It’s a world not-so-different from our own. One company dominates the social sphere. The Circle and its ideas of radical transparency pervade private life, communications, and the world at large. Privacy is theft. Sharing is caring. Secrets are lies.
Long story short, I liked The Circle.
The writing isn’t exactly Lord-of-the-Rings-calibre beauty, but it was quick to read. The simple, bare-bones prose is sometimes choppy and awkward, but it moves the story along. It’s really familiar too: Dave Eggers’ voice is shockingly similar to Cory Doctorow’s. (Little Brother, Homeland etc.) And the subject matter isn’t far off either. Like Doctorow’s universes, The Circle takes place in a world uncomfortably similar to our own. The technology is not quite distant enough to call sci-fi. The politics and policy recall our own talking heads. The social environment, enmeshed with tech, is eerily like our own day-to-day surroundings. Of course, Doctorow’s books focus heavily on the technology (surveillance and militarism in Little Brother, the games in FTW, mashups in Pirate Cinema), and they are populated largely by tech-savvy teenage boy protagonists (loved the girl power in FTW, though!) Eggers’ focus is more social. In The Circle, we’re aware that there’s a lot of tech magic going on behind the scenes, but we largely breeze past it. The meat of the story is the implication of the world’s biggest, fictional social network on human interaction. Rather than the technology, it’s the bond between friends, co-workers, family, bosses that take center stage as they are alternately thrown into turmoil or magically fixed through the omnipotent powers of The Circle.
The Circle’s characters are unobjectionable, but also unremarkable. For a story all about connections between people, I really didn’t feel a connection to any of the people in the story – major or minor characters. Our eyes and ears throughout the story are Mae, a new employee of The Circle. Mae is a smart, independent woman who thinks for herself………..for about two pages. She questions, in passing, the pervasive, authoritarian hand of the company she works for, but is a toeing-the-company-line fangirl for the bulk of the story. There’s almost something Stockholm-Syndrome-ish about Mae – The Circle rescued her from a dreary existence and some misery in her family life and she repays them with undying love and loyalty. But it’s not as simple as that and Mae, in my mind, doesn’t get to play the helpless victim unable to make her own decisions. She makes it clear she gets what the company is doing, and her brief lapse into authority-questioning makes it clear that she gets that it’s not quite right. Ultimately she’s responsible for her own beliefs and decisions. Ultimately she chooses to be a slavishly-loyal fangirl.
Filled with slavishly-loyal fanboys and fangirls like Mae, The Circle is the in-crowd (albeit one with deep pockets and the ear of governments). But those on the outside, like Mae’s family and neanderthal of an ex-boyfriend are are hardly more likeable. As dead set on connecting the world as The Circle is, the outsiders are dead set against it. Mae’s ex is so anti-technology, he won’t even read online reviews of his own business.
The Circle is a dystopian warning. Every review/article I’ve seen on it compares it to Facebook, but it’s comprehensive infiltration of every aspect of life more closely approximates Google. Regardless. The whole thing is set up as a portent of total control via social networking. It could’ve been written by Julian Assange. (Actually, go read Cypherpunks. Then come back and tell me The Circle doesn’t violate the copyright of the cypherpunks’ collective dystopian nightmare!) And The Circle’s observations of the dangers of total surveillance through “voluntary” participation online aren’t completely off base. It’s got a point.
But as reminiscent of reality as its setting is, it’s conclusions are incongruous.
In The Circle’s universe, the world gallops enthusiastically forward into its dystopic nightmare. Young people in particular both create and welcome the nightmare. The book is explicit on this point: the young people of the world, with few exceptions, take to the lack of privacy without question.
Except they don’t.
Not really. Not in this world.
And while The Circle isn’t exactly a perfectly allegorical piece with a one-to-one, fantasy-to-real-world correlation, it is quite clearly supposed to be this world in which this whole nightmare is going down.
But the naive youth sacrificing privacy at the altar of corporate America – that isn’t the reality of this world.
Yes, the Circles of the real world – Facebook, Twitter, Google, Apple, Microsoft…. – are well on their way to totalitarianism in their disregard for their users rights and privacies. Yes, we live at the mercy of these corporations and often times give them way more trust than they have earned. Yes, we of the net generation embrace public life and social connections with open arms.
But our open arms haven’t flung away our privacy rights.
When Snowden revealed that we weren’t even safe from our own government, use of Tor shot through the roof. But young people didn’t need Snowden to tell them that they wanted more privacy. In the real world, teenagers took to SnapChat faster than the imaginary teenagers of Eggers’s universe took to the Circle.
Yes, Snapchat’s promises of security were shit. Yes, most high schoolers aren’t Facebook-stalking their crushes over Tor. But although the infrastructure for security is woefully lacking, and although it doesn’t necessarily pervade daily life, the demand is there. The desire to have some part of life remain ephemeral and secret and personal and exclusive is alive and well in the youth of this world.
The youth of this world want privacy. The youth of this world want personal space. The youth of this world want the choice to live large and public or to grow and develope behind closed doors and whisper in the dark.
That choice – to voluntarily occupy private or public space as we wish – is sacred to the Net Generation. It’s the corporations that aren’t living up.
At least that part The Circle gets right. But the rest does not ring true.
With a style echoing Doctorow’s, I couldn’t help making constant comparisons: Doctorow’s youths fight the oppressive states and pervasive monopolies; Eggers’ youths welcome them with open arms. Doctorow’s teens use their wits to outsmart the stifling infrastructure they live in. Eggers’ teenagers line up to lose their privacy, and young adults happily take it from them.
I did enjoy The Circle, I really did. But the assumptions behind it I did not buy. The line it pushed was faulty. Maybe Eggers is a complement to Doctorow – maybe he’s the other side of some coin. Maybe their worlds aren’t mutually exclusive. But I’d rather live in Doctorow’s.