The Circle, Dave Eggers’ new novel about an increasingly totalitarian social networking corporation, won’t hit shelves until next Tuesday. But the work of “pure speculative fiction,” which was excerpted on the cover of last week’s New York Times magazine, has already earned adulation from fans in high places (the Wall Street Journal called Eggers a modern-day muckraking Upton Sinclair) and accusations from critics on the margins—in particular Kate Losse, former ghostwriter to Mark Zuckerberg, who says Eggers ripped off her 2012 Facebook tell-all, The Boy Kings.
I read both books back-to-back over the past few days and it’s safe to say that The Circle is neither as eye-opening, nor as criminal as they would have you believe. Eggers does manage to serve up some piercing satire, particularly when he zeroes in on privacy-eroding features couched as a benevolent acts of information-sharing, or cloistered campuses and bountiful perks designed to destroy any distinction between work and life. But mostly the plot is pulpy and digestible, with evil executives so power-hungry, corporate self-interest so malevolent, and menacing products so improbable that it’s hard to see any kind of reform—or even instructive discussion—rising from his hazy warning signals. Without much editing, Eggers could turn all 491 pages into an blockbuster screenplay and I’d happily plunk down $14 to be entertained on opening night. Ultimately The Circle is just an edge-of-your-seats sci-fi thriller that only intermittently offers a telling critique of Silicon Valley culture—less The Jungle 2.0 than a pivoted relaunch of The Firm.
I emailed Eggers' publisher last week asking for comment on Losse's allegations. Last night an assistant at McSweeney's emailed back the following statement from Eggers:
"I've just heard about the claims of Kate Losse that my novel, The Circle, was somehow based on a work of nonfiction she wrote. I want to make it clear that I have never read and have never heard of her book before today. I did not, in fact, read any books about any internet companies, or about the experiences of anyone working at any of these companies, either before or while writing The Circle. I avoided all such books, and did not even visit any tech campuses, expressly because I didn't want The Circle to seem to be based on any extant companies or upon the experiences of any employees of any extant companies. Because The Circle has not been released, it's my understanding that Kate Losse has not read my novel yet, so I trust that when she does read it she'll understand that I have not read, and certainly never lifted anything from, her book."
This stated commitment to developing a fictional world, not based in research or experience, helps explain why The Circle mostly reads like The Hunger Games with apps. (And no hunger, not when there’s free on-campus cafeterias like “the Glass Eatery,” a nine-level affair where diners look like they’re “eating in mid-air.”)
The central character in The Circle is Mae Holland, a recent liberal arts grad who can’t wait to trade in her burlap-walled cubicle at a utility company for the gleaming, amenity-packed campus—divided into sections named after historical eras like the Renaissance and the Industrial Revolution—of the Circle, a monopolistic mega-corporation that years ago subsumed Facebook, Google, Twitter and all of their successors.
The Circle mostly reads like The Hunger Games with apps.
The Circle owns 90 percent of the search market, 88 percent of the “free-mail market,” and 92 percent of text servicing. It also has self-aggrandizing pet names for its powerful professional cliques, like the “Gang of 40,” a select group “privy to its most secret plans and data” and the Wise Men, a Google-like triumvirate of top execs.
The company’s killer product is TruYou: “One button for the rest of your life online” that combines your bank account, credit cards, social media profiles, passwords, email, payment methods, unborn babies, etc.
TruYou changed the internet, in toto, within a year. Though some sites were resistant at first, and free-internet advocates shouted about the right to be anonymous online, the TruYou wave was tidal and crushed all meaningful opposition. It started with the commerce sites. Why would any non-porn site want anonymous users when they could know exactly who had come through the door? Overnight, all comment boards became civil, all posters held accountable. The trolls, who had more or less overtaken the internet, were driven back into the darkness.
A planet where enforced real names make trolls disappear forever? (And where sites don’t already know “exactly who” is coming “through the door”?) How... science fictional. It doesn’t end there. Every all-hands “Dream Friday” meeting introduces some new overreaching technology, like TruYouth, a tracking device inserted in every child in America that wipes out kidnapping in a week.
As it turns out, our girl Mae is kind of a tool. A perfect corporate tool.
Through coercion, guilt, and lots of leading questions, Mae’s superiors at the Circle compel her to share more and more of herself—or rather, quantifiable aspects of herself that can feed into an algorithm—on the Circle’s various social networks (InnerCircle, OuterCircle, Zing). She signs up for mind-numbing mailing lists, attends an endless array of company-sanctioned social events, and trades in the niceness economy, all to increase her virtual ranking. Good god, the ways this girl is ranked. Mae needs seven screens just to keep up with the real-time feedback loop.
Authorities find “a hundred weird searches” on her home computer—bringing to mind a gnawing fear familiar to any Google user.
This moment between her and Eamon Bailey, an avuncular oracle from Omaha, and one of the Circle’s Wise Men, is just one example of the elder’s not-so-subtle coercion:
“Let’s move on to families. In a family, is a secret a good thing? Theoretically, do you ever think, You know what would be great to keep from my family? A secret.”
Mae thought of the many things her parents were likely keeping from her—the various indignities her father’s illness caused them. “No,” she said.
“No secrets within a family?”
“Actually,” Mae said, “I don’t know. There are definitely things you don’t want your parents to know.”
“Would your parents want to know those things?
“So you’re depriving your parents of something they want. This is good?”
Eggers' conceit is naive: Tech corporations aren’t really interested in manipulating their employees to overshare. They're not even necessarily true believers in their own systems—rather, they're looking to get as many consumers as possible to engage with their products, as Reuters’ Felix Salmon pointed out earlier this week, after reading Eggers’ Times magazine excerpt. Says Salmon:
They consider themselves the cognitive elite; the rest of us are the puppets dancing on the end of their strings of code.
That’s why “eating your own dogfood”—i.e. actually using the product you built—is still startup slang, now regrettably shortened to a more brogrammer-friendly “dogfooding.”
Nonetheless, in order to drive the plot of The Circle, the novel follows Mae’s increasing susceptibility to her employer’s suggestions and the intoxicating effect of social media’s instant-feedback—a trajectory that leads her to commit to the ultimate share: “going transparent.” (A nod to Scientology, I presume.)
These imaginative leaps, unencumbered by fact or familiarity, sometimes work in the book's favor. A senator's anti-trust investigation is quickly quashed after authorities find “a hundred weird searches” on her home computer—bringing to mind a gnawing fear familiar to any Google user. (That incident, too, echoes Zuckerberg’s refrain that companies are the new countries.)
Too frequently, though, Eggers’ basic misapprehensions of the motivations and logistics of Silicon Valley mean he misses or ignores issues ripe for satirization. Take for example the real-world limitations of what technology can improve. With the Circle's sinister attempt to takeover government functions—which the AARP says "doesn’t seem far-fetched"—Eggers is worried about "totalitarian" overreach and "infocommunism." But that kind of social media doomsday is far-fetched, and often Silicon Valley’s hubris—take the recent Time magazine cover story about Google "solving death"—is as dangerous as its lack of limits.
Let's just Taskrabbit and Uberize the Government.
— Shervin Pishevar (@shervin) October 2, 2013
Aside from placing some hidden “SeeChange” cameras in Tahrir Square, we also hear nothing about globalization or the great white hope of Chinese smartphone users. Should we assume the Circle gobbled up China’s Weibo and Tencent along with all the others? And, although most Silicon Valley companies still fill their war chests with advertising dollars, the closest we come is when Mae gets the privilege of wearing an ultra-thin headset to fill out CircleSurveys about her spending preferences, which sounds kind of retrograde to me.
Of course, hashing out contemporary concerns is not the project of science fiction—and would give The Circle a very short shelf-life. Eggers smartly avoids buzzwords like “big data” or “self-quantification,” even though he explores those topics. But he’s nonetheless been crowned the new Upton Sinclair, courtesy Wall Street Journal business editor Dennis K. Berman. Meanwhile, New York Times Magazine editor-in-chief Hugo Lindgren elevated The Circle to Saunders-level fanfare by both placing it on the cover and praising the novel’s “bracing details that feel all too real.” Any new book by a vaunted best-selling author like Eggers is going to get attention. But the message here is clear: This is the critique that matters.
That’s what rankles Kate Losse, the ex-Facebook speechwriter, the most. I spoke on the phone with Losse, who was employee no. 51 at Facebook, about the infringement allegations this week, and we discussed the ways the technology industry marginalizes women and devalues their work at an institutional level. It’s a privileged position for Eggers to be able to publicly flaunt his lack of research and still be taken as both emblematic and prescient. (Disclosure: Losse and I have communicated through Twitter and I’m a fan of her work, but we’ve never met.)
Both the The Boy Kings and The Circle follow a similar outline of an young woman who starts out in customer service and finds her own way in with the top execs. On the phone, Losse, who has only read the excerpted portion of The Circle, told me:
I've watched the way that the major outlets like the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal are presenting him as if he gets to speak for this world and it's really disturbing because I was there. I experienced this exact narrative and I wrote about it, but it doesn't get treated with the same gravitas as this guy who is basically retelling the story . . . To be treated like you can't represent a culture, you can only represent yourself is really disturbing—to have a man have a female character and then take it as the representation of the whole culture. No, I was there; I know what it was like. I'm not saying he can't write a female character. But it’s disturbing that people will only see him in that light, rather than people who have actually been there and have talent. It's not just about this book. It's about the whole industry.
In previous books, where Eggers has “borrowed” the voices of a Sudanese child soldier and a Katrina survivor, he’s made his sources very clear and I have no reason to doubt the statement he provided to us in this case. (I also don’t buy Losse’s claim that Mae Holland’s name shares the same “phonetic structure” as hers and I think she undermines her case by repeating that.) Reading the books in succession, I didn’t notice any outright plagiarism, but many instances of thematic overlap: There are the all-hands meetings every Friday where Zuckerberg makes vague, quasi-philosophical motivational speeches, although that's common startup behavior. Then there's the way Losse’s colleagues made her perform on Facebook’s nascent Video product, an episode magnified in The Circle. But the skepticism that pervades The Boy Kings is nowhere to be found in Mae Holland, and any critical thoughts articulated about the company’s mission are voiced through other characters.
"...To have a man have a female character and then take it as the representation of the whole culture. No, I was there; I know what it was like."
Eggers also seems unconcerned with the topics that fascinate Losse: the privileging of the hacker/engineer over all “non-technical” employees, the frat-like cliques perpetuated by hiring white males from a certain background. We don't see a den of programmers until the end of the book. The Circle also only obliquely acknowledges social media’s voyeuristic appetite for women.
I wish he’d had tackled those topics more, as Eggers is at his best when he sticks closer to reality. This passage, which might be the most astute psychological portrait of a cloistered tech employee, helps explain their very troubling posture towards homeless people:
Increasingly, she found it difficult to be off-campus anyway. There were homeless people, and there were the attendant and assaulting smells, and there were machines that didn’t work, and floors and seats that had not been cleaned, and there was, everywhere, the chaos of an orderless world. The Circle was helping to improve that, she knew, and so many of these things were being addressed—homelessness could be helped or fixed, she knew, once the gamification of shelter allotment and public housing in general was complete; they were working on this in the Nara Period—but in the meantime, it was increasingly troubling to be amid the madness outside the gates of the Circle. Walking through San Francisco, or Oakland, or San Jose, or any city, really, seemed more and more like a Third World experience, with unnecessary filth, and unnecessary strife and unnecessary errors and inefficiencies—on any city block, a thousand problems correctible through simple enough algorithms and the application of available technology and willing members of the digital community.
The paranoia of the Great Recession produced novels like Personal Days by Ed Park and Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris—both set in maze of cubicles where the threat of layoffs loomed large. Now, in the midst of a stagnant economy and widening income gap, the public imagination has turned to the tech industry’s promise of wealth and progress. In The Internship, Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson play aging salesmen who apply for jobs at Google; Gabriel Roth’s novel The Unknowns features a protagonist who is a dotcom millionaire; Office Space director Mike Judge’s HBO show “Silicon Valley,” which I hear is about to start filming its first season soon, opens the pilot “on the shit brown hills of Mountain View.”
(Losse might also find her story on a big screen: The movie rights for The Boy Kings have been optioned by a Silicon Valley investor who made his money in startups, although Losse said it’s not one of the venture capitalists typically covered in Valleywag.)
The message here is clear: This is the critique that matters.
All these voices should be welcome, particularly when tech blogs are more than willing to publish company propaganda as news. But we only need to read Lindgren’s short introduction to understand why Eggers is being celebrated. To explain why the magazine put a fictional work on its cover for the first time in its history, he writes:
I must say, it reawakened the occasional fantasies I have of moving my family to the woods and living off the land, though I know we’d last about a day out there. But as scary as the story’s implications will be to some readers, the reading experience is pure pleasure. I suspect that those who see aspects of their own fears in the story will enjoy it most of all.
The Circle allows the dudeitors of the world to get spooked by straw men who embody their generally warped understanding social media’s effect on society. It’s a black-and-white worldview where a serious Twitter habit is just a gateway drug (or slippery slope, as Salmon, who points that Eggers only tweeted twice in his life, put it) to this kind of dystopia.
Mae’s ex-boyfriend Mercer, who builds furniture out of deer antlers, serves as The Circle’s Greek chorus, eventually graduating to rebel hero status. He compares participating in these kind of social networks to wearing a calculator watch—a sign of maladjustment:
“And judgements like ‘like’ and ‘dislike’ and ‘smiles; and ‘frowns’ were limited to junior high. Someone would write a note and it would say, ‘Do you like unicorns and stickers?’ and you’d say, ‘Yeah, I like unicorns and stickers! Smile!’ That kind of thing. But now it’s not just junior high kids who do it, it’s everyone, and it seems to me sometimes I’ve entered some inverted zone, some mirror world where the dorkiest shit in the world is completely dominant. The world had dorkified itself [...]
“Now the movie stars beg people to follow their Zing feeds. They send pleading messages asking everyone to smile at tem. And holy fuck, the mailing lists! Everyone’s a junk mailer. You know how I spend an hour every day? Thinking of ways to unsubscribe to mailing lists without hurting anyone’s feelings. There’s this new neediness—it pervades everything. [...]
But the tools you guys create actually manufacture unnaturally extreme social needs. No one needs the level of contact you’re purveying. It improves nothing. It’s not nourishing. It’s like snack food.”
Franzen couldn’t have said it better himself.
This post has been updated to clarify that I did not email with Eggers directly.
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