Book Look - The Circle, by Dave Eggers

I understand why this has attracted so many negative reviews. The writing is pedestrian, the plot predictable, the denoument melodramatic, and the main character, Mae, wholly unappealing - petty, shallow, self-indulgent, and stupid. But none of that detracts from the fact that this is one of the scariest books I've read in a long time. Not in a Steven King way, but in an Orwellian way.

The book is about how a Google-like social media organization named the Circle (think Google + Facebook + Apple) gradually manages to insert itself into every aspect of society, by convincing people to trade their privacy in exchange for the promise of efficient living (search engines that already know what you want save time!), improved security (keep your child safe by tracking their movements! Keep your neighborhood safe by tracking strangers!), greater social engagement (why leave making friends to chance when IT can hook you up with the perfect companion?), enhanced entertainment (let us feed you entertainment we already know you'll like, based on your past preferences!), and greater visibility into our democratic processes (put an end to "backroom deals" by letting us wire your local politicians so you can watch their every move!). 

What makes the book so chilling is how very plausible this scenario is. On the surface, each of these trade-offs sounds almost worth it. Aren’t we, in fact, already embracing some of these tradeoffs – exchanging our privacy for the convenience of car sensors that pay our tolls for us, music search engines that can figure out what music we want to hear, and ebook readers that save us the trouble of carting around paperbacks? (By the way, ebook companies can and do track what you read, how long you spend on every page, even what you highlight; think about that the next time you download 50 Shades of Grey … or Mein Kampf.) What this novel does is project these current trends forward, envisioning a dystopian future in which private companies extend their reach from controlling marketing decisions to wresting control of entire social, cultural, economic and political systems. 

The character of Mae is supposed to represent us at our most gullible and self-indulgent – so maybe the fact that so many readers find her unappealing means there’s hope for us after all? One only hopes that books like this – as Brave New World and 1984 have done before – warn people of where we’re headed while there’s still time to stop ourselves.

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