Review: ‘The Circle’ by Dave Eggers (2013), Part 2

by K.M. Zahrt

Welcome back! I hope you’ve enjoyed your journey through Dave Egger’s The Circle so far. We have a lot to discuss, so we better get started.

First, I want to talk about the concept of a closed world. The following comes from a conversation between Julie Orringer and Tobias Wolff as published in The Believer Book of Writers Talking to Writers:

Julie Orringer: […]being at boarding school also seems akin to being in the army. Both situations are bound by strict rules and codes of conduct.

Tobias Wolff: Exactly. They’re both closed worlds.

JO: How does that affect the writing?

TW: It’s akin to the advantage a poet has in consenting to working within a form. As a writer you begin with infinite freedom, and then you must immediately start hemming yourself in. You have to choose a genre, you have to choose a voice that precludes using other voices. You have to choose a time that precludes other times. Part of the beauty of writing about the army, or such worlds, is that they offer you an enclosed theater of human folly, of human aspiration and formation. (pp. 377-78)

The Circle–the technology company–is a closed world in many ways, and it’s not dissimilar from a boarding school or an army base. As Mae Holland, the protagonist, describes it: “The campus was vast and rambling, wild with Pacific color[…] Amid all this was a workplace, too, four hundred acres of brushed steel and grass on the headquarters of the most influential company in the world” (The Circlep.1). The campus even has cafeterias/mess halls and dorms/barracks. And not everybody is accepted. “Mae wouldn’t have thought she had a chance to work at such a place, but for Annie” (p.2). Mae’s former college roommate, Annie, is a high-level executive at The Circle, and she is the only reason Mae gets offered her entry-level job in Customer Experience.

“Circlers” don’t have strict rules exactly, but they are strongly encouraged to follow codes of conduct. One of the most interesting codes of conduct, for example, is the so-called PartiRank (Participation Ranking). It is like it sounds: a ranking of each employees participation in extracurricular activities. This largely has to do with one’s social media participation–how much one posts comments, articles, and photos online. In order to do so, one must attend gatherings to report on their experience. Mae is slow to get into the rhythm of it all, and she is sternly reprimanded for it by two of her trainers, Josiah and Denise:

“Josiah leaned forward. ‘How do you think other Circlers feel, knowing that you’re so close to them physically, that you’re ostensibly part of a community here, but you don’t want them to know your hobbies and interests. How do you think they feel?’ […]

‘It was just kayaking!’ Mae said, laughing again[…]

Josiah was at work on his tablet. ‘Just kayaking? Do you realize that kayaking is a three-billion-dollar industry? And you say its ‘just Kayking’! Mae, don’t you see that it’s all connected? You play your part. You have to part-icipate.'” (p.188)

As a result, Mae feels compelled to spend all of her free time on social media, trying to drive up her PartiRank.

The Circle is a strange paradox in terms of closed worlds. The company and its employees, Mae in particular, are stuck in this strange place between a private, closed world and complete public transparency. For example, Mae has a sexual encounter with another Circler which happens to be caught on video and is immediately stored in a shared digital database for anyone to access. Company policy dictates that it can’t be deleted, for “all that happens must be known” (p.68).

What this paradox becomes is an interesting example of the concept of the panopticon used in literary criticism as described by Michel Foucault in his book, Discipline and PunishThe panopticon is a circular prison in which prisoners can be viewed at all times. The most interesting part of the concept is that, because prisoners don’t know when they are being observed, they begin to internalize the observation, voluntarily behaving as if they are being watched constantly.

As the company rolls out a new product call SeeChange, microscopic cameras that can be placed anywhere without being detected and can transmit the footage to a computer located elsewhere are widely disseminated. SeeChange makes a splash in politics as some politicians are willing to go transparent. “The pressure on those who hadn’t gone transparent went from polite to oppressive. The question, from pundits and constituents, was obvious and loud: If you aren’t transparent, what are you hiding?” Eventually, the campus at The Circle goes transparent as well, which puts Mae in the panopticon. “She began to think a bit harder about the clothes she wore to work. She thought more about where she scratched, when she blew her nose or how. […] And knowing she was being watched, that the Circle was, overnight, the most-watched workplace in the world, reminded her, more profoundly than ever, just how radically her life had changed in only a few months” (p.242).

Eggers applies these previously used concepts in a new, 21st Century, forward-thinking way. This demonstrates that his literary writing skills are finely tuned, fully matured–a delivery on the promise of future greatness from his breakthrough book A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius as a young writer. This also demonstrates how Eggers is keenly aware of our times, tapping into the prevalent anxiety we have about technology, how it impacts the human experience, and how it will change our future.

Move over Brave New World and 1984. Make room for Eggers’ The Circle on your shelf. There’s a new dystopian epic in your family.

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