2013 Book #51: The Circle

circleI seriously considered not even writing about this one since I’ve hit my goal of fifty for the year. I also (though not seriously) considered never touching the internet again, ever. The Circle is scary!

With the exception of a couple of Nonrequired Reading introductions, I’m pretty sure this is my first brush with Dave Eggers. I pass by Zeitoun on the library shelves every now and then, and I’ve even picked it up a few times, but I haven’t read it because it’s been eight years, and I still don’t want to deal with Katrina. But that’s neither here nor there.

The Circle is similar to 1984, but with social media. Don’t get me wrong: in subject, not in quality. Though I enjoyed reading The Circle, it’s not a fantastic book, though it’s fun and terrifying at the same time.

The book opens on Mae Holland’s first day working at the Circle, an social media company hybrid. Think Facebook + Twitter + Square/Paypal + Instagram + Yelp + Foursquare + every other one I can’t think of right now. It has a sprawling campus in California, like Google’s or Apple’s, but better. It’s also a cult that might even trump Apple. Employees “voluntarily” allow their entire lives to be broadcast on social media. At first, they’re just supposed to check in, post photos, and comment on others’ feeds – like we do now. But the “transparency” requirements get out of control. Early on, a Steve Jobs-type CEO introduces SeeChange, a cheap, tiny video camera with an incredible battery that can be mounted everywhere, is almost invisible, and will record and broadcast automatically for two years without intervention. People post them everywhere. Mae, daring to take some time alone, gets caught doing something she shouldn’t, is made to feel guilty, and agrees to go entirely “transparent,” wearing a camera around her neck all of the time. Politicians do too, and eventually more and more people go transparent, making private moments impossible. Mae ends up in two interesting relationships, and must make a choice between them: one fits in with the goals of The Circle, and the other understands the implications and wants to prevent what is happening.

Sounds kind of like 1984, eh? The Circle even adopts similar slogans:

SECRETS ARE LIES
SHARING IS CARING
PRIVACY IS THEFT

And that’s kind of what The Circle is: a social media update to 1984. Whether Eggers does it successfully is up for debate. Mae “drinks the Kool-Aid” very early on and seems far too eager to share anything and everything. She doesn’t really question what they’re doing. And *spoiler alert*, when she’s given one final opportunity to prevent this global loss of privacy and a totalitarian takeover by an omnipresent corporation, even after she knows the implications, she chooses not to step in.

Sure, Winston gives in, too, but he’s tortured. Mae is not. At the beginning, it seems like she’s so afraid of being fired and not keeping one of the most enviable jobs in the world that she goes along with anything. By the end, though, there’s no excuse. The only time she even seems to question it is at the very beginning, after they’ve uploaded the contents of her personal laptop to the cloud, and she wants to “say goodbye” before she lets them throw it away. After that, it’s Kool-Aid all the way. I find that unconvincing. No one is that dumb; no job is that important.

So. I enjoyed reading The Circle to the point at which it became frustrating. I expected Mae to struggle with something, but she agrees to everything without questioning it. By the end, she’s so brainwashed that she makes a stupid decision with far-reaching implications for all of humanity: Mae sucks.

This novel also invaded my dreams. I’ve stopped reading several books because they’ve done that, and I’m sure you can imagine that a dream about The Circle might not be the most pleasant. After the first night of that, I sped through the rest of the book, just to be done with it.

And it’s terrifying, mostly because it’s so realistic, more so than 1984, given that 1984 is behind us and technology has advanced so much. It’s not even about over-sharing: all of the information Mae voluntarily puts online is innocent, but her photos from Portugal, for instance, and her favorite restaurants and dishes combine to form a profile that’s far too exact. I’ve never been an over-sharer, though I am all over the internet because it’s been around for a long time, and I’m an early adopter. Even if I did decide to go offline, no amount of deleting will really get rid of any of it. It’ll always exist somewhere, on someone’s hard drive. With automatic updates, it’s only getting worse: advertisers not only know where I like to eat, but thanks to Fitbit, they know how many steps I take in a day. Little stuff adds up.

Which doesn’t mean that I’m pulling away from the internet. As I said, it wouldn’t do any good, anyway. I think The Circle will arrive here sooner or later, and there’s nothing we can do to stop it. I just hope it doesn’t happen in my lifetime.

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