I read Dave Eggers’ latest novel, “The Circle,” on my Kindle. It learned my reading speed within the first few “pages” and then reported to me with a timestamp in the lower right hand corner how many hours and minutes I had left before I finished. Besides actually owning the Kindle – I caved after a cross-country flight where my personal item was a hardcover copy of Murakami’s 1Q84, ~1300 pages – I’m basically a Luddite. I definitely don’t know how to opt out of the book timer. So, there it is, adjusting as I go, dropping minutes if I get ahead, numbers going up if I start slacking. I find myself sitting up all night, breathlessly resisting the urge to blink so to as shave off precious minutes from my personal time. I’m like Apollo Ohno, attempting the world’s lamest personal best. By the time I finish the book (under four hours), I realized I no longer own the Kindle: it owns me. I’m terrified.
And that goes hand-in-hand with the book, which tells of Mae Holland, a woman whose millennial despair is rectified when she lands a coveted gig at the titular tech company-cum-Google/Facebook/Apple set on a sprawling and idyllic NorCal campus. She’s swiftly outfitted with all the trappings of success: new laptop, new phone, primo health insurance, a buffet of coordinated social network logins, the weepy cocktail of parental pride and relief, collegial jealousy, and a wearable monitor that tracks your vital signs.
Just as I found myself elevated of heart rate and short of breath racing through the prose, so too is Mae consumed by her PartiRank, an intracompany ranking based on social media participation. She becomes obsessed with commenting, posting, “smiling” at other people’s comments and posts; she joins this communal effort to building what essentially amounts to a digital Staten Island Dump of human thought repurposed as “content.”
“The Circle” approaches Dan Brown levels of conspiracy theory, as politicians opt to “go clear,” streaming their every waking moment via a wearable webcam. Pocket-sized opposition movements break out against the company and its campaign to place webcams in every remote corner of the world. Privacy becomes more or less criminal. But the truly affecting part of Eggers’ parable is the way in which he conceptualizes the piracy of personal consciousness As “The Circle” would have it, there’s no thought that can’t or shouldn’t be digitized, monetized, broadcast, or ranked. Though ostensibly these things start out as methods of personal improvement — a heart rate monitor and wearable pedometer would serve to promote a healthy lifestyle — Mae and the Circlers become consumed by the numbers on their readouts. They’re in constant competition with their own biological processes. Everything can be improved.
Mae doesn’t see it, as she grows distant from her friends and family, even as they tell her that’s what’s happening. She loses herself in a digital fog of apparent self-improvement that rapidly curdles into self-righteousness and then congeals into an essential loss of self entirely. By the end, there’s a deafening silence, punctuated only by the sad clack-clacking of keystrokes in an attempt to “be more connected.”
I finished the book and came up gasping for air as if I’d been underwater for 500 pages. I tossed the Kindle away and stared up at the ceiling, reveling in the privacy of my own head. There were no apps tracking my heart beat or websites cataloging fleeting ideas I had, or webcams trained on my bedroom. There’s a comfort in the notion that fiction is just stories, and when we close books we get back to reality.
Reality’s lonely, and after a few minutes I wondered if anyone else had read the book and had the feelings, so I tweeted about “The Circle” (#litfic #millennials). And then I had a notification that some people had liked my Instagram from before and the likes showed up on Facebook and there was this Buzzfeed listicle about classic Russian novelists and there I was stuck in a digital loop that I’d thought was just the stuff of fiction so I unplugged and retreated to the safety of reality TV.