Review: The Circle

I can’t think of another book that’s made me quite so anxious as Dave Eggers’ The Circle did.

The novel follows a young woman called Mae Holland working for social media giant the Circle. We see her go from impressionable entry-level customer service rep, overawed by her SiliconIt’s Valley surroundings, to a key player in the Circle’s suitably-dystopic expansion plans. The novel’s power, for me, came from witnessing her slow indoctrination into the Circle’s surveillance culture, the subtle and not-so-subtle pressures the company places on her so she’ll accept ever more egregious infringements not only on her own privacy but also on that of society at large.

Eggers’ point lies in the fact that the employment practices Mae encounters at the beginning of her story are not unlike those you might find at Facebook or Apple or any of a host of other Silicon Valley tech companies: on-campus dorms Circlers can rent out if they’re working late; “optional” but actually compulsory extra-curricular activities; the expectation that employees are constantly available via social media while also keeping their productivity rates up. I mean, I don’t know for sure that any of these are common Silicon Valley practices (apart from the dorms), but they seem very plausible. It’s a slippery slope, Eggers posits, from these slightly icky practices to the intensely dystopic scenario he envisages at the end of the book: politicians wearing cameras wherever they go to demonstrate their transparency and trustworthiness, people setting up cheap cameras everywhere so no moment goes unrecorded, private sex acts being captured and disseminated without consent. And something worse that I won’t spoil, because it’s a central mystery of the book: what is meant by the phrase “closing the Circle”, spoken in hushed and reverent tones by Circle employees at all levels.

Eggers gives Mae so many opportunities to opt out, to realise that the Circle’s employment practices are unreasonable, abusive and even cult-like, and that the complete transparency it aspires to on behalf of the human race is bound to be intensely damaging for human society and mental health. It’s agonising to watch her confront these moments of friction, gradually escalating in their import and seriousness, and each time bow to the pressures her employer is exerting on her. By the end of the book, she’s become someone we hardly recognise.

The Circle is a novel first and foremost about the unprecedented and dangerous power we give to social media behemoths like Twitter and Facebook, and where that may lead. But it’s also a book that shines a light on exploitative American employment practices. (Mae is flabbergasted to learn that her father, who has multiple sclerosis, can benefit from the health insurance she gets through the Circle. It’s not for philanthropic reasons they offer this, of course.) And it’s also a deeply visceral demonstration of how cults work: by asking their victims to accept ever greater abuses until they’re too accustomed to toxic behaviour to recognise what normal looks like. It’s very cleverly done.

Despite its visceral effectiveness, though, The Circle still feels to me like a minor work. Why? I think it’s because it’s almost too single-minded: Mae’s slippery slide into Circle fame is captured with a superficiality that’s perhaps appropriate to the subject matter but that really precludes any attempt to know who she is. She is exactly what social media reduces us to: a collection of traits. Because Mae’s character, or lack of it, isn’t the point of The Circle. The point of the novel is the lesson – that we shouldn’t trust social media companies, that our current rush as a society to hand over more and more data to unscrupulous corporations is leading us nowhere good. That the erosion of privacy has implications for more than just the individual.

These are good points, but they’d be better made by a novel that doesn’t feel like a thought experiment. The Circle‘s effectiveness lies in how it models low-level employment abuses and how people become inured to toxic environments. I don’t think it’s particularly convincing, at an emotional level at least, in its depiction of why social media companies are dangerous: it’s too…exaggerated, somehow. Like Eggers knew what he wanted the result of the experiment to be before he performed it, contrived it so he’d get where he wanted to be regardless of whether it made sense.

Ultimately, I don’t think The Circle is a wholly successful novel. I don’t think it completely succeeds, on the level of content, in arguing that the erosion of privacy has a major effect on public life precisely because it sets out to argue that in the first place, instead of simply telling a story that would allow us to infer it, or explore the question for ourselves. It’s notable that where it does succeed, its success is down to showing not telling: it has us experience the visceral discomfort of choosing between your job and your boundaries without whacking us over the head with an explicit message about exploitative employment practices. I got the book from my local Little Free Library (in the Before Times when objects circulating between people’s houses didn’t seem like such a bad idea) and to be honest I can see why it ended up there. It was an unusual and thought-provoking read, but not one I think I’ll do again.

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