A Much Darker Road Ahead: On Dave Eggers’ The Circle

The rush of contact with the external world is a strange and powerful thing. As a kid, I charged the front door when I heard the metallic rustle of paper sliding through the mail slot onto the welcome mat. Every morning I dripped milky cereal onto the pages of The Boston Globe, and in the late afternoon I peered out the dining room window through curtains and shrubs, watching for The Newburyport Daily News to land on the front walk. I wasn’t so interested in world events or local politics, and I barely received any mail, ever. (Still don’t, and open the junk I do get about once per month, tops.) But those small doses of new information—carrying the possibility for intrigue, surprise, news from near or far—have been a pleasing and relatively harmless addiction all my life.

Fast-forward a couple of decades and I find myself—we all find ourselves—in a world where the high of knowing new things no longer occurs just two or three times a day. Now instead of straining my ears for the mailman’s steps on the porch, I’m flicking my eyes to check the parenthesized number at the top of my Gmail browser, anticipating the next dinner invitation, news alert, or blowout sale. Rarely do I receive any messages that touch or change my life in any profound way. But the checking is compulsive, and it’s not just my email. It’s my work email, and my Facebook account, and my Instagram feed, and the litany of news sites and blogs that I peruse religiously.

So in the time since I wrote that last sentence, I’ve Gchatted with my sister about her new kitten. I’ve exchanged emoticon-riddled iMessages with my mother. I’ve gotten two emails, one Trop-related, one about an Amazon sale. Admitting this out loud in Arial typeface makes me think that I could probably be better at many things if not for the glut. I’m pretty good at keeping up with personal notes from friends and family, though any that require clicking, watching, decision-making, or witty responses are likely to be held for non-business hours. Anything urgent or plan-related should be communicated via text or (between 9am-5pm) Gchat. I have almost 33,000 emails in my work inbox. That’s not an exaggeration. At any given time, around 230 are unread. On Facebook, I routinely have a backlog of about fifteen “page like” requests, event invitations, and birthday notifications. (I am a much better friend in real life, I swear.) Once, Twitter sent me an email to let me know that Trop had tweeted at me. Other than that I’m about 845 days behind on anything my “followers” have told the Twitterverse. (Twitterverse, interestingly enough, does not seem to alarm spellcheck.)

All of this is to say that I can relate to just about everything Dave Eggers is saying with his latest novel, The Circle (out in paperback next month), about the pull of connectivity and the slippery slope that is the Digital Age. I was both skeptical and curious when I started the book. Set in a post-Facebook, post-Google world, it begins at a time when “the era of false identities, identity theft, multiple user names, complicated passwords and payment systems” is over. No more anonymity, no more hacking. These fabled nuisances were brought to a screeching halt by a young, socially awkward computer genius who devised a Unified Operating System—“TruYou”—where everyone’s got one account, one identity, one password, one payment system. By the time we meet protagonist Mae Holland, TruYou has swelled into the Circle, a megacorporation with entrepreneurial spirit and communal mentality. The northern California campus is 10,000-strong, with spectacular architectural features and sustainable cafeterias with celebrity guest chefs and clubs and organizations of every persuasion. Every day there’s a roster of lectures by visiting activists, scientists, and rock stars; every night there’s a different concert or party. The grounds are pristine, the initiatives humane. It’s Disney World meets South by Southwest meets National Public Radio.

Mae Holland starts out likeable enough. She’s twenty-four years old, sporting a liberal arts degree and nondescript skill set. She lands a job at the Circle thanks to her dynamo college roommate who’s made herself indispensable to the Three Wise Men, the trio of technical, business, and personal acumen at the helm of company. Her job is personalizing canned responses to routine questions from clients around the world—in other words, she’s fielding a deluge of queries from behind a computer screen. She quickly masters the workflow, and starts nailing top-notch customer service scores amidst congratulatory messages from around the Circle.

Mae’s first hiccup on the job happens one week in. Somehow she missed the memo about the company’s PartiRank, a complex algorithm comparing the relative online engagement of Circle employees. Inconceivable to her colleagues, before starting her job she didn’t have a “zing” account, so hadn’t realized that everyone else was zinging and commenting and posting photos and otherwise documenting their every move. She learns about this aspect of her new job as additional computer monitors are being added to her desk so that she can track what’s happening with her InnerCircle (the Circle community) and OuterCircle (everyone else she knows). All of this, she’s told, will be just as vital to her success at the company as keeping up with the endless slew of customer queries.

As the story progresses, we’re privy to more and more of the Circle’s sprawling initiatives, which are routinely presented in Apple-reveal-style assemblies for the employees. (At one point, Steve Jobs’ name is casually tossed alongside revered influencers like MLK, Gandhi, Salk, and Mother Teresa.) At Mae’s first such meeting, the hype is all about crystal-clear video footage amassed with indestructible, lollypop-sized cameras that will expand access to life experiences in far-flung corners of the globe. With SeeChange, as the initiative is known, a dad stuck in an airport can hear the crack of the baseball bat and watch the dust fly up under his son’s heels as the kid rounds third for a homerun. With SeeChange, activists around the world can practically breathe the same air as revolutionaries in Tahrir Square. And with SeeChange, transparency will be king. No more secondhand sources or heresy, no more closed-door conversations or corruption.

As Mae and her colleagues walk away from the meeting awed by the technology and the potential at stake, the oohs and ahhs gloss over some creepy realities. When SeeChange goes public, consumers are spellbound by the image quality and ability to “be” places without going anywhere. Then, at the Circle’s urging, politicians start “going clear”—wearing mini-cameras around their necks all day, every day, so that taxpayers are privy to their every move and decision. Mae is happily drinking the Kool-Aid at this point, and blithely celebrates this development with the rest of the campus, with nary a moment’s reflection on whether open-air politics is at all problematic for leadership, security, or hell, basic human interaction.

Mae’s story is a grim reminder about a conversation we’re having with ourselves all the time, about how this online world we’ve created fits in with our existing values and sense of individuality. It’s also a cautionary tale about our collective non-alarmist attitude toward corporate fallibility. (As a Target shopper, when I heard news of the recent credit card hack debacle, my first thought was not, “Wow, credit card information is pretty serious business and I should maybe not toss it around like magic beans,” but rather, “This is going to be a giant pain; I just updated all my online payments for a new card.”) With The Circle, Eggers is not shedding new light on these elements of daily life, but he’s written an entertaining caricature of the way that we might be viewed by the people who come after us—either the believers, who’ll chuckle at our timidity in the same way we laugh at our one-time resistance to online banking or social networking; or the doubters, who’ll chuckle at our sense of invincibility and confidence that there will be no consequences for the faith we’ve placed in corporations.

The caricature element, which works well in depicting how ridiculously addicted people are to their connectedness en masse, doesn’t really do it for me as applied to the book’s main characters. I had a similar experience reading Eggers’ last novel, A Hologram for the King, where an anonymous crew of peons camps out in the desert, waiting endlessly for the opportunity to pitch teleconferencing software to a Saudi Arabian king. Whether or not that flatness was an intentional play on the facelessness of the global economy, it’s not an approach that usually draws me in. In The Circle, Mae and her friends, family, and colleagues are a little too pegged in their respective roles to take seriously: The insatiably proud parents who barely understand what the Circle is, but the health benefits, the salary! The curmudgeonly ex-boyfriend, living in the bygone age of the flip-phone and hating on the flocking device-heads. The kindly kayak rental shop owner, still running a small, face-to-face business, still trusting the good intentions of her clientele, and providing Mae with her cloyingly symbolic reprieve from the pressure and banter of real-time on-screen living. It just felt a little… emoticon-ish. Or something.

Though I don’t really like or care about the characters, the story zips right along. In the same way that there’s something delightfully voyeuristic about getting a peek at someone else’s Facebook newsfeed, I found myself intrigued to see how quickly Mae and everyone else would jump right in to use and evangelize the latest over-the-top offense against privacy and independent thought that the Circle was peddling as innovative and uniting. The corporate-disguised-as-civilized factor resonates, for sure. And there’s Mae’s off-and-on romances, complete with a mysterious man who manages to skirt the Circle’s otherwise rock-solid mechanisms for e- and geo-stalking fellow employees (and everyone else on the planet). It kept me guessing, but maybe I’m just a sucker for twenty-first century plot twists.

Along the same lines, I saw the movie Her not too long after reading The Circle. The parallel that most stands out to me is the sheer social acceptability of what is still pretty far-fetched IRL, as the kids say. In Her, Joaquin Phoenix’s character confesses that he’s dating an operating system with the same aw-shucks tone that couples here in 2014 reveal that they met online—and people respond with the same genuine approval and appreciation for him putting himself out there and giving this new kind of relationship a go. The conversation I keep having with people about Her is whether it’ll actually come to that—will we find the intuitiveness and companionship of our devices fulfilling enough to forgo the real thing? And if we did, would our friends and families be happy we are happy and propose double dates with us and our OSes? The takeaway in Her is that the future’s not going to be so bad. It might be different, but ultimately we’ll adjust and we’ll be OK.

In The Circle, Eggers paves a much darker road ahead, where corporate greed is rapidly merging with political power, and identity and privacy are becoming obsolete—but almost no one seems to notice. People are so assuaged by virtual inclusiveness that all social norms are completely warped. It’s a little intense when a complete stranger emails you thirty times to see if you’re interested in joining their Corgi owners club, but you realize that they’re just trying to be nice and you’re actually being kind of rude if you don’t publicly acknowledge their gesture and supply a good reason for declining, like not owning a Corgi. Likewise, people are so jazzed by new gadgets that they turn a blind eye to the downsides, like that you can’t ever really be alone if you wear a SeeChange video camera necklace everywhere you go, and that having no alone time is pretty much the same as living without any autonomy. What’s socially acceptable in the world that Eggers has created is not as comforting as the new reality taking shape in Her. And you could ask similar questions about The Circle: Could it come to this? If it did, would we just shrug and upgrade and join right in to the beat of the band? In both works, the future is distinguishable from the present in mostly subtle ways—enough so that you know it’s not right now, but the questions raised are only a few degrees removed from the questions we are already encountering in real time, as the Information Age marches on. Because if we don’t ask ourselves where this momentum is taking us and what the outcomes could be, we might forget that we can look away, if we want.

Alyssa Vine lives in New York.