Review: “The Circle” by Dave Eggers

Secrets are lies
Sharing is caring
Privacy is theft
— The Circle, Dave Eggers

The Circle is scary. Not scary in the sense of a thriller or horror novel. Scary in the sense in which Brave new World is scary: By showing the limitless capacity of humans to ignore the consequences of their actions, as long as they think it is for a higher goal (or even if it’s only for their own amusement).

The book follows the Story of Mae Holland, freshly hired at The Circle, a social media- / search- / technology-giant which has revolutionized the web with some sort of universal, single identity system and assorted services (and is quite obviously a reference to Google). The story covers the development of both Mae as a person and the Circle as a company, which slides more and more into a modus operandi which would make everyone except the most radical post-privacy advocates flinch (the quote from above encapsulates the views of the company quite well).

Over the course of the book, The Circle invents more and more technologies that are, on the surface, extremely useful and could change the world for the better. However, each invention further reduces the personal privacy of everyone and builds an ever-growing net of tracking and surveillance over the planet.

I don’t want to go into too much detail here (I hate spoilers), but over the course of the book, I found myself despising Mae more and more. For me, the character embodies everything that is wrong with social networks and the general trends in the internet in general. This book has it all: Thoughtless acts without regard for the privacy of others, generally zero reflection about the impact her actions may have, and the problem of Slacktivism:

Below the picture of Ana María was a blurry photo of a group of men in mismatched military garb, walking through dense jungle. Next to the photo was a frown button that said “We denounce the Central Guatemalan Security Forces.” Mae hesitated briefly, knowing the gravity of what she was about to do—to come out against these rapists and murderers—but she needed to make a stand. She pushed the button. […] Mae sat for a moment, feeling very alert, very aware of herself, knowing that [she had] possibly made a group of powerful enemies in Guatemala.

I really enjoyed the theme of the book (as in: I was terrified of the future it portrayed. I’m a sucker for a good dystopia). However, the book suffers a little from the writing itself. I can’t put a finger on it, but something about the writing seemed off to me. The book also suffers from having a main character which was clearly an antagonist for me.

It serves as a warning not to blindly accept every new technology and to critically ask how it could be misused and how your use of it may impact others, from the small things like talking about others on social networks (others who may wish to keep certain things private) to the idea of filming your own life.

A young man, seeming too young to be drinking at all, aimed his face at Mae’s camera. “Hey mom, I’m home studying.” A woman of about thirty, who may or may not have been with the too young man, said, walking out of view, “Hey honey, I’m at a book club with the ladies. Say hi to the kids!”

The Circle is not a happy book. Even though it has its problems, you should read it, because it gives some perspective on the direction our use of technology is taking. Read it, and think about it when you use your social networks or read about the newest products.

The Circle is the most terrifying dystopia of all: The one where many people would say “Dystopia? What dystopia? That sounds awesome, I’d love to live there”. And that, more than anything else, is why it terrifies me.

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