The Circle is a book that takes a critical look at today’s society and its almost manic obsession with social media. Set fifteen minutes into the future, Dave Eggers’ novel tells the story of Mae who starts to work at a company that is totally not Google or Facebook.
Mae is young and somewhat disenchanted with the world. She has a college degree and some work education at a soulsucking job. When a former schoolmate of hers shows up and offers her the job of her dreams, she’s more than happy to just up and leave for that dreamjob of hers. And thus Mae goes to work at The Circle. The largest, coolest and only social network in existence. Her first job: She’s in charge of Customer Experience, which is basically handling complaints and questions by customers. But soon, she takes on other duties. She rates things, participates in surveys and does all sorts of things only to get smiles – think Facebook’s likes – and zings – an analogue to tweets – out of it.
The company is nearing something that it calls “Completion”, which is never quite explained, but it’s some abstract concept of a final achievement that – I think – gives The Circle power beyond a point of no return. Basically, The Circle will become so influential in politics and daily life alike that the world would literally not function without it anymore.
As one of its final tools, The Circle introduces a tiny camera. It’s adhesive, accessible by everyone at all times and it only costs 59.90. So… people buy cameras.
The world seems to be shrinking and increasingly under surveillance with each passing day. Cameras are everywhere, even around people’s necks as that’s the latest trend: Going clear. You wear a camera around your neck and you stream everything you do and see. And Mae is one of the first people who go clear.
The book is basically one big soapbox. Dave Eggers uses his characters as sock puppets for various sides of the argument pro and contra privacy. And in all the talking down to readers, Eggers forgets the most important part when you want to make a point about privacy and you should maybe not post all the things on Facebook. At no point is there a statement as to what The Circle actually needs all the information for. It can’t be to get power, because after having taken over all the banks, The Circle is actually too big to fail and has absolutely no reason for all the things it does in the book.
Still: It is clear from the outset whose side Eggers is on and as such, the book drags on until it gets to a very surprising ending. Seriously, the ending is the best part about that book.
And at this point, I have run out of things to say. So has Eggers, apparently.
Seriously, it’s that thin. The Circle nears completion, Mae gets sucked in, things go bad, surprising ending. That’s it.
That’s not to say that there’s nothing to say about the themes in this book. Because that’s what Eggers really wants to talk about. And he’s right. Facebook and Google are massive datamining operations. Every bit you give them is used for advertising revenue. Every like, every search query, every click, every move you do online is recorded and might finally be turned around and used against you. Luckily, Eggers does not construct a dystopian horror-vision of every bit of information is invariably used to harm others, because he does acknowledge that there’s way too much data online for any human being to watch.
But things can go viral. And they do. Ask Ghyslain Raza. Who’s that, I hear you ask? He’s the Star Wars Kid. Back in 2002, he made a video where he – as a pudgy and awkward teenager – danced around pudgily and awkwardly, imitating Star Wars character Darth Maul using a golf ball retriever as a lightsaber. He is now 25 and an activist against cyberbullying. This is where he comes from.
Ask Catherine “Catie” Wayne. As the super-hyperactive and babbling Boxxy, the then-sixteen-year-old uploaded a video to YouTube in which she randomly admits to loving her friends on an online gaming site. Her squeaky voice and her rather gratuitous use of eyeliner as well as her erratic behaviour immediately gave her a lot of online admirers, haters and everything in between. It was only a few days later that Boxxy lost her anonymity and the name Catherine Wayne came up. Soon, videos from her school appeared, people sent her flowers and pizza and showed up at the teenager’s doorstep. Catie Wayne is 21 years old as of today. She stars as one of the hosts of Animalist News, a animal-centric show on YouTube. She continues to upload videos as Boxxy.
But that’s also where Eggers makes a critical mistake. For things to go viral, they must be at least somewhat extraordinary. Be it a super-awkward dance or a squeaky-bizarre video. Nobody goes viral for nothing.
Back to the book. Eggers is right in observing that this seems to be the direction we’re heading. We upload nonsense to YouTube, garbage to Facebook and we post crap on Twitter. Why? So that we get some sort of instant gratification in form of Likes, Retweet, Plus-Ones and comments. And of course, everyone knows that this is a rather shallow form of validation. You essentially gain nothing, but lose a lot. Things that you wouldn’t have told anyone five years ago are now on Facebook within minutes. Not only because we get Likes and Shares out of it, but also since we – as a society – appear to have gotten this insane need to broadcast every single thing there is. So this is where we seem to be heading. A society gone clear.
And now… now what?