Dave Eggers and I haven’t gotten along in a while.
I first read A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius when I was 14. I was impressed — it was unlike most books (for adults) I had read. Funny, sarcastic, sardonic, honest, it was the first time I encountered a book that sounded like someone actually telling a story but without the need to use simple words. But then, as I aged, I encountered McSweeney’s, The Believer, What is The What, Zeitoun … and it all seemed clever. Too clever, really. Too full of itself and overwrought. Once the earliest and best of literary friends, we drifted apart as I grew up, rarely seeing each other again.
Well, to be honest, Dave Eggers has absolutely no idea who I am. He’s likely never heard of me, never seen me, never even taken a single second from his life to consider even the base abstraction of the human being I am. Likewise, I don’t really know him. I know him only in the way a reader can know an author, from his work.
Well, that used to be the only way a reader could know an author. Now I can listen to him on a podcast, see what TEDTalks he likes, read about his education foundation and even like him on Facebook. We can know so much about him. Kind of.
Having a matrix of preferences presented as your essence, as the whole you? Maybe that was it. It was some kind of mirror, but it was incomplete, distorted.
— Mae, on her public posts being mined to create a dating profile
Of course, if the Circle were made manifest, the problem of incompleteness would be solved. The Circle is an Eggerian manifestation of the fabled Facegooglezon, which watches, advertises, facilitates and links the lives of everyone in the future, serving as social network, bank, newspaper, etc. We follow one Mae Holland, trepidatious at first about having her entire life exposed before her but who grudgingly and gradually acclimates and finally sublimates into the system.
As a novel, the book is not without its flaws — the characters are a little simply drawn, with few shades of gradation for most. While Mae undergoes a radical polarity switch on online privacy and the like, her motives draw a little too much on the intellectual versus the emotional. The pro- and anti-technology forces stand out as a bit too overt — very rarely will a character express ambivalence about what’s going on, unless they’re on the verge of either ruin or victory.
But as a thought experiment, The Circle‘s ideas stand out as a technological dystopia dropped during a time when real-life utopian fantasists hold an enormous amount of influence over business, culture and everything in between.
One of the things that fascinated me most about the book actually began before it even hit the (digital) shelves. A former Facebook executive accused Eggers of plagiarizing her memoir about the technology company’s early days. While I find it amusing that she did so without actually having read Eggers’ book, the fascinating thing was to watch it spark from a Medium post (since deleted) to a conflagration across the web (33,000+ results, at last check).
“Your tools have elevated gossip, hearsay and conjecture to the level of valid, mainstream communication. And besides that, it’s fucking dorky.”
— Mercer, the (slightly one-note) technophobe on the ubiquity of information and opinion the Circle asks of its users
Is it true? Unsure.
Does it matter? The answer to that kind of depends on what you think matters.
It’ll likely sell more copies of the accuser’s book. It’ll give more attention to Eggers’ book at a premium time (right before launch). It provides pageviews (and therefore, money) to the websites that published a story about it. Thousands of commenters now have something else to have (and publicize) an opinion about, in turn driving yet more traffic to comment sections, fora, Facebook, Twitter, ad nauseam.
The other reaction that’s fascinating to me is the almost universal condemnation of the book by people who fall under the general category of “tech people” (or at the very least, “people who write about technology on the Internet”). You can quibble about some things, sure. At one point, Eggers sweepingly declares the results of the destruction of anonymity: “all comment boards became civil, all posters held accountable. The trolls, who had more or less overtaken the internet, were driven back into the darkness.” While any publisher with Facebook comments enabled can tell you that the mere requirement of a name does not fell the trolls, the actual uncloaking of anonymity has proven to be an excellent neutralizer for some of the internet’s worst.
This is where I think actual knowledge of technology actually hinders understanding. The Circle is not Facebook+. It’s literally a different entity comprised of pieces of Google, Facebook, Amazon, Paypal and a few dozen more firms that both exist and have yet to be invented. Wired provided a vivid illustration of technology-focused blinders, harping on unrealistic futurism (Mae swallows a sensor that keeps track of her vitals, including what she eats) and Eggers’ attempts to explain things to a general audience (some “tech-savvy” people need an exposition on cloud technology), and in general scoffing that Eggers doesn’t “get it”:
How you react to The Circle — the new book by McSweeney’s founder, novelist and occasional screenwriter Dave Eggers — will doubtless depend on your own relationship to technology. If you’re someone who remains skeptical about the blogging, tweeting, Tumbling and Facebooking that have shaped society in recent years, The Circle may seem like a work of brilliant satire that suggests a chilling potential future for us all. On the other hand, if you’re someone who’s actually familiar with those online communities — and since you’re on WIRED reading this article, I’m going to guess it’s the latter — The Circle will likely sound more than a little tone-deaf.
This is an exceedingly interesting paragraph, because it entirely misses the dividing line of who will like the book and who won’t. Eggers has been upfront (near to the point of boasting) about his lack of research for the book. People who dislike the book automatically assume Eggers therefore associates with afore-quoted Mercer, who yearns to live an analog life and thinks ridding the world of tangibility is destructive.
These people, apparently, can’t tell the difference between Eggers and Jonathan Franzen.
The Circle paints a truly creepy picture of the future … if you’re inclined to distrust corporations and technology. The Circle knows everything about you, is able to mine the data you yourself have made public (at one point, Mae is embarrassed to be run through a prototype for a dating service that lets a potential suitor know everything about you, including the allergic reaction you Facebooked about when you were a teenager) and let everyone from advertisers to random strangers know
everything about you.
Viewed through another perspective, though, The Circle‘s world is one built on radical transparency. Everyone knows what everyone else is doing — criminals don’t commit crimes, because they know there’s a camera watching what they’re doing and there’s every likelihood they will be caught. Health insurance companies can monitor your vital signs to suggest ways to improve your health or notify medical personnel in case of an emergency. Police can use the Circular equivalent of Google Glass to scan a group of people and recognize those with outstanding warrants using facial recognition — leaving no reason to profile or stop-and-frisk.
Which of those two views you peer through rests largely on what view of technology you already hold. Or, more accurately, your perspective of humanity.
Because at its core, technology is a tool. Technology is just a means to an end — it’s up to people to decide what that end is and how they’re going to get there. In a way, The Circle is a technology, too. It’s a tool that Eggers uses to engage readers in actually considering what the outcome of all this technology is — both where it’s heading, and where we want it to end up.
“You know what I think, Mae? I think you think that sitting at your desk, frowning and smiling somehow makes you think you’re actually living some fascinating life. You comment on things, and that substitutes for doing them.”
— Mercer, hitting uncomfortably close to home