Left queasy by Silicon Valley
With its fictional amalgam of Apple, Facebook and Google, Dave Eggers’s new book, ‘The Circle’, is a page-turner that also raises profound questions about technological advances
Photograph: Paolo Vescia/New York Times
At first the vast amount of glass in the buildings seems like good taste. Everything here is carefully thought out. The chrome, the blond wood, the bright colours, the glass with the Californian sun gleaming through it.
It’s the near future, and this is the main campus of the global internet corporation known as the Circle – its name and groovy company logo are among the best known in the world. Mae, the main character in Dave Eggers’s new novel, is on the first day of her new job here, and she can’t believe her luck.
The Circle is a kind of fictional amalgam of Apple, Facebook and Google. Here, the freshest and brightest minds work at the cutting edge of technology. The founders, the Three Wise Men, as they are known, are a mixture of familiar-sounding tech entrepreneurs: a geek who wears a hoody and isn’t very sociable; a Brooks brother with a business background; and a self-styled ordinary guy in chinos and button-down shirts.
The Circle treats its employees well, with good pay, good benefits, organic food, massages, parties. In return it expects not only long hours but also a kind of social loyalty. And the technology means employees can be contacted – and checked up on via camera and social media – virtually all the time.
Eggers captures the queasy Silicon Valley mix of 1960s counterculture and rampant capitalism precisely. From the off the Circle has a whiff of cult. Even the euphoric Mae begins to wonder when, on a whim, she takes a solo kayaking trip in the bay and is then admonished by her supervisors for not sharing the experience on social media with her colleagues. So it’s no great surprise when this Utopia turns out to be more like the world of George Orwell’s 1984 with beanbags and psychobabble, though only Mae’s “loser” ex-boyfriend raises any kind of real protest.
The company is working on ever more sophisticated methods of tracking data and people, and progress is alarmingly fast. The destruction of personal privacy is sold as a way to protect human rights. How can dictators and tyrants continue with the eyes of the world on them? And how can any right-minded person object?
Eggers is a clever and humane writer, bracingly engaged with the world. Mae’s solo kayaking trips are beautifully described encounters with nature, the kind of unadulterated experience that he fears may soon be a thing of the past. There is the occasional blip – a passage in which a shark is unleashed to savage vulnerable sea creatures in one of the Wise Men’s aquariums is an uncharacteristically lurid metaphor – but in the main Eggers has written a page-turner with plenty of twists that also raises profound questions about technological advances. Is the digital deluge rotting our brains? What is the value of personal privacy? Is complete transparency essential for democracy? Is an all-glass environment healthy for humans?
The future he has imagined will soon seem quaintly antiquated, but Eggers’s dystopian tale is unlikely to become obsolete.
The Circle by Dave Eggers, Hamish Hamilton, 512pp, £18.99
Cathy Dillon is an Irish Times journalist.