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Brave new world: 'The Circle'

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The Circle, a novel by Dave Eggers

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In his new novel, “The Circle,” Dave Eggers looks ahead to a future that is at once bleakly terrifying and infinitely attainable.

Thanks to her good college friend Anna, Mae Holland lands a coveted job with the Circle, the world’s most powerful Internet company. The company’s lush campus – think Google – offers everything a loan-strapped recent college grad could want.

A few thousand Circlers began to gather in the twilight, and standing among them, Mae knew that she never wanted to work – never wanted to be – anywhere else. Her hometown, and the rest of California, the rest of America, seemed like some chaotic mess in the developing world. Outside the walls of the Circle, all was noise and struggle, failure and filth. But here, all had been perfected. The best people had made the best systems and the best systems had reaped funds, unlimited funds, that made possible this, the best place to work. And it was natural that it was so, Mae thought. Who else but utopians could make utopia?

The Circle has linked everything a person might do online: email, social media, banking, shopping, bill paying – you name it – into a single readily accessible and transparent account. It sounds like a plan.

But “transparency” is just a word for a concerted effort to relieve the company’s millions of users of their last vestige of privacy. Thumb-sized “SeeChange” cameras are installed all over the world. As one of the company’s Three Wise Men explains, “This is the ultimate transparency. No filter. See everything. Always.”

Mae herself finds out just how pervasive – and invasive – the watchful eye of the Circle is when she illicitly borrows a kayak from a place where she is a known member. Called on the carpet, she acknowledges that:

PRIVACY IS THEFT
SECRETS ARE LIES
SHARING IS CARING

She becomes “transparent,” wearing a constant camera that feeds her every action and interaction to all the company’s users. Her parents, who are receiving premium health care through the Circle, resent the loss of privacy. A former boyfriend berates her:

“Here there are no oppressors. No one’s forcing you to do this. You willingly tie yourself to these leashes. And you willingly become utterly socially autistic. You no longer pick up on basic human communication clues. You’re at a table with three humans, all of whom are looking at you and trying to talk to you, and you’re staring at a screen, searching for strangers in Dubai.”

It wouldn’t take much to tip today’s world where any Facebook user can learn where friends are shopping, or what song they just listened to, or what stores they like, politics they preach, or even what conversations they are having with their other friends into the world of “The Circle.”

The Circle is aiming for completion, for closure, and for control of all of the world’s information and Mae finds herself in a unique position to prevent the company from becoming “the world’s first tyrannical monopoly.” But will she act?

A white knuckle page-turner, “The Circle” is also a compelling cautionary tale about the increasingly virtual world we willingly embrace and inhabit.

“The Circle” is available on amazon.com and at your favorite New York bookstores.

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