The Circle by Dave Eggers

Before I weigh in, I’d like to throw in the blurb on the book’s french flap in order to set the context:

“When Mae Holland is hired to work for the Circle, the world’s most powerful internet company, she feels she’s been given the opportunity of a lifetime. The Circle, run out of a sprawling California campus, links users’ personal emails, social media, banking, and purchasing with their universal operating system, resulting in one online identity and a new age of civility and transparency. As Mae tours the open-plan office spaces, the towering glass dining facilities, the cozy dorms for those who spend nights at work, she is thrilled with the company’s modernity and activity. There are parties that last through the night, there are famous musicians playing on the lawn, there are athletic activities and clubs and brunches, and even an aquarium of rare fish retrieved from the Marianas Trench by the CEO. Mae can’t believe her luck, her great fortune to work for the most influential company in the world—even as life beyond the campus grows distant, even as a strange encounter with a colleague leaves her shaken, even as her role at the Circle becomes increasingly public. What begins as the captivating story of one woman’s ambition and idealism soon becomes a heart-racing novel of suspense, raising questions about memory, history, privacy, democracy, and the limits of human knowledge.”

 

What I enjoyed most about this story, was that I had a very difficult time figuring out if the choices being made by the Circle were beneficial or detrimental to humanity.  Eggers does an incredible job at offering us a very nuanced look at the point when a society becomes either a Utopia or a Dystopia.

Most of the plot is propelled by the heads of the Circle (referred to in the book as the Three Wise Men) pursuing something called  “Completion.”  They explain this concept by using a circle as a metaphor for a completely open (as in nothing is hidden from public knowledge) and united society, and the C inside the logo of the Circle exemplifies the present state of the society (us in 2-3 years?),  a society very close to becoming a completed circle.

So, the book begins right after the company subsumes all internet entities in order to give everyone the luxury of managing only one account- you only have to login to this one account, with your one password, in order to check your facebook, insurance, telephone calls, the news, get access to the cloud, et al.  What a convenience right?  The Three Wise Men, however,  don’t think it’s enough.  The next innovation offered by the Circle (about 1/4 into the book) is a very small, inexpensive, high quality HD cameras.  It is pitched by one of the Three Wise Men, Eamon Bailey, as an ends to all crimes against humanity and an extreme extension to human experience.  Who would commit a crime if they knew that the whole world was watching and would keep them accountable?  Politicians would be forced to tell only the truth, you’d be able to keep an eye on your bedridden parent, and you’d be able to see the sunset from the top of Mount Everest.  So this then brings us to the focal question of the novel: would all of this be worth it if you had to be under constant surveillance too?  The Circle starts to put up tiles around the company campus with mantras such as “Secrets are Lies – Sharing is Caring – Privacy is Theft,” and the company continues to get more control over everyone’s privacy.  The plot then becomes more complicated, as each push for social justice is met by a counter push from those who say that privacy is a human right.

The only complaints I have for this book is the quality of writing.  It feels like it was written in a bit of a rush, and it is definitely not an improvement in writing from his other books.  Also, the lead female character is a bit flat (which is usually the case when a male is the author), and I don’t think that it was done as a statement on the flat identities that the Circle forces us to sustain.

It probably isn’t his best work, and I can see why some fans of Eggers are disappointed.  However, the ideas and concepts he engages with still made it a very compelling read, and I for one couldn’t put it down.  He does a great job handling some very deep questions in a clear and comfortable style, and he references Grand Rapids on page 411!

I’d definitely recommend it to anyone interested in the future impact of the internet.

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