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The Circle: Technology Gone Viral
Science fiction reflecting reality
Dave Eggers’ The Circle is a work of fiction so well wrought that it blurs the fine line between fantasy and reality, causing the reader to question just when that line will disappear. As the plot unfolds, the society which at first appears almost perfect takes on a decidely dystopian caste. In fact, when one stops to consider how many of the The Circle’s dystopian features already have come to pass in the world of 2014, it becomes all too apparent that the novel verges on the fringes of a mirror image of society, a reality stretched perhaps fifteen minutes into the future. This in large part accounts for the reason I couldn’t put the book down yet was hesitant to finish reading it.
Navigating The Circle
The Circle of the book’s title is a company that owns/develops/facilitates most of the world’s technology. (That fact alone might indicate a trend towards monopoly; monopolies are illegal, are they not? Without even considering market shares and the like, think about the current state of technology. It’s not difficult to identify the giants in that field and to imagine what might happen if one of those giants managed to quash the others into Lilliputian ,i.e., powerless, status. Securing a job at The Circle is considered by most twenty-somethings to be the proverbial pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. (Their rainbows, however, seem not to be natural phenomena. The key word here is end.) Located on a sprawling campus in California, The Circle offers all manner of employee perks: a gourmet, health-oriented cafeteria; fitness centers; sports; a constant, mind-boggling array of entertainers, speakers, dinners and special-interest groups; free, all-inclusive health care; a fully equipped, state-of-the art dorm where employees may stay if so inclined (as the novel unfolds, more and more employees are thus inclined); and even a mind-boggling type of store where employees may help themselves to clothing, necessities, etc. free of charge. (Of course, as many of us have learned, a “charge” is not always monetary.)
Enter the Heroine
At the beginning of the book, twenty-something Mae Holland seems to have been extremely fortunate to have secured a position at The Circle. Indeed, a “job” at The Circle is not considered “work” but rather the opportunity of a lifetime. (This “opportunity” becomes frighteningly clear as the book progresses.) The reader quickly learns that Mae’s prior friendship with Annie, a member of the Circle’s elite Top Forty, certainly does not damage her own standing in the company. Fellow employees regard her with the utmost respect when they learn that she and Annie are friends. (“Annie’s the heart and soul of this place, so we’re very happy to have you here,” comments Circle employee Denise upon meeting Mae. “Everyone loves Annie,” her colleague, Josiah, adds.) It seems something of an oxymoron, then, when it later becomes apparent that the company that promotes all the “likes," postings, tweets, e-mails, etc. inherent in social media plus ongoing camaraderie among its employees actually discourages genuine inter-personal relationships.
Mae’s loyalty to this amazing company is ensured when she is informed (by Annie, of course) that The Circle will be providing health care for Mae’s parents. Mae is shcoked, thrilled and beyond grateful that her father, who suffers from MS, will no longer be held prisoner by his insurance. (“The time spent denying coverage, arguing, dismissing, thrwarting- surely it was more trouble than simply granting her parents access to the right care.”) From that point on (actually, that point merely serves to seal the deal) Mae buys into every aspect of The Circle’s philosophy and eventually becomes something of a figurehead for the company. When Dan, the man who hired Mae, is training her, asserts, “We want this to be a workplace, sure, but it should also be a humanplace,” it would seem that the company’s philosophy is something to be admired, particularly when Dan adds, “ We’re not automatons. This isn’t a sweatshop.’ We’re a group of the best minds of our generation.” Perhaps this is what makes the unfolding message of The Circle even more worrisome.
An Increasingly Slippery Slope
Since this company preaches the virtues of technology, it would follow that it practice what it preaches, and The Circle does just that. Everything its employees do is recorded, catalogued, surveyed, and “shared.” The reader learns much of this through Mae Holland's thoughts and actions. Mae’s roles of both protagnoist and antagonist go through subtle shifts during her evolving role in The Circle. One thing that does not change is Mae’s loyalty to the company and its philosophy. The Company Loyalty phenomenon seems to have been inspired by the elite fraternity aura of The Circle, complete with its enviable campus and incredible amenities. As the book unfolds, however, the tired-but-true cliché’ “nothing is ever free” becomes frighteningly apparent, moving the “fraternity” angle into the realm of a cult. This is not some crazy, run-of-the-mill , self-limiting cult led by a deranged egomaniac, however. The leaders of this one, at least one or two of them, may indeed be egomaniacal, but by no stretch of the imagination are they deranged. On the contrary, they are exremely gifted men who know exactly what they are doing.
The powers behind the Circle’s throne (and that word was selected for a reason) are known as the Three Wise Men : Ty Gospodinov, Eamon Bailey, and Tom Stenton. Ty is the brilliant techie geek who invented an all-encompassing computer system called TruYou: ”one account, one identity, one password, one payment system, per person,” after which he’d invited the other two Wise Men to come on board. Ty is the least visible and most anti-social of the three and also is the lone Wise Man who fulfills the unwritten “under 30” age requirement for most employees. Bailey, the most personable and therefore the “public face of the company,” seems like the average, middle class, married-with-chlldren kind of guy except for his passion, which is “preserving the past” ad infinitum. Stenton, at 50-something the oldest of the three, is the true capitalist of the group, a man whose financial holdings and flamboyant lifestyle should raise a red flag as to the true nature of The Circle .
The "Social Network" : When Virtual Replaces Real
Mae’s first job at The Circle is “just doing straight-up customer maintenance for the smaller advertisers." After she deals with customer queries and/or complaints, the customers are asked to take a survey on Mae’s job performance. (Is this beginning to sound familiar?) Mae and her colleagues are strongly encouraged to continue dealing with the customer until their job performance ratings are as close as possible to 100%. This policy, of course, encourages competition and, along with duties connected to the other computer screens on their desks, causes non-stop pressure which cynics (e.g., readers like me,) might label as “busy work” or even “divsersionary tactics.” Mae and her contemporaries, however, welcome these technology-based tasks as “challenges.” It doesn’t take long for the reader to realize that this scenario is the social network- the scariest oxymoron of them all- taken just a fraction beyond today.
Are Advances Always Advantageous?
Near the beginning of the book, Mae and her fellow Newbies (comrades?) are introduced by Eamon Bailey to a piece of technology for which The Circle has grand plans: a thumb-sized, wireless, indestructible video “lollipop camera.” Bailey enthuses, “.... suddenly you have constant access to everywhere you want to be- home, work , traffic conditions. It takes five minutes tops. Think of the implications!” As it turns out “the implications” are worldwide. Bailey notes that Circle employess already have placed these cameras, dubbed SeeChange, “so small the army can’t find them,” in Egypt. In Bailey’s eyes, and, judging from the positive reaction of the audience of Circle employees to his presentation, this innovative move towards transparency highlights “the dawn of the Second Enlightenment” (Of course, it would all depend on one’s definition of “enlightenment,” wouldn’t it? Some of us would find the Cicle’s motto, “ALL THAT HAPPENS MUST BE KNOWN,” chilling. )
Another Circle innovation on the Road to Transparency is a microchip to be implanted in every child ostensibly to put an end to child abduction and allow parents constant access to their children’s whereabouts. At first glance, this scientific breakthrough certainly would seem like a godsend. Upon further consideration, however, some less-than-heavenly implications raise a few doubts. Consider this, for example: Since the chip would be implanted within bone, it would be impossible to remove. Ever. Once all those children became adults, constant access to their whereabouts would be more than just a possibility. A similar danger is even more apparent as characters in the novel are increasingly drawn to the idea of absolute, unadulterated transparency. In reality, we’ve heard the word “transparency” bandied about for some time now. How many of us have considered, however, the consequences of the total implementation of such a concept? Dave Eggers does just that in The Circle.
Odd Men Out. Literally.
...."Odd" by whose definition?
Not all chracters in the novel are willing to buy into the philosophy and goals of The Circle. Mae’s ex-boyfriend, Mercer, is a glaring example of the refusal to accept what many see as necessary and, indeed, inevitable. The more Mercer resists participating in The Circle’s agenda, The more Mae’s almost palpaple hatred for him escalates. Her parents, once proud beyond words of their daughter’s success (i.e., the opportunity to be a part of The Circle) come to disappoint her with their less-than-positive reaction to cameras that have been placed in every room of their home. (How could they be so ungrateful? You might recall that they were, after all, given “free” health care by their daughter’s employer.) "Mae knew that eventually, she'd convince them, that it was only a matter of time, for them and for everyone- even Mercer." By creating a verbal caricature of today's society, author Dave Eggers manages to highlight the increasingly blurred line between The Good Guys and The Bad Guys.
Eggers' Use of Dialogue: No Need to Delineate
One of Dave Eggers’ literary techniques that works well in this novel is his use of short, succinct responses in dialogue. After Jared, Mae’s trainer, explains the customer rating system in detail, he asks Mae, “ Sound good?” and she answers, “It does.” He continues to explain more and asks, “Got it?” Mae replies, “Got it.” Finally, when he asks his pupil, “You ready to do your own?” her response is, “I am.” This clever use of dialogue may not seem unusual until one realizes how often the technique is used. On the same page, for example, Mae gives the following responses to various questions: “I am.” “Got it.” “I won’t.” “I am.” This continues ad infinitum throughout the book and serves to emphasize Mae’s unquestionable compliance with the goals and the message of The Circle. When speaking with her fellow Circle associates, Mae seldom, if ever, responds with a, "Let me think about it," or, "Gee, that doesn't make a whole lot of sense."
Although The Circle is not a mystery thriller per se, there is definitely a thread of mystery that runs throughout the book to crate an element of suspense. Early on, Mae meets a man named Kalden, who seems randomly to appear and disappear. It doesn’t take Mae long to become obsessed with this mysterious man . When he finally delivers his “message.....” Well, that’s part of the mystery, of course.
It’s not difficult to identify the message(s) of The Circle, however. For one thing, the major goal of the fictional (?) company, The Circle, is to complete the circle, so perhaps the reader should keep in kind the fact that a circle is infinite. It never ends. One maxim that comes to mind is “some things are too good to be true.” Take that for one lap around the circle, and what do you get? Some things are too true to be good. Think about it.... the next time you answer a survey, post a picture on Facebook, "like" something, open a mass email, demand transparency, share your location with your smartphone, etc. #SCARY