By Anita Felicelli
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.