There’s a long tradition of sci-fi horror that cleverly plays on contemporary social trends. The “pod people” trope of the 1950s exploited fears of spreading Communism. In the early ’70s, as women found new freedom in the workplace, The Stepford Wives imagined suburban homemakers as robot slaves. This year, in the wake of Occupy Wall Street, the film Elysium posited an off-world retreat for the elite—abandoning the 99 Percent to slog it out amid the squalor left behind.
In Dave Eggers’s new novel, The Circle, the bad guy isn’t socialism, antiquated gender roles, or economic inequality. It’s social media. In Eggers’s vision, the scariest thing about the modern world is our own compulsion to trade our privacy, dignity, and quietude for a fleeting feeling of connectedness. The most terrifying villains are the puppeteers who enable it all—the companies that eagerly offer their free technological tools in exchange for our online souls.
Eggers introduces his young protagonist, Mae Holland, on her first day of work at a massive California corporation called the Circle, a fictionalized Google. The Circle’s first breakthrough was TruYou, a product that combines all your passwords, preferences, and payment systems into a single account—“one button for the rest of your life online.” The company’s also aiming to trace the evolution of our genetic code, to map the farthest reaches of the universe, and, perhaps most ominously, to capture every moment of the day, all across the world, on searchable high-def video.
At first, Eggers seems content to poke harmless fun at Silicon Valley gargantucorps. The bright young things who work at the Circle are tirelessly optimistic and ambitious. They never leave the utopian confines of their campus and have zero doubt that theirs is the most capable organization in the world. They are equally certain its intentions are benign. But menace soon creeps in. Although Mae attends company events, her supervisor complains about her lack of a social media presence. “We have no record of you being there,” he whines. “Why not?” Mae is pressured into wearing a headset that lets her “zing” about her every quotidian act and thought and “smile” or “frown” at her co-workers’ zings. She’s later forced to wear a camera on a chain around her neck, broadcasting her life 24 hours a day to millions of strangers.
Although the Circle’s goals are veiled in ideals such as transparency and truth, it becomes clear the company is downright totalitarian. It hopes to embed computer chips in every child on earth. It wants mandatory Circle accounts for all U.S. citizens—a prerequisite for voting. It embodies Silicon Valley techno-utopianism gone off the rails.
Only Mae’s ex-boyfriend, a bearded artist named Mercer, seems skeptical. Mercer, presumably a stand-in for Eggers, suggests that perhaps we don’t need to record everything we do. “We are not meant to know everything,” he pleads with Mae in a letter. “You people are creating a world of ever-present daylight, and I think it will burn us all alive.”
Eggers’s past work has tackled sociopolitical issues such as the justice system, Sudanese refugees, and the plight of public school educators. The Circle gives him a new soapbox, and if he can convince a mass audience that Google is even a little bit evil, he’ll have produced some of the most subversive commercial fiction ever written. The novel is a pro-privacy, antitech manifesto masquerading as a Dan Brown thriller. It’s Evgeny Morozov dressed in John Grisham’s clothing.
Are we OK with letting the world know where we are, who we’re with, and what we’re doing at all times? Trading our privacy in return for a more frictionless online experience? At this point, cranky complaints about social media oversharing are spit in the wind. (Folks are going to Instagram photos of their food. Get over it.) And some of the more Luddite-inflected, declinist rants in The Circle feel overblown. But the overarching battle dramatized here—between privacy and transparency, self-sovereignty and global connectedness—is just getting started.