In his 2007 novel Spook Country, William Gibson has one of his characters, a mysterious entrepreneur named Hubertus Bigend, explain to the book’s protagonist, investigative journalist Hollis Henry, that espionage and other intelligence work are “advertising turned inside out.” When Hollis asks what this cryptic observation implies, Bigend answers with the malevolent flourish of a Bond villain, “Secrets … are cool. … Secrets … are the very root of cool.”
“Secrets are cool” could be the tagline of Dave Eggers’s new novel, The Circle. At a moment when eavesdropping programs are exposed almost daily, the novel suggests that secrets might not be such a bad thing after all. As our lives become more public, we might need more privacy, not less. Total transparency—when mixed with soft surveillance, Big Data analytic tools, and the gamification of everyday life—might become, in the words of one of the novel’s characters, “a totalitarian nightmare.”
Over the past decade or so, Eggers has written an astonishing range of books, from his best-selling meta-memoir A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius to What Is the What, the fictionalized autobiography of a Sudanese Lost Boy, to more journalistic efforts such as Zeitoun. In addition to being prolific, Eggers may be the most important literary entrepreneur in America today. He has helped create the journal Timothy McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern; The Believer magazine; the quarterly DVD magazine Wholphin; the publishing house McSweeney’s Books (where he often self-publishes the hardback editions of his novels); 826 National, a network of tutoring centers for the underprivileged; and a number of nonprofit philanthropies. Across his writing and enterprises, even when he writes on dark subjects, Eggers finds a way to be relentlessly hopeful. (The Believer was originally supposed to be called The Optimist.)
With his new book, Eggers takes a surprisingly dark turn, joining literary novelists such as Jennifer Egan, Gary Shteyngart, Margaret Atwood, and Zadie Smith who have lately found the present too fast-paced, and disturbing, to depict using conventional realism. It’s worth noting that at the same time these writers have felt the need to explore dystopian alternate worlds, science-fiction writers such as Gibson and Neal Stephenson have turned their powerful forecast-trained imaginations on the present. We live in science-fictional times.
The Circle is a near-future parable about the rise of a seemingly benevolent corporation, which begins as a start-up that has invented a system for securely verifying online identities. The Circle aims to make the world’s information accessible and permanently upload all of life onto the cloud. It’s a satirical mash-up of Silicon Valley firms: modeled on a creative laboratory, like Google, obsessed with quantifying and ranking workers, like Zynga and Microsoft, and devoted to designing products that arouse cultish loyalty, like Apple. Eggers keeps key details just vague enough that I could never decide whether I was reading his version of cyberpunk or Kafka.
Our hero is Mae Holland, a 24-year-old former employee at a California public utility with a degree in psych and an aimless future until she gets a job at the Circle thanks to her high-powered executive best friend, Annie. Mae’s new position seems like a dream, a haven from the gross and decaying outer world. The company is so generous it extends health-care benefits to her father, who is suffering from multiple sclerosis.
Mostly, Mae remains a cipher, presumably to allow the reader to occupy her point of view. This can be hard to do, since Mae rarely evinces any critical awareness of just how creepy the Circle is. When she arrives at the company’s gorgeous Bay Area headquarters, she thinks, “It’s heaven.” Eggers so lovingly describes the campus’s grounds—its fountains, picnic areas, tennis courts, sleekly designed workspaces—that we’re ready to accept Mae’s assessment. But the reader’s analysis of the Circle and Mae’s quickly part ways. When one of Mae’s co-workers says, “We want this to be a workplace, sure, but it should also be a humanplace,” Mae replies, “I love the ‘community first’ idea.” Really, someone should probably tell her that she’s a character in a dystopian science-fiction novel.
As Mae moves up through the Circle’s ranks, she agrees to allow her every waking moment to be transmitted on the Internet. Her life becomes something like a persistent, socially networked reality TV show dedicated to the Circle’s inner workings. Though millions follow her movements—and harass her on a daily basis to secure her attention—she seems unperturbed, almost always remaining chipper. She becomes what David Foster Wallace in his essay “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction” described as “a certain type of transcendent semihuman who” has taken “a vacation from human self-consciousness.”
Meanwhile, the Circle constantly rolls out new systems: incentivizing consumers’ self-disclosure and submission to monitoring; allowing politicians to make themselves trackable online by constituents; anticipating crime; and incorporating social media into every economic transaction. Near the end of the novel, as the Circle begins to “close” or “complete” itself, finally bringing every facet of life online, it promises—or threatens—to replace democracy with “Demoxie,” a system under which Americans are required to register for a Circle account, and their online identities remain frozen until they participate in mandatory elections. “It’s democracy with your voice, and your moxie,” one of the company’s founders announces. “And it’s coming soon.”
In a way, Eggers finds himself having to confront the imperial optimism his enterprises have had a hand in promoting. No one scheme presented by the Circle seems problematic on its own. Indeed, many of the Circle’s projects are motivated by altruism. They’re enterprises Eggers might himself have launched—might still launch—with help from well-meaning companies such as Google.
What makes The Circle so evocative—and at times frustrating—is Eggers’s difficulty pinpointing exactly why the cultish company is threatening. Whereas the protagonists of classic dystopias (think 1984’s Winston Smith) resist the dominant order, Mae is all too happy to help close the Circle. Indeed, it is Mae who suggests that Circle registration become legally mandated, apparently unaware that anyone might find this scheme troubling. Only Mae’s ex-boyfriend, Mercer, openly resists the Circle, insisting on his right to live outside its ambit. He pays a price, but his punishment is so overwrought, and Mae’s indifference to his suffering so unfeeling, that it’s hard to take his fate seriously as a warning. Another major character falls into a coma after the Circle exposes her family secrets. “The cause of the coma was still a subject of some debate,” the narrator reports, “but most likely, it was caused by stress, or shock, or simple exhaustion.” Does Facebook threaten to put us into comas?
Sometimes, it seems as if the problem with the Circle’s surveillance is that the tools necessary for participatory democracy—a validated citizen database, electronic voting operations—are held in private hands. That Mae previously worked for a public utility becomes an emblem of the alternative to the Circle’s ominous public-private partnership: No private company should have so much market power, Eggers sensibly argues.
At other times, the problem with the Circle is that it threatens our right to solitude and anonymity. Mae and Annie find themselves having conversations in bathroom stalls (the only moment when Mae is allowed to turn off the audio of her live video feed). In this instance, having a government hold the power of the Circle would not offer much solace.
So which is it? Is the problem total transparency (an absence of secrets)? Or control of information by a concentrated elite (an excess of secrets)? Is the Circle an example of “ruthless capitalistic ambition” or “infocommunism” (one critic of the Circle levels both charges, almost in the same breath)? Eggers seems unsure.
His uncertainty is, I think, a symptom of the Internet being the greatest uncontrolled experiment upon humans in history. It is a system—a network of networks—that has in short order permeated every corner of our lives, colonizing our work, leisure time, and social relations. Writing dystopian science fiction might be the only way to express how little we know about the power this system will have over us, and our sense that its effects will be irreversible.
The Circle isn’t entirely successful as a political parable, but it captures the sinister, funny ways contemporary capitalism and social media are turning us into quantified selves. At times, I wondered whether Eggers hasn’t created a loose allegory of the writer who is, against his anxious better judgment, obsessed with his Amazon sales rank. Might The Circle secretly be a follow-up memoir, a return to the concern with celebrity culture that dominated A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius? How else to make sense of a passage like this, when Mercer berates Mae: “I just want to talk with you directly. Without you bringing in every other stranger in the world who might have an opinion about me. … You know how weird that is, that you, my friend and ex-girlfriend, gets her information about me from some random person who’s never met me? And then I have to sit across from you and it’s like we’re looking at each other through this strange fog.” Mercer owns a business and is speaking about a bad review someone posted online. But it’s hard not to see Mercer’s complaint as commentary on Eggers’s ambivalence about the fame he has also courted.
Despite its flaws, The Circle’s political message is most haunting when it ties fears about the future of the Internet to more mundane concerns. We are already under heavy surveillance, Eggers reminds us. At the test-obsessed schools where we send our children, on the city streets where we amble—surveillance, quantification, and social ranking are the order of the day. Eggers’s prose is most affecting when he is describing Mae, sitting at her desk, staring at the multiple monitors she is responsible for tracking, doing office work:
She pushed forward, signing up for a few hundred more Zing feeds, starting with a comment on each. She was soon at 2,012, and now she was really getting resistance. She posted 33 comments on a product-test site and rose to 2,009. She looked at her left wrist to see how her body was responding, and thrilled at the sight of her pulse-rate increasing. She was in command of all this and needed more. The total number of stats she was tracking was only 41. There was her aggregate customer service score, which was at 97. There was her last score, which was 99. There was the average of her pod, which was at 96. There was the number of queries handled that day thus far, 221, and the number of queries handled by that time yesterday, 219, and the number handled by her on average, 220, and by the pod’s other members: 198.
Eggers gets exactly right the cadence of sitting in front of a computer, completing myriad small tasks, winning banal electronic victories. What is most oppressive about the world of the Circle is the unending war of position one must engage in, fighting against fellow workers to secure one’s job. More and more, white-collar careers demand not only that we accomplish tasks that are required of us but also that we socialize with colleagues, keep on the clock (or on campus) 24/7, and evince pleasure in our work. The future Eggers fears is already here.
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