‘All the kids get a chip embedded in them, for safety, when they’re infants. And yes, it’ll save lives. But then, what, you think they suddenly remove them when they’re eighteen? No. In the interest of education and safety, everything they’ve done will be recorded, tracked, logged, analyzed – it’s permenant. Then, when they’re old enough to vote, to participate, their membership is mandatory. That’s where the Circle closes. Everyone will be tracked, cradle to grave, with no possibility of escape.’
The Circle was first published in 2014, with a film adaptation appearing in 2017, but it is perhaps even more relevant today. The titular tech company, not unlike Google or Facebook, now controls everyone’s social media, payment, email accounts, passwords, usernames and preferences, all through one account. No more remembering lots of passwords, no more needing to send a verification code to confirm your identity to your phone when you try to send someone money via online banking. So far, so good… right? Of course not. This company eventually aims to control every aspect of people’s lives, from the mundane to the vitally important, online dating to voting in elections… but will The Circle ever be complete?
I must confess I did not read the book when I first came out, and I had heard of the film before but never watched it, so I was going into this unsure what to expect. All I knew was that the book shows the development of the company and its control through the eyes of new employee Mae, and that everything at the company wasn’t what it seemed. Initially, I was as drawn into the world of The Circle as Mae was, fascinated by its campus and all the technology they were developing. It reminded me a little of Black Mirror, which I love, and also gave me vague Enron vibes – I recently re-read Lucy Prebble’s play Enron, and read Enron: Anatomy of Greed –there was a lot of similarities in how Mae and Brian felt upon starting work at these seemingly incredible companies. ‘No robots work here,’ one of Mae’s co-workers tells her. ‘We never want the customer to think they’re dealing with a faceless entity, so you should always be sure to inject humanity into the process.’ That sounds like a good idea, and yet, as Mae becomes more involved in the company, she sacrifices more of her humanity as her online presence becomes increasingly integral to her work.
‘an even more blasphemous notion that her brain contained too much. That the volume of information, of data, of judgements, of measurements, was too much, and there were too many people, and too much pain from too many people, and having it all constantly collated, collected, added and aggregated, and presented to her as if that all made it tidier and more manageable – it was too much.’
When she’s being trained she is told, having been given four different screens to keep track of: ‘So those are the priorities, with your fourth priority your own OuterCircle participation. Which is just as important as anything else, because we value your work-life balance, you know, the calibration between your online life here at the company and outside it.’ On a number of occasions she is called to speak to her boss, or to HR, because she isn’t sufficiently integrated into the community, either because she wanted to spend time with her parents – ‘Listen. It totally makes sense you’d want to spend time with your parents. They’re your parents! It’s totally honourable of you. Like I said: very, very cool. I’m just saying that we like you a lot, too, and want to know you better.’ – or because she just wanted some time alone – ‘Mae, I’m looking at your profile, I’m finding nothing about you and kayaking. No smiles, no ratings, no posts, nothing. And now you’re telling me you kayak once every few weeks?’. This increasing pressure to share everything, to constantly be avaliable, the whole attitude of ‘if you don’t post about it, then did it really happen?’ that’s so pervasive these days, and has been for years… all of this became gradually creepier, and I felt for Mae as she tried to keep some aspects of her life private. The fact that one co-worker ratted her out to her boss because she didn’t attend one of his events is proof of that. He has searched the company database for anyone who had been to Portgual, took pictures there, or had mentioned it at all, ever, and invited them to his Portugese themed event. Mae was only invited because she went on a trip to Lisbon five years prior, and the photos on her laptop were in the Cloud, so this co-worker could see them.
Unfortunately, as the book continued, my sympathy for Mae was quickly replaced by irritation and disgust, not only with her flippant attitude to the men she was seeing, having two to ‘choose from’, but with her behaviour towards her friends, family and co-workers as she became more and more involved with The Circle. I’m sure this was the author’s intention, to show how the company was consuming her, how it became more important to her than other aspects of her life, but because I didn’t care about her and actively disliked her it was difficult at times to stay engaged in the story, despite the good pacing and easy to read writing style. Mae describes having sex with a co-worker at work like this – ‘She wanted him to take her, in the stall, and she wanted to know she had been taken in the stall, at work, and that only the two of them would ever know.’ – then later she was ‘looking forward to the imminent gratitude’ from her parents for getting them on the company’s health insurance, and considers people voting against her in an online poll to be akin to murder – ‘…368 votes to kill her. Every one of them preferred her dead […] To frown at her, to stick their fingers at that button, to shoot her that way, it was a kind of murder.’ Eventually she comes to consider her parents as mad and ungrateful when they disconnect cameras set up by The Circle in their home, and begins to think this of the outside world: ‘Increasingly, she found it difficult to be off campus anyway. There were homeless people, and there were attendant and assaulting smells, and there were machines that didn’t work, and floors and seats that had not been cleaned, and there was, everywhere, the chaos of an orderless world […] seemed more and more like a Third World experience, with unnecessary filth, and unnecessary strife and unnecessary errors and inefficiencies’. I understand that as a newcomer to the company she’s intended to be a vehicle for the audience to experience it all, and see how The Circle continues to tighten its grip, but I found her to be an incredibly shallow and irritating character, and I was reading more for the descriptions of the technology and the environment than the protagonist. All she wants is to be liked, and she’s so easily consumed by the company that she doesn’t control her own life, or the narrative.
His fingers were typing furiously, fluidly, almost silently, as he simultaneously answered customer queries and survey questions. “No, no, smile, frown,” he said, nodding with a quick and effortless pace. “Yes, yes, no, Cancun, deep-sea diving, upscale resort, breakaway weekend, January, January, meh, three, two, smile, smile, meh, yes, Prada, Converse, no, frown, frown, smile, Paris.”
Although I initially enjoyed this book, as I read more and became increasingly irritated with the protagonist, I realised it wasn’t just her that was annoying me. The plot was predictable, as was the ending, and the overall tone of the book just didn’t work for me. It felt preachy, but as though it was preaching to the choir. We know the risks of living our lives online, we don’t need a nearly 500 page book to tell us that – The Circle brings nothing new to the discussion. But more than this is the way in which Eggers’ writing feels at once condescening and trite. ‘You comment on things, and that substitutes for doing them. You look at pictures of Nepal, push a smile button, and think that’s the same as going there.’, one of Mae’s friends tells her. Yes, and? Although Mae’s actions eventually lead to some extreme events – such as politicians going ‘transparent’ and having every moment of their lives filmed, or one character being driven to suicide – The Circle began with an interesting premise but fell flat.
Part way through the book, a conversation Mae has with her boss leads to the following being displayed on walls for the entire company to see:
SECRETS ARE LIES
SHARING IS CARING
PRIVACY IS THEFT
But a modern day 1984 this is not. I’m sure there’s a great thriller out there about the perils of the information age, but this wasn’t it.