“The Circle,” Dave Eggers’ new novel about an all-consuming social media company of the same name, isn’t subtle. It’s a broad satire about the dangers of sharing our lives and personal data with the likes of Facebook and Google, and Eggers leaves little doubt how he feels. Whether it’s the sinister slogans of the Circle (“SECRETS ARE LIES,” “PRIVACY IS THEFT”), to the scene of a man driving his truck off a bridge to escape drones dispatched by Circle users shouting “Be our friend!”, he bludgeons us repeatedly with his belief that this thing we all do online is going to end very, very badly.
The book tells the story of Mae Holland, a young woman who gets a coveted job at the Circle, which has absorbed much of the internet. It’s Facebook, Google, Twitter and Amazon combined, and has streamlined life online by providing a single profile linked to your real world identity (backed by your Social Security number, driver’s license and, of course, bank accounts). The Circle is where you get your email, post your photos, text your friends, shop, search and increasingly do everything else online.
Mae assimilates into the company’s culture, working her way up from customer service into the upper echelons of the company. Along the way we learn about the company’s plans to “close the circle” by making every bit of information out there known: tiny, wireless cameras that can stream HD video live from anywhere on the planet, tracking chips embedded in children to prevent abuse and abductions, and a push to recruit politicians to “go transparent,” wearing a camera and broadcasting their activities live, 24/7.
Mae buys into all of it with nary a question, which seems fine for a young, ambitious woman hoping to ingratiate herself at her dream job. The problem is that no one else is too worried about what the Circle is doing either. Eggers makes passing mention of a few meddlesome senators who dare to question the company’s motives, but they’re quickly undone when incriminating information shows up on their hard drives.
What little opposition we do find rests in Mae’s personal life. Her father suffers from multiple sclerosis, and her mother’s life is consumed with caring for him and battling insurance companies. They’re thrilled when Mae gets such a prestigious job at the Circle, even more so when she discovers that her benefits plan also covers family members with even the costliest of preexisting conditions. This gift relieves them of the crushing burden of her father’s care, but comes at a price: their house must be wired for full-time video surveillance, to make sure they’re following Circle-approved standards of care to the letter. They resist, understandably, and eventually cut off contact with Mae after she accidentally broadcasts them having sex online.
The conscience of the book (who we can assume is as a stand in for Eggers himself) is Mae’s ex-boyfriend Mercer, who makes a living selling artisanal chandeliers built from antlers. Mercer is still close with Mae’s parents, who invite him for dinner one evening, to Mae’s surprise. After dinner, he confronts her about the state of their relationship:
“Mae, we have to change how we interact. Every time I see or hear from you, it’s through this filter. You send me links, you quote someone talking about me, you say you saw a picture of me on someone’s wall.… It’s always this third-party assault. Even when I’m talking to you face-to-face you’re telling me what some stranger thinks of me. It becomes like we’re never alone. Every time I see you, there’s a hundred other people in the room. You’re always looking at me through a hundred other people’s eyes.”
“Don’t get dramatic about it.”
“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.”
And later in the book, he objects after Mae tried to help his business by posting photos of one of his chandeliers:
“No one’s forcing you to do this. You willingly tie yourself to these leashes. And you willingly become utterly socially autistic. You no longer pick up on basic human communication clues. You’re at a table with three humans, all of whom are looking at you and trying to talk to you, and you’re staring at a screen, searching for strangers in Dubai.”
“You’re not so pure, Mercer. You have an email account. You have a website.”
“Here’s the thing, and it’s painful to say this to you. But you’re not very interesting anymore. You sit at a desk twelve hours a day and you have nothing to show for it except for some numbers that won’t exist or be remembered in a week. You’re leaving no evidence that you lived. There’s no proof.”
“Fuck you, Mercer.”
“And worse, you’re not doing anything interesting anymore. You’re not seeing anything, saying anything. The weird paradox is that you think you’re at the center of things, and that makes your opinions more valuable, but you yourself are becoming less vibrant. I bet you haven’t done anything offscreen in months. Have you?”
But this conflict never develops beyond Mercer, Mae and her parents. Instead of capitalizing on the tensions created by Mae’s new relationship to her parents via her medical coverage, or the erosion of privacy foisted upon them by her choices, Eggers portrays this mostly as a personal conflict. Mercer is the anachronistic Luddite, soon to be left behind, and her poor parents are simply too old to learn new tricks. Meanwhile the rest of the world just goes along with whatever new technology the Circle rolls out to pry deeper and deeper into their lives.
This lack of credible opposition ultimately undoes the good thing Eggers had going in Mercer’s arguments to Mae. Whether he gets social media or has a basic grasp of internet technology is beside the point; he clearly understands how it warps communication and interpersonal relationships. He had an opportunity to emphasize how Mae and her fellow Cirlclers—and by turn the rest of us entranced by our menagerie of glowing touchscreens—actually have a choice in the matter.
No one invades our privacy when we hand it over willingly, after all. As Frank Rich wrote when news of the NSA’s widespread surveillance operations started to leak: “Spying is only spying when the subject doesn’t want to be watched.” But instead of focusing on our own complicity, Eggers hands us a tall tale of a corporate behemoth that makes what the NSA is doing look like holding a glass against the wall to eavesdrop on your neighbors.
The lasting image of the book is a bizarre, transparent shark that one of the company’s founders brought back from a James Cameron-like submarine excursion into the Marianas Trench. The shark is relentless, devouring everything put into its tank, from sea turtles, shell and all, to an entire coral reef. As far as metaphors go, it’s not subtle, and like the insatiable Big Brother 2.0 it represents, it’s too ridiculous to take seriously.