Wednesday, January 25, 2017
The Circle by Dave Eggers
"Individually, you don't know what you're doing collectively."
This is Mae's ex-boyfriend's synopsis of the new company she works for. But what does he know? She is working for the most lucrative tech company on the market and he just makes chandeliers. The Circle has made its success in streamlining internet applications by rolling them into one interface based on a user's actual identity. "True You," as it's called, has ushered in a new age of internet transparency.
The Circle employs young, innovative people and encourages employees to linger after hours and on weekends for the many parties and social groups it sponsors. A feeling of community is fostered through the use of social media, which is heavily encouraged and tracked by ranking employees according to their level of online activity. In order for people to fully immerse themselves in this culture, and in line with the "True You" philosophy, employees accept that everything about a person is public information, because, after all,
"Privacy is theft." Have you ever thought that by not sharing an experience, you are depriving another person of that experience as well?
"Secrets inspire speculation." Isn't it better to know the truth than speculate something worse about someone?
And if you feel you can't share with others because you are going through a painful experience, remember this, "Pain experienced in public in view of loving millions was no longer pain, it was communion."
Uh, yeah. I'm totally not creeped out by this company at all. I would absolutely want to work there, just like Mae. And there would be no alarm bells screaming in my head or anything tingling my spidey senses about the amount of control such a company was exerting over me. Of course, if Mae had these reservations and quit, we wouldn't have much of a book. We also wouldn't have the many comical moments where Mae is given a talking to for not participating in events she didn't even know were occurring, or for hurting someone's feelings by not responding to their online comments to her. And of course, we wouldn't get to meet her ex-boyfriend, Mercer, who is one of the few rational people we meet:
"Listen 20 years ago it wasn't so cool to have a calculator watch, right? And spending all day inside playing with your calculator watch sent a clear message that you weren't doing so well socially. And judgments like "like", and "dislike", and "smiles", and "frowns" were limited to junior high. Someone would write a note and it would say, "Do you like unicorns and stickers?" and you'd say, "Yeah, I like unicorns and stickers! Smile!" That kind of thing, but now it's not just junior high kids who do it. It's everyone. And it seems to me sometimes I've entered some inverted zone, some mirror world where the dorkiest shit in the world is completely dominant. The world has dorkified itself!"
But Mae continues to drink the kool-aid. It wasn't until Mae is confronted by her superiors at work for breaking the law that things go from "okay, maybe she's a bit oblivious and naive" to "I'm hitting the I want to believe button." In order to show her commitment to the company's ideals, Mae agrees to be a test-user for a new product, See Change, a small, easily worn camera. The idea, initially marketed to politicians to show their constituents they have nothing to hide, begins a movement in which people "go transparent," a movement started in part by Mae's agreement to beta test the system. Her every move and word recorded for the world to follow, Mae's life drastically changes as she raises in rank with The Circle, but struggles to maintain relationships with those closest to her.
Let's get real, here. The themes in this book aren't new, and the parallels and metaphors obvious. I felt there wasn't a realistic amount of dissent to the blatant privacy and civil violations occurring. And I found it unlikely that so few seemed to see the ramifications of where things were headed.
For these reasons, I read the book as a satire of the proliferation of things like reality TV and government and commercial encroachment on privacy rights. It's too over the top to be taken more seriously than that. And while I think Eggers' reality, as envisioned by The Circle, is literally unrealistic, the book gets you thinking about things: Why do we keep secrets? Is there ever a legitimate reason to deceive? Will putting everything in the open remove the stigma of things done behind closed doors? Will full transparency and accountability reduce crime and corruption? Will it make us happier?
While I can't say Eggers changed my answers to any of these questions, at least he got me thinking about why the answers were what they were. And I enjoyed his characters, like Mercer, who were comically eloquent. It was definitely a fun read, and one I looked forward to whenever I put the book down. So a solid, "like" from me 😀
NOTE: If this book sounds intriguing, read it before the movie comes out later this year (starring Tom Hanks and Emma Watson). There is also a great episode of Black Mirror that handles similar themes (really, just check out all of the Black Mirror episodes on Netflix, while you're at it).