Date finished: February 4th 2017
George Orwell was always hailed as the visionary, but Aldous Huxley was closer to the truth. As Neil Postman put it over thirty years ago:
“Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egotism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance.”
The Circle by Dave Eggers, juggles the fine line between Orwellian and Huxley-esque. Mae Holland, a new employee at The Circle, a sprawling internet company whose operation is expanding exponentially, finds herself quickly subsumed by the company’s aims and goes to great efforts to stand-out from the fray. As she rises through the company and her life becomes more and more public, she finds her euphoria interrupted by the toll her role takes on her personal life.
The ubiquity of The Circle is the key to making it so terrifying; it underlies every facet of your internet presence, linking social media with internet shopping accounts with your search history, and it’s all stored in The Circle’s cloud where they relentlessly analyse everything to mine as much data as possible. Ostensibly, this is to make life easier – the targeted ads know you so well they don’t get anything wrong, but the complete transparency is bone-chilling.
In one scene, Mae is chastised by the company for her lack of social media activity. The Circlers are expected not just to work, but to spend as much time on the campus as possible utilising the many facilities – gyms, shops, spas, sports halls, extracurricular classes. But Mae doesn’t. The people from HR are horrified by this, and when she reveals that she goes kayaking sometimes, they’re baffled that they don’t know this – she’s never mentioned it on social media. They want to abolish privacy. They want all possible data to be captured and analysed. They don’t want anyone to have secrets.
As much as 1984 and Brave New World were both terrifying visions of the future, they were rendered a bit toothless by the intervening years. As much as the constant surveillance of 1984 is indeed still a worry (and plays a large part in The Circle) and Huxley feared that we’d be too comfortable to care about anything else (also still a worry and present in this novel), Eggers succeeds in tapping into a newer, more tangible threat. As much as many prophetic authors predicted something akin to the internet or its many facets, few have commented on the threats of the present-day internet. Eggers is the first to attempt it, and makes a valiant stab.
At the same time, there’s a disconnect between how eerie the vision is and how believable it is. Perhaps it’s just me, but personally by page 150 I’d have already quit The Circle, deleted all my social media accounts and moved to the remotest part of the world I could just so I wouldn’t be sucked into the oddly homogenous, anti-privacy and broadly unlikable campus of Circlers. The Circle encounters rather little resistance to aims which would spark years of debate and sanctions at the very least, possibly a war. This is perhaps being unfairly pedantic, since the novel makes no efforts to be subtle and, one could argue that a parable warning against the evils of a particular movement has to take some liberties with realism in order to make its point.
The Circle is a trying read, at turns intelligent then simplistic, nuanced then unsubtle, compelling and then draining. There’s undoubtedly some wisdom to be taken from Eggers somewhat crude, extreme parable, but its pros outweigh its cons: it has an important message, one worth its time and various flaws. As long as its tempered by going elsewhere for your deeper reading on the subject.