Here are the lessons imparted by Dave Eggers’ “The Circle,” his new novel about the rise of a fictional technology company clearly modeled on Google or Facebook:
- Sharing content with people online is a poor substitute for having real-life experiences with, like, kayaking and family gatherings and drinking and stuff.
- Unless stopped, companies that build social-networking tools will create increasingly intrusive software.
- The only sure way to stay sane in our increasingly interconnected (Eggers would say over-connected) world is to drive at high speed off a bridge.
The book’s eponymous tech firm earns untold billions of dollars off the Unified Operating System, a portal through which virtually the entire world accesses the broader Web. The OS bans anonymous identities; all social information is posted out there for anyone to peruse; currencies such as Bitcoin have been discarded in favor of online banking accounts irrevocably linked to real identities. The Circle itself is headquartered in the Bay Area, on a playful campus that caters to its employees’ every material whim, so long as they’re willing to work twenty-plus hours a day.
That the world would accept something like the Circle’s omnipresent software without debate, of course, is the most far-fetched of the book’s assumptions. But Eggers needs that exaggerated scenario to support his larger theme of how we’re slowly but surely letting our privacy slip away from us in exchange for digital baubles, and how online interactions—clicking “Likes,” viewing posts—is an imperfect substitution for real life. As one of his characters (who acts as the doomed Voice of Reason) states early on:
“Judgments like ‘like’ and ‘dislike’ and ‘smiles’ and ‘frowns’ were limited to junior high. Someone would write a note and it would say, ‘Do you like unicorns and stickers?’ and you’d say, ‘Yeah, I like unicorns and stickers! Smile!’ That kind of thing. But now it’s not just junior high kids who do it, it’s everyone, and it seems to me sometimes that I’ve entered some inverted zone, some mirror world where the dorkiest shit in the world is completely dominant. The world has dorkified itself.”
The Circle’s employees, of course, have little problem with that world (until the end, of course, when another major character attempts to bring the whole system crashing down). Even if Eggers gets the technology wrong, in order to service his broader point, he perfectly nails the spirit of hubris and incessant self-congratulation that’s gripped many startups and tech behemoths in this era of easy VC money, huge app audiences, and massive acquisitions. That bit of software that makes all the world’s information easily accessible, he’s whispering in the background, is totally missing the point of what constitutes a real, lived-in existence.
In other words, “The Circle” isn’t much of a cautionary tale for the broader world, as no single commercial firm will ever (hopefully) eradicate our privacy to the degree that the company and its characters accomplish in the novel (although it’s clear that some tech giants will do their level best). But on another level, the text can still act as a cautionary tale to the current generation of developers and “entrepreneurs” who think their software will effortlessly change the world for the better.
“The Circle,” by Dave Eggers
Release date: Oct. 10
0385351399 (ISBN-10); 978-0385351393 (ISBN-13)