Book Review: The Circle by Dave Eggers

The Circle CoverThe Circle is a dystopian view of Silicon Valley set in a future time that could be, oh, sometime the day after tomorrow. Dave Eggers has crafted a story set in the corporate campus environment of a fictional social media company that will seem all too familiar to anyone who has spent time in the headquarters of a Facebook, Apple or Google.

While the plot, as many reviewers have noted, can be a little creaky, the main thesis of the book is that the world of social media that many of us have rushed headlong into has threatening potential. By trading privacy (you have none, get over it, a tech titan once remarked) for ease of communication with our circle of friends we have entered a Faustian bargain with the bright young sparks who have created the social media sites we love to love.

The book’s main character is a young woman at the start her career. She starts work at the company named “The Circle” that provides the kind of college-dorm on steroids environment the Google and Facebook’s of the world are famous for: free food, parties, famous musicians, fire-eaters & jugglers at company events. With a workplace like this, why leave? The on campus crash pads have refrigerators stocked with goodies, it’s summertime and the living is easy.

However, it isn’t long before the summer sun turns into a winter of discontent.

Our twenty-something heroine slowly realizes that the success on her work position is associated with activities that are anything but voluntary, like attending events and sharing everything with the Circle community, about each and every minute of her life, as a company motto states: “Sharing is Caring”.

To outline any more of the plot would be to spoil the shock of recognition that those of us who spend time in and around Silicon Valley must feel when reading about the All Hands Meetings, customer service centers, managerial shenanigans and office romances on the shores of the San Francisco Bay.

Future Perfect

The weirdest part of the reading The Circle, for me, what what I started noticing in the news after I put the book down. The headlines suddenly seemed to be taken from later chapters. Literally, in the last two weeks, I’ve seen news reports about a mysterious barge Google is building on the Bay; Palo Alto police might start wearing body-mounted cameras (hopefully, as in the novel, they’ll automatically switch off for three minutes while the user in the toilet); and, just in time for this blog posting, The Economist reports that “life-loggers” are embracing the potential of Google Glass to create a people’s panopticon.

The Circle is an entertaining read. Recommended.

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Another stunning example of a “circle-esque” innovation that is being prompted today for real, rather than for fiction, is found in Don Peck’s informative article They’re Watching You at Work in the Dec 2013 edition of The Atlantic:

For a sense of what the future of people analytics may bring, I turned to Sandy Pentland, the director of the Human Dynamics Laboratory at MIT. In recent years, Pentland has pioneered the use of specialized electronic “badges” that transmit data about employees’ interactions as they go about their days. The badges capture all sorts of information about formal and informal conversations: their length; the tone of voice and gestures of the people involved; how much those people talk, listen, and interrupt; the degree to which they demonstrate empathy and extroversion; and more. Each badge generates about 100 data points a minute.

Pentland’s company Sociometric Solutions describes their “social sensing” badges in terms that could have come right from the pages of The Circle:

Our Sociometric® Feedback reports offer views of individual and group norms, and allow staff to better understand how their behavior compares to those around them. This assists individuals with self-management and development through precise behavioral metrics, and helps managers to identify organizational gaps and challenges.

I bet Mae Holland would be first out the gate to “self-manage” herself so she filled any “organizational gaps and challenges.”

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