Closing The Circle

I finished reading The Circle the other day, zipped through it in fact, which was unexpected.

I know the standard techie’s response to the book is to complain that the central premise is outlandish and could never happen, and to sprinkle criticism with guesses at who each of the principal characters may be based on. Even before the book was published there was a woman jumping up and down and claiming to be Mae Holland (because, reasons?) and there has been much made of the Zuckerberg-ishness of the Ty character.

What hit home for me was different, it was the screens Mae sat in front of in Customer Experience. The screens and the headset, and the having to pay attention to a million things at once. Eggers takes it to a hyperbolic place, to be sure, but I defy anyone who has worked for a tech company over the past half-decade to not notice their pulse-rate rising as Mae gets yet another screen and yet another “very important” stream to monitor. I loved my job, but I still sometimes have nightmares about flashing Communicator windows and queues of people with questions at my desk.

I am also a complete curmudgeon when it comes to people over-sharing on social media (I do not need to know what you had for breakfast, or care that your husband has to work late, and I really don’t think Facebook was intended for use as a mood diary), which comes partly from being older and wiser more cynical and partly from bafflement at the things people seem to find worthy of everyone else’s attention. For that reason, there were parts of the book that I found weirdly possible and thoroughly horrifying. No, I don’t believe anyone would voluntarily live their life broadcasting everything they see, hear and do; however, I have come across people who genuinely believe that not sharing life events/personal data on social media is a kind of withholding of information they feel entitled to have.

What Eggers does here is to take little things we’ve all encountered (someone being angry at a friend for not “liking” their status, for example) and magnify them. He piles on “what if?” after “what if?” to create a storm of worst-case scenarios, all centered around an ambitious and manipulative woman named Mae. Oh yes, I said she was manipulative, not manipulated. Eggers writes her as a flawed woman whose self-awareness is extremely limited. She’s entitled, ungrateful and snootily dismissive of any opinion other than her own (or that of her superiors). Worse, she’s dismissive of the people possessing those opinions, and campaigns to convert them (almost so she can like them again). Her inner contortions when presented with people she cares about who disagree with her are masterfully presented, and the contrast with how she responds to a difference with her superiors is sharp. I guess you can tell that I didn’t like Mae, but I did like the book – even though there was much telegraphing of things resulting in a lack of punch when “twists” were revealed. Eggers did a good job here, overall it’s an enjoyable and (mostly) satisfying read.

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