The dictatorship of the aligned – The Circle by David Eggers

All that happens must be known

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ISBN 978-0241146507, Price £8.99, Publisher Penguin

Be aware, a brave new world is lurking around the corner. While Huxley was focused on genetic engineering, Eggers gives his take on our internet age and creates a dystopian vision that we have more than happily invited into our own houses.

I love the internet. I admit that it’s part of my daily life. I check Facebook more than once (British understatement at work), I like Instagram a lot and this is the third or fourth attempt to write a blog. I have an eBay and paypal account and I ask myself if I should use Pinterest as well? I certainly use Skype to chat with my friends in Germany. I download the occasional game on my phone and wonder if the app really needs access to all my contacts?  My parents have finally entered the age of Whats App… I mean what else is there to come? I doubt that anyone wants to dispute that the internet has bought a lot of advantages with it.

It has also shaped the way in which we build and maintain our relationships to others. The line between what is ‘the internet’ and so called ‘real life’ has become rather thin:  how important is the relationship status of a social networking profile to us really? Has someone ever deleted you from their Facebook profile without telling you? Did you spend more than a second thinking what this could mean?

To know we must share – Imagine, Innovate, Share

With The Circle, Eggers has written a satire of our internet affine times.  While 1984 and Brave New World were set in a distant future, the scenario of The Circle doesn’t seem to  be so far away.

The protagonist of the novel, Mae Holland, has landed a job with the Circle, an internet service that seems like a mash up of Google, Apple services, Facebook, paypal  and the like. As with most of these fancy tech companies, it is highly desirable to work there and everything is crazily hip; the opportunities on campus, itself a temple of glass, are endless. Work has essentially become the never ending party everyone has yearned for, fading the line between social network life and real life. Deeper and deeper, Mae becomes sucked into the world of the Circle and becomes aligned with its philosophy and ethos; where everything is measured and recorded, showing us readers what it could mean if we say goodbye to good ol’ privacy.

Privacy is theft – a satire for our times

One of the big achievements of The Circle is that it holds up a mirror in front of us. Let’s take our online activism for example. Eggers astutely describes how online activism works in most cases. One morning Mae gets a message from a college friend, telling her about an initiative that condemns the crimes of a paramilitary group in Guatemala:

“Mae’s friend Tania, never an activist in school, said she had been compelled to action by these atrocities, and she was asking everyone she knew to join in an initiative called We Hear You Ana Marīa. […]

Mae saw a picture of Ana María, sitting in a white room on a folding chair, looking up, expressionless, an unnamed child in her lap. Next to her picture was a smile button that said “I hear you Ana María,” which, when clicked on, would add Mae’s name to a list of those lending their support to Ana María. Mae clicked the button. […] 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.”

Afterwards Mae feels elevated and sure of the fact that she has made a group of powerful enemies in Guatemala.

In The Circle are plenty of scenes that are equally funny and concerning because they ring true: Another time Mae’s friend Annie fires off 11 text messages in less than 25 min, trying to get hold of Mae.

“The second: You get my last msg?

The third: Starting to freak out a little. Why aren’t you answering me? […]

Fifth: If you were offended by what I said about Dan don’t go all silent-treatment. I said sorry. Write back. “

Annie’s bombardment of messages, that get more desperate in tone the longer Mae’s response take, highlights what constant availability through the new media suggests – a necessity to respond to everything at any time, otherwise the friendship can’t be functional.

In Mae’s ex-boyfriend Mercer the novel has its own ‘Cassandra’. While sitting at the dinner table at Mae’s parents, he points out:

“And that’s what’s so scary. Indivdually you don’t know what you’re doing collectively. But secondly, don’t presume the benevolence of your leaders. For years there was this happy time when those controlling  the major internet conduits were actually decent enough people. Or at least they were not predatory and vengeful.  But I always worried, what if someone was willing to use this power to punish those who challenged them? […]

Here, though, there are no oppressors. No one’s forcing you to do this. You willingly tie yourself to these leashes. And you willingly become utterly socially autistic. You no longer pick up on basic human communication clues. You’re at a table with three humans, all of whom are looking at you and trying to talk to you, and you’re staring at a screen, searching for strangers in Dubai.”

Sounds familiar?

You only need to deal with its flat characters

While Egger’s ideas and the familiarity with the topic carried me through the book, I found that in some regards the characters are flat. Mae’s complete self devotion to The Circle seems unreal. Although Mae’s positive attitude towards The Circle is challenged more than once, there is no room for doubt in her. Even towards the end, when Mae feels the stress of a fully transparent life, she is not able to reflect on her circumstances. Eggers doesn’t allow Mae to become any deeper than shallow water.

Annie, the friend of Mae, seems in her responses, quite often unnecessarily aggressive. She comes across like a stereotype rather than a three dimensional character, which I personally found rather more annoying than believable.

And then there is Mercer – in case the reader didn’t get what was going on, it is the job of this character to let you know what’s wrong in Circle world. It would have been far more elegante if Eggers had found a more subtle way of getting his message across, rather than having a character just saying it in a dialogue. The book lacks the subtext a reader could use to explore the work in more depth.

But perhaps this is the book our internet generation deserves? If I had to rate the book (staying in tune with its theme), I would give it three and a half stars out of a possible five. It’s up to you what you make out of it, but be aware Big Brother is watching you.

It’s all the fault of the internet

David Egger’s The Circle has just been published in Germany by the well-known publisher Kiepenheuer & Witsch. And if I hadn’t read the blogs and tweets of Texte und Bilder and 54books where you can find a review of the book, I wouldn’t have considered buying it. It suddenly felt necessary to me that I would be able to form my own opinion about the book. Yup, it seems like both bloggers managed to raise their retail raw successfully.

 

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