The Secrets Lurking in a Digital-Social Utopia, Review > The Circle by Dave Eggers
My rating: 4 or 5 stars
Eggers, Dave. 2013. The Circle. San Francisco: McSweeney's Books.
Mae Holland believes her life has changed for the best when she gets a job at The Circle the most globally prominent IT company. The Circle is the leader in a new age of social transparency and the free and open access to all information. To the idealistic and enthusiastic Mae, the top-notch technology, beautiful campus, innovativeness, and activity are like "heaven." But what are the implications when The Circle conspires to eliminate privacy and control all parts of human life through its monopolized gateway?
*Contains some spoilers*
I want to do this review a bit differently than previous book reviews I have done. I want to look at this novel partially through a biblical lens. If you follow my Facebook Page (if not you should! Here is the link), then you may have read an article I posted from the Boundless Blog called "Fiction Matters." Essentially the post makes the case that we can learn spiritual truths from fiction, "Jesus was a master storyteller. He taught in parables for a reason" (Barron 2017). I completely agree with this.
Anyway, my point is, The Circle by Dave Eggers is full of illustrations we can learn from. I briefly discussed this novel in my May Newsletter, (you can sign up for my monthly Newsletter in the sidebar or at the bottom of the post) and I want to build on that discussion and go into more detail for this post.
I was completely engulfed, entertained, and slightly bothered by The Circle. As I describe in the synopsis above, Mae Holland's first impression of her new place of employment is "It's heaven"(Eggers 2014). So, as Ellen Ullman of the New York Times Book Review aptly puts it "And so we know that the Circle in Dave Eggers’s new novel, 'The Circle,' will be a hell" (2013).
As the reader learns more about the outwardly utopian company that is the Circle, through the eyes of the gullible Mae, frequent alarm bells alert of impending trouble. Yet our main character, our guide through the story Mae hears no alerts, and if she does, she simply turns off the notifications.
Most disturbing to me was that Mae was an entirely believable character exhibiting many characteristics of the selfie-centered society we live in today. I wanted Mae to be a heroine, and she had many opportunities to become one, yet she became more and more reprehensible as the novel progressed.
Social acceptance and "participation" is of paramount importance in the Circle's ecosystem, with social ranking, "smiles" and "frowns," commentary, zings, followers, and posting pictures all integral to the company community.
Mae is an eager competitor. Yet, as she moves up the social ranks and eventually becomes totally "transparent" i.e. wearing a live-streaming camera around her neck with millions of followers and "watchers," she begins to experiences periodic episodes of a black “tear” ripping inside her.
One part of the book that greatly illustrates this point is when Mae progressively feels slighted by the 3% of her coworkers who respond to the question "Is Mae Holland awesome or what?" with a "frown." In Mae's warped thought process, the "frowns" mean that 3% want her gone and even wish she had "never been born" (Eggers 2014). Though Mae's thoughts are extreme, how many of us are guilty of feeling somewhat snubbed when someone doesn't "like" our social media post, or when someone else gets more "likes" or views? I know I have been guilty of this.
In the book #struggles by Craig Groeschel, he identifies our love-hate relationship with social media like this,
"We're sucked into measuring our lives by how many followers we have and who they are. We want to believe we're not the sum of the Likes our last post received, but it still feels like those little clicks matter. The odd thing is the more we focus on ourselves, the less satisfied we feel. And the more we're consumed with the things of this earth, the more we feel empty" (2015).
These statements accurately sum up what Mae feels throughout the novel, and I believe many of us feel at times.
The trouble is when we are so focused on ourselves and our image, we have lost sight of what we should be focusing on, Jesus. "We were created not to draw attention to ourselves but to give glory to God" (2015). Our self-worth cannot be fulfilled by worldly approval. Whose approval was Mae seeking, can you guess? Whose approval are we seeking - others' or God's?
For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ. ~ Galatians 1:10
Each time Mae begins to feel that black “tear” ripping inside her she neutralizes the emotion by engaging in social media, taking surveys, or scoring a high percentage on her Customer Experience feedback. Mae, like many of us, has become "addicted to immediate gratification" (2015). But does this really eliminate the underlying issue and desire, or just curb the issue and desire? For Mae, the readers can only guess. Mae's ex-boyfriend Mercer tries on many attempts to point this out to Mae to no avail,
"It's not that I'm [Mercer] not social. I'm social enough. But the tools you guys [the Circle] create actually manufacture unnaturally extreme social needs. . . . It's not nourishing. It's like snack food. . . Empty calories, but the digital-social equivalent. And you calibrate it so it's equally addictive" (Eggers 2013).
What is also disconcerting about Mae's story is that as her online circle of "friends" i.e. "followers" and "watchers" becomes greater her interpersonal relationships, that with her parents, best friend, and Mercer diminish. And while this observation is so obvious to the reader, Mae is both oblivious and nonchalant about the detaching relationships.
Falling into this same trap is something we all must be considerate of. Pastor Craig states that we must
"make sure technology is enhancing our relationships, not replacing them. We need to make sure our ability to communicate doesn't cause us to talk more while actually saying less. We must focus on loving others more and truly interacting with them, rather than just Liking what they post" (Groeschel 2015).
I will admit, it is so easy for me as an introvert to engage in social media and neglect face-to-face interactions.
Though Mae has lots of online interactivity, she continually loses personal intimacy. Moreover, an idea that is incredibly paradoxical in the novel is Mae and the Circle's views on transparency and authenticity. Mae's "transparency" isn't authentic, she filters and showcases what she believes her "watchers" want to see. Her eating habits change, her conversations become staged, her actions preplanned. Mae is, on numerous occasions, battling in her mind over emotions she does not wish to disclose. In becoming "transparent," Mae becomes skilled at filtering her life, showing others only what she wants them to see. Going back to Mae's “tear” ripping inside her, this feeling compares to a comment by Pastor Craig,
"When you put on the veil and post something hoping for Likes, hoping for affirmation, even if you receive it, you're still going to feel empty because you're not being real with people about yourself. But the place to be vulnerable is where God wants you to be vulnerable: in the context of private, life-giving, healthy, God-honoring relationships" (Groeschel 2015).
I believe this accurately describes the “tear” ripping inside Mae. She basically is parading "transparency," #nofilter, while putting her "best foot forward" on camera. Also, the context of privacy is gone because in Egger's world, "Privacy is theft." Unless Mae is in the allotted few minute bathroom breaks having rushed conversations, she doesn't have private, intimate interactions with others.
This novel is full to the brim of information to discuss, but I want to touch on just one more theme, that of "All that happens must be known." This ideology leads to some of the most alarming statements in the novel.
"Now all humans will have the eyes of God. You know that passage? 'All things are naked and opened unto the eyes of God.' Something like that. You know your Bible? . . . Now we're all God. Every one of us will soon be able to see, and cast judgment upon, every other. We'll see what He sees. We'll articulate His judgment. We'll channel His wrath and deliver His forgiveness. On a constant and global level. All religion has been waiting for this, when every human is a direct and immediate messenger of God's will" (Eggers 2013).
The verse referenced here is Hebrews 4:13,
"Nothing in all creation is hidden from God. Everything is naked and exposed before his eyes, and he is the one to whom we are accountable."
However, essential to this verse is the verses after which is not discussed in the book, Hebrews 4:14-16,
"14 So then, since we have a great High Priest who has entered heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to what we believe. 15 This High Priest of ours understands our weaknesses, for he faced all of the same testings we do, yet he did not sin. 16 So let us come boldly to the throne of our gracious God. There we will receive his mercy, and we will find grace to help us when we need it most."
From verse 13 we see that God alone has omniscient gaze. Reading further, we see that the High Priest the only one who can mediate and intercede for us on behave of God is Jesus, not man. One last commentary on the Circle's company slogan, "All that happens must be known" is 1 Corinthians 8:2 which reads,
" Anyone who claims to know all the answers doesn’t really know very much."
I enjoyed this novel. I believe it reveals a significant analysis of our time and addresses many cautions for our own use of technology, social media, privacy, and knowledge.
This novel has been referenced to a modern day 1984 by George Orwell and Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, but as I have not read either of these, I cannot speak on that. But I have a new vested interest in reading both novels soon.
Yours Truly, LeNae
P.S. Have you seen The Circle film? What did you think? Don't forget to subscribe to my exclusive monthly newsletter and gain access to the Members area which includes free resources! Also, let's be dear friends. Follow me on all my social media. Leave a comment below; I'd love to hear from you.
Check local library listing for The Circle through WorldCat
Check local library listing for #struggles through WorldCat
In all transparency, the above links are affiliate links. We are a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites. Only products that I have used first hand and that I fully believe in and support have affiliate links. If you choose to use the affiliate links, I will receive a small commission. My posts are not in any way sponsored. All opinions expressed are my own.
Barron, Allison. 2017. "Fiction Matters." Boundless. March 28. http://www.boundless.org/blog/fiction-matters/.
Eggers, Dave. 2013. The Circle. San Francisco: McSweeney's Books.
Groeschel, Craig. 2015. #struggles. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan.
Ullman, Ellen. 2013. "Ring of Power." The New York Times Book Review. November 1. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/03/books/review/the-circle-by-dave-eggers.html.