David Egger’s The Circle is a fun take on a fictional evil version of Google, a company obsessed with knowing everything to the point where it actively villifies privacy and anonymity. Our protagonist Mae takes a job at the tech giant and is slowly indocrinated into their crazy kool-aid corporate culture. The prose was snappy and the pacing was pretty great – it’s a very readable and clever take on privacy issues and how readily we’re willing to trade off our rights for security and service personalization. I really enjoyed this one and have recommended it to friends.
Hard to have too much discussion about the mechanics of the book without spoiling things, but Mae is subjected to a kind of “slow boil”, where she’s willing to give up more and more of her privacy for nifty benefits like real-time healthcare monitoring and office prestige. At first the trade-offs are sneakily sensible, Eggers decribes cameras saving lives in conflict zones, and kidnap-proofing babies with microchips. By the third act she’s deeply embroiled in transparency culture, but I felt like Eggers lost me along the way – I had hoped he’d continue to rationalize away her resistance but at one point she chugs the kool-aid with such gusto it’s difficult empathise with her decisions through the rest of the novel. In fact, Eggers needs Mae to make a series of ridiculous decisions to let The Circle’s menacing master plan unfold, so I get why things unspool the way they do, but I think there was a missed opportunity to seduce the reader into playing along a little further than he did.
The only ‘voice of reason’ in the novel is her semi-paranoid survivalist ex-boyfriend, which I think was a clever calculated move by the author to make rational arguments feel a bit over the top and easy to dismiss. In fact it’s hilarious how insular and co-operative Egger’s world for Mae is – even the most innocent products offered by The Circle would have real-life modern-day privacy advocates storming the barricades with wirecutters to shut the whole thing down.
The book has inspired me to consider a bunch of privacy-themed art projects, but it’s been a busy summer – I’ll see if I can get any actually done. 🙂 Online privacy is something I think about often and there’s so many discussions we need to have about what we’re okay with as a society.