This is one of the scariest books I’ve read—a dystopian novel for our hyperconnected times. A young woman, Mae, joins the Circle, a Google-like firm. She starts out in Customer Experience (Customer Service in the real world), and rises quickly through the ranks. The culture of the Circle is “sharing is caring” and “privacy is theft”. There is no such thing as solitude—everything is shared, photographed and “zinged”. The campus of the Circle is a world unto itself, where employees are cocooned, kept away from the real, messy world.
I won’t go into the plot details, except to say that the Circle takes its two mottoes very seriously. The Three Wise Men who run it coerce politicians to constantly wear a little camera so the public can see what they are doing all the time. This is known as “going transparent”. The thinking behind this is that people tend to behave better when they are being watched. The Circle wants everyone to be transparent, thus eliminating crime and malpractice. Naturally, the data being streamed live end up in the Circle’s vaults. Everything is public—medical records, shopping habits, trips—there are no dark corners any more. Public and the private personas are completely blurred. Those who resist or try to fight the Circle are discredited—porn is found on their computers or compromising photographs are published.
The writing isn’t great, definitely not as good as David Eggers’s What is the What (which I recommend). Mae is disappointing. She has a bit of a spark in her at the beginning, but all too quickly becomes a loyal servant of the firm. She is really annoying—self-satisfied, without the intelligence to think through what she is doing. The voice of reason in this book is her ex-boyfriend, Mercer, who makes chandeliers from deer antlers (go figure) and whom she despises.
But quibbling aside, The Circle paints a frightening scenario, especially in this time when we live so much of our lives online. Mae’s constant connectivity loses her the people who matter in her life without her realizing it. She really buys into the hype, that what she is doing is for the good of society. And in this sharing society, with people constantly posting, zinging, responding to posts and zings, no one stops to think about what is really happening. Eggers brings home how something that is so blatantly wrong can become normal, almost banal.