The Circle, by Dave Eggers (2013)

This is one of those rare books which I immediately started recommended to friends in the most emphatic terms. It’s not because it’s well-written, funny, and engaging, though it’s all of those as well, because it’s timely. Eggers is not so much a “literary” writer focusing on timeless themes of the human condition (cf. José Saramago) but one who has his pulse on the zeitgeist and tells us stories we need to hear to understand the world we live in today. He’s best known a genre somewhere in-between fiction and non-fiction, what the CBC show “This is That” calls “non-fiction with a little bit of fiction mixed in”, which is a perfectly respectable place to be as long as you’re up front about it. Previous well-received books of his have included Zeitoun, about the experiences of an American citizen of Syrian origin in the crazy days in New Orleans after Katrina hit, and What is the What, about the life of a young man from Sudan who against all odds survives a civil war, makes it to a refugee camp in Kenya, then settles in the US. Both are written as novels but based on extensive interviews with their subjects (what filmmakers would call a biopic as opposed to a documentary), are fully endorsed by their subjects, and were published with proceeds going to aid them in their travails. With The Circle, Eggers steps into speculative fiction set in a very near future, in which Google, Facebook, and their ilk have merged into one corporation called the Circle which controls most of peoples’ online lives and an increasing amount of their life out here in the real world as well. Completely implausible, of course.

I’ve usually described this book to friends as a great argument for why you should quit Facebook. I did that years ago, although I did dabble somewhat in Google+, but I deleted that account too after reading this book. It’s just not a winning strategy to give one company access to so much of our digital lives and allow them to mediate so much of our online interactions. Even if you trust Google’s claim to not “be evil”, to quote the corporate slogan they used to use before upgrading it to “we manufacture killer robots for the US military” earlier this year, everything we know about government intrusions on our privacy show that the bigger and more attractive the collection of our secrets, the greater the efforts that will be made to peek inside, with or without the cooperation of its custodians. What’s the logical extension of placing more and more of our identities online, outside of our control? It takes a book like this, which parodies that idea itself (to quote Margaret Atwood’s review in The New York Review of Books), to help us see the possible consequences and consequently help avoid the most odious.

Read this book soon if you want to know where all this is headed. If you don’t, it may well become redundant, as its predictions could very easily come to pass.

Note: Eggers was at one point accused of plagiarism by Kate Losse, one of Facebook’s earliest employees, who wrote about her experiences there in The Boy Kings. I’m sure her book is worth reading as well, but from what I gather it focuses more on the internal office culture of Facebook as opposed to their interactions with the outside world. It’s probably stronger at describing geek culture than Egger’s novel (not its strength, but not really its goal either). Losse made her claim after reading a pre-publication excerpt of The Circle and appears to have withdrawn her claim after the book itself was published (by which I mean that the relevant posts on her blog were taken offline). Among Losse’s complaints was that books about technology written by men are taken more seriously than those by women, which is a fair criticism, but the fact that Eggers was already a well-established writer also helps explains why his book attracted more attention. So yes, read Losse’s book if you’d like to know what it’s like to work with a gang of alpha male programmers, and read Egger’s book if you’re interested in speculation about the impact those coders could have on the larger world.