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About this blog: I grew up in Palo Alto and now live in Mountain View with my husband, daughter and two corgis. After about a decade grappling with the law, first as a law student at UC Berkeley and then as a litigator around the Bay Area, I left ...  (More)

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Should You Read Dave Eggers' "The Circle"?

Uploaded: Oct 26, 2013
In Dave Eggers' latest novel "The Circle," Mae Holland is a 24-year-old college graduate working at a dead-end job in a small town near Fresno when her college roommate Annie gets her a job in "Customer Experience" at the Circle, a social media company reminiscent of Google.

The Circle is located somewhere in Northern California with easy access to the bay and stocked with organic gardens, miniature golf, entertainment, gyms, a health center, lavish cafeterias, dorms, shuttle buses. Circlers can bring their dogs to work. Supervisors encourage "innovation" and "community" at the expense of any semblance of a balanced lifestyle. Sound familiar?

The Circle has managed to squash most other social media companies by inventing "TruYou," a single online service connected to users' true identities and aggregating all their other accounts. There is "one account, one identity, one password, one payment system, per person." Once TruYou becomes popular, the "trolls" are driven out of the Internet — nobody can afford to be uncivil or commit any other kind of wrong.

In a great piece of satire, the false notion that privacy is the root of all that goes wrong in our world is stretched to its breaking point. Mae starts out like any of us might — mildly creeped out by certain Circlers who don't respect her boundaries and more interested in visiting her dad who has multiple sclerosis than in attending nonstop after-hours parties with her fellow Circlers.

Like the proverbial boiling frog, company pressure on Mae increases so gradually, her personality and basic human decency are slowly destroyed. As she gives up her own personal, private activities, she starts to see the loss of everyone else's privacy as essential and good. The turning point comes when the Circle offers to insure her father.

Eggers' book has been compared to George Orwell's "1984." Like Orwell, Eggers warns against totalitarianism. But he's preaching to the choir. If anything, people in Silicon Valley are far more obsessed with privacy than is the national norm and have been for many years. It is an interesting irony that social media companies are flourishing in the Valley in spite of an overall aversion to government surveillance. However, Eggers has admitted that he didn't research real social media companies and while his book is a page-turner, it would have been a much stronger book had he actually performed the research and developed more multi-dimensional characters.

Still, "The Circle" is a worthwhile read whether you're a manager or a low-level employee in Silicon Valley. The employment practices are surprisingly true to what is currently common here. The lip-service paid to the idea that office parties are optional, while giving adverse performance evaluations to those that don't engage that option. The kooky employers and supervisors who think they hold the key to increasing employee innovation. The relentless surveillance of employees. The expectation that young employees give up their twenties for the good of the company.

The book skewers all of these dismal practices very effectively and I have to admit I felt a sense of relief that someone had recorded for posterity and with humor how insane Silicon Valley's office culture has become. Groups that are doing nothing innovative or remotely useful using "innovation" as part of their branding and securing outlandish amounts of funding, for example.

There are several significant flaws. The language can be sloppy and the book feels rushed to market to take advantage of the current critiques of tech culture. An ex-boyfriend of Mae's seems to be a mouthpiece for Eggers' critique. The critique is fairly black and white. An image of a shark at the end is awfully heavy-handed. But in spite of these problems, this novel is worth a spot on your reading list.

I disagree with the basic premise of this satire — that most people would willingly go along with the insanity of the Circle in real life. Are humans really that hungry for affirmation? While the dystopic events of the novel, many of them political, haven't happened and likely won't, the office dynamics described in the first half of the book are a reality in which many people in the Valley already find themselves.

Most business leaders will choose to read Malcolm Gladwell's new nonfiction book — Eggers' book is more important. Google and Facebook employees should read this. Startup entrepreneurs should read this. It's one of the most socially relevant books out this year and a reasonably strong critique of what too many in the Valley consider normal.

Do you plan to read "The Circle" or have you already read it? Let me know what you think of the book in the comments.

Comments

 +  Like this comment
Posted by James Durham, a resident of Jackson Park,
on Oct 28, 2013 at 6:41 am

Eggers' heart & mind always in the right place - and in a post-merit literary world, his lack of talent can't hold him back


but what's a 'boiling frog'? I'm apparently out of the proverbial loop


 +  Like this comment
Posted by Anita Felicelli, a Mountain View Online blogger,
on Oct 28, 2013 at 7:18 am

Anita Felicelli is a registered user.

The idea of the boiling frog is that if you drop a frog in boiling water it will jump out, but if you place him in cold water and gradually heat the water to boiling, he will stay submerged (presumably to his end.) Evidently there were some experiments in the 19th century that showed this to be true (though biologists today say it's not). Mae and other Circlers are the boiling frogs. Thanks for reading and commenting.


 +  Like this comment
Posted by member, a resident of another community,
on Oct 28, 2013 at 9:23 am

You could say all of us are "boiling frogs" in each of our "circles". What is normal to someone in the jet set would appear outlandish to someone living a middle class life.


 +  Like this comment
Posted by Jane, a resident of Midtown,
on Oct 28, 2013 at 10:34 am

"Most business leaders will choose to read Malcolm Gladwell's new nonfiction book — this book is more important." Does "this book" refer to Gladwell's or Eggers'? Thanks.


 +  Like this comment
Posted by Anita Felicelli, a Mountain View Online blogger,
on Oct 28, 2013 at 11:36 am

Anita Felicelli is a registered user.

Jane- "this" refers to Eggers' book. I've clarified within the text- thanks for asking and reading.


 +  Like this comment
Posted by Anita Felicelli, a Mountain View Online blogger,
on Oct 28, 2013 at 11:37 am

Anita Felicelli is a registered user.

Member- pressure is always relative.


 +  Like this comment
Posted by Geoff, a resident of another community,
on Oct 31, 2013 at 5:22 pm

Thanks for the post. I read Eggers frequently and I find his non-fiction (Zeitoun, Heart Breaking Work) and quasi non-fiction (What is the What) to be way more compelling than his fiction work. I loved What is the What and Zeitoun topped it as one of my favorite books. The Return of the King was kind of weak.

I will give it a go though - the premise seems interesting.


 +  Like this comment
Posted by Anita Felicelli, a Mountain View Online blogger,
on Oct 31, 2013 at 8:54 pm

Anita Felicelli is a registered user.

@Geoff, I think you're right. In the same vein, the stuff borrowed from the real tech world is a lot more interestingly rendered in this novel than the made-up events. Thanks for commenting.


 +  Like this comment
Posted by member of another community, a resident of another community,
on Nov 4, 2013 at 12:07 pm

So far I have read about the cameras, and the LuvLuv - and I am so disgusted. Wondering if I should really continue to read!


 +  Like this comment
Posted by Anita Felicelli, a Mountain View Online blogger,
on Nov 4, 2013 at 12:21 pm

Anita Felicelli is a registered user.

@memberofanothercommunity - it depends on why you're disgusted. Is it because you're disturbed by the Circle's inventions? Or are you bothered by Mae? If you are the type of reader who likes clear cut good v. bad and you want the bad guys to get a comeuppance, perhaps it's not the right book for you.

If you're disgusted by the inventions, but have an open mind towards how our existing society might be going in a negative direction (including in terms of the increased surveillance we all tacitly agree to when we conduct Google searches or sign up for online dating) and you are interested in a dramatization of how that goes horribly wrong, you should probably keep reading.

Let me know what you think if you decide to finish the book.



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