Review: The Circle by Dave Eggers

As an avid reader of McSweeney’s Quarterly, those beautifully produced collections of stories overseen by Dave Eggers, and a self-confessed ‘early adopter’ of technology (the amount of apps on my iPhone grew to such a rate I had to have a clear out); The Circle by Eggers was one that I was eager to read. What would his take on a Facebook gone mad be like?

When Mae is hired to work for the Circle, the world’s most powerful internet company, she feels she’s been given the opportunity of a lifetime. Run out of a sprawling California campus, the Circle links users’ personal emails, social media, and finances with their universal operating system, resulting in one online identity and a new age of transparency. Mae can’t believe her great fortune to work for them – even as life beyond the campus grows distant, even as a strange encounter with a colleague leaves her shaken, even as her role at the Circle becomes increasingly public …

As an avid reader of McSweeney’s Quarterly, those beautifully produced collections of stories overseen by Dave Eggers, and a self-confessed ‘early adopter’ of technology (the amount of apps on my iPhone grew to such a rate I had to have a clear out); The Circle by Eggers was one that I was eager to read. What would his take on a Facebook gone mad be like?

In The Circle we follow Mae Holland as she gets her dream job working at an elite technology company called, wait for it, ‘The Circle’. She has left behind a dead-end job in a small American town and with the help of her friend Annie, a high-ranking employee, finds herself working at the futuristic Circle campus.

From the very beginning we see how it is poised this technology firm is set to invade and take over her life. As a lowly customer service representative, she is assisting advertisers selling their wares on The Circle. All these interactions require a feedback form to be filled out, assessing how she dealt with their enquiry, giving a score out of one hundred. Soon she is being judged purely on these results, often having to press them on why she didn’t achieve that perfect score. Then, one by one, the number of screens on her desk that she has to monitor quickly increases. Screen after after screen appears, each with a new feed she has to keep track of and feed with information about herself. As if that is not enough, Mae soon has to wears a headset that asks her questions, requiring her to nod her head every few minutes to answer the surveys put to her. Any sense of her, of Mae, is being whittled away…

Without her realising it, Mae’s life is run by The Circle. She stops going home, opting to sleep on campus, and her life is dictated by the score that she is forced to maintain through liking, clicking and sharing details of her life. There was a moment when I thought it had become too much, that despite it all, Mae would quit, but then ill health occurs within her family and one of the few positives of The Circle is revealed as they pay for her family’s hospital bills . She becomes indebted to the company and her life has shrunk down to the sprawling campus, where food and clothes are provided, and the small screens that act as her link to The Circle. Very quickly, the plot accelerates away and Mae’s life changes forever. Eggers takes the idea of sharing to the extreme and while it becomes frankly ludicrous, the tone and set-up of the book carries it through and it stops becoming so far-fetched.

Does sharing our thoughts and feelings make the world a better place?

The Circle is described as a universal operating system, where all our information is stored and shared, from emails to phone calls, and it comes across as a nightmarish cross between Facebook and Google. It’s clear what Eggers thinks of these technology companies that continue to gobble up our data but try to counter balance this with financial and philanthropic excess. There’s actually very little ‘technology’ mentioned in the book, perhaps so as not to date it but there is a fantastically farcical moment where a message must be sent to a terrorist group carrying out an atrocity. The fact that Mae finds it an acceptable (and worthy) response that millions and millions of ‘dislikes’ were made towards this group (in lieu of any actual physical action) sums up Eggers’ feelings on social media and our disappearing private lives. Is expressing your distaste for something online a viable act of protest? Does sharing our thoughts and feelings make the world a better place? Or does it make it easier to sell to us? Companies want to know as much as they can about us. As The Circle says: Privacy is theft…

It isn’t a perfect book with a few weaker moments causing a lull. Mae begins a relationship with an enigmatic man she meets on campus; a man who warns her of the dangers of what The Circle is capable of. The denouement of this plot line fell short, as did the moments she shared with her ex-boyfriend who is also vehemently against the technology company. Eggers uses it to show how far Mae has been indoctrinated by the ideals of the company but it felt a step too far.

This was my first time reading any of Dave Eggers’ work and I’m now eager to delve into more of his novels. Overall, I enjoyed The Circle and what Eggers has to say on technology creeping into our lives and the erosion of privacy. I felt almost horrified with myself when Tweeting my thoughts on the book…

The Circle by Dave Eggers is out now.

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