It took me two days to read this 500 page novel. I’ve read two of Mr. Eggers’s books before: Zeitoun and A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. I enjoyed the first one (as evidenced by my review of it this year), and I think I liked the second one, although it’s been awhile since I read it. But I have no doubt about this book. I thoroughly enjoyed it, more so than I think the other two Cannonballers who reviewed it this year.
The Circle is a company that feels the terrifying baby of Facebook and Google (or even just Google, if Google+ had actually worked out). It’s a technology company, with over 10,000 employees who are working in an environment similar to a giant tech start-up from the late 90s. There is work to be done, but it’s also supposed to be Fun! There are concerts and classes and discussion groups and a gym and parties. It reminded me of the first time a friend of mine showed me the new Bloomberg offices (the company, not the mayoral administration), and it had a kitchen full of free food. My first thought was about how convenient it all was; my second though was that it made it a lot easier to not leave work and return to the rest of one’s life.
That’s one part of the issue Mr. Eggers is trying to discuss in this book. Where should the line be between work and home? We hear buzzwords like ‘community’ thrown about at work all the time. It seems ideal to like where you work and the work you do, but should there be a line where your socializing at work end and your socializing at home begins? Is home your ‘real life,’ and is it better if that stays separate from work, or is it better if it all merges together, so long as you enjoy it?
That blurring of work and home life leads to the heart of the issues that Mr. Eggers discusses here. What should be the difference between private and public? Should anything be kept private? If so, why? If you keep something to yourself – whether that is knowledge, or a picture of a remote place, or an experience you had – are you being selfish by denying it to others who might not have a chance to experience or view it? Said differently – if you believe you have a right to something, am I obligated to give it to you? Does that change if the “I” in question is a private citizen, a private company, a non-profit, or the government? Because I casually mention on Facebook that I went on vacation, does it make sense to have that information catalogued and made accessible to anyone who is interested in, say, crowd sourcing a book for tourists who want to visit the places I visited?
I’d love to write a paper on the arguments The Circle (the company, not the book) makes. For example, at one point the leaders are discussing Julian Assange, and how the government was mad he made the information public, but that we all benefitted from it, and no one got hurt. But I think that a lot of people who would support Assange would balk at the idea that private citizens owe transparency to our fellow citizens in the same way. Yet that’s what The Circle is arguing. The Circle also tries to make this knowledge a social experience, tying all marketing together and giving that information away as well. I don’t recall who said it, but it reminds of the idea that “if the service is free, then what they’re really selling is you.” Social media today is already basically a way to sell marketing information under the guise of connecting with our friends. And for some of us, it’s great to know what a classmate who lives 5,000 miles away is doing without having to exchange multiple letters or emails. But it can also be a bit disconcerting to see the ads on the side of the Gmail window that are based on keywords from emails I’ve sent. That email is ‘free’ because I’m providing Google with loads of information.
Then there’s the fact that all of this social interaction can have a real impact on relationships. The neediness that can come out when someone sends a text but the recipient doesn’t reply. Or the popularity of pictures – and the feeling people can have if no one ‘likes’ their status, or comments on something they’ve said that they think is profound. People you’ve never met might think they know you, or that you owe them something, if you’ve interacted online. It’s disturbing.
The novel isn’t just about the company, though; it’s about Mae, a very young woman who gets hired thanks to her former college roommate. I think this is where I part ways with my fellow Cannonball reviewers. I absolutely believed her actions, mostly because she was so young and somewhat desperate. I also think that Mr. Eggers did a great job of making some of the people she disagrees with, well, jerks. At least, people Mae sees as jerks. If someone she respects a great deal makes the same arguments – or makes them in a different way – I can see her taking different actions. But I think she’s fragile, and chooses to believe the good.
But I also don’t think she just jumps right in from the get go. She has her separate space and hobbies, and seems more interested in doing well at the company than in buying into the company itself. In the beginning she wants to succeed and wants to not let her friend down; I didn’t get the sense that she was also really into The Circle in terms of what it represented. I think a character written differently would have gone the Katniss Everdeen route, and would have resulted in a different story altogether. I think Mae was kind of perfect for the parable Mr. Eggers is telling.
As much as I enjoyed reading it, this book did freak me out. And more than a little bit. So much of it was so close to where we are now that I can see how it could come to pass. That is fucking terrifying.