A Cautionary Tale About Silicon Valley’s Vision for the Future
Book Review: The Circle by Dave Eggers
As part of our interview process, we always ask what other companies an applicant would like to work for. Nearly always internet giants like Google and Facebook are mentioned as ideal workplaces, with their large campuses and wide array of job perks from on-site laundry to free restaurant-grade food.
In Dave Eggers’ latest novel The Circle, the protagonist Mae Holland starts a new job at the eponymous company – a fictional Silicon Valley firm that’s an amalgamation of all the major internet technology giants based in and around San Francisco – and begins her job in their Customer Experience department on their sprawling California campus.
This is the start of a descent in to the Circle’s corporate culture, where’s Mae naivety and eagerness to please are exploited in ways direct and subtle, to turn her in to an obedient drone and, eventually, a public persona projecting the company’s seemingly altruistic endeavours to the outside world.
Pervasive throughout the novel are the vacuous trappings of social media. Sharing, upvoting (through ‘smiles’ and ‘frowns’) and commenting on colleagues’ online social activities is encouraged in the Circle, and whilst positioned as an optional element of the company’s culture, there is severe peer pressure on Mae to engage in online social activities and thus increase her ‘PartiRank’, a measure of her social media value reminiscent of Klout. Failure to increase her PartiRank leads to negative public perception of Mae as a Circler, and thus she quickly feels forced to spend increasing amounts of time on sharing, sending ‘smiles’ and ‘frowns’, and commenting on others’ activities.
Employees of the Circle are encouraged to spend ever larger amounts of time on the company’s campus, engaging in all kinds of on-site activities, and sharing these experiences online for others to vote and comment on. As a result more and more Circlers rarely leave the campus and, as happens with Mae, real-world relationships are abandoned in favour of inter-company and online socialising.
The Circle as a company is on a path to grow its already vast influence in the world, with increasing levels of control over the entire globe’s information and finance. Three overarching values emerge from the Circle that the company wishes the entire world to adopt through use of the Circle’s array of interconnected online services: Secrets are Lies, Sharing is Caring, Privacy is Theft.
As the novel progresses, the company’s influence over Mae’s state of mind grows relentlessly in line with their grasp over the entire world, and any hint of resistance is mercilessly stamped out either through social pressures, subversion, or blatant real politik. The end result is a protagonist totally cocooned in the company’s insular culture, and a civilisation at the mercy of one company’s insidious whims.
Analogous to Real World
The Circle is a powerful cautionary tale that will resonate with everyone who is familiar with the effervescent language coming out of Silicon Valley these days. Ideas such as total transparency and the obsolescence of privacy take centre stage in the novel, as they often do in real world events whenever Facebook update their terms & conditions or Google rolls out a new product feature.
The way Silicon Valley manages to navigate the global political landscape is also reflected in the novel, with politicians often keen to be seen as supporters and enablers of technological innovation, rather than risk opposing it and thus endanger their political futures.
What the novel does expertly is expose the utter lack of substance that social media can sometimes force upon us when we share our thoughts and emotions online. In the Circle sharing is seen as a positive engagement, enriching and empowering your peers, but in actuality – as it often is in real life – sharing on social media is a profoundly selfish act. The sharer expects (and often demands) acknowledgement and positive recognition, and the absence of this is seen as a social snub with all its negative repercussions.
Whilst the company in the novel has elements of nearly all Silicon Valley giants, for me it most closely resembled Google with a large dose of Facebook mixed in. The Circle’s voracious appetite for data and its one-sided pursuit of transparency is eerily reminiscent of Google’s recent endeavours, and its total disregard for personal privacy is something straight out of Facebook’s playbook.
But most of all, the enabling factor of the Circle’s insular thinking is their corporate campus where employees are submerged in the organisation’s subversive values and immunised against real-world influences. This is something Google suffers from to a very large extent, and I see this form of social engineering as a truly hazardous development that leads to a total lack of critical self-analysis.
The Circle’s top brass are also modelled on real world technology executives, with hints of Zuckerberg, Page, and Brin throughout. One of the book’s characters, Tom Stenton, appeared to me as a hybrid of Eric Schmidt, Larry Page, and a large dose of libertarian capitalist Peter Thiel.
Dave Eggers manages to expertly capture the Silicon Valley mindset and the language it uses to espouse their techno-utopian ideas, and that makes The Circle a very recognisable and Orwellian cautionary tale.
In the end it’s still a work of fiction that at times stretches the boundaries of realism, but after reading it I cannot help but wonder how far the real world Silicon Valley elite is allowed to go in their pursuit of goals that, whilst ostensibly founded on good intentions, are likely to lead the world down a very dark path indeed.