Dave Eggers’s The Circle is so carelessly written, so predictably plotted, and so thinly conceived that it threatens to make a mockery of anyone who would attempt seriously to review it. Granted it has been a long time—perhaps as far back as A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (2000)—since Eggers put much thought into his sentences, and granted this may in part be due to an intentional decision to prioritize topicality and accessibility over style. Still, even alongside recent efforts, like the comparatively elegant A Hologram for the King (2013), his newest novel distinguishes itself for its clumsy prose, its one-dimensional characterization, and the utter absurdity of many of the situations it asks its reader to imagine. It would be possible to spend the next several paragraphs offering evidence for these (harsh, I know) judgments, but this is already being done elsewhere—and even Eggers’s defenders admit that we should not expect to find gratuitous flourishes like “nuance or thoroughly rounded characters” in The Circle.
So why write about this book at all? Well, there is something interesting about The Circle: Eggers has, and not for the first time, picked a compelling topic. The main character of The Circle is the 24-year-old Mae Holland (short for Maebelline),1 to whom we are introduced as she begins work at a West Coast technology and social networking conglomerate called the Circle. Mae puts in several weeks of hard (but well compensated) labor in the company’s “Customer Experience” department, before morphing into an overnight celebrity after she is chosen to be the first Circler to go “transparent.” Going “transparent” means agreeing to wear one of the company’s new inventions, a lightweight “SeeChange” camera, thereby turning one’s life into a live feed that unfolds in real time online. Mae’s middle-aged parents and one of her close friends grow reticent around her after she begins wearing the device, but that is a minor price to pay for the adulation she receives from the higher-ups at the Circle, not to mention her millions of avid online followers. Eventually Mae becomes a crucial cog in the company’s utopian plan for “completion”—an enigmatic metaphor for their ambition to render all aspects of experience knowable, shareable, and accessible (i.e. to make everything transparent). Although there are warnings that “completion” may not be the unadulterated victory for humanity that it seems (most notably from one of the Wise Men who contacts Mae in disguise), Mae keeps her eye on the goal, helping the founders move closer to their dream of a world where “Completion was imminent.” This world, Mae thinks, “would bring peace, and it would bring unity, and all that messiness of humanity until now, all those uncertainties that accompanied the world before the Circle, would be only a memory.”
The company Mae works for is, obviously, meant to represent a (slightly) futuristic version of Google, one that has subsumed its current competitors for internet dominance. Several of the innovations that the Circle is said to have pioneered, or is pioneering during the timeframe of the novel, are versions of projects that are being worked on at Google now (such as what is called in the book the “TruYou” system for tracking global internet identity), or are rumored to be on its near-term agenda (such as self-driving cars)—and there is a reference to the company’s controversial takeover of Facebook at some point in the not-too-distant past. Among the novel’s many easily avoidable failings are that Eggers makes his fictional Google, and the people who work there, so credulous and irritating (Mae herself is a complete idiot) that readers will have a hard time seeing how the company could have gotten so popular in the first place. Nevertheless, the Circle’s basic philosophy should be familiar. Transparency, information sharing, accessibility, participation, and the elimination of waste and bureaucracy—these are its guiding ideals. And with virtually unlimited resources at its disposal, its engineers come up with one ingenious idea after another for reducing crime, improving education and health care, even making democracy more inclusive.
All that people are asked to sacrifice is their privacy—a small price to pay, thinks Mae, as long as one is acting honorably, as more people would surely do if they knew that their every action would be recorded and saved for posterity. Eggers, as I mentioned above, makes the Circle so overzealous in its designs (one plan to reduce child kidnappings involves inserting a tracking device into every infant’s bones; another crime-prevention measure relies on sensors that alert residents when an unfamiliar person has entered their neighborhood) that the reader is more or less bullied into acknowledging the potentially negative social consequences of the company’s success. What makes the situation thought-provoking is just that, in slightly more moderate cases, most Americans have proven time and again that they are willing to sacrifice privacy or anonymity for connectivity, efficiency and security—even despite an avowed cynicism about the totalitarian designs of government (on the right) and of the untrustworthiness of corporations (on the left). And they have done so for precisely the reasons that people do so in the novel, because it makes life easier, because social networking is addictive, and because it seems a hard and abstract matter to even say exactly what they are sacrificing.
Indeed, one of the most interesting and (unintentionally) illuminating things about The Circle is that, if you are anything like me, having finished the novel you may still have a hard time articulating what you would be sacrificing in a totally transparent world. Through the novel’s mouthpiece for the Circle refuseniks, an ex-boyfriend of Mae’s named Mercer, Eggers recites the familiar cant about the dangers of surveillance, the death of privacy, and a society where we are denied the right to “opt out.” Later, the rebellious Circle founder warns Mae of a world where “everyone will be tracked, from cradle to grave, with no possibility of escape.” Mae may be wrong to dismiss such complaints as simply crazy, but The Circle does little to persuade its reader that she is wrong to dismiss them. In neither case does the objector state even one concrete negative consequence that a person who is tracked by the Circle their whole life will have to contend with. Whereas the benefits (less crime, less bureaucracy, enhanced ability to stop disease before it starts) are obvious—and obviously significant.
The reason that the failure of Eggers’s characters to articulate the threat posed by total transparency is itself of interest is that it plainly reflects a broader obscurity, or confusion, in the arguments being made by those concerned about the new surveillance technologies outside of Eggers’s novel. Sue Halpern’s recent NYRB piece entitled “Are We Puppets in a Wired World?” was exemplary in this respect. Having spent the balance of her article relaying anecdotes and figures suggesting that the internet has made life on earth a lot easier for human beings, Halpern nevertheless pivoted in her final two paragraphs to the familiar complaint that something was being lost, or risked, as well:
There is no doubt that … online connectivity has spread throughout the world, bringing that world closer together and with it the promise, if not to level the playing field between rich and poor, corporations and individuals, then to make it less uneven. There is so much that has been good—which is to say useful, entertaining, informative, lucrative, fun—about the evolution of the World Wide Web …
But while we were having fun, we happily and willingly helped create the greatest surveillance system ever imagined, a web whose strings give governments and businesses countless threads to pull, which makes us […] puppets. The free flow of information over the Internet, which serves us, may serve others better. Whether this distinction turns out to matter may be the one piece of information the Internet cannot deliver.
To summarize, the internet has narrowed the gap between rich and poor, and been entertaining, lucrative and informative, but there may be something wrong with it, and that something is (it gets hard to follow Halpern here) that it may serve some big companies even better than it serves the rest of us, with this discrepancy maybe, potentially, turning us into … puppets? I confess I do not see the threat in the fact that the internet serves certain companies even better than it serves the rest of us; this hardly means it does not serve the rest of us. As for whether we are thereby made “puppets,” even Halpern is noncommittal, and she offers exactly zero examples of how this new surveillance system has harmed actual individuals. That is because, we can only assume, she does not know of any.2
The point is not to discount the 1984-style nightmare that seems always to be at the forefront of the liberal imagination whenever the word “surveillance” crops up—and which suffuses Eggers’s novel—although it is strange how inextricably tied up this nightmare has become with new technology (Orwell’s totalitarians seemed to do just fine without wireless). But I do think it is worth asking of the people who continue to raise this ominous specter why it has exerted such a negligible influence on us internet users, few of whom have seen the threats to be grave enough that we are willing to consider withholding our most vital personal information for purposes like online shopping, much less “opting out.” Is it simply because we are blind to the danger of what we are doing? Or are such abstractions and faraway visions of dystopia so disconsonant with our prevailing experiences with Facebook, Google, Amazon, etc., that they fail to make an impression?
At the same time, I do not mean to imply that there is nothing bothersome, or disturbing, about the vision of “completion” that Eggers imagines. There is something disturbing about the idea of a world in which the wise men of Silicon Valley would become our unacknowledged legislators. But what is missing from that world is inseparable from what is missing from Eggers’s novel.
A reader of The Circle, especially one familiar with Eggers’s previous fiction and political advocacy, may initially find it disconcerting that the objectives of the Circle’s Wise Men so closely resemble, in many cases, the objectives of the technocratic form of progressivism that Eggers and many of his liberal-artist friends have previously seemed to endorse. The Wise Men want to use technology to provide the best health care in the world, reduce both crime and racial profiling, address worldwide hunger and poverty, improve democracy, make driving safer, and eliminate corruption, waste and fraud from politics. This, though, is what makes Eggers’s dystopia distinctive; its founders are good vegetarian liberals, with all the “right” values. And Eggers knows it. Part of his message, as Margaret Atwood says in her review, is that “we can be led down the primrose path much more blindly by our good intentions than by our bad ones.”
But whereas Eggers’s warning seems to be that we can go too far or too fast in the service of even the best of intentions, he has written a book that in fact says more about what the “best” progressive intentions inevitably leave out. What is galling about the heralds of completion at the Circle is not their ignorance of the importance of privacy (given the arguments advanced in the novel, it is no wonder they remain unconvinced of that importance), so much as their naïvete about human nature. The Wise Man we hear the most from, Eamon Bailey, can be almost touching in his technocratic faith that the internet will solve not only practical problems like wealth distribution and world hunger, but impractical ones like morality. “What if we all behaved as if we were being watched?” he asks Mae, and then he answers, as if it were obvious:
It would lead to a more moral way of life. Who would do something unethical or immoral or illegal if they were being watched? … Mae, we would finally be compelled to be our best selves. And I think people would be relieved. There would be this phenomenal global sigh of relief. Finally, finally, we can be good. In a world where bad choices are no longer an option, we have no choice but to be good. Can you imagine?
The circle was the preferred shape of the ancient philosophers—a fact Eamon alludes to when he describes it as “the strongest shape in the universe … nothing can be more perfect”—and Eamon’s ideas are not without philosophical echoes. Fundamentally he seems to believe, as did Plato, that human beings are capable of engineering a perfect or “best” life, in which happiness can be vouchsafed against contingency and chance. Alas Eamon is not a philosopher—or at least he is not a very good one—and his approach to life’s challenges is more accurately described as that of an overconfident computer nerd. His speeches to Mae will impress readers as less sinister than pathetic, less ominous than geeky (compare them, for instance, to Mustapha Mond’s much more persuasive disquisitions in Brave New World). Eamon, we sense, simply does not know anything about the world, or he lives his life in hiding from what he knows.
Unfortunately, Eggers’s pragmatically pieced together novel reproduces Eamon’s parochialism, rather than exposing it. The reader of The Circle is asked to believe that “completion” would pose a grave danger to human life as we know it, just as Halpern implies in her article that the internet may fundamentally alter society for the worse. But perhaps the reason that Eggers and Halpern can offer only the vaguest of inferences, combined with breathless allusions to Orwell, about what, exactly, will be worse about a totally wired world is that they basically share the perspective of the new internet entrepreneurs, according to which political and social challenges are essentially matters of programming (computer or otherwise). Insofar as Eggers criticizes the Circle’s utopian project mainly on the grounds of its extremity (as opposed to for its narrowness, or dearth of imagination), he shows himself to be, like Eamon, neither a philosopher nor an artist, but a technician—and his novel, which ostensibly wants to defend the “messiness of humanity,” does little to show how that messiness will tend to disrupt our best laid plans right alongside our worst.
In one of The Circle’s abortive subplots, we are told that, preceding the frame of the novel, Mae’s father had been suddenly diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, from which he is now slowly dying. After a few weeks at the Circle, Mae is elated to discover that she can put her parents on her insurance plan, guaranteeing improved care for her father and allowing her mother to stop exhausting herself in battles with insurance companies. Briefly, Mae is treated as the family hero, but her parents’ initial exuberance turns to wariness once they learn that their new care requires them to mount cameras all over their house for constant tracking. Why this is required is somewhat obscure, but in any case the subplot is eventually supposed to alert us to the fact that, for old-fashioned humans like Mae’s parents, the right to privacy is understood to be more valuable even than excellent medical treatment.
What is truly disturbing about the subplot, though—if we abstract the situation from the novel in which it arises—is not the insinuation that the best health care may require certain unpalatable tradeoffs, but rather something that Eggers does not focus on at all: that the best health care is powerless to prevent Mae’s father from deteriorating, painfully and embarrassingly, and dying. This is the kind of thing from which the Wise Men, despite all their talk of transparency, avert their eyes. They speak as if “completion” will change everything, and Eggers, although he does not think these changes will all be good, seems to agree. Eggers is therefore no better positioned than the Circle luminaries to see completion for the childish fantasy that it is. His Circle is almost as empty as theirs.