Mae Holland gets a new job at a hip high-tech firm thanks to her old friend Annie. It is quite a relief after 18 months of boredom and inept management at a utilities company in her hometown. She is starting off in the “Customer Experience” department, providing customer service online. The basic job is not hard but she still has quite a bit to discover about The Circle and the many layers of expectations she is facing.
The Circle seems to be a mix between Facebook, Google and Twitter all rolled into one and then some. The office complex, the “campus” is high-tech, designed by architects and each building is names after an era of history (for e.g., the Enlightenment).
Dan, Mae’s boss, tells her this in their very first meeting:
“Mae, now that you’re aboard, I wanted to get across some of the core beliefs here at the company. And chief among them is that just as important as the work we do here — and that work is very important — we want to make sure that you can be a human being here, too. We want this to be a workplace, sure, but it should also be a humanplace. And that means the fostering of community. In fact, it must be a community.”
This sets up the blurring of the boundaries between work and private life. Mae just does not know to what extent yet. She gets the third degree when she returns from a weekend visit to her parents’ house. She was offline for the whole weekend… which is not desirable at The Circle. As her father suffers from MS, chatting about that experience of having an ill parent may be of help for others and therefore part of community contribution that is expected of Mae. Each little omission in the sharing of information is viewed with suspicion. When Mae goes kayaking by herself, she is asked whether she realizes that not taking and posting pictures and not sharing this experience with others is selfish and may deny others who cannot take part in this activity the discovery of the beauty she is so fortunate to enjoy.
Mae finds herself at odds with a former boyfriend, Mercer, who is a frequent visitor at her parents’ place. He has serious misgivings about the online tools that The Circle provides.
“It’s not that I’m not social. I’m social enough. But the tools you guys create actually manufacture unnaturally extreme social needs. No one needs that level of contact you’re purveying. It improves nothing. It’s not nourishing. It’s like snack food. You know how they engineer this food? They scientifically determine precisely how much salt and fat they need to include to keep you eating, You’re not hungry, you don’t need the food, it does nothing for you, but you keep eating these empty calories. This is what you’re pushing. Same thing. Endless empty calories, but the digital-social equivalent. And you calibrate it so it’s equally addictive.”
“And it’s eliminated my ability to just talk to you.” He was still talking. “I mean, I can’t send you e-mail, because you immediately forward them to someone else. I can’t send you a photo, because you post it on your own profile. And meanwhile, your company is scanning all of our messages for information they can monetize. Don’t you think this is insane?”
The Circle develops mini-cameras that can be worn or placed unobtrusively anywhere and advocates “transparency”. People going “transparent” can be viewed online at anytime and this goes for politicians as well. In fact, not going transparent soon becomes seen as a sign of corruption; if you are not “transparent” you must have something to hide. Mae herself becomes “transparent” and her job becomes that of a hostess of a permanent online guided tour of the Circle campus. Mae learns to live by what are now seen as necessary basic principles:
Secrets are lies
Sharing is caring
Privacy is theft
In the end, the principle of transparency leads to a totalitarian surveillance society… when all that was sought was to enhance democracy. Mae’s parents flee the surveillance in their home, Mercer tries to live off the grid and drives his truck off a bridge while being pursued by drones. One of the founders of The Circle, one of the Three Wise Men, uncomfortable with what some of his work has lead to encourages Mae to walk away, tells her he knows what needs to be done to dismantle The Circle, but she chooses to denounce him instead. She is been so thoroughly indoctrinated she can no longer distance herself from The Circle.
Throughout my reading of this book, I found myself very uncomfortable with the corporate social environment that was described. To be sure, organizations try to foster corporate cultures that take humans into account while also seeking to control some behaviors. Within a culture, some behaviors are desirable, and others unacceptable. However, the level of control sought by The Circle, the pervasive influence of the beliefs it forces on people were a lot more similar to a sect than your usual corporation. The reason that the book was so scary to me is the existence of most of the technologies that it puts into play. It is science/techno fiction, but by such a slim margin…
The other way in which the book was uncomfortable was its writing. Eggers describes the everyday world of Circlers in excruciating detail, over and over again. The computer technologies, social media interactions, the surveys, the social events, the corporate presentations… the descriptions are repeated until the world of The Circle takes such life for the reader (or at least this reader) that it seems logical and even right.
But I still would not want to live in this world.
At least one of the “blurbs” in the front matter compares this book to Huxley’s Brave New World. I was thinking about Orwell’s 1984.
Eggers, Dave. The Circle. Vintage Books, New York, 2013.
http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2013/nov/21/eggers-circle-when-privacy-is-theft/ (by Margaret Atwood)