It’s never been a better time to be a Silicon Valley hater.
Blogs and websites such as Gawker’s Valleywag and the New York Observer’s Betabeat have succeeding in exposing the erratic futurism and obscene privilege of many of high tech’s royalty. The country is beginning to wake up to the privacy problems posed by the data-collection behemoths such as Facebook, Google, et al. While Internet technologies may be “the future,” their sheen is beginning to wear off.
Writer Dave Eggers, founder of indie publishing house McSweeney’s and author of bestsellers such as “What is the What” and “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius,” has published one of the more recent high-profile condemnations of our increasingly Internet-addicted world. “The Circle,” his manifesto against our techie overlords, depicts a world in which most of the world’s tech and Internet firms have been subsumed into a large corporation called The Circle.
Mae Holland, a recent college grad stuck working at a public utility firm in rural California, scores a job at The Circle and is quickly swept up in the company’s quest to collect data about everything in the world. Believing in transparency as if it were a deity, The Circle is an obvious stand-in for the social media giants of our own day, perhaps most closely resembling Google.
As “The Circle” unfolds, we’re introduced to HR reps and managing supervisors who are puritanical in their commitment to the corporation’s singular goal of gathering as much information as possible. This means The Circle routinely introduces new products to constantly measure, evaluate and provide feedback about virtually every single occurrence in everyday life. Affordable miniature cameras, anti-child-abduction microchips implanted in all children, a website ranking employees by their commitment to intra-company socializing — the list goes on and on.
It’s easy to see where Eggers is leading us.
What happens if we remove humans from the equation and instead rely exclusively on algorithms to guide our decision-making? Is dishonesty or concealment ever preferable? What does privacy look like in the emerging surveillance state? The problem, though, is that Eggers is less interested in wrestling with these questions as he is in using them as either tacky plot devices or self-evident criticisms of the tech industry.
We often read about tech-related gentrification, misogyny and gender discrimination, in addition to the myriad of complaints about the far-reaching privacy and socioeconomic concerns associated with the products tech companies are making. Point being, the problems the tech giants in the real world cause are actual real-world problems, not some imagined Matrix-style alternate reality in which the fate of of humanity is threatened by A Team of Evildoers. The book portrays a company that sinisterly dodges accusations of creating a system to control humanity, whereas The Circle’s real-life counterparts are actually just interested in turning a buck, seemingly blind to the consequences of their actions.
All around, critics are comparing “The Circle” to sci-fi dystopian masterpieces such as “1984” (New York Times) or recent classics of the genre such as Gary Shteyngart’s “Super Sad True Love Story” (Washington Post). At its best, which is admittedly pretty gorgeous prose, “The Circle” reads just as these critics say it does.
But those moments don’t come often enough, and unlike “1984” or “Super Sad True Love Story,” it doesn’t feel like there are any humans in “The Circle.” The protagonist is flimsy, and the technology portrayed is a crude exaggeration of our own.
Eggers is open about his detachment from most things tech, in particular how he avoids social media. Perhaps if he spent a little more time interacting with the subject he’s satirizing, the satire would feel more convincing.