Have you ever read a book that left you feeling a little hollow, a little less safe, and yet it was a story that you felt completely in control of most of the time? That was my experience reading The Circle by Dave Eggers. The Circle is a story of a twenty-something woman named Mae (short for Maebelline, a sure nod to the makeup brand, leaving readers to wonder if Mae’s parents had actually named her after a beauty product in this dystopian society) who has just landed a job at a futuristic version of a Google/Facebook/Twitter-like company called The Circle, making her a “newbie” Circler.
In her first week or two there, she learns just how much this job will become an overbearing part of her life. She’s required to “smile” at all sorts of meaningless chatter online (The Circle’s equivalent to “Likes” on Facebook.) and every few days it seems that a new screen is being added to her desk, requiring her to pay attention to multiple social and business arenas at once.
At first, I was as enamored by The Circle as Mae was. What’s there not to like? The campus is beautifully manicured, all amenities are free to employees — even a stock of merchandise brought into the campus’s overnight apartments for employees who don’t want to drive home after a long day at work — and creativity seems to be bursting out of every room.
This, coupled by the fact that Mae is able to include her parents (her father suffers from MS) on her super amazing health insurance, makes The Circle seem like a dream job, which is the point.
Eggers sets us up to fall in love with the place, but all the time, we’re watching Mae being bombarded with more and more media, technology, and social obligation, and it all starts to feel like a burden not worth carrying. Mae is even chastised for not attending enough after-work festivities when she first arrives on campus. Like a good employee who wants to please her superiors, she acquiesces and starts to fill up her time with extra-curricular activities that keep her on The Circle campus overnight more often than not.
This is worrisome enough, but the story takes us into more questionable territory than just the technology that is taking over Mae’s life. One of her colleagues has invented a chip for children that is meant to eradicate child abductions and murders once and for all. Another colleague designs a camera that is so inconspicuous that people all over the world start to mount them everywhere so that public and private spaces are monitored 24/7. And then there are the politicians who take those cameras and wear them around their necks to prove absolute transparency.
As this perversion of social media, which honestly isn’t all that far off from what we have now, grows into normalcy within the world of Eggers’s book, I kept waiting for Mae to buck the system, to at least say, “What the fuck, man!” at least once, but she doesn’t. Not even when The Circle takes charge of all voting in America so that citizens are required to vote via The Circle or their Circle accounts are frozen until they do. Oh and not even when those votes are made public so everyone can see whom everyone else voted for. She doesn’t question the system once.
And that’s my only real critique of this book that I had a lot of fun reading with my husband, who coincidentally refuses to have a Facebook account, or any other social media presence besides LinkedIn (because it’s a professional profile, I suppose, and not a place to talk about our cats). I didn’t find Mae’s reactions to The Circle believable, and if they are believable, I couldn’t find them redeemable. I don’t know what I was supposed to take from her zombie-like march into the arms of this superpower corporation except maybe that comfort breeds indifference. The more comfortable Mae became the more willing she was to do anything for The Circle, even when her actions made her feel awful, even when she lost every person she’d ever cared about.
The best thing about this book is how much Eggers is able to echo the kinds of things we find exciting about social media in our own lives and what we might like to see in the future. Some of the inventions and innovations The Circle brings to life are so cool! Cool enough to make everyone in the book forget that they are being watched all the time, and cool enough to make everyone reading the book question how much we’re giving up by giving in to all this.
For Margaret Atwood’s take on The Circle check out The New York Review of Books review titled “When Privacy is Theft,” taken from a maxim Mae made up when she started wearing her very own camera necklace.