Tuesday, September 02, 2014

Review: Dave Eggers' novel The Circle (2013)

Do you remember this famous quote from the Google CEO Eric Schmidt?

Google CEO On Privacy: 'If You Have Something You Don't Want Anyone To Know, Maybe You Shouldn't Be Doing It'

If so you may want to read Dave Eggers' book, The Circle. 

Set in the near future, this book follows the fortunes of Mae, a new employee at The Circle, a thinly disguised version of Google. It treats its employees impeccably, providing all the food, education, sports, entertainment and other amenities on campus so they never have to leave. The Circle wants to accumulate all knowledge – from the web, from emails, from texts and Twitter, from Facebook updates, Instagrams, from biometric bracelets, from universal placement of web enabled cameras, from facial recognition searches in old digitized film, videos and photos, and eventually from always-on cameras carried by increasing numbers of people, who pledge to live their whole life In The Clear (i.e. while being watched by anyone at all times – a choice initially made by canny politicians when they begin to see their colleagues losing their seats for various nefarious activities mysteriously unearthed from their hard-drives and family histories).

After a few false starts, newbie Mae finds that she cannot live without the instant and constant feedback she gets from being connected to her customers and peers all the time. In contrast, one of the founders of The Circle likes his playboy toys. He has a submersible built that can navigate the Marianas Trench, and brings back his finds to keep in gigantic tanks at headquarters. He's particularly fond of watching a brutal Feeding Time ritual for his allegorical shark, which is when we begin to understand the true nature of his company.

The Circle's company values are "Privacy is Theft"; "Sharing is Caring";  and "Secrets are Lies". In droves, the tens of millions of addicted users of The Circle's extremely shiny and time-saving devices, apps and beacons begin to assimilate its company values.

The tension in the book is created by Mae's gradual understanding of the enormity of The Circle's intentions and whether she is in a position to do anything about them. She has developed a rivalry with her original mentor, Annie, which she has to win. She loves her online friends, her new fame as The Circle's Steve Mann-style human video-recorder with millions following her channels, her ability to see everywhere remotely through the proliferating camera network, and above all, she needs the health insurance for her ailing father. Will she wake up and warn the world in time?

This is a long novel with a short, tightly plotted skeleton. The length comes from the inescapable fact that if you have to suggest Total Information Awareness, you have to describe a lot, lot, lot of information about your hapless protagonist, from pulse rates to customer surveys to consumer surveys to customer satisfaction indices to texted friend requests from her horde of followers, and of course her reaction to the requests. Didn't join their LinkedIn network as soon as they asked? Her approval rating is in jeopardy. Didn't retweet their link? Could be a problem. (The book avoids proprietary names like Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter, but it's clear what type of service is being described.) At one point, the whole onboarding/new employee orientation at a large tech company is told in such detail that it was unsettlingly like having to go through one in real life (again). Also, having to script long conversations where one character convinces another that The Circle's company values are actually universal takes up another few dozen pages. (It reminded me of those old-fashioned polemics-novels, like De Sade's Justine or Voltaire's Candide.) It's an easy read, though, and five hundred pages fly by like a short novel.

When a novelist takes on a theme of society being entirely altered by a technology, he's writing Science Fiction, whether he knows it or not. I think Eggers would probably shudder if this was shelved with SF, since it's billed as a novel about society and "digital utopianism". The flyleaf reviews are very keen to compare it to Brave New World (which I assume is too good to be Science Fiction as well), but it reminded me more of Ira Levin's This Perfect Day. The big difference between The Circle and those two books is that the earlier writers assumed that a population must be drugged, or conditioned, or specially bred, to be docile consumers. In The Circle, the population adopts total surveillance willingly, because the chance to be safe from crime, spot strangers in the neighborhood and vicariously live the life of celebrities who do fun things is worth giving up just a little bit of your own privacy, and then a little bit more, until they all tumble down the Well.  Whether this is believable or not probably depends on the reader; I found that Mae had to be written as a ninny for her motivations to make sense, but on the other hand I do know a lot of people who spend a great deal of time sharing things online and fishing for a 'like'.

As for faults, the book has few. I was glad to see a female protagonist, but got irritated when it became clear she had no agency at all. Things happen to her and she rarely makes things happen to others. She does not even realize for herself there is a less-benevolent side to The Circle – she is coached by a shadowy (male) Phantom of the Opera figure. Picking a female for a passive role is an easy, if not actually sexist, choice. There were only a few proofreading or grammatical errors, which is a wonder in this day and age. But as usual, when a novelist gets into the Science! part of the explanations, things become a bit iffy. Shark metabolisms, even allegorical shark metabolisms, simply can't be that fast. And an allegorical shark may metaphorically eat everything from a 100 lb. Ridley's Sea Turtle to a sea horse, but I found the description a bit silly – sea horses are tiny. [*] Anyway, creatures from the Marianas Trench can't live in open-topped tanks in a building. Just no. And fire alarms do not measure carbon dioxide levels.

In sum, it's a good fast read and if you've ever wondered vaguely about how a surveillance society could come about, it's worth a few quatloos.

[*] Edit to add: After sleeping on it, this is probably like saying, "Eating babies is silly, as it takes more calories to have a baby than you get by eating one." But I still think the whole allegory could have been handled better.

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