Considering the very bright shade of orange Dave Eggers’ latest novel, The Circle, comes in, it was hard not to pick this book up off the shelf at my local bookstore. And I’m really glad I did. I don’t think I say this very often, but here goes:
This book is important.
We live in a digital age where issues of government privatization, privacy rights, and the availability of information are all in flux. When things are in flux the way they are today, it’s good to have cautionary tales like The Circle that remind us of how precarious some aspects of contemporary life really are. This novel reminds me a bit of George Orwell’s Animal Farm and 1984 in some ways. Perhaps it’s the triple slogan “Secrets are Lies / Sharing is Caring / Privacy is Theft” that does it….
So why is this novel important? It takes on these issues in a compelling, intriguing, and quirky narrative. It’s fun to read, but the message is clear: be careful. Or maybe the message is less a message and more a question: What would happen if we gave complete control of all of our information to a privately owned and operated corporation? Ah, therein lies the heart of this book. The protagonist, Mae, is a silly, well-meaning, but ultimately malleable woman in her early/mid-twenties who gets a job at “the most influential company in the world” (1) — a company called the Circle that, to me, seems to a thinly veiled iteration of Google and its massive “campus” in northern California, but which departs from the company we know today in very significant ways as the novel progresses. It’s a company at the cutting edge of innovation. A company founded on beautiful ideals. A company that dedicates much of its time and effort to philanthropic and humanitarian issues. A company that is all too easily manipulated by its founders’ hunger for control and ultimately becomes a convenient means for the foundation of a “totalitarian nightmare” (481). When one of the three leaders of the Circle wants to stop the spread of power, he explains how one of the other leaders “professionalized our idealism, monetized our utopia. He’s the one who saw the connection between our work and politics, and between politics and control. Public-private leads to private-private, and soon you have the Circle running most or even all government services, with incredible private-sector efficiency and an insatiable appetite. Everyone becomes a citizen of the Circle” (484).
Eggers’ commentary about individuality, about the benefits and dangers of surveillance, about human rights in a digital age, about the work-life balance, about what “friends” on social networking sites really mean…it’s all very relevant in our current moment. In fact, on one of the last pages of the novel, the one rogue founding member of the Circle hands Mae a piece of paper on which he has outlined “The Rights of Humans in a Digital Age”, which include the right to anonymity, the importance of the barrier between public and private remaining unbreachable, the catastrophic nature of data as a means to “true understanding”, and the warning that not every humanactivity is measurable; the list concludes with this item: “We must all have the right to disappear” (485).
We must all have the right to disappear.
I’ll leave you with that thought. Oh, and one more: read this book.