What makes us human? Some say it’s our ability to empathize, though certain animals, such as elephants, have been known to help one another without expecting anything in return. Others say it’s our ability to plan for the future — though, once again, squirrels hoard nuts in anticipation of a long winter.
Maybe it’s our ability to dream — to improve and make something better. We can sense a gap in what something is and what it could become — and we possess a relentless drive to narrow the chasm. It’s this desire that pushes us to evolve, and expand the limits of our knowledge and ingenuity.
Innovation and evolution are often at the heart of sci-fi stories, where technology is harnessed to create a better world and humanity. That’s the central idea of Dave Eggers’ critically acclaimed novel “The Circle,” the first fiction piece to be featured on the cover of the New York Times Magazine.
The briskly-paced story takes place in an unspecified near future, and follows a young woman’s rise in The Circle, a Bay Area-based company, which has combined social, e-commerce and search, making it possible to carry one online identity and password across any number of platforms.
It’s also exploring various areas, such as self-driving cars, e-commerce and video maps. If it sounds like Google, it’s not. The Circle crushed Google, Facebook, Twitter and other giants to become the central, most powerful tech company in the world. It now touches everyone’s lives — online and increasingly offline, as well — as it seeks to expand its influence beyond the screen.
The ambitious novel imagines our social media landscape at its most extreme — all in the name of making the world a better, more connected place. It also questions our buzzwords — terms like connection, transparency and community — and asks what price we’re willing to pay?
The Circle is more than just a company. It’s a nexus of activity and innovation, run by a triumvirate of tech and business archetypes: the so-called “Three Wise Men.” There’s Ty, a hoodie-wearing, reclusive boy genius; Eamon Bailey, a kindly, visionary uncle-type who combines folksy, aw-shucks wisdom with an almost messianic sense of mission; and Tom Stenton, a slick business tycoon that monetizes everything. Together they’ve created a company whose goal is to know and see everything. In fact, one of The Circle’s mottoes is, “All that happens must be known.” And collectively, their dream is to put the entirety of human knowledge at the fingertips of everyone on the Internet.
The Circle hires 24-year-old Mae Holland, thanks to her old roommate Annie, who rose up the ranks to become a top executive at the company. Young, smart and entitled, Mae is “newbie,” allowing us to become immersed into the world of The Circle. Through her wide, eager eyes, we take in its magical Californian campus — all glass walls, multi-levels, touchscreen walls and sleek angles. The tiles on the sidewalks are etched with inspirational words, such as “Dream” and “Believe.” Even sections of campus are named after great historical eras of innovation, which The Circle sees itself a part of.
Mae gapes at the perks and luxuries available to employees: gourmet cafeterias, state-of-the-art gyms, on-site clinics, “dorms” that sound like Ikea-designed hotels. Campus also hosts a lot of events, such as picnics, parties and concerts, guaranteeing nobody ever has to leave its grounds.
The Circle seems like the world’s most amazing college, full of thousands of young, eager, smart workers, like Mae, who are psyched to be there, convinced of the importance of their work. As Mae learns the ropes, she gets involved with a geeky, mousy programmer named Francis, amid a series of casual encounters with an alluring, mysterious Circler named Kalden, who flits in and out of her orbit. As we delve deeper into the company, it sounds not unlike author Katharine Losse’s entree into Facebook, which she chronicled in “The Boy Kings.”
Eggers spends a lot of effort to set up The Circle as a place, a company and a way of life, and it may will strike some readers as overwriting. But it is vital to understanding the company as a kind of utopia for Mae. The Circlers are certain of the beauty, allure and superiority of their work, and genuinely see their company and worldview as important and world-changing.
They work with the best of intentions: to make the world a better place and fulfill human potential. But since they’re part of The Circle, they have a startling ability to put these intentions into action.
As Mae is inducted into The Circle, she feels important, and is eager to prove her worth. After her bosses set her up with a phone, tablet and multiple screens at her workstation, she begins in “Customer Experience,” answering questions and troubleshooting e-mail requests. Algorithms, measure her performance, available for her and her bosses to see in real-time. Eggers has fun describing the frenzied, ridiculous measures Mae takes to keep her scores high as she watches them oscillate with every customer query.
As she gets deeper into her work, she realizes participation at The Circle is also part of her job. She’s told it’s not enough to come in and do her job well — she has to take part in the community network, where her social activity is “ranked” in real-time, as well.
While the bosses say it is “optional,” she’s expected to check in, “smile,” like, wink, “zing,” comment on and respond to posts, events, and comments in her circles. In one comical incident, Mae is called into the boss’s office because a co-worker was upset she didn’t RSVP to his event, a transgression treated with deep concern by the bosses.
Eggers pokes some fun at the relentless “activities” that social media places — and how immediate gratification and feedback is often mistaken for real relating and connection. Witty passages detail Mae’s relentless tasks to boost her “ParticipationRank,” underscoring how the frenetic “work” actually distracts us from participating in our real lives.
“Mae looked at the time. It was six o’clock. She had plenty of hours to improve, there and then, so she embarked on a flurry of activity, sending four zings and thirty-two comments and eighty-eight smiles. In an hour, her PartiRank rose to 7,288. Breaking 7,000 was more difficult, but by eight o’clock, after joining and posting in eleven discussion groups, sending another twelve zings, one of them rated in the top 5,000 globally for that hour, and signing up for sixty-seven more feeds, she’d done it. She was at 6,872, and turned to her InnerCircle social feed. She was a few hundred posts behind, and she made her way through, replying to seventy or so messages, RSVPing to eleven events on campus, signing nine petitions, and providing comments and constructive criticism on four products currently in beta. By 10:16 her rank was 5,342, and again, the plateau — this time at 5,000 — was hard to overcome. She wrote a series of zings about a new Circle service, allowing account holders to know whenever their name was mentioned in any messages sent from anyone else, and one of the zings, her seventh on the subject, caught fire and was rezinged 2,904 times, and this brought her PartiRank up to 3,887. She felt a profound sense of accomplishment and possibility that was accompanied, in short order, by a near-complete sense of exhaustion. It was almost midnight and she needed sleep.”
But the pressure to be part of the community remains high, and soon the recriminations grow less satirical and more chilling. When Mae rushes home after her father begins to suffer complications due to his multiple sclerosis, the bosses reprimand her for skipping out on the weekend’s social activities. Then, they question why she didn’t reach out to co-workers. Wasn’t she aware of all the support groups at The Circle? Why didn’t she ping her network and share her experience on the social network?
Mae went on a solo kayak ride to calm her nerves, one of her offline passions that allow her to spend time in nature, disconnected from the constant buzz of work and home. But instead, the bosses want her to fulfill her needs through The Circle.
Despite the speed bumps, Mae works her way up at The Circle, and her values slowly change as she gets caught up in the momentum of the success. The company, too, continues to evolve, growing and expanding its sphere of influence. One of its key innovations is the invention of tiny, imperceptible cameras, named “SeeChange,” which can stream high-definition video from anywhere and everywhere in the world.
The innovation is stunning, but the political impact is even bigger: with SeeChange, any location can be monitored 24/7, with live feeds available to the world over the Web. The result is constant, wide-ranging surveillance with the aim to eradicate crime and political oppression, according to the company.
But with eyes everywhere now, people and governments begin to mold their worst impulses into acceptable behavior. The idea of “radical transparency” takes off with the public, and even politicians jump on board, agreeing to constant video surveillance by wearing a portable camera around their neck to prove their openness and honesty.
Meanwhile, Mae becomes an accidental example of SeeChange’s power, when she uses a stray kayak left outside at her club after closing to go canoeing at night. Little does she know, though, that her small slice of paradise has been outfitted with The Circle’s cameras, and soon an observer on the Web calls in the police, who swarm the scene and arrest her.
The incident embarrasses the company and puts Mae at risk of losing her job, but she has a chance to redeem herself if she agrees to be interviewed in a world-wide webcast by The Circle, which will allow her and The Circle to spin the incident and champion the company’s point of view.
The interview is an important pivot in the story, shifting The Circle from muted comic satire to full-on dystopian nightmare. When Bailey presses Mae why she felt a need to retreat into a moment of solitude, she has no real answer other than a need to be alone with her thoughts.
But Bailey spins this as a selfish act: why didn’t she want to share the beautiful scenery of her adventure, especially with viewers who can’t travel to the Bay Area to experience it themselves? Why does she feel the need to keep this private? If she really cared about her fellow humans, wouldn’t she want to share her experience?
Under his skillful manipulation during the interview, Mae stumbles upon the next set of ideas to guide The Circle: “Secrets are lies. Sharing is caring. Privacy is theft.”
In other words, we, being social animals, are hardwired to share and connect — and any impulse to keep something to ourselves is selfish and suspect, depriving fellow humans of knowledge. In a final gesture of her commitment to The Circle, Mae agrees to go transparent, allowing her waking life to be streamed and broadcast live over the Internet. The exposure makes her a star, a key player at The Circle, as well as a true believer.
As Mae becomes more immersed in The Circle, she loses the parts of her life unconnected to the company: her past friends, her interests that can’t be fulfilled on campus and even her family. The Circle’s technology and reach becomes increasingly powerful, so powerful they’re able to trammel over the usual checks and balances of government regulation.
The second half of the book is either a ludicrous farce or a cautionary tale, depending on your view of technology. The plot races towards a sensationalistic series of events, and the enjoyment hinges on where you stand on issues of social media and privacy. The pacing is clumsy at times, but the end is chilling, aligning the novel with dystopian classics like George Orwell’s “1984.”
If you’re optimistic about the promise of technology to improve the world, you’ll likely read the story as outlandish — The Circle won’t seem like a really innovative company. But what Eggers really dramatizes is the birth of a new totalitarianism, and the subtle, emotional process that lays the groundwork for it.
In the political classic “The Origins of Totalitarianism,” philosopher Hannah Arendt argues that one of the first steps towards totalitarianism is to erase the boundary between the public and private, at the cost of the emotional lives of the people it wants to control. Totalitarian regimes coerce — and later force — citizens into giving up their private lives, all in the name of a better, improved social order.
The Circle is basically the fictional dramatization of this process — it’s less about gizmos, companies and software, and more about the subtle reshaping of our emotional lives by technology. Eggers plays Mae’s social activity for comedy at the beginning of the book, and we laugh because it’s an exaggerated version of our own fractious relationship to Facebook. But he also shows how, if left unchecked, our voracious emotional need underlying social media becomes a vulnerability that can be exploited by special interests.
Eggers also makes the case for privacy, and its role in our self-determination. Some of the most powerful passages in The Circle hint that we need solitude — and yes, a few secrets — to be who we are. We are meant to share those secrets and private moments with only a privileged few, in real time and space.
In fact, this kind of sharing is what creates true intimacy and meaningful connection between people — not the frenzy of “smiles” and zings of social media. A private self and life may indeed be one of the most important rights we have. And it’s one we give up when we opt-in to the kind of radical transparency that The Circle advocates, all in the name of “All that happens will be known.”
We have always tried to exceed the limits of our knowledge, and perhaps for the first time in human history, we are approaching technology that makes it possible for us know to everything all at once as it is happening.
But are we meant to know everything? And… can we handle it if we do? The unfortunate fate of one of the major characters of the book offers a resounding “No.”
And yet, there will always be those who push those frontiers, even to madness. As Mae watches the monitor of a brain-damaged character shimmer and burst with color, hinting at unknowable brain activity, she is anxious to know what those thoughts are. As she thinks in an internal monologue that forms the last paragraph of the book, “Why shouldn’t they know them? The world deserved nothing less and would not wait.”
The Circle hints that combination of ability, reach, entitlement and speed — one so seductively enabled by technology — might prove our undoing, unless we bolster our other human impulses of empathy and foresight.