Does the amount of things that Google knows about you scare you? In my last review, I discussed Angwin’s Dragnet Nation. This week, I’m reviewing a fictional representation of this idea pushed to its extreme: a network so all encompassing and so pervasive that, for all intents and purposes, it ends up replacing the government–The Circle.
Mae, a young university graduate, gets a job at The Circle, a company that’s a mashup of Google, Facebook, Paypal and Twitter. In fact, in the world of the book, The Circle replaces all of these and buys all their archives.
At first, Mae takes this job as a job. She has a life outside of the Circle and doesn’t participate much in its social (both online and real life) aspects. But soon enough, the expectation of her participation in social media and social events force her, more or less, to become a full-time Circler.
Mae quickly becomes enthralled with the instant gratification of smiles, zings and messages, of signing online petitions and receiving comments on photos and videos. As her world becomes increasingly more knowable through real-time data and her ever-growing social networks, she gets embroiled deeper and deeper into the Circles plans for worldwide transparency and information control.
The novel is more a book of ideas than an enthralling story with interesting characters. I found Mae to be rather naive and barely self-aware. She is obviously flawed, but her lack of self-questioning and the quick way she gets taken in by the cult-like Circle culture is just too easily used as a rhetorical device to make an intellectual point.
The plot could also have used some tightening. I felt the novel took its good old time to get to the interesting part, and I can easily think of at least a dozen scenes that were unnecessary. I couldn’t care much about the central conflict–if there was even one–and ended up feeling, well, not much at all for Mae.
So, as I said earlier, this novel is more of a vehicle for making an argument about the dangers of too much transparency, of the disappearance of privacy even in our own homes, our bedrooms, our past, even our minds. It hints at a sort of techno-dystopian future without quite getting there. The interesting thing that the novel does raise, though, is how most of us are readily willing to enter the surveillance system. Are slaves still slaves if they don’t know they’re enslaved? Is surveillance acceptable if the majority of the population subscribes, welcomes, and even asks for it?
And in such a world, is access to privacy still a right, or does it become another inaccessible utopia?
As an intellectual exercise, this was an interesting book to read. As fiction, however, it is only mildly successful. In the language of the novel, The Circle gets a “meh”.