We’re reading THE CIRCLE by Dave Eggers

28 Jan

Becky Hogge considers a broad-brush satire of social-media capitalism

Hamish Hamilton, HB £18.99 / Knopf, HB $27.95 

In what has swiftly become a time-worn tradition, Dave Eggers’ techno-capitalist dystopia The Circle opens with a tour of the campus. And the campus of the Circle, Eggers’ post-Google/Facebook/Twitter hybrid, makes the last time we looked round the real-life Googleplex, watching Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson in The Internship, feel like a tour of the offices of a public utility firm.

Which is, coincidentally, where Mae Holland, the novel’s protagonist, has just arrived from: she has been languishing amid burlap and her boss’s halitosis since graduating from $250,000-worth of liberal arts education. Having called in a favour from college friend Annie (whose swift rise through the ranks to the company’s management team of self-styled cultural revolutionaries is never really explained) Mae finds herself in a workplace furnished with yoga studios, cooking schools, kennels, organic vegetable gardens, mini golf, a vintage pinball arcade and an indoor badminton court that keeps a former world champion on retainer.

From hallways boasting artworks salvaged from the firesales of the old elite, to the year-long waiting list for household-name rock stars to play the company’s cafeteria for free (Annie: “Oh god, we don’t pay them”), Eggers has the satire turned up to eleven. But Mae doesn’t notice. By the end of her first day

“…her home town, and the rest of California, the rest of America, seemed like some chaotic mess in the developing world. Outside the walls of the Circle, all was noise and struggle, failure and filth.

But here, all had been perfected. The best people had made the best systems and the best systems had reaped funds, unlimited funds, that made possible this, the best place to work. And it was natural that it was so, Mae thought. Who else but utopians could make utopia?”

Utopias are just dystopias waiting to happen: the system that underpins the Circle’s riches begins to reveal itself near the end of Mae’s first month, when she is hauled in front of HR. Does she have a problem with her self-esteem? Does she have something to hide? Why, in short, does nobody know about the fact she’s into kayaking?

It seems Mae has been ambling around the Circle’s campus not realising it’s built on Passion, Participation and Transparency. Her Participation Rank is slumming it in the bottom 10,000s, and this is mostly because Mae insists on having a father with MS, and on enjoying solo kayaking around San Francisco Bay, without telling anybody in her digital social circle, and consequently, without leaving an auditable, saleable digital vapour trail The Circle can monetise (“kayaking is a three-billion-dollar industry”).

For the sake of her friend Annie – and for her father, whose health the Circle has just agreed to fully insure – Mae resolves to improve her PartiRank (geddit?) and thus keep her job. So begins Mae’s descent, as her quest for ultimate transparency begins to hollow her out on the inside, and her mind is replaced bit by bit by the Circle’s ideology.

Mae’s journey into madness is as convincing as Alice’s in Doris Lessing’s The Good Terrorist, with the twist being this time it is not the ideas of the radical left that act as the bait for Mae’s previously aimless anxieties, but their noughties grandchild, “information wants to be free”.

And Mae is not the only one. The services the Circle offers the outside world are barely elaborated upon. We learn early on that most of the money comes from TruYou, which takes the sloppy diversity of the old web and moulds it into a Unified Operating System, “one button for the rest of your life online”. The rest (DIY video streaming using devices so small you barely notice them, embeddable microchips for your toddler) are thinly veiled plot devices. It is the campus which stands for what we imagine the Circle’s appeal to be in the wider world: abundance, where everything is ludicrously attractive, endless and free. And just as similar services in our life today have encouraged us to give away more than we might tell our own mothers to companies with IPOs that are global news events, so the Circler lifestyle takes Mae over to a dark side of deep disclosure.

The gradual replacement of her character with an ideology is the thread to keep reading The Circle for, although lesser minds (mine included) will also continue turning the pages to see whether the enigmatic love interest really does turn out to be the company’s equally enigmatic founder (spoiler: he does) and if Checkov’s loaded hand job in act 1 surfaces in act 3 (spoiler: it doesn’t).

Anyone who suggests that this level of hammy-ness undermines comparisons drawn between The Circle and 1984 should reread their Orwell. The Circle stands up against the best political satire. The only question left open is whether any of us can prevent its narrative becoming our own, before the circle closes.


M John Harrison discovers the secrets of science communication in Exit Strategies (Arc 2.1), out now.

Also on the blog: Adam Greenfield takes apart the smart city (from Tim Maughan in New York).

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