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Please enjoy these blogposts, written between 2011 and 2015. Find newer posts soon at my forthcoming blog, Revolutionary Time.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Swimming in Numbers

I just finished reading The Circle, Dave Eggers' new novel. I didn't like it much. It moves slowly. It makes as if to surprise the reader with shocking developments and does not. In parts it is almost unbearably heavy-handed. I say almost because I read it to the end. I sat at my desk for a few minutes afterward, then turned on my laptop and removed myself from Facebook, Twitter (I'd never managed to twitter anything, so this wasn't much of a loss), Linked In, and GoodReads.

The Circle is the name of both the book and the fictional company the book examines, a massive data-mining corporation whose "campus" is located in Northern California. Having lived in Palo Alto for 36 years, I can tell you that the company might be based on Facebook or Google or some new enterprise that's cropped up since I moved away. Employees of the Circle have access to free gourmet food, gyms, swimming pools, and parties, as I believe Google employees do, but--because Eggers feels free to exaggerate wildly--Circle staff also enjoy traveling circuses, dorm rooms stocked with their favorite liquor, daily rock concerts, exhaustive health care, and an aquarium in which ghoulish experiments are conducted on marine life.

The protagonist, Mae Holland, a woman in her twenties who secures a job at the Circle by appealing to a college friend, moves rapidly up the ladder from answering user questions by email to being a spokesperson for the company. As spokesperson, she uses the camera hanging around her neck to provide a nonstop tour of the Circle's activities and--she learns to tolerate and even celebrate this--her own. (The camera remains on even while she uses the toilet since all the viewer can see is the back of the stall door, but, mercifully, the sound is temporarily turned off.)

While answering user questions, she is supposed to extract a rating from the people she helps, and if that rating is, say, 97, she asks what she might have done better. That is, she pesters the person she's emailing until that person ups her rating to 100. Mae is called on the carpet for not participating actively enough in company life, so she learns to say yes to email invitations, send complimentary "zings" when others get good ratings, and constantly provide her opinion on surveys, all while she is performing her stipulated tasks. How many messages can she send and answer in an hour? An astounding number.

The Circle is all about numbers. One group is counting the grains of sand in the Sahara, just because it can. When Mae has sex with a colleague, he wheedles her into giving him a rating of 100.

Mae and her parents receive stellar healthcare, but only after they agree to wear a permanent wristband that monitors every change in their body chemistry. Mae markets an ex-boyfriend's antler chandeliers using Circle methods without asking him first, and when the on-line attention this generates drives him off line and out of town, she takes along her hundreds of thousands of viewers (remember the camera around her neck) as she hunts him down for what she believes is his own good.

Mae is too easily persuaded during the course of this book that all information should be public. All information. No information should ever be destroyed. She is led by the nose in this direction and is enlisted to lead others likewise. From her lips drop the Circle's developing philosophy: "Secrets are lies, sharing is caring, privacy is theft." When the company moves toward . . . well, too much.

Mae has a secret and very special lover throughout. I guessed who he was the first time he appeared. You will too.

***My husband just finished this book and suggests that the identity of this lover is meant to be obvious. It illustrates one of the themes of the book: nonexistent privacy.***

So, not a very good book: a protagonist so naive she's hard to invest in; a cast largely made up of bad guys and worse guys; only a few complex characters, and they inhabit the book's margins; a plot that is driven by the progression of Circle projects.

As a cautionary tale, however, The Circle is brilliant. At the heart of it is our need to be seen. If a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it . . . if we do something, or make something, and no one knows, no one compliments us, gives us a grade or a rating or a ranking on Amazon's bestseller list, have we really acted in the world?

I'm asking myself if I can live with a little less being "seen"--as limited as that seeing may be. I'm wondering if I can do what I do just because I want to do it.

Eggers eventually makes the point as well that when private companies know everything about us, private companies are in control. The NSA is scary enough. And I suppose you could make an argument that it's already in private hands. But Eggers implies that things could get much, much worse.

I don't see much hope for personal consistency. Here I am blogging via Google's Blogger. I use gmail too. Aargh.