing the Circle is about, as Mae finds when the trainer explains the rating system:

“Now let’s say you’ve answered a client’s question … that’s when you send them the survey and they fill it out.  It’s a set of quick questions about your service, their overall experience, and at the end they’re asked to rate it.  The rating pops up here.”

He pointed to the corner of the screen, where there was a large number 99, and below, a grid of other numbers.

Mae’s first day of work is all about her struggles and triumphs with her score.  In the end she achieves a 98.  This news – the highest-ever score by a first-day person – is “zinged” (The Circle’s equivalent of Twitter) to over 10,000 people and leads to 187 follow-up comments.

You may be thinking: So what?  This already happens at countless companies today, and I don’t see the world coming to an end.  Well, 99% of what happens in The Circle is happening today – it just is not happening under the auspices of a single entity.  The Circle aggregates everything and is the one thing that has a total view, which it uses to promote its capitalistic growth and raw power.  Another example: In the course of the story, The Circle launches “transparent democracy”, a 100% public life-log for elected officials.  A fictitious Congresswoman describes the benefits:

“That’s right, Tom.  I’m as concerned as you are about the needs for citizens to know what their elected leaders are doing.  I mean, it is your right, is it not?  Who they are meeting with.  Who they are talking to.  What they’ve been doing on the taxpayer’s dime.  Until now, it’s been an ad hoc system of accountability … But still we wonder, why are they meeting with their former-senator-turned-lobbyist?  And how did that congressman get that $150,000 the FBI found in his fridge?

“So I intend to follow Stewart on his path of illumination. And along the way,I intend to show how democracy can and should be: entirely open, entirely transparent.  Starting today, I will be wearing the same device that Stewart wears.  My every meeting, movement, my every word, will be available to all my constituents and to the world.”

In the story, “transparent democracy” becomes an unstoppable force, driven by the insidious view that, if someone protests, they must be hiding something.  The persistent holdouts all find themselves forced from office, victims of sudden discoveries of past poor judgment, ambiguous financial dealings, or questionable tastes in pornography.

I hope no one doubts the fundamental plausibility of this.  We live in a world where a significant portion of the US population believes Barack Obama was born in Kenya, all based on publically retrievable information.  Given enough money and media control, anyone can be ruined just by “facts” – no need to concoct anything.  In the world of The Circle, The Circle has all information, all media, and everyone’s identity.  That “closing of the circle” is the danger.

Here’s a scenario to ponder.  One of the links in this post is to the Goodreads page for The Circle.  I am a member of Goodreads, having linked my Facebook ID.  Like a lot of people I have rated some books.  Now, imagine if I listed and rated every book I have read.  In there would be works like The Occupy Handbook, The Price of Inequality and The Myth of the Rational Market. Looking at these and other books I have read it would not be hard to infer my political leanings.  Now, let’s say I want to get a job.  Hiring today is done more and more through a small number of online providers, and has a heavy component of online analytics, looking at public internet data about you, like what keg-party pictures you publicly post on Facebook.

Finally, imagine that the online company that does hiring is the same company as Goodreads, as Amazon, as Facebook, and more.  They know everything you read, everything you buy, everything you search for on the web.  What do you think about the hiring process now?

Maybe that scares you, maybe it doesn’t.  This is one of the ironic truths of The Circle.  It correctly captures the reality that people aren’t frightened by this, that while (for example) they maniacally protest that affordable health care for fellow citizens is somehow destroying their liberty, they happily surrender liberty by telling everything about themselves to Facebook, to Walmart, to Twitter, and just about anything online with a nice looking web page, all for the sake of a few “Likes” on a cat picture.

The arc of the story in The Circle is embodied in Mae, who goes from angsty CE newbie to one of the 20-most followed people on the planet.  Like so many of us, Mae never notices what happens, every step on the path seems innocuous.  Things happen to people – which I won’t spoil for anyone – and much of the book’s message is in Mae’s reactions to it all.  The lobster/sea turtle scene made me squirm.

I said The Circle is not the cautionary story of our time.  I think its great weakness as dystopian fiction is it never really personalizes the threat, the danger.  Everything happens on the internet, as it were, and that makes it distant.  Again, that is part of the message: when your experience of destroying an enemy is not shooting him face to face, but through a drone attack you view by remote video, it’s a lot easier to follow through and just kill him.  But there’s a catch-22 here (another dystopian idea for which we should be thankful) that by showing the reality of how this threat works, Eggers weakens the message about the threat.

The most powerful thing in the book is the slogan of the Circle, articulated by Mae as she starts her rise to power:


Because of these three lines, if for no other reason, we have to contrast The Circle with 1984, which made famous three lines of its own:


1984 is still the more powerful work by far.  In a way, the quest of Winston Smith and Julia, the lovers of 1984, is the problem of The Circle: How to be private, how to be alone with one another.  Yet, nothing in The Circle comes close to the visceral, personal experience of Winston in The Ministry of Love, Orwell’s vision of the KGB-like future intelligence/torture agency that enforces political correctness and combats “thoughtcrime”.  Here a fellow prisoner loses all control at the thought of torture in the dreaded “Room 101”:

’Comrade! Officer!’ he cried. ’You don’t have to take me to that place!
Haven’t I told you everything already? What else is it you want to know?
There’s nothing I wouldn’t confess, nothing! Just tell me what it is and I’ll
confess straight off. Write it down and I’ll sign it — anything! Not room 101!’
’Room 101,’ said the officer.
The man’s face, already very pale, turned a colour Winston would not have
believed possible. It was definitely, unmistakably, a shade of green.
’Do anything to me!’ he yelled. ’You’ve been starving me for weeks. Finish
it off and let me die. Shoot me. Hang me. Sentence me to twenty-five years. Is
there somebody else you want me to give away? Just say who it is and I’ll tell
you anything you want. I don’t care who it is or what you do to them. I’ve got
a wife and three children. The biggest of them isn’t six years old. You can take
the whole lot of them and cut their throats in front of my eyes, and I’ll stand
by and watch it. But not Room 101!’
’Room 101,’ said the officer.

Orwell was able to pull out the fear that is in all of us and place it in the light where it can be seen for itself: cold, cowering, heartless, and dreadful.  The Circle verges on showing us ourselves but, at the last instant, it steps back and grants us too much absolution.

I did “like” The Circle, though you won’t see me reviewing it on Goodreads <g>. It is a fast read, though the somewhat nerdy sex-scenes might make you wince, especially the one where one of Mae’s lamer liaisons asks for a 1-100 rating so he can post it on his blog.  (SPOILER: As women have done through the ages, Mae gives him a 100.)  But that I think was part of the atmosphere Eggers was trying to capture.  One side-aspect I really liked was the way it captured the faux-inventiveness of Silicon Valley, and the heartless nature of big corporate existence, though I think these are aspects that won’t be apparent to a reader unless they have experienced some of that first hand.  I will say I disliked the character of Annie at the start, only to really feel for her at the end.

My final thoughts?  I think it is part of human nature to care, to share, and to do the right thing.  But only part.  We are often worse in the aggregate than we are on our own. 

Thinking on the title of this book, this came to me, something I haven’t heard in many years:

Like the hymn says, there is a circle that connects us.  As long as we find ways to make that come alive, not with packets and posts, but with flesh and blood, I expect we’ll do alright.  But if we don’t, we could be looking at a future that makes the brutality of Room 101 look like a merciful finality.

Categories: Books, Technology
  1. Alexandra Salazar
    October 21, 2013 at 12:17 pm

    I might read this, though based on your review I won’t be expecting a dystopian masterpiece. I think you are right in that a dystopian novel needs some element of magnification in order to be an effective cautionary tale. When Atwood wrote The Handmaid’s Tale, she did so with the purpose in mind to ‘not make anything up’ but when she actually wrote it she disguised the real-world concepts and leanings in a markedly more extreme expression. The purpose being that the dire circumstances of the book were to make the reader examine their own society, and see how it was similar on their own, rather than to basically serve the existing society to the reader on a plate and keep it obvious. There’s no thinking or reflection to find the point of the book.

    That said, I might read this. It’s relevant for me, though when you mentioned the dorky sex scenes, all I could think was “Oh, book… no, please don’t.” Unless the dystopic theme IS about sex, like Atwood’s, that’s bound to be groanworthy…

    • October 21, 2013 at 1:21 pm

      Well, these scenes do have some narrative purpose, in that they show people who really cannot be intimate, not in the true meaning of the word. But the cringe factor is there.

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