Thursday, December 26, 2013

The Circle

Have you ever wanted to just grab someone by the shoulders and shake them awake because they seemed oblivious to the seriousness of the things going on around them—or worse, the things happening to them? If not, I would like to introduce you to Mae Holland, the na├»ve young protagonist Dave Eggers’ latest novel, The Circle. Trust me, you’ll want to do more than just shake her before the book’s end.

Truthfully, I really liked Mae at first, and I especially enjoyed her excitement and wide-eyed wonder at landing a dream job at a powerful tech company called—you guessed it—the Circle. Like most  new employees, Mae is eager to please her superiors (including college-friend Annie, who pulled strings to get her the job), but in doing so she seems almost as eager to give herself away in the process. For example, all Circle employees are expected to participate in various company activities (there are hundreds of them) and contribute to the company’s social-network feeds (Zing, InnerCircle, OuterCircle, etc.), all of which are taken into account when calculating an employee’s “Participation Rank.” Okay, fine: The food in the cafeteria today was excellent. Zing! Whatever. But when Mae is dressed down for spending a weekend at home (as opposed to staying on campus and “participating”) and for having the gall to go kayaking (an activity she enjoys doing alone as a means to de-stress) without documenting any of it on her social feeds, I was bothered by her acceptance of these criticisms as valid. Frankly, I wanted her to stand up and tell those pinheads to go to h—oh, wait, can’t write that here. But you get the point. Unfortunately, Mae telling them that what she does on her own time is her own business would have been useless, because at the Circle, everything you do is the Circle’s business. Rather than rebel, Mae acquiesces, and in doing so, she begins to lose herself.
By the time we reach the second act of the story, where the Orwellian slogans SECRETS ARE LIES, SHARING IS CARING, and PRIVACY IS THEFT are trotted out at a company pep-rally (seriously, didn’t any of these people read 1984?), Mae finds herself quickly ascending through the company ranks and becoming a star both inside and outside the Circle—and, of course, a rival to Annie for the attention of their social-network overlords. The price is Mae’s sense of self and any remaining scrap of privacy she might have held onto, not to mention her friendship with Annie. Admittedly, much of what happens in this half of the book is so over-the-top that I found it silly, but with the ever-growing reach of surveillance, internet and otherwise, perhaps some elements might not be beyond the realm of possibility. All in all, though, The Circle is a good and quick read, and (if digested with an open mind) it should lead to some interesting discussions on the state of privacy in our increasingly transparent world.  

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