The Circle

The_Circle_(Dave_Eggers_novel_-_cover_art)The Circle, Dave Eggers

I read this a while ago, and hadn’t quite gotten around to writing the review. But since the movie is coming out soon, this seems as good as time as any to catalogue my thoughts. So let’s begin, shall we?

The Circle is Dave Eggers attempt at a cautionary tale. The story chronicles Meg, the stand in for all of us, fresh out of college and with a serious lack of confidence and yearning to prove herself. Her college roommate, Amanda, who is gorgeous, rich, athletic, brilliant, and generally better at everything than Meg or any of us, is employed in the upper echelons of the Circle, a bit of a Google/Apple hybrid, and gets Meg a job there, too. The Circle has a giant campus, controls social media, online shopping, entertainment, biometrics, artificial intelligence, technology hardware, and so on and so forth. It has pioneered TruID, a program to ensure people are posting and purchasing things under their own names, which revolutionized the internet and also made The Circle the gatekeepers for most things online. They are prestigious, and a dream company to work for. They only want what’s best for all of us, and are our benevolent overlords, or would be if we would only let them. I’m sure you can intuit where this is going.

I am generally a fan of Dave Eggers, who, for all his faults, I find to be an engaging writer. So let’s start with what I liked. I, well, loved is the wrong term, but I thought the oppressive concern The Circle had for their employees, the yearning for them to be a part of The Circle for everything, for the company to be a family, made me cringe. The Circle is all of the worst of Silicon Valley on steroids. They have dorms for employees to sleep at in case they stay at work too late. They have numerous social groups that they require invite their employees to join. They have happy hours or social outings or team building events almost every night. They have rec rooms and gyms and cafeterias for all the employees to use, so why wouldn’t you?

Early on in the book Meg is invited to speak with her boss and chastised on a few occasions for going home on the weekends, for not having a high ‘social ranking’ (for interaction with her Facebook and Twitter stand ins), for not joining any of the social groups. These conversations are all too realistic and were legitimately squirm inducing for an introvert and anti-forced-fun individual like myself. Imagine the flair scene from Office Space times 1000 and even more uncomfortable because the boss sincerely believes what he’s selling. *shudders*

The other thing that he nails, at least from my limited experience, is the bizarre psychology of rating everything and everyone all the time. This is a weird thing we do these days, right? And we’re obsessed with it! Not just obsessed with the chance to rate everything constantly, but also that anything less that CONSTANT PERFECTION is terrible, and anything less than total love means that we’re failures. And there are many disruptors who think this is good! There’s even a couple of tech bros who now want to replace tips with a rating system in their app that will pay out ‘tips’ based on your rating that you can basically only spend in-app. *shudders* This is so terrible for so many reasons. But psychologically, it means we are now obsessed with either our publicity* or our popularity, and expect constant approbation. At one point, Meg is debuting a new feature and The Circle administration does an instant poll asking, “Is Meg just the best?” And she ends up obsessing over the 6% or so (I can’t remember the exact number) who said no, thinking constantly about how 6% of the employees hate her. And, yeah, that’s about what all of this does to us.

Okay, now that I’ve explained some of the things Eggers absolutely got right, I will admit that I still didn’t care for the book. My first complaint is, admittedly, rather nitpicky. But I think it’s an important nit to pick. The introduction to the book explains how one of the ways that The Circle had managed to capture almost all of the internet was through the TruID program, which wouldn’t let anyone post or comment or buy things without authentication of their real self. This cut down on trolling and online bullying, and made everyone love The Circle. Throughout the book, this is a major theme. That part of the way The Circle is able to get everyone to love the and the work they do—because by being transparent, and making sure people can’t hide behind pseudonyms and anonymity they’ve ended this online cruelty and will make people behave better. This is, quite frankly, the type of thing that people who didn’t use the internet much said back when blogs were first a thing. In reality, though, verified checks and getting people to use their names is not such a check on cruelty. That’s just, really, really not how the whole thing works and it makes me think that anyone who says it is doesn’t actually know that much about social media and the internet.

And then there’s how Meg is kind of a wuss of an audience stand in. She’s supposed to be all of us, hesitant about some of this and then embracing it quickly. Okay, yeah, that happens, but she doesn’t really put up a fight at all. Come on. Let’s make the audience stand in a little less easily manipulated.

But the real issue for me is what is always the cardinal sin of a book. Giving your message with a sledge hammer. Remember how I said you could see where everything was going from the set up? Yeah, we know everything that is going to happen. Maybe not the details, but definitely the broad strokes. And we know how we’re supposed to feel.  There is actually, literally, a shark discovered by The Circle’s science expeditions that viciously devours anything it comes in contact with, even if the shark isn’t hungry, and no animal can stand a chance against it. Yeah, that happens. Can you guess what it represents? Here is an actual video taken of me at the exact moment I read that part of the book.

I do not like being told what to think, and I do not like heavy handed metaphors! They are even more irksome than the somewhat irritating sex scenes, and some of the more poorly thought out plot points. (Listen, the problem with there being absolutely no privacy isn’t that there are major skeletons in everyone’s closet. It’s that all the little things can be twisted and that no none is perfect and also that then there’s no privacy).

So, overall, I have to rate the book only a three out of five stars. There were some really good points. But overall, it was just too obvious, and too uncomfortable, and too heavy handed in too many sections for me to, in good faith, rate it higher.

*I have had both Facebook and Twitter let me know which of my posts on my personal account are doing well and also let me know how to pay to boost them. Like I need to be doing A/B testing on my random thoughts on the podcast I’m listening to? Like I should keep track of the pictures of which of my kids gets the most interaction? This is so, so, bizarre.

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