These Rotten Kids Today
The literary wunderkind-turned-editor-turned-philanthropist Dave Eggers begins his new novel in heaven, or at least heaven as imagined by its 24-year-old protagonist, Mae Holland: “A million people, a billion, wanted to be where Mae was at this moment, entering this atrium, thirty feet high and shot through with California light, on her first day working for the only company that really mattered at all.” The year is sometime in the very near future, and the name of the company is the title of the novel, The Circle (Knopf, 504 pages), which Eggers tells us “changed the internet, in toto” thanks to an operating system known as TruYou. TruYou promised “one account, one identity, one password, one payment system per person,” which meant that “the era of false identities, identity theft, multiple user names, complicated passwords and payment systems was over.”
Now, not quite six years after its introduction, Mae is pinching herself as she reports for her first day of work. Her actual job is humdrum and old-fashioned (she fields customer questions by phone, then follows up to make sure they’re satisfied), but who cares? What matters is access to the Circle’s Silicon Valley campus. There are organic gardens and croquet pitches and free cooking classes and concerts and vintage pinball arcades and inspirational paving stones urging passers by to “Participate,” “Find Community,” “Innovate,” even “Breathe.” There’s a state-of-the-art glass cafeteria nine stories tall. There’s a waterfall, a “Borrow Room” (help yourself to a bike, or a hang glider), a museum, and a dorm for nights you just can’t bear to go home. And the Circlers who enjoy these perks are fresh-faced, twentysomething innovators (to Mae and her cohort, anyone approaching 30 is old) busily developing products and programs destined to change the world.
One of these inventions is a lollipop-sized camera called SeeChange. Tiny, almost indestructible, and cheap, SeeChange cameras can be inconspicuously mounted to provide high-resolution streaming video of the surrounding area—a ski slope, a surfing point break, Tahrir Square. What’s more, the feeds can be shared across the Circle’s social network, providing everyone with near-global omniscience. Positive implications—human rights! less crime! handicapped people able to virtually climb Mt. Kenya!—are highlighted, while sinister counterparts go unmentioned. The slogan for SeeChange is “ALL THAT HAPPENS MUST BE KNOWN.”
Sweet little eager-to-please Mae and her colleagues (none of whom were even born in 1984) don’t know their Orwell, so we watch with trepidation as our heroine drinks both the Circle’s metaphorical Kool-Aid and its actual counterpart, a “smoothie” proffered without explanation at the company’s health clinic. “‘OK, you just ingested the sensor that will connect to your wrist monitor,” the doctor tells Mae, punching her playfully on the arm. “I love doing that.” The sensor will collect, track, analyze, and transmit every conceivable bit of Mae’s physical data. “So if you fall, hit your head, you’re in the ambulance, the EMTs can access everything about your history in seconds.” It’s all free, of course, and it gets even better. When Mae confides that her father has multiple sclerosis and that his insurance has ceased paying for essential meds, the doctor suggests adding her parents to the Circle’s health plan. Four hours later, it’s done.
Overwhelmed with gratitude, Mae vows to work harder than ever. But she quickly learns that, to keep her bosses happy, she has to do much more than her ostensible job requires. Soon, she’s called on the carpet for skipping “semi-mandatory” after-hours social events, neglecting to work out at the Circle gym or buy her aloe vera at the company store, and—most crucially—failing to interact sufficiently with other Circlers online. “You are a super-cool member of the team,” her supervisors tell her. “We consider you a full, knowable human being of unlimited potential.” So why hasn’t Mae been sharing every facet of her off-campus life, like a spontaneous solo kayak jaunt (“And you say it’s ‘just’ kayaking! Mae, don’t you see that it’s all connected?”) or just a few hours zoning out in front of the TV? “We’ve studied some models for this kind of behavior,” the supervisors finally sigh. “Not that this kind of attitude is anti-social, but it’s certainly sub-social.”
And so Mae begins participating with a vengeance, joining and signing and “zinging” and smiling and texting and commenting incessantly, even staying up all night in an effort to boost her “PartiRank.” Predictably, this leads to trouble elsewhere. At supper with her parents and ex-boyfriend Mercer, she can’t leave her phone alone for two seconds. Her parents are bewildered (“We’re trying to enjoy a nice dinner”), but Mercer is outraged. “It’s painful to say this to you,” he snaps. “But you’re not very interesting any more. You sit at a desk twelve hours a day and you have nothing to show for it except for some numbers that won’t exist or be remembered in a week. You comment on things, and that substitutes for doing them. You look at pictures of Nepal, push a smile button, and you think that’s the same as going there. I mean, what would happen if you actually went? Your CircleJerk ratings or whatever-the-f—k would drop below an acceptable level! Mae, do you realize how incredibly boring you’ve become?”
Mercer successfully pushes Mae’s buttons (she storms out of the house in a fit of pique), but to the rest of us, he’s a tendentious drip. By now we’ve all heard plenty about the perils of living a virtual life and the dangers of surrendering all our personal data online. The last thing this novel needs is the introduction of Mercer, delivering its theme at the top of his lungs.
It’s almost a relief to get back to the slick corporate environs of the Circle, where SeeChange is taking over the world. Suddenly politicians are “going transparent” by wearing the cameras at all times, and soon Mae follows suit. Our heroine is brainwashed, indoctrinated, indebted, and surveilled. But the seeds of her potential treachery are also sown. Mae kayaks alone into the San Francisco Bay and experiences off-line nirvana; she also falls hard for a mysterious older fellow who keeps turning up at work, and who doesn’t fit the dorky eager-beaver Circler mold at all. Will Mae succeed at bringing the evil empire down, working from inside once the scales fall from her eyes? Or will she become corrupted herself and strive alongside her colleagues to achieve “completion,” in which every bit of information about every person in the world is gathered, ranked, archived, shared, and, ultimately, controlled?
The setup is fascinating; the resolution, lame. The novel manages, in the end, to be both lightweight and heavy-handed. Eggers does poke credible fun at the earnest wet-blanket humorlessness endemic to Northern California, and he nails the dopey shallowness of social-media activism, in which sending an online “frown” to a Guatemalan paramilitary group is considered a meaningful act of dissent. But these fitful spells of insight and humor are overwhelmed by his constant need to proselytize. Eggers wants us to understand that what he views as the new corporate evil has a kind face, and that the 21st-century opiate of the masses is one we happily line up to ingest. But these are hardly groundbreaking observations, and the book grows schematic and dull. The Circle should have worked; at the very least it should have been fun to read.
But in the end, Eggers has so much contempt for Mae, Mercer, and the rest of their supposedly lost generation that he can’t even make their story interesting. Eggers was himself once a representative voice of his youth, a 1990s ironist scoffing at the pomposity of his elders; at 43, he has become a curmudgeon before his time, grumbling that these kids today, with their Google Glasses and self-driving cars, should get off his damn lawn.