Thursday, September 11, 2014

The Circle - Dave Eggers

The Circle
Once in a while, you read a book and you know it has something important to say. Those books don't seem to often come wrapped in a fiction package, but this is an exception.

The Circle by Dave Eggers could not have been more well-timed of a post for today. I swear, guys, I did not plan this to come days after Apple's latest release. It just happened and it's perfect.

The book centers around a company called the Circle. It's a tech conglomerate most easily compared to Apple or Google in our world. It seems to be taking place not all that far in the future. Everything presented is easily imaginable and most of it is probably already being discussed in research and development labs at real-life tech innovation companies.

The story is about a woman named Mae Holland. She gets a job at the Circle thanks to her longtime friend Annie, who is now a high-level employee herself. The company is a dream to work for and their campus is practically utopian. In fact, when I saw this article about Google's campus today, I almost laughed out loud because it reminded me of the book...sort of. From there, Mae gets more and more wrapped up in the company, eventually becoming their spokesperson for "transparency," a new way of living where you wear a camera around your neck and broadcast everything about your day to anyone online who is interested. 

Sound a little crazy? That's the thing. Eggers does such a great job of leading Mae and culture itself down a road of small steps to show how such an idea isn't so far off base and unrealistic as you may think. He also does a good job having his characters, Mae and the Circle founders in particular, argue in favor of the technology and other things in the same vein. 

I have tagged this post and the book as a satire since there is no way to get around Eggers real message, despite the characters' passionate speeches against privacy. There is no doubt where Eggers himself stands. And, I have to say, he won me over. Here's a quote from one of the few characters who disdains the online world to help you see what I mean:
 "I mean, all this stuff you're involved in, it's all gossip. It's people talking about each other behind their backs. That's the vast majority of this social media, all these reviews, all these comments. Your tools have elevated gossip, hearsay, and conjecture to the level of valid, mainstream communication.... No one needs the level of contact you're purveying. It improves nothing. It's not nourishing. It's like snack food....  You know how you finish a bag of chips and you hate yourself? You know you've done nothing good for yourself. That's the same feeling, and you know it is, after some digital binge. You feel wasted and hollow and diminished."
We live in a world where privacy is rarely valued and online presence is increasingly expected. I, like many of you, I'm sure, have weird feelings about the amount of time I spend online. I see so much good in it; I mean, I even work from home 100% courtesy of the internet. Still, I hate that I sit in front of a screen all day and I worry about the long term effect all this screen time is having on our society. 

In light of all the NSA privacy stuff as well, I have to admit, I kind of brushed it off. I fell in the "Why should I worry if I have nothing to hide?" camp. Yes, I know that's bad. I realize now. Thank you. Eggers opened my eyes to the importance of privacy as default and choosing to share, rather than the other way around. There are good things that can come from privacy, particularly when we are withholding information from an all-consuming entity like a powerful company or the government.

I'm not jumping off the deep end here and saying we should all live in bunkers, revolt against the government, and never look at computers again. I just think we need to be careful. We're walking a fine line here and the way each individual citizen chooses to walk it is what is going to sway society in the long run. 

As I said, posting about this seems all too well-timed considering Apple just released it's new watch (sidebar: not iWatch? was that just too creepy for them?) earlier this week. I have to admit: while I watched others on my social media feeds get excited and talk about how they must have it, I couldn't understand the appeal. I spend enough time trying to get away from my phone and enough energy pushing off addiction to it. Why would I want to literally strap that device to my body? Why would I want to be 100% available all the time? It just doesn't appeal to me. I see the benefits, but I see way more cons. I should probably blame Eggers at least partially for this mindset. Although, I don't want to blame him. I want to thank him.

The really unfortunate part about The Circle, however, is that the writing is only ok. Eggers has been accused of writing a long soapbox diatribe, but I think that's one of his minor problems. His symbolism is thinly veiled to the point of almost being spelled out for the reader. At the end, I was begging for a bit more subtlety in symbolism. Still, I guess he wanted to get his point across to even the most dense social media users. Mostly his plot is mediocre and a bit contrived. He gets is point across well and I enjoyed reading the book. It's not bad writing by any means, it just doesn't live up to the message it carries. It could have been executed with more grace.

That being said, I totally didn't see the twist at the end coming and, for that, I am truly ashamed. Seriously. I'm ashamed. It was so obvious as soon as I found out. How am I that stupid?

I strongly encourage you to read this book, if for no other reason than to spend some time contemplating the direction in which our world is headed and the choices you make online. 

Pages: 508
Date Completed: August 24, 2014

Do you see social media as a good thing or bad thing? What about privacy? Are they absolute in one direction or the other? If not, what makes the difference?

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