Mae Holland is an idealistic young woman who lands a coveted job at the world’s hottest company The Circle. She’s indebted to her friend Annie who holds a high position in the company and pulled strings to get Mae on board.
The Circle is a young company but huge, bigger than Facebook or Google and at its helm are the three founders, Ty, Eamon and Tom who embody the kinds of traits we see in tech companies the world over. Ty is the nerdy Geek, enamoured by technology and interested in it for its own sake. Eamon is the Idealist, who envisions a digital future for everyone, an inevitable future that eradicates disease, loneliness, and repression and will empower the disenfranchised to a world of equality. Tom is the Money Man and the one who knows how to play the capitalist game and make The Circle the monopoly it can be.
The Circle is a huge data processor, a global search engine, a social media giant, and a global digital commerce platform. But more importantly, it’s the first company to have finally fixed the problem of needing multiple accounts and identities to do anything online. The Circle operates around a central principle: everyone who uses it must do so through a single real-name profile. No-one can hide behind anonymity, everyone must be online as themselves. This measure apparently eradicates online trolls and goes a long way to solving all the negative aspects of online communication. It’s clear then, early in the novel, that The Circle is setting itself up to be something significantly more than just a tech company: they want to be the single controller of how people will run their lives in the future.
So far, so 1984.
Mae starts in Customer Experience, a basic role that involves answering queries from all sorts of Circle customers. After every interaction, the customers must rate the response. Quickly we see how performance monitoring is at the heart of everything The Circle does. And it gets so much worse. Over the course of the novel, Mae starts with just one screen; by the end she has nine screens and is expected to respond to thousands of inputs every day with “smiles” or “frowns”, comments, follow ups, survey completions and all manner of inane and pointless junk. Eggers devotes pages to the exact numbers of ridiculous interactions Mae must achieve, and it’s not long before we learn he’s just pulling our chain. This isn’t serious, it’s satire.
Mae is the character through which we see the worrying rise of The Circle and the dubious technologies they deploy. From tiny “SeeChange” cameras that can be placed anywhere, to the full transparency of Government — all these are cheered by Mae and her colleagues as inevitable and beautiful progress. Mae is just a proxy for all of us who use technology without questioning what it might enable, good or bad. We witness Mae’s unthinking indoctrination into The Circle and it’s a dark slide towards a world none of us should wish for.
The Circle eventually reads as a cult, driven only by its desire for survival. Indeed, I chuckled at Eggers’ use of the phrase “going clear” regarding Government transparency, an obvious nod to the well known church founded on the words of a sci-fi hack.
Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of this novel is that it already feels out of date, just five years after publication. The Facebook/Cambridge Analytica scandal, the rise of the “Alt-Right”, the collapse of meaningful democracy in the West — none of these things are mentioned and their omission feels heavy.
Regardless, this is an important warning about the dangers of obsessive, unchecked reliance on digital technology and should be seen as a wake up call. Whether we’re able to pull ourselves back from that bleak future still remains to be seen. Some days, I’m really not confident at all.