Review: The Circle
Somehow, I was expecting a science fiction story, but The Circle is not that.
It’s true that technology takes a central role, and some of it is slightly beyond what’s possible today. There’s even some light speculation (e.g. society’s ready adoption of a universal identification system, or The Circle’s purchase of Facebook’s data), but it’s conveyed in passing and taken for granted by author Dave Eggers and his characters. The story doesn’t hinge on any of this, though, so the unchallenged predictions aren’t so much plot holes as they are expressions of cynicism.
Because at it’s heart, The Circle is a dystopian novel, one that lampoons today’s tech industry. Occasionally, Eggers takes cheap shots (depicting The Circle’s employees as maladroit), but most of the characterization plays on slightly more subtle (and I daresay, accurate) themes of ageism, data fetishism, and perfectionism. The narrative voice supports this nicely, describing details that are relevant to protagonist Mae Holland without literally relating her thoughts:
Annie introduced her to Denise and Josiah, both in their late-middle-twenties, both with the same level-eyed sincerity, both wearing simple button-down shirts in tasteful colors.
But despite avoiding direct characterization, the book is far from subtle. Characters discuss the symbolism of events with metaphorical significance. Mae’s professional responsibilities quickly escalate to absurd levels, and her own view of her career and her effect on the world becomes more perverse in lock-step. “We’ve sent over 180 million frowns from the U.S. alone, and you can bet that has an effect on the regime.”
Despite the cartoonish presentation, this was the most compelling critique to me: that the people who are building today’s tech giants are naive, self-absorbed, out of touch, and ultimately powerless. Although I see evidence to counter some of Egger’s cynicism (e.g. the acknowledgement of “the right to be forgotten” in Europe and beyond), there’s relatively little limit on the destructive power of ambitious budding technologists.
Hey, how’s that for ageism?
I’m not out to blame the youngsters; really, I empathize with folks like Mae. My own education in computer science and computer engineering was disappointingly short on ethics (just a few credits to tick that box), and I was driven by intellectual curiosity as much as anything (or, “just for fun”). Universities have an obligation to prepare people along these lines–to help them develop their own views and avoid exploitation. I have no such expectations for the tech firms themselves–they’re effectively sociopaths, and these days, it seems like social norms and regulation are the only way to keep them in check.
But I’m not talking about the book anymore, am I? If you enjoy absurdism and can stomach a little gallows humor, then The Circle may be for you. If you prefer something a bit more grounded, then check out Technically Wrong.