By Dave Eggers
Even in 2013 I think Dave Eggers might have been a little late to the party in writing a novel addressing the threat of Big Tech and surveillance capitalism to civil liberties. Didn’t we all feel by then that any company having to admonish itself not to be evil was going to find it hard to do otherwise?
The Circle corporation is a generic tech giant, located in an Edenic campus. The novel’s opening sentence gives us Mae Holland’s first impression on arriving: “My God, Mae thought. It’s heaven.” “Outside the walls of the Circle, all was noise and struggle, failure and filth. But here, all had been perfected.” The walls are even placarded with mission statements — the religious meaning of mission being operative here — suggesting the Circle’s self-appointed role as benevolent Father (“We will become all-seeing, all-knowing”).
The main point here is that the endpoint of the Circle’s cult of transparency and “going clear” is the panopticon, and the cybertopians of the Circle have some decent arguments to make. What’s more, our slavery to convenience and desire is always a choice. We can’t blame Big Tech for everything.
I think Eggers does a great job sending up the language, and indeed the entire belief system of the cybertopians, though my initial thought was that the only reason for The Circle being 500 pages was to sell it to Hollywood (which is in fact what happened). I think it might have been punchier at half the length. Still, the theme of our complicity in evil, indeed our pursuit of it, is of vital importance in understanding the current mess we’re in, and why in 2021, when the sequel The Every came out, there was no more reason to feel optimistic about where we were heading.