Encircled

Screen shot 2013-11-17 at 8.54.12 AMThe Circle, the dystopic novel by Dave Eggers on the totalitarian perils of social media and a totally joined-up universe has been getting a lot of frowns.

When I told my husband that I had pre-ordered the book on Amazon after being sucked into the premise of the story that I read in the New York Times magazine, sitting on a broken lawn chair at the dog park, he was skeptical and dismissive and sent me this article, which references this article.

One friend who has been recommending great books to me for many years read it and disliked it. A lot. Another person I know only through Facebook, who is the author of a fantastic autobiographical piece that was featured in Longreads, has written a scathing review of it. She shared a link to another pan, which cleverly repurposes a Simpsons meme: old man shakes fist at cloud.

My peer group sample of three and their acquaintances do not like this book. Is there some part of us that feels like Eggers is sounding like clueless old people that makes us feel compelled to youthful scorn? There is much indignation about how he doesn’t get social media and the corporate culture as portrayed was all wrong and how these companies are trying to do good, not evil. Maybe I am not as discerning as they are, but every day I find I am struggling in my own life to draw lines around what’s worth sharing, reading, liking and making distinctions between convenience, an enhanced user experience and unspecified concerns about being too connected. Do not track, disable cookies, unsubscribe, unfollow. Are you sure? Will you help us improve our service by telling us why? Don’t you want to enhance your own user experience by inviting your friends?

I think Eggers did a decent job of describing a world in which we already live, with the righteous infallibility of a TED talk, where sharing makes everything more awesome. TripAdvisor writes me periodically to tell me how many users have rated my review as helpful. And it gives me a brief flutter of feeling helpful (one review was to thank the people at our very basic hotel for dropping off a bag of left items at the car rental desk of the train station, the other for a friend’s business, in other words, reviews worth writing.)

The characters in The Circle would point out that all reviews are worth writing.

It’s not that I don’t see the benefits of sharing and the long tail, etc, but I wonder at what point it becomes too much. We are already feeding biometric data into the cloud. Some of you voluntarily use services like OnStar and Vivint. While writing this, I wonder if I should be rating this book on Goodreads, and if so, why? When the Circle is closed, where will evil go? Where will creativity happen? Because we can call it an out-of-touch over-the-top paranoid fantasy except we are already steeped in its rhetoric and expectations. Is the problem that it paints an unflattering picture or that it doesn’t go far enough?

What do teens think of it? I would give it to my teenage daughter to read except that I am worried she might get the wrong idea about sex.

Here were some things I thought he got right:

Francis, a product designer whose work is motivated by the abduction of his siblings when they were all children finally locates them but having done that hasn’t gotten around to actually reconnecting.

Rate your partner. How far off than can that be?

Online voter registration/voting. Already, when I renew my car tag online, it can verify my insurance policy, whereas it seems so old school to go to the church around the corner and sign my name on a clipboard and then fill out a bubble form and feed it into a box.

The fervent belief in the value of online support groups.

As a literary device, I liked the oldish, sunravaged couple living in the bay, having their cocktail hour.

Here were two Chekhovian guns on the wall that needed to go off:

The sex video Francis made.

The firepole in Eamon’s office.

While reading the book, I started taking screenshots of things that could have come from its pages except that they are real. I don’t believe that the ultimate conclusion to all of this is a webcast of a shark eating an octopus, but we shouldn’t just dismiss the whole thing because he didn’t research it (it’s about zeitgeist, it’s not a documentary or journalism) or because it paints a negative view of something that has many positive counterpoints. Living part of our lives online changes us and it changes our expectations and definitions of relationships and voice and reach.

This morning, listening to a British panel game on the radio, one of the contestants was challenged to sing Gloria Gaynor’s anthem “I Will Survive” to the tune of “I Do Like to Be Beside the Seaside.” What’s funny about this segment of the show is the friction between the two songs, how the tune obliterates the meaning of the words. In this case, the poetry and poignancy are lost to the music hall piano tempo. It reminded me a little bit of The Circle, a message being undercut by the medium, an original work that is a bit campy, and drowned out by an insistent chorus of the book’s detractors that tells us everything is going to be okay.

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