Jonathan Franzen might have had more success skewering the Twitterverse had he written a dystopian novel set in a web-obsessed future that doesn’t seem too much different from the present, a future where social-media participation is near mandatory, a paranoid future where the idea of privacy immediately makes people ask ‘What do you have to hide?’ A future where opinions and feedback are harvested and monetized. Where everyone is engaged in one big never-ending circle-jerking popularity contest. A selfie hall of mirrors. Much like Dave Eggers’ new semi-satirical, but mostly just creepy novel The Circle, a book that charts the arrival of the narrator Mae Holland as she gets a job at the Circle, the most powerful and most important tech company in the world. Google multiplied by Facebook times Twitter times Amazon squared. (Eggers, who has lived in the Bay Area for most of the past 20 years, says he hasn’t visited the tech campuses of any of those companies, and he didn’t interview any of their employees or read any books about them in preparation for this book, which he hoped to be “free of any real-life corollaries.”)
Franzen, you may recall, got picked apart by digital tweezers for complaining about how novelists seemed cheapened when they entered the blaring funhouse of social media. He also suggested that we were losing the ability to think and read in certain slow, uninterrupted ways. But Eggers’ vision is more pessimistic, more critical of the web-culture-as-lotus-eaters generation. Has Eggers somehow slid this one by all the guardians and protectors of the honor and glory of the internet? I expect the debate about this strong and unsettling novel, which has been out for under a month, will ripple for the remainder of this year.
The Circle is mostly set on the Circle campus. It’s a sprawling Googleland, a panopticon pleasuredome, where buildings and divisions are named after different periods of history — the Roman Empire, Paleozoic, the Industrial Revolution, the Enlightenment — as if the company has colonized all of time and culture. Circlers, as the eager young golden tech workers who make up the company’s staff, eat free from cafeteria’s that serve food raised on campus; the staffers can stay at pods on campus, like ready-to-use dorm rooms, that facilitate late-night working and after-hours extracurricular activity. New products and new initiatives are rolled out practically every week. One will monitor the whereabouts of children using bone-implant chips. Abductions will be a thing of the past. Others involve ingested sensors and nonstop body metrics that report heart-rate, blood-levels, hydration and all kinds of other key data. All kinds of health problems will be prevented or diagnosed in time to treat. The use of cheap and portable satellite-enabled micro cameras will allow for almost pervasive monitoring of anyplace on earth. Tabs can be kept on sick relatives. Geopolitical hotspots can be viewed without the need for the middleman mediation of the press. Governmental abuses of power will be a thing of the past.
There are definite whiffs of 1984, with a few characters trying desperately to carve out a space away from the burning gaze of the data-hungry web world. Elsewhere The Circle reminded me of the Jorge Luis Borges story “Funes the Memorious,” about a man who had unlimited data-storage capacity you might say, a guy who could remember everything, and who, somehow, as a result was a kind of monster, with no powers of synthesis, just a never-ending and never-filled receptacle.
Eggers stacks the deck artfully, so that every absurd erosion of personal freedom seems to have a corresponding mass benefit. And even if a reader wonders where are all those good-old loud-mouth personal liberty paranoiacs that make America great, the story moves along with its own internal plausibility. The majority of the action takes place on the utopian Circle campus, so Mae doesn’t encounter much resistance to what the company is doing until she leaves to go visit her parents. There she runs into her ex-boyfriend Mercer, who is the Luddite, off-the-grid voice of reason in The Circle. Mercer is an craftsman with an artistic bent — he makes weird chandeliers using antlers. He doesn’t dig the whole web-obsessed world. Expressing his disapproval of Mae’s enthusiastic involvement at the Circle, and her attempts to improve his chandelier business through the use of social media, Mercer tells her: “I mean, all this stuff you’re involved in, it’s all gossip. It’s people talking about each other behind their backs. That’s the vast majority of this social media, all these reviews, all these comments. Your tools have elevated gossip, hearsay and conjecture to the level of valid, mainstream communication. And besides that, it’s fucking dorky.” (When, you might ask, has mainstream communication been much more than gossip and conjecture?)
Mercer, it seems, is the voice of reason. He diagnoses the “new neediness” that “pervades everything.” One of the book’s most cringe-y and laser-sharp scenes involves Mae getting taken to task by some higher ups at the Circle, early in her tenure there, for not “sharing” enough — not sending out “smiles” (think “thumbs-up”) or “zings” (think “tweets”), for not posting photos of events she attends or rating everything she comes in contact with. (Her decision not to actively share her pleasure in kayaking, for instance, is viewed as not only anti-social, but selfish — what about the people out there who could learn and profit from her experience?) The Circle gets its power by turning people’s opinions, pastimes, and habits into marketable data for companies, directing people who want to sell to people who want to buy, and so the more they know about user preferences, the more successful they become. So there’s a base capitalistic motivation for the Circle’s philosophy that all information should be made available to everyone. It’s about cash. But it’s also about control. The Circlers are utopians — “who else but utopians would make utopia?” asks Mae. And at the core of their vision is the idea that society becomes more civil when people know they’re being watched. You behave differently when you’re under surveillance. It might not be your true self that’s on display, but it’s closer to your best self.
In a god-is-dead world, one of the Circle’s founders suggests, people need the sense that some higher authority is watching everything we do, with the threat of punishment always looming. Only then will crime and corruption and violence end. It brings to mind the criminal in Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” who suggests that some people need the threat of a loaded gun to their head every day just to behave.
(It’s safe to say that the two pivotal furtive handjobs that get caught on camera in the novel wouldn’t have unfolded quite like that had all parties known. And one suspects that Eggers chose that particular sex act for this book for some symbolic significance. Though the Circle isn’t a sex-shaming world.)
As far-fetched as many of the Circle initiatives seem, with what we’ve seen in the world of over-sharing, of NSA data-mining, of the reality TV-ization of the world, of everyone carrying what amounts to a GPS and a video recorder in their pocket, none of them seem so far out as to seem totally impossible now. The cult-like embrace of “going clear” (a hat tip to Scientology?), the always-on video and audio feed from politicians and individuals, speeds up the process of total access to candor all the time, or else the cementing of the mask that people wear when they know they’re being watched. One or the other. It’s the arrival of total truth or total falsehood, depending on what you think.