the-circle (1)“If you want a picture of the future,” went Orwell’s famous line in 1984, “imagine a boot stamping on a human face, forever.”

The Circle, Dave Egger’s zeitgeist-surfing satire on the digital revolution, ponders a still more chilling prospect: a near-future in which basic freedoms are not snatched away, but surrendered with enthusiasm.  When technology can make Big Brothers of us all, Eggers suggests, totalitarianism may be just a click away.

The book’s anti-heroine, Mae Holland, is a twenty-something ingenue who, with help from her former college room-mate, lands a dream job at The Circle, a bleeding edge social media behemoth that is fast becoming a monopoly.

Its HQ, The Campus, is a vast, theme park-cum-Apple Store whose gleaming precincts are named after phases of human history (‘Renaissance’, ‘Enlightenment’, ‘TommorrowTown’). Here, employees’ every conceivable need is catered for: alongside a heady schedule of themed brunches, core-strengthening sessions and noon screenings of Koyaanisqatsi, there are stylish live-in dorms and an inclusive health plan that allows Mae to throw a lifeline to her MS-suffering father.  Mae can’t believe her luck: in her previous job at a small town public utility, she answered to a mustached supervisor called Kevin whose breath smelled of ham.

As Mae arrives, The Circle is on a roll, churning out a giddying array of new tech with applications for every corner of private and public life, from tackling political corruption to preventing child abuse. The company’s killer app is TruYou, a unified operating system combining the functionality of Google, Facebook, Twitter, et al, which requires users to sacrifice their online anonymity in exchange for a convenient single gateway onto the web. Another flagship project is SeeChange – the proliferation of millions of concealable, lollipop-sized cameras capable of streaming 24-hour video from virtually any location in the world.

Utopian intentions pave The Circle‘s road to hell. Company boss Eamon Bailey – part of an executive triumvirate known as the Three Wise Men – conducts evangelical pep-talks espousing a fanatical belief in the goal of absolute transparency, enshrined in the company mantra, “All That Happens Must Be Known”.

Mae and her fellow employees are expected to walk the talk. In addition to her main duties, she participates in an endless round of personal surveys and frantic online sharing, diligently ‘smiling’, ‘frowning’ and ‘zinging’ at fellow Circlers as she multitasks across nine different screens.  As she rises through the ranks, Mae is warned about the excesses of The Circle by her ex-boyfriend Mercer, and by Kalden, an ambiguous, O’Brien-like figure who somehow has privileged access to The Circle’s inner sanctums.

She nevertheless becomes a poster girl for the company, and is persuaded to begin streaming her every waking moment from a camera around her neck. By now Mae is ensnared in a Truman Show existence, lived “in view of loving millions”. Meanwhile, buoyed up by slogans with a pronounced Orwellian ring (“Secrets are lies”, “Sharing is caring,” “Privacy is theft”), the company’s business strategy is moving inexorably toward a mysterious end game, known as Completion.

Insofar as it explores the social, moral and political implications of technological innovation, The Circle follows in the tradition of classic dystopian sci-fi. The logical conclusion of the information society, Eggers’ novel speculates, may be the insidious erosion of privacy and an irreversible blurring of the boundaries between corporations and government – Web 2.0 as a kind of virtual panopticon.

But the novel is at its eerie best when examining the more prosaic consequences of the digital age. Full of darkly funny takes on the infantilising tendencies of social media, the book articulates a profound unease about the brave new world that is already with us, with observations that are right on the money.

Eggers has a fine time lampooning the way Silicon Valley corporations, co-opting the humanistic language of the 60’s and early 70’s, have morphed into touchy-feely brands peddling pseudo-philosophies and lifeworlds (The Circle’s feelgood ethos echoes Google’s motto, ‘Don’t be evil’, while its daily diet of aphorisms quotes Steve Jobs alongside Martin Luther King and Ghandi).

He also nicely points up the way the “endless empty calories” of digital consumption tend to foster groupthink, triviality and narcissism. The novel succeeds in capturing the essential paradox of online life – that as much as it promises opportunities for engagement, self-expression and discovery, it also serves to contract and atomize our experience, reducing every facet of our personal, public and political selves to corollaries of consumer choice (witness, for example, the warm glow Mae gets from sending ‘frowns’ to oppressive third world regimes).

The Circle is also marked by an acute sense of burnout and cognitive overload; in a lucid moment, it occurs to Mae that:

 “…the volume of information, of data, of judgements, of measurements, was too much, and there were too many people, and too many desires of too many people, and too many opinions of too many people…and having all of it constantly collated, collected, added and aggregated, and presented to her as if that all made it tidier and more manageable – it was too much.”

Notwithstanding its larger political concerns, the real nightmare at the heart of Eggers’ novel is a fear that the collective white noise of the digital age could ultimately eclipse our capacity for wonder – the human soul consumed in a bonfire of the banalities.

Yet there’s nothing preachy about Eggers’ style. He works in a spare, brisk, easy prose and treats his characters with open-hearted empathy, displaying a fine ear for their geek-chic vernacular. His light touch makes the book both addictively entertaining and extremely creepy.

Some novels – necessary novels – are just waiting to be written. The Circle feels like it’s arrived not a moment too soon.

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