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Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The Circle by Dave Eggers

Alfred A. Knopf, 504 pages, $27.95

This was a 400-page Socratic dialogue. The other 100 pages are 1984 meets THX 1138 meets Brave New World, but set in a time fairly close to our own. At its 500-page heart, it’s a satiric social commentary.

Mae Holland is a young woman, fairly fresh out of college, who is thrilled to work for The Circle, a Google-like internet construct. Her best friend from college, Annie, has gotten her the job. Annie, young though she is, has shot up through the ranks and is one of the people in the know. Almost all Circlers, as they are known, are young, enthusiastic, and true believers in their work to bring forth a massive internet community.

The reclusive Ty Gospodinov developed “the Unified Operating System, which combined everything online that had heretofore been separate and sloppy — users’ social media profiles, their payment systems, their various passwords, their email accounts, user names, preferences, every last tool and manifestation of their interests.” He then brought on board two others, Eamon Bailey and Tom Stenton. Together they have created a megalithic entity. The 12,000 Circlers who physically work together participate heavily in Circle life on a massive campus in California. (I’m not sure when anyone has time to actually work, considering all the extracurricular activities that are constantly scheduled.)

Sinister Orwellian pronouncements like “All that happens must be known,” are engraved on the campus architecture. Wrong thinking is not punished so much as it is sternly nudged toward a clearer understanding of The Circle’s beliefs. For instance, Mae publicly confesses to Bailey a misdeed and the gesalt moment that resulted from it:

    “I understand that we’re obligated, as humans, to share what we see and know. And that all knowledge must be democratically accessible.”
   “It’s the natural state of information to be free.”
   “We all have a right to know everything we can. We all collectively own the accumulated knowledge of the world.”
   “Right,” Mae said. “So what happens if I deprive anyone or everyone of something I know? Aren’t I stealing from my fellow humans?”

Eggers tries hard to create the specifics of a realistic web giant, but in the end it’s more a fantasy than an actuality. In any event, that’s secondary to the moral of this cautionary tale. It’s actually plural, so the morals are: Nothing is free, There’s always a downside, If you give an inch, they’ll take a mile. The story also poses one of those psychological dilemmas: Whom should you save, the one or the many? In saving the many, there may be a lot more lost with the one.

Mae begins her Circle life in the CE department (known as customer service in our world). She receives an instant analysis of how she does in answering questions. As she makes (computer-only) friends, she receives more instant gratification through “zings” and “smiles.” As more and more social duties are added to her load — joining LinkedIn-like networks, answering emails and surveys, participating in Twitter-like blasts (“zings”) — she multitasks faster and faster. Her PartiRank (the be-all and end-all popularity indicator for Circlers) rises. She sacrifices relationships and sleep to ascend.

It’s obvious from the beginning what Eggers is trying to say. Social media doesn’t necessarily make people more social. They lose the human element as their screen presences take over. Their individual identities are subsumed as they cavort towards corporate-approved personas. Beware the mega-websters. Perhaps the Assanges and Snowdens are doing us a big favor.

The people urging Mae to proceed with caution are her parents, ex-boyfriend Mercer, and a shadowy figure on campus named Kalden. Can Mae be saved from The Circle, from the “tear opening up in her,” and from herself?

Kind of long, kind of hit-me-over-the-head-over-and-over, kind of one-note. Should have been an intense and muscular short story or novella. (This is apparently out-of-the-circle thinking, as Eggers’s book was given a star by Publishers Weekly and named one of the best books of the year by The New York Times.) What can I say? Sometimes I don't agree with the masses.

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