Sci-fi comes to Silicon Valley in Dave Egger’s fifth novel, The Circle, but it is not an army of robots who threaten apocalypse this time but the CEOs of an Internet company. Set in the not-too-distant future, the Internet catchall company the Circle has subsumed not only the giants of our generation (Facebook, Google, Twitter), but those of future generations (Alacrity, Zoopa, Jefe, Quan). Eggers is (as always) confident and capable, and the characters and places of this book are so memorable and easy to read, you will rush through all 491 pages.
The book begins with Mae Holland, a 24-year-old recent graduate, hired at the Circle thanks to her friend Annie, who has already risen to a position in the Gang of 40, as in, the forty most crucial minds of the company. Let me treat you to the opening lines: “My God, Mae thought. It’s heaven. The campus was vast and rambling, wild with Pacific color, and yet the smallest detail had been carefully considered, shaped by the most eloquent hands.”
The Circle is the company behind TruYou, a service that doles out to users one and only one Internet identity for the rest of their lives. But like so many current giants, the Circle is also a company that can allow itself philanthropist airs and develop whatever whimsical or practical gadgets it chooses.
Like in all Sci-fi, architecture is important. For the first few pages, Eggers treats us to a gliding, sunny description of the Circle campus, complete with Calder mobiles, fountains, volleyball and tennis courts, organic farms, bowling alleys, grocery stores, picnic areas, undulating grass, and buildings made of glass. However, something sinister lurks behind, and it isn’t until Mae sits down at her office station, that the chill becomes clear. Superiors in offices with glass walls surround Mae at her station, and down below there are more workers, seen through glass floors. Everything and everyone is seen and tracked at all times at the Circle, so that it is always known where they are, a series of red dots pulsing on a screen. It is like this, dropping hints here and there, that Eggers contextualizes an old idea — that of the Panopticon — into the landscape of social media.
Is it life imitating art that Apple’s proposed new campus is a glass circle? The renderings were submitted to the City of Cupertino in 2011.
Mae, for one, never wants to leave the Circle. “Outside the walls of the Circle,” Eggers writes, “all was noise and struggle, failure and filth. But here, all had been perfected. The best people had made the best systems and the best systems had reaped funds, unlimited funds, that made possible this, the best place to work. And it was natural that it was so, Mae thought. Who else but Utopians could make Utopia?”
In an increasingly comical piling of gadgets and screens Mae has to watch as part of her job, she is transformed, without her knowing, into a Circler — that is, one who shares everything, measures everything, wants to know everything, and has an increasingly sickening duty to transparency and a decreasing worry for a dissipating personal privacy.
Mae wears a bracelet on her left wrist to track her vitals, a bracelet on her right to track comments from her followers, and on her desk there are four screens: one to do work in, one to stay in touch with her team, one to supervise new members, and another to stay in touch with her company peers and everyone who follows her. Not to mention the headset Mae wears when she is at her desk, which pours a series of innocuous questions into her ear — How do you feel about shoes? What do you think about organic hair products? Would you be willing to pay 1200 dollars for a weeklong trip down the Grand Canyon? — to which Mae can answer by saying smile, frown, or meh. If Mae fails to answer a question, she hears her own voice calling her attention, not a sound byte she recorded, but a digital rendering of her voice producing the sound of her name. Mae becomes increasingly obsessed with this digital rendition of her voice. It “sent a strange swirling wind through her [….] It was odd, just a few inches from normal.”
Soon enough there is a call from two of the three Wise Men directing the Circle for politicians to go transparent, that is to wear a live-feed camera around their neck at all times in order for constituents to know their every move and conversation. The language coming from the Wise Men is of the utopian sort we are already used to hearing — All that happens must be known, for example, — but in Egger’s dystopian future, when everything is traceable, stored on the cloud, and undeletable, these goals carry grave consequences.
Through the ups and downs of corporate life, Mae’s personal existence falls apart. She isolates her parents and an ex-boyfriend as she shares everything they do and places cameras (the size of lollipops) on their lawns. There is also a mysterious, enigmatic man Mae gets romantically entangled with, but she only knows his first name and can’t seem to locate him anywhere on campus. The terror of uncertainty in the face of so many certainties makes Mae deeply unstable. She finds succor in the voice calling her through her headset, familiar yet strange, and it becomes a kind of life-line, a resounding echo by which she can calm herself as she increasingly loses contact with her own person in favor of her digital presence, which is each time more calculated and performative.
While some of Eggers’ criticisms of the Internet seem trite, the central question is quite clever and will send a chill down your spine — what happens to free will when being watched becomes ubiquitous? If we adjust our behavior when we know we are being watched, who do we become? The word Panopticon never enters the novel, but the intimations are everywhere: glass buildings, the name of the company itself, and the Wise Men’s vague urging that the Circle must be complete. The question this book seems to ask is, are we getting used to the idea of a Panopticon?