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?

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The answer, Eggers implies—and here’s the seed of his plot and his critique—is that TruYou demands actual names, total transparency. It turns out that the free-market solution to monopolizing the Internet is simply to make people use their real names for all online activity. Notably, Facebook tried something akin to TruYou in 2007 with Facebook Beacon, which, in the words of the New York Times, took “a far more transparent and personal approach” to online tracking. It was a fiasco, resulting in complaints, a class-action suit, and the shutdown of Beacon in 2009. TruYou, somehow, is the opposite of a fiasco. Users love the streamlined experience and precision-targeted marketing. Plus, “overnight, all comment boards became civil, all posters held accountable,” Eggers writes. “The trolls, who had more or less taken over the Internet, were driven back into the darkness.” Back, stupid trolls! Advertisers are thrilled, too, because “the actual buying habits of actual people were now eminently mappable and measurable,” and by “now” Eggers presumably means “again, in a different way,” since the actual buying habits of actual people are eminently mappable and measurable via Apple ID for Advertisers, Google’s in-progress AdID, and other means.

This might all sound nitpicky. But when you’re reading a novel about the Internet by a writer who doesn’t seem clear on what an operating system is or who thinks that a unified ID-and-payment system could extinguish all trolls, everything starts looking like a nit to pick. Does the Circle have its own OS? Its own browsers? How much hardware does it make? If it’s constantly backing up every conceivable shred of its users’ data—if that’s its fundamental mission—where are its data centers? Why would the world’s other corporations agree to having the Circle’s cameras planted everywhere? Or have they been magically subsumed, too? And so on.

Because it is a fast-moving conspiracy potboiler, The Circle is far more entertaining than, and not nearly as maddening as, say, Jonathan Franzen’s apocalyptic rants about “the infernal machine of technoconsumerism,” even though Eggers seems just as appalled by the liking-and-sharing economy. From its opening lines—“My God, Mae thought. It’s heaven”—The Circle sends out a familiar distress signal about a cultlike movement, a Silicon Valley revival meeting, a utopia breeding a totalitarian nightmare. Mae, the protagonist, takes an entry-level position in “Customer Experience” at the sprawling, city-on-a-hill campus of the Circle, which is busy leveraging its stranglehold on the search and ad-serving markets and its deep reach into the psyches and pockets of the global populace to manufacture a total-surveillance society. Cameras for everyone, everywhere! Not 70 pages in, Mae attends an all-hands meeting starring Eamon, one of the Circle’s “wise men,” who delivers the Circle’s Nineteen Eighty-Four–style mission statement: “ALL THAT HAPPENS MUST BE KNOWN.”

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Mae is pliant and credulous; her overweening gratitude for winning a job at the Circle readily twists itself into aggressive subservience to the corporation’s whims. She is the Circle’s experiment and exemplar, Facebook-Google’s ideal user-captive. With every day within the Circle, her attention is further divided among more and more screens, networks, and rankings. She must race to keep up with a never-ending stream of user questions, monitor the scores users give her (and grade-grub to improve them), participate in multiple social networks (Zing is basically Twitter, and “zing” is a verb) and a litany of work-related social events, and obsess over her “Participation Rank,” a kind of intracompany Klout score. Soon she is wearing a camera and mic at all times to broadcast her every action and the actions of every person she encounters, save sex and sleep and bathroom breaks—and maybe even some of those—to thousands or millions of followers.

Yet Mae is bizarrely naïve. A major plot point turns on her not knowing what one of the wise men looks like (even though he was Person of the Year!), and when she gives a presentation that receives 368 “frowns” (which are kind of like Reddit downvotes), it has to be explained to her that she can find out who frowned at her—that in fact, tracking what people like and dislike is what her company does.

Like Mae, we offer ourselves up for consumption and quantification by the minute, without bothering to understand what exactly is done with our offerings. But there’s a conceptual problem here. Mae has to be coerced by her employer to submit to the Borg, and it’s true that we, too, are driven by compulsion, social anxiety, FOMO, and other unattractive emotions to participate in social media. But The Circle’s satire allows no room for the possibility that people might simply find it fun, useful, and emotionally sustaining to share thoughts, ideas, and images online, and that the pleasure we take in using these tools can coexist, however uneasily, with our knowledge that these are the same tools of cyberbullies and revenge pornographers and ad trackers and the NSA.

The maniacally cheerful and passive-aggressive herd of Circle users with whom Mae constantly interacts are rabid voyeurs, as insatiable for real-time data as the Circle itself, which is precisely Eggers’ point—we are become Big Brother. And The Circle is being published at a terrifying moment when the concept of privacy is becoming close to synonymous with the concept of shame. It’s a zippy, pulpy read that puts pressing issues into sharp relief. But its cautionary tale rests on an underestimation of people’s complicated and idiosyncratic relationships with the Internet and social media. And especially in its last third, which is antic with shark massacre and vehicular mayhem and shocking reveals, it imagines the most malevolent aspects of online life not as byproducts but as goals—the master plans of Dr. Evil–style Internet overlords. There’s a lot of irony to be mined from “Don’t Be Evil.” But rewriting it as “Do Be Evil” gives the tech world too much credit for chutzpah.

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The Circle by Dave Eggers. Knopf/McSweeney’s.

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