on 17 December 2014
I'm not sure where to stand on this book.
I think the author had a great idea here. The premise of this book is certainly interesting. Eggers exploits the creepiness associated with Google's and Facebook's disregard for personal privacy and turns it into a dystopian thriller. Post-Edward Snowden, this book really hits the target.
As a story, however, it fails. Its vacuous and shockingly naive main protagonist, Mae Holland, blindly and unquestioningly accepts all the bizarre requests her company demands of her. Not once does she put up an ounce of resistance when she is being told to share even the most personal and private details of her life. What motivates Mae's lack of resistance remains infuriatingly unclear throughout the story.
I kept on wondering at which point she would explode and tell her employers to stick their requests where the sun doesn't shine. I kept expecting her to at least say "enough is enough" and storm out. Alas, no. All she does is apologise profusely and sacrifice more of her personal dignity. It made me want to grab her by the shoulders and scream at her. Towards the end of the book I even loathed her so much I was actively hoping for some suitably nasty end to her pathetic existence.
Most of the other characters are extremely peripheral and not fleshed out in much detail. There's a couple of love interests here and there, but those aren't explored very much. Then there's the ex boyfriend who acts as the moral conscience of the story. He's the only one who's remotely likeable.
Still though, despite all these criticisms this book did make me sit back and think. A lot of the 'innovations' which the Circle comes up with so ludicrously violate our privacy that the notion of people simply accepting them stretches the believability of the novel. Then again, how many things do we share about ourselves online nowadays without much of an afterthought? Things which, I'm sure, a couple of decades ago we would have balked at.
Well, no, not for much longer, if the scenario Dave Eggers imagines in 'The Circle' is to be believed. Set in the near future, The Circle has become the daddy of all internet companies, and has subsumed Google, Facebook, Twitter, Microsoft and all the rest to become a completely dominant and all-pervasive presence in people's online lives. The 10,000 or so employees working on The Circle's California campus have no doubt that their technology is making the world a better, safer, wiser place. But the implications of The Circle's omnipresence in terms of civil liberties, privacy and personal independence become more and more disturbing as The Circle's management pushes the company's capabilties towards their ultimate conclusion - which they refer to rather ominously as 'completing the circle'.
Eggers here is doing what satirists and science fiction writers have done for generations: take an existing modern trend and push it to its extremes. He is spot on in targeting the way in which our addiction to social media is allowing us to sleepwalk into a surveillance society, and he's also entertainingly paranoid in imagining a world in which there is no opt-out from public participation - a world where, in one of the book's many memorable taglines, Privacy is Theft. As well as raising the alarm on the threat of an online panopticon, the book is perhaps even more than this a satire on the corrosive effects of unrestrained capitalism, by imagining a world in which users' very selves can effectively be privatised and monetised by social media. All of which places a salutary question mark over today's internet giants and their anodyine internal injunctions of 'Don't Do Evil' and suchlike.
The prose breezes along effortlessly, and even though at 490 pages it's a longish book it maintains pace and momentum throughout. Sadly, the book is more about the message than it is about the characters or the plot. The central protagonist, Mae Holland, never quite achieves a critical mass of believability, and her supporting cast are generally quite lightly-sketched cardboard cut-outs. Worse is the clunkiness of some of Eggers' metaphors, not least the screaming obviousness of the transparent shark in the executives' fishtank. What could it mean, one is given no chance to wonder. And the plot itself does stray quite deeply into silliness and implausibility. Eggers is clearly not a man to be fazed by a yawning plot-hole; there are several in the book's second half.
Still, overall, and despite these misgivings, this is an entertaining and thought-provoking read which just about scrapes itself a fourth star. It pretty much reads itself, with little or no effort on the reader's part other than suspension of disbelief. After reading it, I'm now wondering whether it's actually all that wise to be posting a review online!
on 30 July 2014
This book has so much potential and I enjoyed reading it but it only half realises its ideas. There is a delicious irony that when you finish it you are guided to Twitter, Facebook and other websites. For those who don't know the book is a dystopia which explores the ramifications of our social media information obsession so it's a bit strange to be now conforming to The Circle by rating the book on Amazon.
Strengths: the book has a good idea as all good dystopia fiction should and it poses some important questions about what would happen to our notion of truth, privacy and community especially if one company owned Apple, Facebook, Google, Twitter and every other social media site and app.
Weaknesses: the main character and the story. Mae is irritating. She's an anti-hero who is just too dumb. Also these stories require conflict - section 1 is all exposition much of which is repeated as if we didn't pick up the mantra about privacy and truth in the first conversation between the same two characters. Then, shockingly and I'll try to avoid spoilers, the most important moment of the book isn't there! Also Eggers just seems to get bored with characters like Annie and Mae's parents.
Had this been edited properly and developed it would have rightfully taken its place beside other great dystopias that have challenged the way we think about society and control. A thought-provoking novel that has certainly affected the way and how often I've used technology today alone.
on 31 December 2014
This novel by Dave Eggers is a book I deem so important I really wish everyone would read it - or at least everyone who leads a considerable portion of their lives online, such as many bloggers (myself included), all facebook members, ebay and Amazon shoppers, google profile owners and many more.
In short, Dave Eggers shows with this novel what could happen (and, on a smaller scale, is already happening - kind of) if one company took over ALL online services for banking, shopping, cloud computing, messaging, and so on. That fictitious company is "The Circle", and its goal is to be complete - something someone wants to prevent at all cost.
Mae Holland is a young woman who lands one of the coveted jobs at The Circle, much envied by her contemporaries for what everybody deems a fantastic opportunity. She soon starts letting The Circle take over more and more of her life, and feels good about it - in fact, whenever she does not share something with the entire community (which encompasses nearly all the world), she is made to feel guilty with arguments so convincing you can really imagine this sort of brain-washing taking place.
A mysterious man, wonderfully described as "calligraphic", becomes Mae's lover, but she can't find out anything about him on the Circle's network, something that greatly irritates her. When she finally learns his true identity (the reader of course guessed it long before that), it is too late for her to be saved - and save the world from the omnipresent tentacles of this giant data-collecting octopus The Circle has become.
The novel ends not quite the way I expected, or was hoping for. It is thought-provoking and very well written, quite a nice change to some of the badly (or not at all) edited ebooks I have been reading. I have just found out that The Circle is going to be turned into a film. That is one I definitely want to see.
Please read this, if you have the chance. There is only one negative thing I can say about the book: the print is VERY small, which is why it took me relatively long to complete it - I could not read very long before my eyes grew too tired.
on 12 May 2014
Well-written and compelling. I couldn't stop reading. It's a nightmare vision of what might happen in our society if we pursue absolute transparency.
on 14 July 2015
The premise of this book is very interesting and certainly pertinent to the age we live in. However, the execution leaves much to be desired.
I think the main problem with this book is that despite ostensibly seeking to present the potentially nefarious nature of social media etc. it refuses to investigate in any meaningful way the complexities of the relationship between democracy/security/openess/participation vs. privacy. The protagonist, Mae Holland, is breath-takingly naive and is rendered a zombie-like acolyte of the Circle cult. The reasons for her being so one-dimensional are never really made clear (it's possible she has self-esteem issues, but why these would necessarily lead to the way she thinks and the choices she makes is far from obvous). But I think worse than this is the presentation of society as a whole as wilfully embracing every privacy-robbing innovation the Circle presents. Indeed, when the issue of privacy is raised by one of the innovators presenting to the Circle on a program that monitors everyone in a neighbourhood, one of the founders dismisses these concerns by saying that privacy issues will present no problem. Really? It's that simple, is it? It's as though Eggers refused to contemplate the possiblity of legitimate and effective resistance in order to write an easier narrative.
However, sadly, even this narrative is fraught with mind-numbingly boring passages relaying, for example, Mae's vital statistics, Mae's zings, smiles, frowns, reviews etc. I wasn't sure if this was a deliberate device used by the author to convey the sheer tedium of such a life, but I did find myself skim-reading a lot of text that was replete with thoroughly unengaging content.
The other problem was the characters: I've already mentioned Mae as a truly irritating protagonist, but even the supporting cast is problematic. The Three Wise Men all emobody a particular hyperbolic stereotype that become caricaturish and almost comical by the end (cue shark metaphor). Eggers sullies the only friendship Mae has with a woman with the "women envy each other and want to tear each other down" cliche. Mercer is clearly only there to provide a (completely ineffective) voice of resistance. Even his fate was really rather ridiculous.
The end of the book is rather hastily arrived at, and it felt as though Eggers just wanted to wrap the whole thing up when potentially that is when things could really have gotten going (and a good 100 or so pages of the preceding content could have been cut)!
So all in all, I think this is material that could have been handled much better. Sadly, what we get in "The Circle" is just not up to the job.
on 14 December 2014
I gave this book one star because I feel utterly cheated into reading it by the promise of a thought-provoking, poignant theme. Yes, the premise of The Circle is attractive to those of us who occupy the digital age (or in my case make a living of it as I'm a digital marketer): one company - a Frankenstein's monster made of part Google, part Facebook, part Dr. Evil's compound - is monopolising the world's information and claiming ever-increasing ownership on people's private lives.
In this world, there is no human-rights and privacy discussion, no doubting of the motives of a private company offering you free services in exchange for your independence. Everyone in the world seems to think it's a grand old idea.
Mae, the protagonist, arrives at the Circle as a wide-eyed recent graduate, and seems to almost never question the company's ways. She's being constantly chastised by her superiors and colleagues for any alone-time, any experience she doesn't immediately share on social media. Everyone around her is consumed by a constant need for validation. While that is in some respect a phenomena we're seeing in the age, reducing it to this caricature is simply not believable.
When Mae's ex-boyfriend, Mercer, tells her he wants to be "off the grid" and not participate in constant conversation with tens of thousands of people simultaneously, Mae - a supposedly intelligent, sensitive person - doesn't even consider his point of view or has a glimmer of understanding.
Every time the Circle has a new - human rights defying - product out (such as chipping children and transmitting every moment of their school life, their grades, their social interactions), Mae and her "watchers" (as she is being followed on a camera feed 24/7) all cheer without ever wondering how this would affect them.
There are also some unlikely sexual encounters, some painfully obvious - almost childish - metaphor involving a shark, plagiarism ("homage" some would say) of Orwell's 1984, and generally you just feel like constantly rolling your eyes at these characters.
I wish someone with a better idea of how to create a believable character, and a world with more clued-up human beings, would tackle these important issues in a novel that respects its readers' intelligence.
on 21 May 2014
A good idea very poorly delivered. As others have pointed out, the message of the book is blindingly obvious and the book could have been edited down to half the length. The scene with the ex-boyfriend on the bridge was laughable, and could have come from a B Movie. Pity, because the premise itself was good.
on 15 December 2015
This is a very thought-provoking novel about the world and culture of social media and the current trend of First World younger people to share their hopes, dreams, histories, photographs and just about everything on sites such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Just what is happening with that data? At the moment it’s probably being used mostly to clumsily target advertising, but we’re not even out the foothills of web development at the moment. In fact, we might just be approaching the foothills, and Eggers shows us here one of the routes that we might take as we climb higher. Or, more to the point, a route that our free “Don’t be Evil” guides might take us. One of the strengths of this book, as the plot progresses, is that no imagined scenario strains credibility as this potential future is sketched out before us. What if Google Maps became live, 24 hours a day, every day, cameras stationed everywhere to feed us live updates? That’s not an outlandish idea, is it? Much of the UK is already covered by CCTV. This would merely be an extension of that trend. Think of the uses, the positives, of which there would be many. Yes, but Eggers is much more focused on the potential abuses, driven by a Big Brother who places not just one camera on your street, but puts a hundred of them in plain site, all over your house, and in your garage, and in your car, your drive, your garden and at your workstation…..because sharing’s good, right? And your life deserves to be recorded, broadcast, assessed and celebrated. You are the star of your own movie.
That’s just one aspect of the information and social society that Eggers explores, but this book should be read by everyone who’s ever hesitated over a Facebook “Like” button, wondering how the opinion will appear to the outside world. Or has wanted the past and potential criminals in their town exposed. Or has written a review like this on Goodreads or Amazon. What if, in twenty years, this novel is seen as one of the most insidious books ever written? As someone who gives this an unreserved five stars, will they be coming for me?
on 2 July 2014
I wasn't sure about reading this novel because - at least in my paperback version - it is almost 500 pages of smallish print with no chapters. But it was recommended to me by Jim Knight who chairs the Tinder Foundation - an organisation promoting digital inclusion - on whose Board I sit. In fact, it proved to be an easy and enjoyable read: it is a very dialogue-driven narrative with regular gaps in the text that makes it something of a page-turner. Unusually for as modern novel, it is remarkably focused in character (24 year old Mae Holland) and place (the California campus of the eponymous company).
What George Orwell's "1984" was to the second half of the 20th century, Dave Eggers's "The Circle" is to the early 21st century: a stark warning of the dangers of ubiquitous surveillance and a defence of the notion of personal privacy.
What makes "The Circle" so chillingly credible - although it is clearly a parody and a satire - is that the company it describes seems to be just a combination and extension of the existing corporate behemoths that already astride the Internet and the Web - the likes of Google, Facebook, Twitter, Amazon, Apple and Microsoft. And the services that it illustrates seem to be a natural extension of currently evolving technologies - miniature cameras that can be installed any place, tiny drones that can fly anywhere, and wearable technologies that will be with us all the time. In a post-Snowden world, "The Circle" does not appear so much preposterous as prescient.
In the course for the novel, the Circle - "the most influential company in the world" - develops one service after another that increasingly links and exposes information in all its forms, always presenting its innovations as offering a social good (no more child abductions, no more neighbourhood crime, no more political corruption) while step by step stripping away personal freedom and political accountability. So will the Circle be completed - a kind of technological equivalent to the evangelical rapture? If you've read "1984", you won't be too surprised - although the ending is rather sudden and simple.
Eggers is offering us not a prediction but a warning and inviting us really to think of the consequences of the new technologies that enable us to capture, store, connect and access such ever-increasing volumes of public and personal data. It's bound to be made into a film.