Thursday, March 6, 2014

The Circle by Dave Eggers

I was going to write that this is an apocalyptic 'fairy tale' but, in the light of the recent revelations of  GCH's interception and storage of Yahoo webcam images, it is no fairy tale but rather a dystopian orwellian tale of the near future .... or now?

Eggers writes with a light hand and in satirical mode but even as you grin as you read it, there is an uncomfortable feeling that maybe this is not the future - or the future is no longer what it used to be!

The very first line of the book, uttered by the main protagonist, Mae Holland, says it all:  'My God, Mae thought.   It's heaven.'   'Heaven' is the Circle, a vast corporation, an amalgam of Google, Microsoft, Facebook, YouTube, which effectively rules the digital universe.  Bright young minds have been employed by the dozen on the 'campus' which also incorporates every social activity they might desire and Mae quickly learns by default that activity outside the campus is frowned on.  The Circle was founded by Ty Gospodinov, a Mark Zuckerberg who flits enigmatically through the novel, and who together with two other Wise Men, now runs it.   He invented their system, TruYou, a single integrated user interface unifying every internet interaction that crushed all meaningful opposition - ending  anonymity on line together with the era of false identities, identity theft, multiple user names, complicated passwords and payment  systems.  Transparency in all things is the watchword of The Circle.

Mae is quickly sucked in and rises rapidly working all hours - and nights - to raise her profile and loving it all.  But no global corporation that is successful stands still and Dave Eggers brings us into nightmare territory with The Circle's invention of a little camera worn around the neck, with a two year battery, that transmits on line, non-stop, the activities and conversation of the wearer.   Wearing it is called 'going clear' and starts with a local congresswoman signing up - as indeed does Mae.   The implication is that one has nothing to hide, no corruption, no backhanders from lobbyists, all is transparent, 'secrets are lies' is the catch phrase.   Of course, it spreads and now we are definitely in the world of Big Brother.

Eggers does give us - and Mae - warnings through her ex-boyfriend who is appalled at Mae's utter devotion to The Circle and its expanding power.   Any misgivings she has are quickly brushed aside to the extent that she even advocates that the Government should require every citizen to have a Circle account, the better to create higher turnouts at elections.  

Dave Eggers is still one of the lions of American literature and this is his tenth novel.   It is hard to tell if it really represents a warning or is just a light satirical look at life today with a barely plausible novel fighting back at the even younger lions and their obsession with the internet.  This is not a deep book and lacks the majesty of 1984 or Brave New World but is an enjoyable read for all that.

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