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Dave Eggers Deserves a ‘Smile’ for Getting the Internet Wrong in The Circle

The danger of writing a book about the Internet is that you’re writing a book about the Internet, thereby invoking the myriad voices and possible opinions contained within this giant, amorphous collective —  whether they agree with you or not. If that book is a work of fiction based enough in the familiar to feel just on the terrifying edge of possible, you can be sure that the Internet will not fail to correct you with regards to the fictionalized world contained in your book. Such has been the case with Dave Eggers's new novel, The Circle, which addresses privacy, democracy, and humanity in a time of ever-encroaching digital life.

The Circle, the “world’s most powerful Internet company” from which the book takes its name, is a kind of hybrid Facebook-Google-Twitter-Amazon Silicon Valley tech company of the future, complete with a hoodie-wearing guru leader and a dreamy, sprawling campus that features, among the perks, low-calorie wine that gets you drunk faster. It’s a place that seems like heaven to 24-year-old Mae Holland, who is hired with the help of her former college roommate, Annie, a girl who once nursed Mae back to health after she broke her jaw, feeding her through a straw. (Much like the Internet, Eggers is not always long on subtlety.) Quickly, Mae becomes enmeshed in a demanding churn of parceling out thoughts, opinions, experiences, feelings, “smiles,” and “frowns” online — this is her workload but also a largely mandatory extracurricular activity — growing increasingly numbed by tweetlike "zings" and only partially aware of what she might be losing. Around her, the Circle circles on, striving for completion, which means a surveillance state, the criminalization of private lives, and the all-caps ideology that “ALL THAT HAPPENS MUST BE KNOWN” (which is ironic, because the Circle contains the biggest secrets of all).

In Eggers's bleakly amusing depiction of the lead-up to an authoritarian digital society, what many have chosen to focus on is not the thematic but the explicit and literal. The Internet is everyone’s; we all have our views. So Kate Losse, author of The Boy Kings, in which she recounts her experience working at Facebook, has claimed that Eggers stole her idea and rewrote her book “as his own novel.” In a piece for Reuters, Felix Salmon enumerates “How Dave Eggers gets Silicon Valley wrong,” explaining that Eggers depicts “the exact opposite of the way that Valley technology companies work.” At WiredGraeme McMillan says that if you actually know the Internet, The Circle is going to “sound more than a little tone-deaf.” And Margaret Eby at the Daily News writes that the book "fails to acknowledge that any of the people who operate on the Internet could also lead successful lives outside of it."

In fairness, maybe these writers do know the Internet (in as much as it can be known) better than Eggers, who has a Franzen-esque distaste for Twitter and has said that he hasn’t read Losse’s book, or any books about tech companies, and that he avoided touring tech campuses or interviewing employees to keep the book “free of any real-life corollaries.” But his vaguely recognizable, frequently dark, occasionally seductive world is precisely the point and critiques of its fidelity are beside said point. The Circle represents Eggers's own imagining of what could happen given a loss of perspective and a failure to find balance; given characters like those in the book; given sheeplike mentalities, the temptations of omnipotent, seemingly benevolent corporate structures, and, possibly, being on Twitter way too much. This is a classic speculative-fiction strategy: nuggets of the real spun into a dystopian rendering that represents ideologies and ways of life the author hopes we can avoid. Think The Hunger Games, The Giver, Brave New World, The Handmaid’s Tale, or Fahrenheit 451 — the common theme is not absolute accuracy, but the realization that within these similar-but-different worlds than our own there are grave dangers hidden in a guise of promoting the greater good. These morality tales set in the somewhat familiar reveal the horror of what could be, and that Eggers cleaves so close to truth without being there exactly makes for relatable dystopian fiction. It’s also evidence of how much the Internet truly has permeated our daily lives: We read this book, we internalize its many winks and jabs at what we see as life right now, and we think it should be fact-checked for what it doesn’t get right.

As for what resonates, I found plenty, ranging from the laughably worrisome and relatable (Mae looks at her phone, not her family, at the dinner table; toward the end of the book, Mae has nine screens in her cubicle and the post office only operates on Friday) to the more disturbingly worrisome (an online validation from a stranger buoys her while a negative reaction sends her into a panic; commenting becomes a substitute for doing). The incessant swarm of communications in need of a response — communications from strangers that Mae can never get ahead of — felt real, and stressful, enough to make me set down the book at various occasions. And there's a scene that involves the crowd-sourced tracking of a woman thought to be a criminal that's simply terrifying, particularly in light of harmful mistaken identifications we've seen in our own actual news cycle owing to, yes, the Internet.

Whether people see Eggers's depiction of a dystopian digital future as realistic or not (and surely he hopes it's not realistic), reactions to the book do seem to indicate he's doing something right. He’s tapping into a broader conversation that’s been in the works since well before the release of The Circle. Finding a balance, or the right way to be, in our on-and-offline lives, continues to perplex and confuse. This is why perennially we hear of people “quitting” the Internet (but telling us about it on the Internet), why Louis C.K.’s rant against smartphones goes viral (Mae takes a converse view that "pain experienced in public, in view of loving millions, was no longer pain"), and why “tech addiction” camps have come into existence. We are not quite sure how to deal with this still-new, ever-changing entity in our lives. It seems here to stay, but that doesn't mean even those of us who've grown up with the Internet aren't conflicted, at times fearful about what it's doing to us. How does it make us feel? How should we use it? Are we addicted, numb, losing perspective, like Mae? While the exact world of The Circle seems thankfully unlikely, the discussions the book provokes about life in an increasingly digital society are relevant, even, I'd imagine, for people without Facebook accounts. 

Of course, it’s far easier to say Eggers gets Silicon Valley or the Internet wrong than it is to tackle these abstract questions of how we should be living. Similarly, a novel about a dystopian digital society — by Dave Eggers, no less — is probably far more sellable than is an instructive how-to on finding balance in today's society. The benefit of the extreme view, though, is that it allows room for a countering extreme; backlash creates frontlash as voices emerge to detract, defend, discuss, and, ideally, find a middle point. Regardless of how much Eggers himself engages online, he surely knew that in response to his created world of “frowns” and “smiles” he’d get at least a few downward-facing emoticons. I imagine he would relish that. At its most meta, the swirl of conversation and disagreement around The Circle actually represents a positive, and possibly intended, takeaway from the book’s bleak underlying message: that there is no one voice and no ultimate transparency, and that there shouldn’t be fear of speaking one’s mind or of saying nothing at all. There are mysteries at the core of humanity that can’t be known, answers we do not possess, nuances and experiences that don’t translate into 140 characters or status updates. We don't have to share what we don't want to share. As for the rest, we’ll fight that out on the Internet.