In 1955, William F. Buckley Jr. defined the mission statement for National Review with his trademark grandiloquence: "It stands athwart history, yelling Stop, at a time when no one is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who so urge it."
The same is true for "The Circle," the new novel from Dave Eggers. "The Circle" is a fundamentally conservative tract. Eggers surveys our privacy-annihilating, social media-infested world, recoils in horror at the inevitable consequences, and unleashes a primal scream: Enough! Stop! Stop liking and sharing and tweeting and texting! Stop it all!
Readers who share Eggers' concerns about the Facebook-opticon, the surveillance state that leaves no shred of daily life unscrutinized, and the superficial, hollow sense of community spawned by digital connectivity will flock to stand before this brave rallying flag. If the backlash against Silicon Valley is real, then "The Circle" is a defining text for the new skeptics. What Upton Sinclair did to slaughterhouses in "The Jungle," Eggers does to social networks. Or tries to.
Readers who find value in how we communicate in the Internet age, or have grown up as indigenous inhabitants of the smartphone century, may wonder what the fuss is all about. The wails and moans of "The Circle" sound a little like those of a mighty dinosaur thrashing helplessly in a tarpit, furiously hurling imprecations at the rise of the mammals and their frenetic, hot-blooded ways. Some day hence, those fossils will look cool in a museum.
"The Circle" tells the story of Mae Holland, a young woman who gets a coveted job at a company that has managed to subsume nearly all of Silicon Valley within itself. The Circle is Google plus Facebook plus Twitter plus Amazon. It provides your email and your social media and your online shopping and has plans to provide everything else. (In the parlance of the Circle, we have "smiles" and frowns" instead of "likes," and "zings" instead of tweets.) Everything is tied to your "real" identity. So, no more anonymity, but also, no more Internet trolling and horrific online hate speech. No more messing with a million passwords. "One button for the rest of your life online."
(If you read that last sentence in the tone of Sauron declaring "One ring to rule them all," you get a pretty good sense of how Dave Eggers seems to feel about the digital age.)
As an antidote to Silicon Valley boosterism, "The Circle" is well-intentioned and necessary. The Circle's three "Wise Men" executives are effective stand-ins for every possibly idealistic, but ultimately overweening and hubristic, change-the-world digital impresario we hear from today. These guys think they have the keys to unlock a better way to be, and nothing will stop them. Even if it involves embedding a chip in the skeleton of every living human.
In the real, as opposed to novelistic, world, a merger between the likes of Facebook and Google would of course raise clear antitrust issues. In "The Circle," a politician who dares mention antitrust is immediately brought down when incriminating materials are discovered on her computer. The same fate greets scores of other anti-Circle politicians.
I don't want to diminish the insidious influence that corporations have over American politics, but the plotting at work here is weaker than in your average superhero movie, and it undermines the impact of Eggers' larger argument. The effortless neutralization of any opposition to the Circle is cartoonish, skirting disingenuously around how the politically fractured but constantly overheated world of social media would treat any such real-world event. This speaks to a central problem with "The Circle." Eggers is tackling, as hard as he can, core issues of how we live our technologically mediated lives today, but he does in so in such broad, garish Day-Glo-colored strokes that the overall impact feels forced. Can you bludgeon me some more, Dave? I don't think I got your point.
Nonetheless, the world that the Circle is delivering to the online masses is very much our world. This isn't science fiction. It is merely a minor elaboration on trends very much in evidence all around us. The Circle develops cheap HD cameras that can be and are distributed everywhere, helping construct a world of "SeeChange" complete surveillance, or, as the Wise Men keep preaching, blessed "transparency." That's the world we already have, when we combine smartphone and closed-circuit television ubiquity. Without a doubt, it will get worse.
To get ahead at the Circle, employees are expected to engage constantly with their TruYou and SeeChange tools, to be zinging and smiling and frowning and rating 24/7. Again, not a stretch from our contemporary competitive landscape, in which we often feel that if we aren't pushing our "brand" online, we're sinking out of sight, forever.
The Circle's credo is that "all that happens must be known." Those echoes you hear of Big Brother are not by accident. The Circle has taken the supposed hacker mantra -- information wants to be free -- and turned it into a mandate. The worst sin at the Circle? Deletion. The prime directive? Share.
Mae Holland goes for it all. A more conventional plot would have the protagonist gradually become repelled by the growing horror at the heart of the Circle, but Holland plunges in and prospers. She embraces Circle values, and in the processing of becoming a star performer, becomes instrumental in the Circle's drive for "completion." It's as if "1984's" Winston Smith never tried to rebel, but joined in wholeheartedly with Big Brother. Which, it seems obvious, is Eggers' point. Mae Holland is the stand-in for us, the sheeple mindlessly sharing baby pictures and liking our friends' jokes and rating new novels on Amazon.
And then there's Mercer, Holland's ex-boyfriend who appears to make a decent living for himself making chandeliers out of sustainably harvested deer antlers. Mercer is Eggers with the foghorn, standing at the corner of 16th and Mission in San Francisco, directly lecturing the hipsters waiting for their Uber rides.
When Mae tells Mercer he should get online to improve his sales, Mercer is dismissive.
See, that's not true, Mae. It's not true. I know I'm successful if I sell chandeliers. If people order them, then I make them, and they pay me money for them. If they have something to say afterward, they can call me or write me. I mean, all this stuff you're involved in, it's all gossip. It's people talking about each other behind their backs. That's the vast majority of this social media, all these reviews, all these comments. Your tools have elevated gossip, hearsay and conjecture to the level of valid, mainstream communication. And besides that, it's fucking dorky ...
The tools you guys create actually manufacture unnaturally extreme social needs. No one needs the level of contact you're purveying. 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."
Mercer is not wrong. Not here, or later, when he warns against how progressive Silicon Valley empowerment and utopianism leads to "more control" and "more central tracking" or that our addictions to smartphones are making us "willingly become socially autistic," or, perhaps most devastatingly, "incredibly boring." Mercer is the voice of sanity, or at least of Cassandra, the prophetess whose warnings were never heeded but always correct.
There is no question: The Facebooks and the Googles and the Amazons are constantly tweaking their interfaces in ways designed to modify our behavior -- buy more products, click on more ads, use the online services even more so we see more ads and buy more products. Our addictive personalities are being indulged and nourished and prodded and poked. We need a legion of Dave Eggers in the world today, calling out the dangers.
What makes "The Circle" interesting is that the critiques it piles on the digital era have so much obvious merit. Privacy is under horrific assault, from governments, corporations and our fellow gossipy, oversharing citizens. The lure of the small screen undermines the quality of our lived, embodied experiences. As we track growing income inequality and structural changes in the job market, the evidence for concluding that the net impact of Silicon Valley "change the world" innovation is truly beneficial to society is increasingly murky. There is stuff to rant about, for sure.
But a great novel requires more nuance and complexity than Eggers delivers in "The Circle." We aren't taking -- and sharing and liking and retweeting -- all those pictures because we're just dumb corporate patsies. To gossip is to be human. We haven't embraced the possibilities delivered by networked computers just because we're entirely fooled by shiny digital objects. We're also getting something we need and cherish on a deep level. As the forces of capitalist society tear us apart, we build new ways to tie us together that collapse distance and fight back against disintegration. The smile that crosses my face when my daughter posts a goofy college photo on Facebook is a real smile. The world has embraced the new tools of the Internet age because we are building things we find useful to us.
None of this negates our responsibility to seek balance and moderation, to learn when to turn off the phone and stop tweeting, and to organize to fend off intrusive corporate and governmental privacy invasion and surveillance. But Eggers misses the opportunity to capture the perils and the promise of the current moment. Isn't it worth acknowledging that the world isn't just divided into skeptical Mercers and gung-ho Maes, but that most of us have some Mercer and some Mae in us, and that makes our relationship to social media and all the rest messy and complicated, and really, really interesting?
When word started to leak out in social media a few weeks ago that "The Circle" was about a young woman who joined a Facebook-like corporation and slowly discovered its employees' cultish proclivities, Kate Losse, the author of "The Boy Kings of Silicon Valley" -- a nonfiction memoir of a young woman who joins Facebook and discovers it is kind of a cult -- became very upset. She felt her life story had been plagiarized, her narrative usurped. She went on the warpath.
Eggers has explicitly denied ever reading "The Boy Kings" (or any other book specifically about Silicon Valley). Having read both books, I don't think the plagiarism charge holds true -- certainly not in any literal, sentence-by-sentence fashion. For one thing, the trajectory followed by Holland in "The Circle" is the direct opposite of Losse's. Holland buys in, and joins the cult. Losse tunes out.
But more to the point, "The Circle" doesn't read like a novel whose author immersed himself in the nitty-gritty of day-to-day life in Silicon Valley. It reads like a novel whose author deeply dislikes current modes of online social interaction, and constructed a narrative to deliver that antipathy as harshly as possible. In "The Boy Kings of Silicon Valley," Losse contributes something very different -- a nuanced, closely observed look at the real lives of hackers and the tools they create that tells us more about what Facebook is like than any other book on the company has yet achieved. If Eggers had truly plagiarized Losse, he might have written a better book, the great Silicon Valley/American novel that we've all been waiting for.
Because to stand athwart history and cry "Stop" is never enough, something that the inheritors of William Buckley's legacy have so obviously failed to learn. We're going to continue tumbling forward, and if we have any hope of steering in the right direction, we need to know more than just why everything is so bad and awful and dangerous. We need to know what's pushing us forward, what needs and desires we are trying to sate. There's more going on here than the indulgence of a manipulated craving for snack food. We're hungry for connection. We live for it.