Book Review: ‘The Circle’ by Dave Eggers

Writer: Richa Bhattarai

A friend was showing me how to set up sticky notes on my laptop. Suddenly, the yellow note filled with words we had not written, “Garlic, avocado, bananas…”

We looked at each other, dumbfounded. And then we realized it had synced with the Notes app on my phone. I do not remember permitting it to do so, and neither did I appreciate my shopping list being paraded around. What if it had been one of the heartfelt messages I typed to myself on my Notes? What if a risqué joke on my Notes was displayed to my colleagues during a presentation?

Yet this is both the horror and beauty of the digital world. Our email accounts and identities, payment choices and phone numbers, songs and photos, delivery orders and contacts — merge and morph and join into one mass that we cannot even attempt to control.

If this omniscient and omnipresent nature of modern technology fascinates, surprises, or worries you, you might enjoy (or be further dismayed by) The Circle by Dave Eggers. In a modern fairy tale, Eggers makes readers aware of the potential and pitfall of a society that is increasingly reigned by algorithms and artificial intelligence. I haven’t watched the movie but can assure you that the well-written novel leads you into a labyrinth of conflicting emotions.

Technology is enthralling…

We are introduced to Mae Holland, who is thrilled to have landed at The Circle, the world’s most powerful internet company. My friend told me the Circle is based loosely on Google, and I could see similarities — both the companies try to know you in entirety based on your searches and preferences, and both offer amazing office ‘campuses’ to their employees.

So Mae works hard at customer service, works 24/7 to keep up her scores on all social media sites, devotes her free time to office events, and is offered promotions for her dedication.

“We’re not automatons,” says Mae’s team leader, “This isn’t a sweatshop. We’re a group of the best minds of our generation.”

At first, we enjoy the technological marvels Mae shows us at the Circle. There is a tiny camera that offers uninterrupted and high-quality views from every corner of the world, a child-protection app that catches kidnappers within three minutes, another app that scans the barcode of every object in your home and orders new stuff when you’re getting low.

Mae is grateful for her job and the advances of digital technology — just as we are. My personal favorites are emails, online banking, Duolingo, Google Maps (and Photos), Goodreads, Instagram, Overdrive, (sometimes) Twitter, Uber, and YouTube. I say this even while knowing how each of these apps is constantly trying to chisel away my resources and energy, time and attention, information, and confidentiality.

Digital technologies, that connect people and machines with each other or with information, have changed the way we eat and sleep, walk and drive, read and write, consume content and relax. The options we have to network, communicate, create change and disseminate information are immense, as Mae shows us in the first 100 pages of the novel.

But technology can be disturbing and stressful…

And then, we realize, all the perks of a new laptop and phone, six screens and delicious meals, parents’ insurance, and a swanky dormitory, come at a price. Have you experienced this at your college, your work, even while following your passions?

The ding of an urgent notification, the traumatizing ping of a work email, a reply to your Twitter post that has distorted your words, a friend’s Instagram travel post that makes you feel you are missing out, auto renewal of a subscription that you do not remember approving, embarrassing videos showing up in places you don’t want them to, your digital watch warning you about your calorie intake and further raising your stress levels, a hacker corrupting your sales website, Yammer wanting you to provide feedback on another group, your pizza place requesting you to fill a survey, a relative requesting you to ‘Like’ her daughter’s photo for a Facebook competition, a colleague’s LinkedIn update that leaves you jealous, a virtual event that you must be seen attending, a bag that an ad tells you everyone else is buying, your TikToks no longer reaching the For You page, a business partner telling you to subscribe to their blog, an email about a coupon for groceries that you must use today before it expires! Phew.

All of it somehow linked to a few giant corporations that want to wring us inside out to make sure they have every piece of information on us. So that it can be used to sell ads that appeal to us, make us buy more things we do not need, offer us discounts that make us spend more, trade our information with other organizations that will then use this data to pry something else out of us: our money and assets, our well-being and sanity, our concentration and creativity, perhaps even our relationships? But by then we realize that we cannot go a day without our digital addictions and ease of life.

As Mae’s ex-boyfriend Mercer says to her, “There are no oppressors. No one’s forcing you to do this. You willingly tie yourself to these leashes. You no longer pick up on basic human communication clues. You’re at a table with three humans, all of whom are looking at you and trying to talk to you, and you’re staring at a screen, searching for strangers in Dubai.”

What about privacy and individualism?

Mae’s spirits are not dampened by Mercer’s doomsday statements. In fact, they fuel her desire to be even more popular in the digital sphere. I was reminded of how much we parade the word called ‘viral’, whether chastising someone else for attempting to ‘go viral’ or preening when our content finally ‘goes viral’ and lends us 15 minutes of fame.

So Mae decides that she must go beyond the ordinary, she must be completely open and honest with the outside world.

“Every morning Mae put on a necklace, much like Stewart’s, … and with the lens worn over her heart… It saw everything that Mae saw, and often more. The quality of the raw video was such that viewers could zoom, pan, freeze, and enhance… In essence, it meant that any room she was in was scannable by anyone watching; they could focus in on any corner, and with some effort, isolate and listen to any other conversation.”

Day in and out, except for three minutes of switched-off audio at the restroom, Mae walks around with this lens that publicizes each second of her life to the entire world — at one point, her viewers are in billions. Until one day it broadcasts a moment between her parents, and it leaves the reader questioning and reminiscing how our privacy might be encroached upon under the guise of security and transparency.

The story might sound futuristic and speculative, but it is not very far from our lives at all. The constant scrutiny and inspection of our lives, thoughts, and moments — are they for us, or for someone else who wants to understand, and thus control, all our insecurities and vulnerabilities?

Can we really escape?

I know of loved ones who feel trapped in this cycle of digital manipulation and have done their best to distance themselves from it and remain off the grid. I sympathize, too, with their inability to cut themselves off completely despite a burning desire to do so, for the world now depends so heavily on your digital presence and accomplishments.

A cousin told me about using burner phones and emails to avoid calls and subscriptions — but they, too, are the gift of the technological world. And you do need them if you want to collect ‘rewards’ and remain updated. Just like the supremacy of inventions like the printing press, television, or the telephone, the internet is the playground of our times.

In the novel, Mercer tries to escape. Until Mae makes it her mission to find him. Not because she particularly misses him, but because she wants to establish the authority of the tools at her command. The search for Mercer is one of the novel’s turning points, which leaves us with a sobering realization of just how dangerous and threatening innocuous technologies can get.

What is the solution?

I certainly do not know. Also, even though I become more and more aware of the horrors and manipulation of the digital world each day, I am of the view that this transformation is inevitable. Whether we call it progress or decline, it is here to stay and there is nothing that individuals can do to stop or delay it. Humans, fueled by their innate desire to know the indefinite and capture the known, will pursue their attempts to rule over every other human being in this world.

In the midst of this digital fight for supremacy we have books like 1984, Super Sad True Love Story, and The Circle that caution us, prepare us, and try to help us put things in perspective. Will reading them make a difference? Perhaps not.

I hope this book, and others like it, teach us to observe, question, and critique. They are the first step in making small, conscious, and mindful choices that might make our digital navigation slightly more informative and less taxing. In this era of mass content creation and consumption about everyone and everything, Mercer reminds us, “Did you ever think that perhaps our minds are delicately calibrated between known and the unknown? That our souls need the mysteries of night and the clarity of day? Look at us. We’re tiny. Our heads are tiny, the size of melons. You want these heads of ours to contain everything the world has ever seen? It will not work.”

This letter from Mercer to Mae strangely soothed me. I do not need to know everything, I thought to myself. I do not need to buy, watch, or read everything, as this capitalist world exhorts me. It is enough for me to exist, to savor, and to protect my minimal joys. My world is adequate for me, and so am I, for the world.

Book: The Circle

Genre: Fiction (Novel)

Pages: 497

Rating: 3.8/5

First published in The Medium