Dissecting The Circle: Dave Eggers’ not-so-distant dystopian vision

7.5/10

Review (no major spoilers)

Here’s the best thing that I can say about Dave Eggers’ The Circle (2013): it inspired me—more so than any other book I’ve ever read—to think critically about the direction that our society is heading in. Unlike futuristic dystopian tales like Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932) or Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, The Circle works within a more immediate set of parameters. Eggers does some ‘liberal’ extrapolation of present day realities and ends up depicting the early stages of a truly frightening scenario that hits pretty close to home.

It’s the way in which he carries out his vision, however, that stopped me from giving the novel anything higher than a 7.5 rating. As much as I was mentally stimulated by The Circle as a set of ideas, I had trouble being totally invested in it as a novel. There’s a simplicity to it that works on some levels given the nature of the subject matter, but the story is also frustratingly lacking in depth.

thedailybeast.com

thedailybeast.com

At the centre of things is Mae, a disgruntled young professional who lands her dream job at the Circle thanks to some string-pulling from her close college friend, Annie. The Circle is more or less a fictional combination of all the digital age’s major players; it has a Google-esque campus headquarters, it’s at the forefront of social networking like Facebook, etc. Fittingly, the Circle rose to prominence by unifying the various profiles, accounts, and passwords we create for ourselves on the Internet with a service called TruYou (there were way too many times where I scanned through sentences quickly and thought I was reading YouTube). Aside from the obvious convenience benefits this offers, one rationale behind the endeavour was that it would combat the negativity that Internet anonymity fosters—or in other words, eliminate ‘trolling’—because people would be forced to be more accountable for their actions if they could no longer hide behind an unidentifiable account.

The vast majority of Americans and most of the world have registered accounts with the Circle, which has allowed the company to expand rapidly and move into other tangential sectors of innovation. Early on in the book it’s unclear as to whether there’s a definite purpose behind the activities going on at the Circle, but eventually a broad one emerges: facilitating the collection of all quantifiable information for the betterment of society. Circle employees go about this by devising all kinds of new surveillance-related strategies and technologies, but they are also pushed by the company’s leadership to approach to their own social lives with the same mentality. All of their social activity is tracked and they are ranked correspondingly in a system called PartiRank that determines how active they are in the Circle community. Low-ranking individuals are then confronted by higher-ups and shown how they should improve.

scienceofthetime.com

scienceofthetime.com

Mae, who starts off at the Circle as a lowly Customer Experience representative, quickly begins making a name for herself around the company. In fact, an unforseen set of circumstances even leads to her becoming the face of the Circle’s newest initiative for promoting full individual transparency. As Mae becomes increasingly entrenched in Circle culture and the company begins to take an even firmer grasp on societal affairs, she is frequently forced to consider the potential impact of what her employer is doing and must determine where she stands with regard to those actions.

As that description should’ve highlighted, there are clearly a number of red flags with what goes on at the Circle. Measuring social lives with analytics is pretty absurd and pushing the boundaries of surveillance is as dubious as it gets. What Eggers does a good job of—at least within the Circle—is showing us how these decisions come to be rationalized. There are a number of passages throughout the book that play with logic so that it seems completely reasonable for individual privacy to be almost completely stripped away and for all information to belong to the public domain.

Yet in The Circle, the other side of that argument isn’t represented very well. It’s mostly filtered through Mercer, an ex-boyfriend of Mae’s from her small-town home who likes to ramble on about lots of things but takes a particular interest in the Circle’s ethics. He constantly tries to dissuade her from forcing connectivity down the world’s throat, but there isn’t a whole lot of indication that many like-minded individuals are out there to back him up. Every time the Circle wants to implement something, it feels like they’re able to do it without any major obstacles from the public (there’s one exception, but it’s promptly dealt with). In fairness the company has built up a quite a bit of goodwill from its efforts to improve just about every facet of society—not to mention the leverage of having pretty much everyone already in its database—so it’s a little easier to fathom it going about its business with such smoothness. Still though, the ‘Outer Circle’ perspective is severely lacking in this novel.

Another of the book’s shortcomings is its lack of suspense and drama. The push towards the climactic event is treated fairly callously and there hasn’t been enough strong characterization—particularly with Mae—going on up to that point to make the reader all that concerned about how everyone will react to it. The Circle’s road map is a basic one, and even though there’s a twist towards the end, it wasn’t all that impactful.

Discussion about the role of social media in The Circle (no major spoilers)

What kept my interest level high all throughout the novel was how it made me evaluate the impact of modern technological practices—particularly the social ones. It’s no secret that social media is a game-changer, but The Circle certainly backed up my belief that we underestimate the effect it has on our consciousness. By moving a good chunk of our social interaction to an online interface, it puts an onus on us to frequently maintain our activity. As it stands today, people spend hours and hours (myself sometimes included) of their day tailoring interesting tweets, crafting the perfect Instagram caption and photo, Snapchatting all their friends, mining through Facebook groups and message threads to stay on top of discussions—and this is before we even consider the amount of time spent rating on these platforms through the clicking of a ‘like’ or ‘favourite’ button (called a ‘smile’ in The Circle). In both curating our own material and acknowledging/validating others’ material, we are simply bombarded with information and demands that largely didn’t exist just a decade ago.

solamaragency.com

solamaragency.com

The social media pressures that Mae and the other Circlers face are a clear step above what today’s norm is, but it isn’t hard to imagine ourselves inching slowly towards that kind of a reality. More and more often, we see technologies that are based around tracking and sharing, whether it’s fitness trackers, apps that feature user reviews of restaurants, or Facebook posts that simply share where you are at a given moment.

While these often feel like mundane things to us, arguments can be made for why—if analyzed in the right way—these bits of information can be to society’s benefit. In The Circle for example, one of Mae’s old Circle posts that expressed an interest in Portugal was made available to another employee who was organizing a brunch for Circlers who also liked Portugal (an event invitation Mae missed because she was so backed up with other notifications). In theory this is a good thing because it facilitates the formation of a community that may not have come together otherwise. However, trying to draw finite conclusions about people’s social lives based on empirical data is simply ludicrous. A person’s identity is so complex that if any type of software were to try and totally understand it, that person would have to be inputting information at essentially a constant rate.

Sadly this is exactly what the Circle wants people to be doing. It trains them to think that they are letting others in their community down by not making their full personalities available via Circle platforms, because it robs everyone of potentially useful information. Mae is warned against the backwardness of this culture by Mercer and eventually her parents—and even she sometimes feels the weight of such constant socialization bearing down on her—but her belief in the company’s philosophy allows her to overlook these deterrents and be convinced that this is the way people should be interacting.

Already we see a watered-down version of this analytic-facilitated socialization today. Facebook targets you with ads that are tailored to your interests, Twitter suggests who you should be following; and it all derives from the notion that if we give them enough information about ourselves, social media platforms can make our lives better and introduce us to more than we ever could have dreamed of otherwise. Yet the more there is to consider, the more meaning is diluted from the things that are immediately accessible to us. Mae had no interest in attending that Portugal brunch, but she was invited to it anyways and admonished by the host and the Circle when she failed to RSVP or show up (just as she was also admonished for not making it known on her profile when she went kayaking one afternoon).

The way we connect with people on big social networks like Facebook or LinkedIn perpetuates this kind of mass expectation of what our personal social circles (ha ha) are supposed to look like. Most young people accept even the slightest of acquaintances as Facebook friends, so it’s likely that most have in the ballpark of 500-1,000 friends—500-1,000 people whose information could show up on your news feed at any given time. Even when you’ve fallen out of contact with these people, Facebook still reminds you to wish them a happy birthday. Although I no longer make my birthday public on Facebook, I know people who have wished me a happy birthday in the past after not seeing me for over eight years! I believe in spreading good vibes and all that, but what does that kind of simple, impersonal message accomplish? These platforms makes us do certain things to quantify social behaviour for people in large networks that simply wouldn’t occur to us otherwise.

The more that our lives are tied up in what we publicly share online, the more dissonance there is between our true selves and our online personas. While something like TruYou is a technological rendering of what a person is all about, it can never be a full reflection of them—and no amount of quantifiable data can ever change that. There are limits to how public our lives should be and we are already arguably pushing that threshold.

This kind of ‘be careful with social media’ warning is well-worn, but I honestly think it’s something that can’t be emphasized enough. I’m not suggesting that a massive company is going to spring up anytime soon and start tracking our social output, I just think that many of us (again, myself included at times) can become unhealthily obsessed with how the things we put online are viewed by others and unhealthily burdened by trying to take in everything our ‘friends’ are putting out there as well. Even if no one’s ranking us (yet), there is a competitiveness to social media (gunning for likes, trying to post actively, etc.) that capitalizes on our feelings and distorts true meaning. Let’s not let it get the best of us.

Discussion Questions

  1. If you were in Mercer’s position, how might you have strategized differently against the Circle?
  2. Five years or so following the “completion of the Circle,” how different would the world look? What elements of a dystopian society might manifest themselves first?
  3. Is there a way for the centralization of online profiles/accounts/passwords to exist without giving an organization an inordinate amount of power and control?
  4. Mae ended up having a lot of influence on the Circle’s bigger plans towards the end of the novel. Do you think that was a coincidence, or did Eggers envision Stenton and Bailey pulling the strings and pushing her towards bringing up those suggestions so that it didn’t look like they had been plotting for that to happen all along?
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