Dave Eggers Has Zero Interest in the Tech World. So Why Did He Write a Whole Novel About It?

Reading between the lines.
Oct. 3 2013 4:33 PM

All That Happens Must Be Known

Dave Eggers has zero interest in the tech world. So why did he write a 500-page satire about it?

Photo by © Michelle Quint.

Photo collage by Natalie Matthews-Ramo. Photo of David Eggers by Michelle Quint.

The tech world runs on chutzpah. Innovation and creativity are nothing without it. Steve Jobs drank chutzpah smoothies each morning and gargled chutzpah at bedtime. Larry Page and Sergey Brin embark on moon shots like the rest of us embark on our morning commute. Marissa Mayer drops $1.1 billion on a near-bankrupt blogging platform like it’s a modest payday splurge. And it’s partly thanks to Mark Zuckerberg’s youthful disregard for the right to privacy that Facebook exists at all.

Jessica Winter Jessica Winter

Jessica Winter is a Slate senior editor.

But all of these industry titans could learn a thing or two about chutzpah from Dave Eggers, because with The Circle, Eggers has written a nearly 500-page satire of the tech world while appearing to have little interest in the actual tech world.

This is not a criticism. This is a reflection of Eggers’ own statements, like the one he provided to Gawker’s Nitasha Tiku on Wednesday. In the process of dreaming up The Circle—named for the unimaginably colossal and powerful tech company, like Facebook smashed into Google, that employs most of his novel’s characters—Eggers says that he did not “read any books about any Internet companies, or about the experiences of anyone working at any of these companies … I avoided all such books, and did not even visit any tech campuses.” That’s a curious admission to make, admirable in its way, and helps to explain why The Circle sometimes reads like a satire of NASCAR in which all the cars are played by freight trains.

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Yet the book is heavily, self-consciously egged with parallel-world verisimilitude: the ways the titular corporation’s three “wise men” evoke Google’s top executive trinity, the fact that the Circle’s founder is Mark Zuckerberg’s long-lost twin, the strong surface affinities that the Circle’s campus and culture share with Facebook’s and Google’s. Eggers denies having read Katherine Losse’s 2012 memoir of her time at Facebook, The Boy Kings, despite the many similar contours between his book and hers: Young woman takes a job at a social-networking company answering user questions, rises through the ranks, is at times put on public display without her clear consent, grapples with hard questions about privacy and information-sharing, and ultimately finds the company’s “cause” has swallowed her life and redefined her sense of self and other. One big difference: At the end of The Boy Kings, Losse leaves Facebook. There is no escaping the Circle.

The company’s foundation stone is the Unified Operating System, also known as TruYou, invented by Circle founder Ty Gospodinov, a hoodie-wearing “boy-wonder visionary” whom we first glimpse “staring leftward … tuned into some distant frequency,” an image grafted from Gospodinov’s 2010 Person of the Year profile in Time. The Unified Operating System, Eggers writes,

combined everything online that had heretofore been separate and sloppy—users' social media profiles, their payment systems, their various passwords, their email accounts, user names, preferences, every last tool and manifestation of their interests … one account, one identity, one password, one payment system, per person. There were no more passwords, no multiple identities … You had to use your real name, and this was tied to your credit cards, your bank, and thus paying for anything was simple. One button for the rest of your life online.

So does this mean that despite operating system being two-thirds of its name, the Unified Operating System is not an operating system, like iOS or Android? Is it more like Microsoft Passport, Google Checkout, Google+, or Facebook Platform, plus self-tracking gadgets and surveillance cameras? The reader is told that “TruYou changed the internet, in toto, within a year,” that “the TruYou wave was tidal and crushed all meaningful opposition,” that it was “the force that subsumed Facebook, Twitter, Google”—and Eggers raises the stakes considerably in invoking that threesome, signaling to the reader that his satire is rooted in reality. (Steve Jobs is name-checked, too.) But how did TruYou subsume Facebook and Google, and so quickly?