If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place. If you really need that kind of privacy, the reality is that search engines—including Google—do retain this information for some time…” So said Google CEO, Eric Schmidt, just over four years ago. Since then, from wiki leaks to phone hacking to NSA on-line surveillance there has hardly been a month without a scandal involving the use and misuse of the digital imprint many of us leave in our wake.
Into such a climate then, enter Mr. Dave Eggers offering his latest novel “The Circle” with a very topical premise. Set in the near future it follows the story of Mae Holland a 24 year old thrust into a pressurised job in the largest, most successful and influential company in the world called “The Circle”. “The Circles” key success has been garnered by managing to de-anonymise the internet, inventing a mechanism whereby people are identifiable on-line. This has led to a positive social revolution where crime rates have lowered and general behaviour has improved with the increase in accountability and transparency.
As she negotiates a landscape with a vastly different culture and level of expectation to what she is used to, Mae’s attitude changes. Her initial healthy scepticism rapidly changes as she buys into the persuasive ethos of “The Circle”. Carrot and stick are equally applied in “The Circle”; employees who fail to participate or more importantly fail to be seen and heard to participate are quickly reprimanded. In return every whim is catered for.
As someone who worked in what I’d have to describe as a most modest example of a nineties dot com technology company, the descriptions of work place partying, organised fun and disapproving whispering when ‘entirely optional, non-mandatory’ social events are unattended struck a chord and raised a smile or two. Certainly a bean bag, free food and pinball mythology surrounds companies like Facebook and Google. All appropriate sweeteners for unmarried, unattached and unburdened bright young things when all-nighters and weekend working will be expected.
At its heart “The Circle” is satire, but also an exercise in pushing the what-ifs as far as possible. Mr Eggers says: “I tried to write a book that wasn’t so much about the technology itself, but more about its implications for our sense of humanity and balance.”
Perhaps the goal or message takes undue precedent and it might have been more enjoyable if characters were filled in a bit more or some of the blunt metaphors dialled down a notch. Characters like Mae’s childhood sweetheart and sculptor Mercer are given just enough detail to serve a purpose but not much more. Mercer is the analogue counterpoint to the digital Mae, his entire life’s work is hand making objects from natural resources. The elements of mystery are nice touches but any Agatha Christie fan worth their salt will figure them out well ahead of the revelation. These are minor quibbles because Mr. Eggers writes with such exuberance, humour and clarity that the novel zips along.
In Vladimir Nabokov’s 1957 classic of dystopian fiction; “Bend Sinister” some of the more chilling sequences are the where the effects of officious and inept bureaucracy impact with devastating consequences on the lives of the innocent. Unlike the bland and resentful dullards who forcibly grasp the keys to the kingdom in Nabokov’s fictional European state, the denizens of “The Circle” are the brightest and the best. Nonetheless the most sinister passages often seem to be where Mae iterates through hundreds of social transactions called ‘zings’ or toils away at her day job – which despite the hyperbole is essentially customer support – working into the small hours, forgetting to eat answering inane questions to improve her social rank.
Interesting also is the reception this novel has received, with many seeing it as dig at technology, and esteemed tech journals like WIRED crying – you just don’t understand the internet. Mr. Eggers, all round do goooder, right-on charitable guy, with a house sized social conscience, and in his early 40s at that (younger than Steve Jobs!) He shouldn’t be down on technology. Is he? Readers will have to make up their own minds.
To me this view misses the point, as this book seems to be very much not about technology but rather a meditation on what constitutes belonging. What happens to our relationships with family and friends when we surrender to an extreme ideology, why people get sucked into tribes or cults and what if it happened on a national scale? Significantly for Mae, in such a hot house her dormant feelings of self-importance are nourished. As Al Pacino playing the quare one himself in “The Devil’s Advocate” exclaimed: “Vanity, definitely my favourite sin.” The vulnerabilities and frailties in Mae’s ego are not that she is shy, lacking in confidence or self-effacing, but that underneath she harbours resentment, that she feels she is underestimated. An undercurrent of – I’ll show them. Many a cult has been fuelled by such an individual.
“The Cirlce” by Dave Eggers is out now published by Penguin/Hamish Hamilton
Cade, Metz (December 7, 2009). “Google chief: Only miscreants worry about net privacy” http://www.theregister.co.uk/2009/12/07/schmidt_on_privacy/
Review by Cormac Donnelly