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[liberationtech] <nettime> Book Review: "The Circle" by Dave Eggers (NYT)

Eugen Leitl eugen at
Mon Oct 14 01:22:21 PDT 2013

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Date: Mon, 14 Oct 2013 07:12:46 +0200
From: Patrice Riemens <patrice at>
To: nettime-l at
Subject: <nettime> Book Review: "The Circle" by Dave Eggers (NYT)
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original to:

A Novel Prompts a Conversation About How We Use Technology

Has Dave Eggers written a parable of our time, an eviscerating
takedown of Silicon Valley and its privacy-invading technology

Or has he missed his target, producing a sanctimonious screed that
fails to humanize its characters and understand its subject?

Book critics are divided over the quality of Mr. Eggers’s highly
anticipated novel “The Circle,” which went on sale Tuesday. But in
Silicon Valley and beyond, the book’s theme promises to spark an even
bigger debate over the 21st-century hyperconnected world that Mr.
Eggers describes.

Set in an “undefined future time,” Mr. Eggers’s novel tells the story
of Mae Holland, a young idealist who comes to work at the Circle,
an immensely powerful technology company that has conquered all its
competitors by creating a single log-in for people to search, shop and
socialize online.

Initial orders have lifted the book to the No. 21 spot on Amazon,
no small achievement for literary fiction, and booksellers reported
selling copies almost immediately after opening their doors on

In the tech world, some readers have bristled at the reflection of
their world. “It makes me feel defensive because it hits home,” said
Esther Dyson, an investor in tech start-ups.

Other early readers of the book said they were reconsidering their
attachment to the Internet. In an essay titled “Dave Eggers Made Me
Quit Twitter,” Michele Filgate, a writer and bookseller in Brooklyn,
wrote about her experience swearing off social media for a week, an
experiment prompted by the unsettling feeling the book produced.

“I hope that it allows people to step back and have a conversation
about how we want to use technology,” said Jennifer Jackson, Mr.
Eggers’s editor at Knopf. “I don’t think that this book is really
going to make people stop using social media and I don’t think that’s
at all Dave’s intent. This book is going to make people be more
thoughtful — that’s my hope.” Mr. Eggers, who lives in the Bay Area,
declined to be interviewed. He is not doing any readings or events to
publicize the book.

Knopf and McSweeney’s, which are publishing the book together,
have planned a print run of 125,000, an ambitious number in a busy
fall book season where Mr. Eggers will compete against fiction by
Elizabeth Gilbert, Jhumpa Lahiri and Thomas Pynchon. A spokeswoman for
McSweeney’s declined to reveal the advance.

On the McSweeney’s Web site, Mr. Eggers said that he did not base the
Circle on any particular company like Facebook or Google, nor did he
visit the campuses of Google, Twitter or Facebook, interview their
employees or read books about them.

Yet Silicon Valley is recognizable everywhere. The Circle most closely
resembles Google, with its Google Glass-like retinal computers,
initiatives to map far-flung parts of the world, a triumvirate running
the company, antitrust investigations and a secret lab for future
projects. TruYou, the fictional company’s core product, has the
letters of one of the founder’s names, just like PageRank, Google’s
search algorithm, is named after the Google co-founder Larry Page.

The Circle’s founders have mantras that paint a troubling, dystopian
picture, like “sharing is caring” and “secrets are lies.”

Those refrains are similar in tone to remarks made by executives like
Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook and Eric E. Schmidt of Google, who once
said, “If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe
you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.”

Representatives of Google and Facebook declined to comment on the
book. In early September, a spokesman for Google e-mailed Knopf to
ask for an advance copy of the book, saying that it sounded like “an
interesting an important read for us,” according to the e-mail, a copy
of which was obtained by The Times. Knopf did not comply with the

Glen Robbe, the manager at Books Inc., in Mountain View, Calif., said
that he had read parts of “The Circle” and recognized the Google
campus, a place he has visited frequently to sell books during author

“Dave Eggers is so well known in the Bay Area, I have no doubt in
my mind it will be a huge hit,” Mr. Robbe said. “People will be
enlightened by it.”

Mr. Eggers portrays Silicon Valley as a place with ostentatious goals
and an idealistic belief that its technology will change the world
for the better, no matter the potential consequences. The Circle’s
SeeChange cameras, for instance, stick to walls and broadcast live
video, so they can do things like capture protests in the Middle East
when journalists have been kicked out. The trade-off is that they also
secretly broadcast people’s private moments at home.

Benedict Evans, a tech and media analyst at Enders Analysis, a
London research firm, said that Mr. Eggers’s descriptions capture
two qualities typical of tech companies: unbridled optimism and the
failure to understand real-world consequences of new technologies.

“There is a massive bias toward optimism, and that’s why we have
computers and all this stuff, because if people sat down rationally at
every moment and said, ‘Would that work?’ we wouldn’t have anything,”
Mr. Evans said.

But, he added, “The flip side is there is a sort of utopian and a
Panglossian approach that comes from never having seen a failure and
never having to deal with the reality of people who aren’t in Silicon

Some of Mr. Eggers’s references ring false. He misuses technical terms
like “operating system,” for instance, and there is little public
outrage in the book over the privacy violations the Circle commits,
in contrast to the real-life anger that often accompanies privacy

Yet part of the reason “The Circle” can seem unnerving is because it
stops short of far-fetched science fiction. Many of the inventions are
just one small step further than tech companies have already gone.

Sometimes, the book’s characters use technology that is already
available. Circle employees and lawmakers “go transparent,” meaning
they wear cameras that broadcast everything they see — much like
Google Glass can do. In other cases, Mr. Eggers’s dystopian imaginings
seem to have come true in the time since he wrote the novel.

In the last week, articles in The New York Times have described
several real-life situations that sound uncannily similar to plot
twists in “The Circle,” like the privacy risks for children from
schools that collect data about students and store it in the cloud,
and the ability to search people’s names and find their arrest photos

Mr. Eggers is using fiction to ask questions that writers like Rebecca
Solnit, Jaron Lanier and Evgeny Morozov have raised in nonfiction. The
novel continues the debate, and asks whether the semi-imaginary world
of “The Circle” is inevitable.

In Silicon Valley, some tech people have criticized the book for its
lack of verisimilitude, echoing a column for Reuters in which Felix
Salmon criticized the novel.

“Eggers is preaching to a group of people which has already made up
its collective mind that social media is dangerous,” Mr. Salmon wrote.

But others thought the tech community doth protest too much. “It’s
more of a stark look in the mirror,” said Perry Hewitt, who has worked
at tech companies and is now chief digital officer at Harvard. “It’s
less about Silicon Valley and it’s more about looking at ourselves.”

More reviews: (San Jose Mercury News)
(The Guardian)
(The Observer)


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