You can’t really write a “1984” for our times, because “1984” is still the “1984” of our times. But one could think of Dave Eggers’ blisteringly didactic new novel “The Circle” as a timely and potent appendix to it. The crux of The Circle is that Big Brother is still haunting us, but in an incarnation that’s both more genial and more insidious. We have met Big Brother, and he is us.
The Ministry of Truth in this scenario is a fictional corporation called the Circle that bears a strong and, as far as I can tell, entirely intentional resemblance to Google, if Google had devoured and digested Facebook and Twitter. A young woman named Mae arrives for her first day of work there. She’s excited. The money is good, the setting is utopian (free clothes, food, health care), and the cause is righteous: the Circlers are on a mission to make the world a better place through greater informational transparency. “My God,” Mae thinks―it’s the novel’s first line―“It’s heaven.” It’s certainly not Airstrip One, or not on the outside anyway.
But the Circle is more than a job; it’s a community, one in which Mae is expected to participate socially. She is reprimanded if she doesn’t post or comment or tweet (in Circlese, zing) enough: “If you care about your fellow human beings,” the party line goes, “you share what you know with them.” Before long Mae is addicted to the buzz of social media. She spends her nights plowing through drifts of e-mails and posts and zings and her days sleepwalking through her real-life interactions with one eye always on her phone. It’s a palpable hit.
Meanwhile the Circle is expanding, drawing more and more information into its circumference: it sprinkles the globe with cheap high-def cameras that constantly stream video to the Net. Mae starts wearing a bracelet that tracks and broadcasts her vital signs and a headset through which she ceaselessly responds to marketing queries for the benefit of the Circle’s clients. The more informationally transparent she gets, the more insubstantial she becomes as a person.
Mae’s hapless ex-boyfriend Mercer is the ranty voice of the world’s off-line conscience. “The tools you guys create actually manufacture unnaturally extreme social needs,” he says. “No one needs the level of contact you’re purveying.” The truth isn’t setting Mae free; if anything, too much truth is turning her life into a public performance, fully monetizable and totally meaningless. There’s a saying online: If you’re not paying for it, you’re not the customer; you’re the product being sold.
In The Circle Eggers has set his style and pace to technothriller: the writing is brisk and spare and efficient, with occasional gratuitous sexy bits, and his characters have a calculated shallowness that’s almost Grishamesque. It works. One doesn’t get the sense that Eggers is making a bid to be more commercial; it’s more like he’s got something urgent to say and no time for literary foolery.
It will be interesting to see how much traction a novel that critiques the Net can get. “My problem with paper,” one Circler says, “is that all communication dies with it. It holds no possibility of continuity … it ends with you.” This is no less true for being annoying. It says something that when I finished The Circle I felt a heightened awareness of social media and the way it’s remaking our world into a living hell of constant and universal mutual observation. Then I picked up my phone and tweeted about it.