Friday, October 16, 2015

The Circle—Dave Eggers


"It's not that I'm not social. I'm social enough. But the tools you guys create actually manufacture unnaturally extreme social needs. No one needs the level of contact you're purveying. It improves nothing. It's not nourishing. It's like snack food. You know how they engineer this food? They scientifically determine precisely how much salt and fat they need to include to keep you eating. You're not hungry, you don't need the food, it does nothing for you, but you keep eating these empty calories. This is what you're pushing. Same thing. Endless empty calories, but the digital-social equivalent. And you calibrate it so it's equally addictive." (134)
A beautifully written and horrifying parable on the level of Orwell's 1984. This book was so good—and SO disturbing. Eggers taps into the current obsession with digital connection and amplifies it in a very 1984-esque way, showing us all a disturbing potential future. Like Orwell's dystopian future-telling story, it is perhaps most distressing because of its complete possibility; I could absolutely see us going down the path that Eggers creates in The Circle.

Mae Holland is hired by her best friend to work at The Circle, the ever-expanding internet company based in the Bay Area. (Sound familiar?) The Circle links everyone's online presence, banking and purchasing, for one profile, which is shared and transparent for everyone to view. Mae, with her wide-eyed idealism, is quickly drawn in by the romance of it all—and pulled into the cult-like mentality of privacy equaling lies and deception. As she opens up more of her life for public consumption, she grows more and more isolated from the people who matter in her life. But what she gains means more to her than what she loses, until any hint of the old Mae disappears altogether into the hive mind.

This was a bit too real for me, at points. The fight over right to privacy continues to be fought, especially with the increase in digital presence (as Eggers artfully takes advantage of) and the inability to ever escape or erase your digital past. Mae starts at The Circle full of idealism and the desire to succeed, especially since she basically got the job through a nepotistic channel when she was hired by her college best friend. Although some of the ways of The Circle seem strange and counterintuitive at first, Mae fairly quickly substitutes the general consensus and opinion for her own. For example, Mae starts out not being attached to her phone, and basically shamed for it. Mae's desire to succeed, however, propels her past even the employees who have been there longer, eventually pushing her to be the poster child for openness. She starts wearing a camera everywhere that she goes, for everything, because privacy is a crime—after all, you're keeping information that could be valuable to other people from them. This only backfires after the friend who had gotten her the job has some information revealed about her family—in the pursuit of transparency, of course—and spirals out of control.

Before she gets quite pulled into it, though, Mae is out kayaking in the Bay, and doesn't digitally document it. This conversation happens with some of the higher-ups:
"Oh, I've never brought a camera."
"But how do you identify all these birds?"
"I have this little guide. It's just a thing my ex-boyfriend gave me. It's a little foldable guide to local wildlife."
"So it's just a pamphlet or something?"
"Yeah, I mean, it's waterproof and —"Josiah exhaled loudly.
"I'm sorry," Mae said.
Josiah rolled his eyes. "No, I mean, this is a tangent, but my problem with paper is that all communication dies with it. It holds no possibility of continuity. You look at your paper brochure, and that's where it ends. It ends with you. Like you're the only one that matters. But think if you'd been documenting. If you'd been using a tool that would help confirm the identity of whatever birds you saw, then anyone can benefit—naturalists, students, historians, the Coast Guard. Everyone can know, then, what birds are in the bay on that day. It's just maddening, thinking of how much knowledge is lost every day through this kind of shortsightedness. And I don't want to call it selfish but—" (187-188)
You can really see the change that she goes through to get to the point where her ex-boyfriend, Mercer, says the pullquote to Mae about disconnecting from her digital life and connecting with reality. He is trying to convince her to move away from the Dark Side (as I came to view The Circle) while she is trying to convince him that he needs to be more digitally involved. Even though we haven't quite descended into madness with our digital lives yet, it feels like such a possibility, something that could so easily start with the best of intentions and then take over, that you can feel Mercer's terror and outrage as Mae gets pulled further and further into the inner workings.

Even after one of the three founders of The Circle approaches Mae and tells her that things are getting out of control, that it needs to be shut down, it doesn't help snap her back to reality. (Spoiler: She actually turns him in to the other two creators and keeps him from derailing the company's trajectory.) It seems as though her desire for approval, along with her desire to succeed, have made her completely incapable of viewing the monster from the outside. And when you get right down to it, what is our digital/social media presence but a desperate cry for approval and acceptance?