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The Circle, Dave Eggers

August 2, 2020

IMG_4111Dave Eggers writes good satirical fiction, and The Circle is one of his best. It’s more subtle than The Captain and the Glory (as satire could be, back in 2014) but it’s not dated at all. We’re still dealing with repercussions of the issues raised in this novel about someone who goes to work for a big tech corporation that sounds a lot like google.

The fictional corporation is called “the Circle” and the setting is the future, when “to use any of the Circle’s tools, and they were the best tools, the most dominant and ubiquitous and free, you had to do so as yourself, as your actual self, as your TruYou. The era of false identities, identity theft, multiple user names, complicated passwords and payment systems, was over. Anytime you wanted to see anything, use anything, comment on anything or buy anything, it was one button, one account, everything tied together and trackable and simple, all of it operable via mobile or laptop, tablet or retinal. Once you had a single account, it carried you through every corner of the web, every portal, every pay site, everything you wanted to do.”

There was little backlash in this fictional world, evidently. The kind of people who don’t follow news from the Electronic Frontier Foundation, who ask disingenuous questions like why people would be against a new law if they didn’t intend to break it, have already won in the world of the Circle (where tweets are called “zings”). In this world, “though some sites were resistant at first, and free-internet advocates shouted about the right to be anonymous online, the TruYou wave was tidal and crushed all meaningful opposition. It started with the commerce sites. Why would any non-porn site want anonymous users when they could know exactly who had come through the door? Overnight, all comment boards became civil, all posters held accountable.”

The protagonist of the novel, Mae, goes to work for the Circle, and she is delighted with everything. Not just at first, all the way through. Mae is utterly and completely converted to the will of the Circle. It’s in her relationships with people around her that you, as the reader, can see the drawbacks of Mae’s seeming utopia.

One of the Circle’s first big ideas, one that delights Mae, is called SeeChange. It’s small cameras, so small and so surreptitiously placed that no one will ever know “for sure where they are, who’s placed them where and when. And the not-knowing will prevent abuses of power.” That’s the selling point, anyway. In case readers miss the point, the Circle bigwig who is trying to sell the idea, Bailey, tells a story about his own mother: “I asked her to have some security cameras installed, so I could access them on a closed circuit, but she refused. But….Last weekend, while she was napping….I snuck in, and I installed cameras in every room. They’re so small she’ll never notice.” Later in the novel, Mae herself is caught on camera doing something she’d rather not tell the world about, but she still doesn’t see the cameras as the problem, although readers will.

There’s an interesting moment on p. 233-234 when Mae is answering a survey and says “meh” to “would you be willing to pay 1,200 dollars for a weeklong trip down the Grand Canyon?” She is momentarily interrupted, and when she goes back to the survey, she is asked the same question and answers “yes,” as if familiarity with the idea is all it takes to get her comfortable with spending so much money on something she’s not all that interested in.

Eventually the Circle’s influence grows so much that the corporation urges politicians to wear little cameras around all day, cameras that can only be turned off for a few minutes when they go into a bathroom. The process is called going “transparent,” and it is touted as a remedy for corruption, although behind the scenes we see how the Circle is destroying the careers of politicians who try to refuse the cameras. Mae herself is eventually given one of these cameras, and we see it destroy her relationships with her friends and family.

The Circle even provides Orwellian-sounding slogans for its various campaigns:

Right after the day when the president of these formerly united States tweeted that we should delay the 2020 election, it’s particularly important to notice that in this novel, the Circle points out that “a hundred million more people are registered with us than voted for the president” and then they propose, of course, that people be required to vote through their Circle accounts. When Circle employees try out the voting system, they are told that “each Circler’s ability to do anything else—any zing, any keystroke—would be suspended until they voted. Democracy is mandatory here!”

The satiric exaggeration gets to the point where the founder of the Circle says to Mae that “you and I both know that if you can control the flow of information, you can control everything. You can control most of what anyone sees and knows. If you want to bury some piece of information, permanently, that’s two seconds’ work. If you want to ruin anyone, that’s five minutes’ work. How can anyone rise up against the Circle if they control all the information and access to it?” The reader can see clearly that no one can, although Mae has been so utterly brainwashed that she is left, like Winston at the end of 1984, crying about how much she loves the Big Brother she has been instrumental in creating.

The only part of this novel that didn’t ring true, because current events have caught up with it, is the part about virtual tourism. Bailey, the circle bigwig, tells everyone about his son who is confined to a wheelchair and says “when he experiences the SeeChange view of a Circler climbing Mount Kenya, he feels like he’s climbed Mount Kenya. When he sees firsthand video from an America’s Cup crew member, [he] feels, in some way, that he’s sailed in the America’s Cup, too.” Early on in the “flatten the Covid-19 curve” effort, during the stay-at-home order in April, I watched some walking tours of places I’d been planning to go but couldn’t get to, and I definitely did not feel that I’d walked through the ruins of Pompeii or down a tropical beach.

What did I feel? Alone. One of the pleasures of travel is sharing it with others.

One of the pleasures of satire is feeling like there are others who see the dangers that you do. Dave Eggers is good at showing you enough of the dangers to let you make up your own mind, especially if you already know a little or do a bit of research on the very real trends he is exaggerating to make his point.


5 Comments leave one →
  1. August 2, 2020 12:31 pm

    Wow, I almost feel anything I say is superfluous. It’s just a shame that near-future parables like this so quickly get overtaken by reality. (Except for that ‘virtual tourist’ thing you mention…)

    • August 2, 2020 1:17 pm

      It is a shame that many science fiction ideas (especially the dystopian ones) are overtaken by reality so quickly; I have a friend who writes science fiction who has lamented that she can’t write fast enough to stay ahead of reality. For example, she was the first person I read who explored the possibilities of 3-D printing. That was in 2011 (the book is The Highest Frontier).
      But most of the exaggeration in this satire is not dated because it has not been overtaken by reality. I didn’t quote from some of the really exaggerated parts, like when a friend of Mae’s who wants to live off the grid is literally hounded to his death by Mae and her followers, who just want to see what he’s up to, because I thought that would be too spoiler-y.

  2. August 2, 2020 8:55 pm

    It’s not that I’m *surprised* Trump has actually voiced his obvious, obvious, glaringly transparently obvious lust to stay in power as long as possible… it’s just that I can’t *not* do a mental Picard facepalm because the alternative is edging a little too close to the Pit of Despair, and I’d really rather not go back in there.

    • August 2, 2020 8:57 pm

      Do you plan to (or have you already) see(n) the Emma Watson/Tom Hanks movie? I haven’t yet.

      • August 2, 2020 9:05 pm

        Yeah. It’s possible to be paralyzed by despair.
        I have not seen the movie. In fact, when you mentioned Emma Watson and Tom Hanks I looked it up and now I plan to watch it!

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