The Circle

Issue section: 
(386)

Dave Eggers, Hamish Hamilton, 18.99

Do a search on any of Apple, Google or Facebook's headquarters and you will see Californian blueprints that chime entirely with those of the fictional internet super-company The Circle at the heart of Dave Eggers latest novel.

Apple has just received permission for its new headquarters - and perhaps this what part of his research - it's a giant ring!

New recruit Mae Holland is shown around "the campus", as if newly arrived in heaven escorted by angels. The twenty-something, bored of her local council job, welcomes every aspect of her new employment as though a gift.

Mae got her job because she is good friends with Annie - a senior and well respected member of The Circle's team of about 10,000 people. Mae feels indebted, and eager to please and get on in the company.

There are many perks to working at The Circle which we see Mae indulge in. Lunches cooked by visiting chefs, gigs by bands of the moment, comedy sets by the funniest on the circuit and access to free clothing from all the best brands.

After-work parties on the campus seem like just the ticket for potentially meeting a guy she might like to date. Eggers captures well a sense of expectation. We are excited but also scared for Mae.

There is something foreboding about her new employers' attempts to encompass every part of her life. She has doubts but she always defers them. She is part of an onward march of technology, democracy, history.

Keen to impress, Mae jumps through many of the hoops she is asked to in her assigned role in "Customer Experience".

For all the pleasures of the campus her job is mundane and repetitive, she answers people's queries about the various products and services that they receive as Circle customers.

As we follow her progress, Mae has screens added to her worktop configuration as the different tasks are added to her job.

There is a continual and shocking intensification of her work, but Mae doesn't seem to mind this as she invests heavily in the company's ethos.

She gets promotion because she is a model employee, someone who strives to get a 100/100 satisfaction rating on every customer query questionnaire.

Dave Eggers takes lots of elements of our everyday lives and he amplifies, exaggerates and distorts them creating a world which is just beyond reach but eerily recognisable.

His skill throughout the book is to constantly make us uneasy as to whether he is describing the present or future.

This tightrope walk is achieved because most of the technology feels as though it already exists or is about five years away at most. It's a clever device. Because once we accept the plausibility of Circle innovation, its use feel even more sinister.

One such invention is the ability to pool children's exam results in a national league table so that they know exactly where they are placed and can be publicly congratulated on their placing through social media.

The author touches a nerve both in our sense of technological plausibility and the way our rulers are pushing society.

Mae soon learns that it is not enough simply to do the immediate tasks of her job. There is a high expectation at The Circle that you will also engage with all the social aspects of The Campus.

So if your profile indicates that you once travelled to Portugal, it is deemed extremely rude not to reply to an invitation to a Portuguese evening someone is hosting. In fact there is a league table of how socially engaged you are as a Circle employee!

Eggers plays brilliantly with modern insecurities about our use of applications like Facebook and Twitter.

Does how many "likes" we get on status update begin to rule our lives? Do we begin to engage too much with changing the world through these media?

And just because a cause has tens of thousands or even millions of likes does it mean that anything will actually change? In these things his judgement seems fairly damning.

From mass-participation surveillance projects using tiny affordable remote cameras to dating applications which use everything you ever posted about yourself to find the perfect match but also to propose the perfect date - The Circle envelopes every aspect of your life. And the troika who head the company - at once recognisable as Zuckerberg/Jobs type figureheads - aim to extend this to its end or "complete the circle".

Mae's former boyfriend Mercer is the heroic naysayer and voice of reason in the story but she obstinately dismisses him for his past relationship crimes - she has moved on.

There is not much sophistication about Eggers's writing - at times his images are straight out of a comic strip.

But there is a disquieting escalation, a clamour to some end which gradually reveals itself as likely to be catastrophic. The 1984 and Brave New World parallels in the book are very deliberate and offer a helpful framework to the story. All of this is very engaging.

There are plenty of internet cynics out there...here is their stocking-filler!