Over I Easter I read The Circle by Dave Eggers. I wouldn’t normally blog about my recreational reading, but there is such a strong overlap between the themes of the novel and my research and teaching interests that I have decided to post my review here.
The tale’s main setting is the Silicon Valley campus of a tech company in the not too distant future. The Circle has already gobbled up several other familiar social media enterprises and, as such, may be conceived as a fictional amalgamation of companies such as Google, Facebook, Amazon, and Twitter. Its earnest workforce is involved in numerous innovative projects to make the world a “better” place where communities are safe, and a genuine democracy works for the good of all. Circle technologists work on a bewilderingly wide range of innovations that include, for example, systems to eradicate criminal dangers such as child abduction and to guard against political corruption.
We follow new Circle employee Mae Holland in her first few weeks at the company. Mae is appointed on the recommendation of her old university friend Annie. She cannot believe her luck when Annie, who has risen through the ranks of the Circle to be a member of its elite “Gang of Forty”, orchestrates a job offer for her at the firm.
Mae instantly falls in love with a work environment that is in complete contrast with that of her career to date in a boring, old-fashioned utility firm of her home town. At the Circle Mae discovers that working and playing hard go hand-in-hand, appreciates the high levels of care that the company provides for its workers and families, and wonders at the marvels of what must be the coolest workplace on the planet.
Before long Mae has bought into everything that the Circle stands for to the extent that she becomes a Circle commodity herself, with celebrity employee status that extends far beyond the confines of the company campus. However, this all comes at a cost: Mae gives up her privacy when she volunteers to serve as a guinea pig for the Circle’s “transparency” software.
Mae takes to her work at the Circle as a new evangelist, barely hesitating to challenge the way that the Circle relies on the data of others to run its business. Meanwhile encouraged by Mae’s interactions with a mysterious character called Kalden and her despairing ex-boyfriend, readers confront the issues that Mae chooses either to ignore or dismiss.
In this new world it is no longer possible for an individual to maintain multiple identities. The Circle’s “TruYou” software, which made it possible to conduct all business online using just one program and password, has removed anonymity from the Internet. The eradication of platform independence has made it all too easy for personal data to be aggregated, merged and triangulated, and those who already have a habit of life-logging make it possible for their quantified selves to be viewed by anyone who cares to take a look. Those who do not buy into transforming all that used to be viewed as private and ephemeral into a public and permanent resource to be accessed by all are at best dismissed as old-fashioned. At worst they are considered criminal. There is no right to non-participation, nor to be forgotten. In this new world “sharing is caring” and “privacy is theft”.
As we follow Mae’s story we see how knowledge that personal data is open has an impact on an individual’s behaviours and reputation. Mae alters her routines because she knows that she is on display as a “transparent” person, and the feedback that she receives from her viewing public encourages her to modify her behaviour further for their approval. Thus the apparently transparent Mae is a distortion constructed by the environment, and her supposedly “authentic” public digital self is, to a large extent, an artifice as she uses digital media to portray the person that she would like to project (as opposed to her real, flawed, self). As she fulfils her role of revealing to the outside world what goes on within the Circle, the act of broadcasting per se can be seen to be more important than what is actually experienced.
Without explicit reference, another theme of the work is “truthiness”, i.e. a desired perception of truth. When this takes precedence over truth per se, particularly over issues that are prone to populism (for example, how to punish criminals), actions based on an expressed mass of opinion rarely results in optimal outcomes. Examples in this novel reveal what can happen when contextual information is ignored, or not known, by the mob.
Through the medium of the novel readers are invited to question issues related to themes of digital personhood. These include, for example: digital inclusion and exclusion; the extent to which we should be expected to give up our personal data to get something back (consider for example the debate over the NHS England’s Care data system); and the unintended consequences of massive data sharing. Even if you feel like to you have nothing to hide, this novel is a stark reminder that you still have much to protect.
Although these are serious themes, the novel is actually quite a light read with a fast-paced, gripping and amusing plot. It is not literary fiction, but readers will enjoy nods to other works, as highlighted in the New York Review of Books review published last year. For me the most obvious echoes were of George Orwell’s Nineteen eighty-four, Douglas Coupland’s Microserfs, and the Truman Show. There’s a fair number of biblical references in the text too.
I particularly enjoyed the almost comical scenes where Mae is doing all she can to keep up with the multiple information feeds thrown at her, and gains comfort in reducing her backlog of requests and checking her online metrics. My amusement was partly fuelled by recognition that I often retreat into such behaviours. I was also genuinely surprised by one of the main twists that comes at the end of the novel. So instead of my usual thinking for x pages “I wonder if I am right about this?”, I actually had the pleasure of an “Oh, I didn’t expect that!” moment.
My only criticisms of the novel are minor. For example, I felt that the relationship between the protagonist and her best friend is not entirely believable, but this is perhaps an artefact of a plot where the term “friendship” is stretched to its limits. Similarly I was surprised at Mae’s naivety, and did not find her a particularly sympathetic character. Again, without this, the story would not work. A genuine error at one point seems to be a mix-up between Leeds and Manchester. To give the work a bit more weight and creditability I would have liked to have known more about the battles over data protection and intellectual property rights that the Circle encountered with Europe (these are just mentioned in passing), and to have seen more female programmers working at the Circle.
All in all, this is an entertaining and thought-provoking novel that anyone with interests in digital personhood and the themes of identity, reputation and privacy is bound to enjoy. That the writing is so close to the style of screenplay makes me wonder whether the book was written primarily with an eye on film rights. If so, I am looking forward to seeing the Circle as a movie.