The Circle by Dave Eggers (2013)
Fiction | Contemporary Sci-Fi | Thriller
“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 America – 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.”
pooled ink Review:
ALL THAT HAPPENS MUST BE KNOWN
Well. I feel terrified. I probably should have included this review in October because it’s scary. Or, I suppose that depends on perspective. My brother and I often talk about ditching the demands of the online world and modern society, instead finding somewhere with less stupid people and more natural reality to feed our senses, but the world doesn’t function that way anymore… If you love TED Talks, technology, science fiction, stories with ideas that hit uncomfortably close to home, then you’ll probably enjoy this book. Or go ahead and watch the movie (I included the trailer at the end of this post)
Honestly this book covers a large umbrella of ethical debates and I could be here all week debating and discussing it, but I’m going to try very hard not to do that. I’m not confident I’ll succeed though so be warned.
I’ll start out by saying that I saw the movie first. The idea intrigued me plus the movie had Tom Hanks, Emma Watson, John Boyega, and Karen Gillan. All four of those actors had me excited to see the movie and the trailer looked really good. Overall I felt that the movie was good, but it didn’t quite get the point across deep enough. It was chilling but not terrifying. This led me to consider reading the book, which I now have, and yeah I’m freaked out a bit.
I admit I was surprised when comparing the book to the movie adaptation. While a lot was cut for time, certain scenes were rearranged or altered, and the character background of Mae surprisingly felt a lot deeper, the movie held up to the book pretty well, sometimes even taking dialogue and scenes straight from the pages. But let’s dive into the story, shall we?
The beginning of the book was painfully slow for me as info dumps kept getting in the way of the action or to even allow you to bond with Mae, the main character. But if you push past these hurdles then the story really gets better and better. The plot keeps a good pace and my interest rarely wavered. I tried hard to like the main character, Mae (probably mostly due to the fact that I’m a fan of Emma Watson) but I really couldn’t and by the end of the book I was ready to throw her off a cliff.
In the book Mae is a gullible [insert choice of synonym for ‘jerk’] who, like most people in their 20s, just wants to fit in and be the successful adult their parents dreamed they’d be. At the start of the story she had nothing but eagerness, humbleness, and good intentions, but as time pushed on you watch her become this twisted version of a human. She begins to idolize the Circle and turn savage against all those opposed even if they’re her own loving parents whom she once saw as the most important and caring people she knew. She becomes this shallow jerk whom I came to loathe, and on some level fear. Mae becomes selfish, egocentric, self-entitled, blatantly mean, blind, and worst of all she is an utter sheep. She becomes everything she thinks she’s fighting against.
Mae believes that she’s changing the world, living at the top of society, and yet for all she believes and for all the information she has access to she actually sees and understands very little. And what makes her character all the more infuriating and terrifying is that she’s like the growing majority of people these days.
“Your tools have elevated gossip, hearsay and conjecture to the level of valid, mainstream communication.” -Mercer
The enthusiasm of the employees at the Circle gives it a very cult-like feel, which I didn’t find altogether surprising seeing as most humans are rather similar to sheep in that they’ll flock to anyone who gives them protection, safety, and happiness…aka the utopia of the Circle. The Circle is sort of a combo of Google, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube…basically a combination (or conglomeration) of everything online put on one platform. And they push their employees to participate participate participate to an almost obscene level. The Circle does a good job of implementing its radical and revolutionary ideas step by step, slowly and naturally, until it’s no longer new or radical, but logical and necessary. “How could life have ever functioned before??” people will wonder.
But I emphasize that it’s not just social media that falls within the Circle’s grasp. There’s online shopping, banking, healthcare, GPS tracking, the constant avalanche of surveys insisting on your opinions and action, and more. The Circle keeps taking this basic human desire to know and share everything another step further until it’s past familiar, past comfortable, and pushing the boundaries of ethics and human rights. Everything including your favorite foods, your heart rate, your DNA, your current location on the globe, your facial expressions, cameras and I.D. bracelets recording and monitoring your every breath, they want to know it all and share it all. Instant access. Privacy is to be ultimately eliminated because absolute honesty is the only way for utopia as the Circle envisions it. And besides, keeping your thoughts and opinions locked away in your head is selfish. Isn’t it?
But what people keep forgetting, or perhaps never think about, is that the Circle is and remains a private company. So what happens when a private company takes over your life, your government, your world? The Circle governs the people, but who governs the Circle?
“You think this is okay?” Mercer said. “…like everything else you guys are pushing, it sounds perfect, sounds progressive, but it carries with it more control, more central tracking of everything we do…it’s all people like you. And that’s what’s so scary. Individually you don’t know what you’re doing collectively. But secondly, don’t presume the benevolence of your leaders.”
The level of participation the Circle wants from its employees and its general users is honestly overwhelming and suffocating. I was feeling stressed out and short of breath and I’m just reading a book about it! As an introvert if I worked there I’d probably turn into a stressed out ghost of a human plagued by paranoia who eventually shoots herself to escape it all. There is such an immense pressure to participate and share and build community, to be overly sensitive to every human being’s possible feelings, to make sure you behaved as acceptable as possible under the eyes of the world that I’d be sent over the edge (and what really made me cringe is just how acutely this describes the western world today – I hate it). The Circle sees wanting alone time or choosing to keep something to your self as offensive, selfish, and hurtful.
“There’s this new neediness-it pervades everything…It’s not that I’m not social. I’m social enough. But the tools you guys create actually manufacture unnaturally extreme social needs. No one needs the level of contact you’re purveying. It improves nothing. It’s not nourishing. It’s like snack food.” -Mercer
THE CIRCLE IS A CULT. EVERYBODY RUN. THE CIRCLE IS A CULT!
Now some background info: the Circle was founded by three men. Ty was the genius, Eamon Bailey was the visionary, and Stenton was the shark who smelled blood in the water.
Ty is basically a ghost. Stenton is the quietly terrifying one who does the dirty work and lets nothing stand in the way of his empire. Bailey is the enthusiastic idealist, busy being the friendly but awe-inspiring visionary of the company and public face of their activity.
Of the three we mostly spend time with Bailey who speaks with all the captivating energy of a really charismatic TED Talks speaker. He’s so good at twisting words and guiding you through his sales pitch that you can’t help but feel enlightened and nod in agreement too confused as to why you didn’t understand before. He makes his vision seem so natural, obvious, and simple. And the fact that he has to walk you through it makes you feel stupid, for every issue or protest one comes up with he effortlessly explains it away in a pretty utopian dream. But if you rip yourself from his deceptively casual speeches or cut to a scene with Mercer (Mae’s ex-boyfriend) ranting then you can quickly shake the sticky seductive song from your head and let out a shudder.
“You know what I think, Mae? I think you think that sitting at your desk, frowning and smiling somehow makes you think you’re actually living some fascinating life. You comment on things, and that substitutes for doing them. You look at pictures of Nepal, push a smile button, and you think that’s the same as going there…Mae, do you realize how incredibly boring you’ve become?” -Mercer
The concept of the Circle is interesting, complex, yet worryingly simple in its theory. And it’s believable to a point that’s eerie. In fact the more the Circle encourages you to open up, the more I wanted to delete my internet accounts and hide. But that’s also partially my personality because while some people celebrate openness, I happen to be a very private person most of the time, and while I agree that honesty and openness has its definite strengths, I also can’t help but feel that the idea of being constantly watched and monitored repulsive.
“But my point is, what if we all behaved as if we were being watched? It would lead to a more moral way of life.” –Bailey
Well first of all, Bailey, morality is subjective so to suggest a thing is ludicrous. Whose morality are you enforcing on the human species? Yours? To judge someone based off your own personal moral code is unfair (why would you expect a non-believer to behave as a believer does?). Besides, while constant surveillance may lead to a form of enforced honesty, it would not stimulate true honesty from within. Instead of building a foundation of trust with someone, you’d have a façade of trust built around the expectations and enforcements of others. You’d have a false sense of trust based on the fact that cameras, GPS, and other technologies allow you to instantly verify anything about anyone at anytime. It’s not the same. It’s not true trust. It’s not true morality. What Bailey is proposing is extrinsic morality rather than intrinsic morality (although I suppose this is similar to using a religious text to guide your personal morals). But how can you judge a person’s character if everyone is forced to follow certain behavioral patterns? How can a person have a character?
SECRETS ARE LIES
SHARING IS CARING
PRIVACY IS THEFT
I mean to an extent I could get behind it, seeing how constant global surveillance (and the many disturbing specificities built to help more accurately track individuals and activity) could help cut down on crime, miscommunication, and corruption in government, but what keeps me wary is that with every breath this concept takes another step further. I mean look at how public everything already is today! And while you can argue arduously for its benefits, one can just as easily form solid rebuttals with the disturbing consequences. And that’s the heart of the issue, really. Freedom of choice and the choice of freedom. It’s like a circle actually haha because to achieve absolute freedom in a utopia you must create a closed system with totalitarian rule to ensure those freedoms but that in turn is simply a prettier form of slavery.
So long as humans desire freedom, there can be no utopia. And thus is the paradox of absolute freedom.
“Submit to our will! Be our friend!”
The thing is, you can justify anything if you try hard enough.
I had so many issues with Bailey’s preachings, despite the utter lack of protests from Mae. Bailey believes people can be perfected. Perfected. But not only is this idea a paradox and against the basis of accepting and celebrating all diversity within the human species, but it’s utterly laughable. Sure as an INTJ I’m both a dreamer and a pragmatist, but despite my cynicism I stand firm on the belief that humans cannot be perfected. Furthermore it is the imperfections that makes humans perfect, interesting, unique. Also, who decides what “perfect” looks like? Bailey? The Circle? Who gets to determine what you need to change about yourself to be “perfected”?
While celebrating diversity on the surface, get sucked in deeper and the cult-like pressures of the Circle are actually subduing the beautiful chaos of humanity into something dull, monochromatic, and ultimately implosive.
I had a lot of issues with the Circle’s philosophy and motives and also Mae in general, but I’m sure it’s intentional. This book was written to stir an ethical outrage amongst its readers. And as I’ve already typed and ranted like a vehement lunatic for far longer than I’d intended I’ll try and wrap things up.
Kalden: “But who wants to be watched all the time?”
Mae: “I do. I want to be seen. I want proof I existed.”
The Circle explains how the world fell into a dystopian nightmare and a YA dystopian novel would probably follow it up to show how a few teenagers managed to destroy it. Then again, The Circle ends with a spine-chilling finality that what had come was there to stay, and never would the world go back. This book ends with a note of grave heaviness, masked by misplaced enthusiasm, similar to that found in George Orwell’s novel, 1984, where no matter how close one comes to enlightenment, there is no escaping the totalitarian nightmare that the world had so willingly embraced.
Mae didn’t just drink the Kool-Aid, she chugs it and begs for more.
Chilling, repulsive, heart-pounding, and within the realm of reality, The Circle presents an inevitable future where humans dance in digital chains, clamoring for their masters to bind their limbs tighter, and all for the illusion of an impossible dream.
2017 Movie Trailer
Purchase here: The Circle [book] & The Circle [movie]
Similar Recommended Reads: Scored by Lauren McLaughlin, The Bar Code Tattoo by Suzanne Weyn, A Vault of Dreamers by Caragh M. O’Brien, Genius: The Game by Leopoldo Gout, The Scorpion Rules by Erin Bow
Meet Dave Eggers!
Dave Eggers is the author of ten books, including most recently Your Fathers, Where Are They? And the Prophets, Do They Live Forever?, The Circle and A Hologram for the King, which was a finalist for the 2012 National Book Award. He is the founder of McSweeney’s, an independent publishing company based in San Francisco that produces books, a quarterly journal of new writing (McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern), and a monthly magazine, The Believer. McSweeney’s also publishes Voice of Witness, a nonprofit book series that uses oral history to illuminate human rights crises around the world. Eggers is the co-founder of 826 National, a network of eight tutoring centers around the country and ScholarMatch, a nonprofit organization designed to connect students with resources, schools and donors to make college possible. He lives in Northern California with his family.
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