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Jamie Thunder is Vhcle's books editor, and he works, reads and writes in the South of England. When he's not doing any of these he runs long distances, and is always very relieved when he's got to the end.

Read this article in Vhcle Issue 18

Read other articles by Jamie Thunder

The Circle

Dave Eggers


Reviewed by Jamie Thunder

Vhcle Books, Issue 18

If you brought a man from twenty years ago to the present day he would be astonished at how connected we are. The shift in human communication from face-to-face or at least with some trace of the interlocutor – a signature, a voice – to significantly online has been the greatest phenomenon of the 21st century.

It’s also one that has occurred with little mainstream, general discussion. We can debate child safety, or piracy, or incitements to terrorism, but these are side issues to the fundamental ways in which our interactions and social (media) lives have changed.

The history of society is the history of communication, and in the last decades it has changed beyond recognition. At the time of writing I have sent close to 24,000 tweets – an average of 14 a day over the last four and a half years to friends, strangers, celebrities, companies, and no-one in particular, a level and reach of interaction impossible in any other era of humanity.

But perhaps the bigger change has been the communication of our selves to the ether, ready to be extracted on demand. Typing my name into Google Maps returns a university at which I studied; my name (probably unique) has 1,750 search results. My 652 Facebook photos are an index of where I’ve been, with whom, and what I’ve done – combining all this would tell you about my work, living arrangements, shopping habits, interests, friends, family, relationships, mental health, and political views.

Dave Eggers’ The Circle takes a small step into the future and brings today’s social and technological trends to their logical, if not inevitable conclusions. The Circle itself is an online monolith, an amalgamation of Apple, Facebook, and Google that has integrated itself into the daily lives of millions of users. For its ten thousand staff, it’s a nirvana – the most innovative, exciting, benign company the world has ever seen. And for the public it’s a convenient portal for just about everything.

So when Mae Holland arrives in the Customer Experience department she’s thrilled. The focus on targets, the pervasive system that ranks her engagement in the Circle community against her colleagues, even the hurt chiding she receives for the unsocial act of missing voluntary activities don’t dampen her enthusiasm. The joy of being connected, of always having an audience, of sharing is intense. The Circle breeds hypersociability, in which to be disconnected from the network is to be obnoxious, and a Pavlovian dependency on positive ‘zings’ is unavoidable (if you’ve ever felt the quick sugared rush of repeatedly checking your retweets column or likes for your latest profile picture you’ll understand).

Mae rises quickly through the hierarchy, and adopts The Circle’s philosophy of transparency completely.  Her every action is watched by millions – but rather than the stuff of dystopian nightmares, it’s a glorious opportunity to share, to bring to others experiences they could never have. Each new technology or application is a marvel, and each makes reversing the dominance of The Circle more impossible.

While soaking up the little details I barely noticed the plot, which chugs along without distracting from the rich world Eggers has created. This is a book unashamedly of its time. Ten years ago it would’ve seemed far-fetched; in a few years’ it will be seen as horribly prescient, quaintly concerned, or laughably wrong. But the seeds are there, and it’s excellent fun to see Eggers poke fun at the more idealistic digital evangelists (sending frowny faces to the Guatemalan army was a deliciously barbed example).

In the battle between the Luddites  and the brave new world, Eggers smartly positions the reader on the fence: Mae’s faith hardly wavers, yet we, a step removed, can sense something a little sour. The doubters she encounters are greeted with confusion and clumsy attempts to help them to see the wonder of The Circle. If there’s a mis-step in this engrossing book it’s in Mae’s lack of empathy here, her overzealous response to the few who urge caution, and it leaves Eggers open to charges of having ducked the central showdown of ideas by casting the believers as wide-eyed naïfs.

The Circle is an intelligent, plausible novel, free from hyperbole. No-one does anything evil, and perhaps it’s because of my own experience of the shallow end of The Circle that I found its explanations persuasive; I found myself repeatedly tugged towards a kneejerk ‘so what?’ reaction to many developments. What’s wrong with registering all Circle users to vote automatically? Why shouldn’t the every conversation of elected representatives and their staff be recorded? Why wouldn’t you want known criminals to be literally highlighted to police? Anything else would at surely best portray a deep cynicism, an unhealthily negative view of humanity, progress, and ultimately democracy.

But it’s this unreflexive groupthink and the latent possibility of evil that makes The Circle so sinister. On every page you wait for the mask to slip. Perhaps it never will. But if it did, the results would be catastrophic.

The Circle has an obvious predecessor in 1984, and nods to it in Mae’s claim that “secrets are lies, sharing is caring, and privacy is theft”. But there’s an important difference. The most insidious tactic fascist regimes have used to control their publics has been to encourage individuals to spy on each other, sowing mistrust and fear, and creating a modern day panopticon in which no-one dares step out of line just in case someone is watching.

Only now, we’re all watching.