Book Review: The Circle by Dave Eggers
Posted by Arlene Somerton Smith
by Dave Eggers
Knopf Canada, 2013
This book really made me think. This book changed how I looked at life, or at least one aspect of it; I think differently about social media and internet privacy now.
The Circle is a social media corporation—think Google, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube all rolled into one. The company uses its financial power and social connections to create a Utopian “campus” for the staff.
“Outside the walls of the Circle, all was noise and struggle, failure and filth. But here, all had been perfected. The best people had made the best systems and the best systems had reaped funds, unlimited funds, that made possible this, the best place to work, Mae thought. Who else but utopians could made utopia?”
The main character, Mae, lands her dream job at the Circle. Soon the dark side of Utopia becomes apparent to the reader, but not to Mae. She enjoys the free daily entertainment, and she submits to company pressure to stay on campus as much as possible. She eats free food and drinks free wine, and she buys into their “stay connected at all times” philosophy. She makes more money than ever, and she lives in front of a screen, minute by minute: eighteen minutes to eat lunch and three to pee. Her new lifestyle affects her family, her friendships and relationships. Her ex-boyfriend, Mercer, says:
“. . . you’re not doing anything interesting anymore. You’re not seeing anything, saying anything. The weird paradox is that you think you’re at the center of things, and that makes your opinions more valuable, but you yourself are becoming less vibrant.
The executives at the head of the Circle strive for total “transparency.” No hiding and no lies. Public officials begin to wear cameras all day, every day, so their every transaction can be viewed and recorded. Soon Mae adopts “transparency” and a 24-hour camera, too. The paradox is that her so-called real life immediately becomes staged and rehearsed. Like our Reality TV, when people know they are on camera, they adjust their behaviour, so it’s not real at all. Even though Mae begins to realize that she and a close friend “hadn’t had a natural interaction in months,” she presses on.
“It was important, Mae had been told, that the entire event seem natural . . .”
Eggers touches on themes we already see in our social media world: how we develop an artificial sense of accomplishing change when we “like” someone’s post, how we live or die by the number of followers we have, how our self-esteem takes a dive if even a small percentage of people don’t like what we’re doing on-line, and how unsustainable a “transparent” life is.
Eggers captures the rapture and the anxiety of life on the Circle campus effectively. Even as we readers are salivating at the idea of free food and wine, we’re worrying about whether Mae will get back to her desk on time. Eggers’ prose phrasings simulate the relentless rhythm and pressure of Mae’s minute by minute statistic-led life. He makes us cringe at the creepy level of surveillance. He builds tension around private lives made public, without permission.
How does this story end? Will Mae shake off the yoke? Will she begin to see the value of individual privacy? You’ll have to read and find out.
How will our social media and internet privacy story end? I don’t know, but Eggers’ book has made me think about it.