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Book Review: The Circle by Dave Eggers
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Book Review: The Circle by Dave Eggers - Executive Leadership Articles

Book Review: The Circle by Dave Eggers

Executive Leadership Articles

Book Review: The Circle by Dave Eggers

Engineers at The Circle, a Google-like tech company in Dave Eggers’s most recent novel, have developed small, affordable, attach-anywhere wireless cameras that run for two years on an internal battery. Now the cameras are everywhere, providing around-the-clock views of favorite surf breaks, busy city intersections, parking lots, and every room of some people’s homes. This means that elderly parents can be kept a safe eye upon, and traffic accidents can be observed as they happen, and surfers don’t have to rely on some questionable surf report to know what the waves look like.

It also means, as the novel nears its climax, that nobody can hide from observation. One fugitive from the law in the UK is randomly selected from a list of the world’s most wanted, and within minutes of her photo being posted on The Circle’s one-billion-strong social network, citizens who recognize her by a different name are pounding on her door, demanding she surrender to law enforcement before it has even arrived. The citizen pursuers are so excited that Mae Holland, a Circle employee conducting the experiment, has to intervene before the crowd gets out of hand.

This is the novel’s episodic pattern and overall story arc: a new technology is introduced with only the best of intentions in mind. It is then applied, for the common good, to increasingly invasive situations of questionable ethics. When a few elected officials agree to be on camera throughout the workday, this new transparency is heralded as a way to keep politicians honest, working only in the best interests of the constituency. But the willing participation by some throws doubt upon those officials who do not opt in. Why won’t they also agree to all-day observation by the whole world? What must they be hiding? The cameras pressure people to behave at their best, and isn’t that what we all want? And if we want it from our officials, don’t we also want it from our teachers, ministers, babysitters, and employees?

Mae, our main character, begins as a wide-eyed new employee, and it’s not long before she finds herself more and more deeply immersed in the culture of The Circle. She has a workplace that provides all her needs, including housing, food, and laundry services. Her new employer provides healthcare for her and for her ailing parents, and the only tradeoff is an agreement to install cameras throughout her parents’ home, so that accidents can be responded to immediately. As The Circle’s technology and services advance, they lead her to embrace the firm’s doctrines of secrets being lies, information being free, and transparency meaning trustworthiness.

Although it is a page-turner, it’s not especially gripping, and Eggers—one of the century’s most celebrated American writers—sacrifices good storytelling in exchange for some fairly heavy-fisted cautions. This doesn’t necessarily disqualify it as a good read. Other novels, noted more for the ideas they present and the conversations they inspire, such as Brave New World and 1984, endure as milestones in the culture, and The Circle gives the reader more than a few ideas to chew on, even presenting something of a manifesto, a declaration of Rights of the Citizen in the Digital Age. As a work of art, it’s lacking in too many important qualities to recommend. As something to generate intro-level conversation about some hot issues, it’s quite good, and would serve well as a book group selection.

 

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Book Review: The Circle by Dave Eggers - Executive Leadership Articles

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