The Circle, a novel


October 16, 2013

The Circle is a novel about the tech/social networking industry, where fictional company the Circle plays the role of Twitter, Facebook and Google combined. The topic is certainly ripe for the satirizing, but I didn’t think Eggers pulled it off very adroitly. Either he was going for the brutal, over the top parody like Jonathan Swift’s _A Modest Proposal, _or he was writing it very quickly and perhaps in anger. The characters felt a little flat and one-dimensional (Mae for example was unbelievably naive) and the conspiracy (or ‘logical extension’ perhaps) was hard to believe—Americans are fiercely proud of being independent and private, so the idea that they would willingly join in with mandatory Circle membership felt off. 

Some points I thought were well made. For example, the skewering of the “campus culture” of tech companies which privileges the already-privileged while the drivers of the busses and local inhabitants are worse off. The technocrats who think technology presents a simple solution to all problems (witness the Gates Foundation and educational testing, for example) are an unfortunate reality today. Parts of the book raised good and thought-provoking questions about understanding social media tradeoffs. Some of the reasons why privacy is important are really poorly outlined (but perhaps the question is wrong on its face—why should I justify my need for privacy?). There really are things that technology has improved dramatically—every time I use Skype with my parents I realize this. Tracking my friends on Facebook is a nice thing to do and brings them more into my life as well. 

I appreciated that aspect of the novel, and it has given me a new perspective on being a ‘user’/‘product’ of social media tools. Overall, this is a topic that cries out for a sustained and subtle approach and I felt The Circle was too facile and, for the Valley cognoscenti who most need it, too easy to dismiss. By the way, there is a certain irony in posting my thoughts about this novel online, but doing so on my own blog feels somewhat different. I hope.