Sunday, November 03, 2019

the last book I read

The Circle by Dave Eggers.

Whoa, dude, Mae Holland is pretty stoked. She's just landed the job of her dreams at the Circle, an all-encompassing IT organisation with elements of all of the major real-world internet and social media gargantucorps, a sort of Snapstagramazon or Facetwoogle if you will. No more mundane clocking in to her old cubicle at the utility company she used to work for, and sneaking out for a rubbery sandwich from the canteen at lunchtime, now she's fully jacked into the matrix at a big multi-screen workstation in a massive open-plan glass and aluminium office with all nutritional whims catered for by in-house chefs, from a slice of gluten-free granola and goji berry cheesecake to a kohlrabi and wombat smoothie.

Working at the Circle (based, as these things always are, in the general San Francisco region) is pretty much everyone's dream job, and competition is fierce; Mae has had a bit of a head start in being able to leverage a connection with her old college friend Annie who is a high-ranking Circler and who was only too happy to put in a good word for Mae.

The Circle is all about the total immersion in social media, and the company expects some pretty extreme devotion from its employees (though it doesn't do anything as un-groovy as call them "employees", of course) including outside of "normal" working hours. Mae soon has a couple of odd interactions with people who have evidently mined her social media history for data and then got all huffy when she doesn't immediately respond to suggestions for future interaction. Clearly total immersion is the expected behaviour, so Mae throws herself in and soon becomes something of a minor Circle celebrity.

There is a world outside the Circle, of course, though with the on-site chefs and on-site dormitories available for hire to employees, it's easy to avoid most of it if you want to. Not so easy in Mae's case, though, as her parents live an hour or so's drive away and her father is in the early stages of multiple sclerosis. The company's generous medical scheme covers his condition, which is great, but the oldsters don't really seem to "get" Mae's new job. And her ex-boyfriend Mercer is implacably opposed to increasing internet reach into people's lives.

But these old Luddites just don't grok the Circle's mission; a mission which becomes clearer with the adoption by some people of what's called "going transparent", i.e. wearing an on-body camera at all times and streaming the footage live to the internet so people can interact with it. Mae herself adopts this after having the temerity to go on a nocturnal sea-kayaking expedition, getting picked up by the police and subsequently hauled up before Eamon Bailey, one of the Circle's founders, for an Informal Chat about Her Future at the company.

Further complications arise in the area of interactions with men: after an unsatisfactory dalliance with the nerdy and slightly creepy Francis, Mae meets and enters into a slightly furtive relationship with the mysterious Kalden, who seems to flit unchallenged around the Circle's campus and have an unprecedented level of access to stuff but not show up on any searches or have any sort of social media profile.

Mae's internet celebrity continues to blossom now she's "gone transparent", and with the support of Circle management she agrees to be the figurehead of the company's latest mission: digitising and archiving all historical film and video footage, applying face-recognition technology to it and constructing a database of everything anyone has ever been filmed doing, ever. I mean, nothing could possibly go wrong with that, right? And who would Mae like to nominate for a real-time search to see if the internet community can crowdsource his location? Well, why not grouchy old Mercer? Nothing will convince him of the benign nature of immersive internet reach into people's daily lives, after all, than sending a drone to his remote shack to bring the entire internet all yammering simultaneously RIGHT INTO HIS FACE?

Needless to say that idea ends very badly. And Mae finds Kalden trying increasingly frenziedly to make contact with her, and when they find a way of doing it that won't be immediately broadcast via Mae's camera, he reveals the reason for his unprecedented access rights and begs her to help him change the company's course, for the future of humanity, before it's too late.

Dave Eggers is the author of a number of somewhat uncategorisable books that straddle the fiction/non-fiction boundary, including What Is The What and A Heartbreaking Work Of Staggering Genius. I have the latter on my bookshelves and recall enjoying it, as harrowing as some of it is. The Circle is definitely fiction, though of course the phenomena it satirises are very real things. Much of the detail is slyly plausible, like the blandly benign names given to outrageously invasive bits of technology like the SeeChange video cameras which are ubiquitously attached to walls and, eventually, people, and the superficially plausible arguments in favour of total freedom of information about everything offered by the Circle's evangelists. Equally, much of it is odd and unconvincing, like Mae's meekness and compliance in the face of the increasingly invasive demands being made of her, and the high-speed chase late in the novel where Mercer's car is being pursued by drones with Mae's voice booming out of them before he "logs off" in the most emphatic way, a sequence which reads as if cut-and-pasted in from a completely different novel. And for all the interesting ideas presented in the body of the novel, the one bit Eggers didn't have any great ideas about was how to end it satisfactorily.

So it's far from perfect, but highly readable, as evidenced by my having gobbled up its nearly 500 pages inside two weeks. It did put me in mind of a couple of other things, in particular Isaac Asimov's short story The Dead Past (which I mentioned in passing here), which concerns rather different technology but describes essentially the same dystopian outcome. Here's the last page on my copy of the short story anthology Earth Is Room Enough:

It was apparently made into a film in 2017, though I must say it passed me by, despite featuring some heavy names including Tom Hanks. Anyway, I will now hit "Publish" and, in due course, some automated process will post a link to this post up on Twitter, where it will be available to the entire world, only an infinitesimal sliver of whom will ever know about it. The irony of this is not lost on me, by the way.

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