With job prospects slim, Mae Holland, a 24-year-old college grad, has been working at a local utility company for a few years. She sees her job as a dead end, but what can she do? She has bills to pay.
Mae’s college roommate, Annie, is a few years older than Mae and has not only landed a job at the prestigious and hip Silicon Valley ‘Circle,’ but is a superstar there, one of the top 40 employees on a campus of 10,000. She is able to pull some strings and get Mae a job as well.
There could be no better place to work than The Circle. It’s all things tech and all things social. The descriptions of the on-campus fitness facilities, parties, lectures and child care make the reader think of Google. And yet The Circle is so much more. Employees have free unlimited health care as long as they are willing to have their bodily systems tracked through internal monitors (they swallow them down with some juice) and external bracelets that indicate pulse, blood pressure, number of steps taken in a day, cholesterol levels—just about everything.
Healthcare is just one way that The Circle tracks its employees. Everyone who works there is expected to make life on the Circle campus the totality of their own lives. Mae doesn’t understand this at first. She isn’t checking all of her mail and feeds (think of thousands of Twitter-like messages a day). She gets in trouble for hurting the feelings of someone who is having an event on the Circle campus that Mae should have attended but didn’t even know about. No worries—Mae is soon with it, staying late at work and then setting up ‘house’ there in her own cubbie apartment so that she can participate nonstop. She is so active on the social network, that her feed is always in the top 2,000, making her a popular employee who inspires others with awe.
Three big projects in The Circle fascinate the reader. Employees are developing a sort of internal GPS system so that children can be perpetually tracked, and thus child abduction can be prevented. Surveillance cameras are being set up in public spaces so that crime can be monitored. Companies can place them on their grounds. Better yet, these cameras are very cheap, so anyone can buy one and place it anywhere, adding to the ability of The Circle to monitor behaviors, anywhere, anytime. And lastly, politicians are being asked to wear cameras and speaker monitors 24/7 so that their constituents will know that they aren’t making backroom deals and accepting bribes. If any politicians cry foul at this intrusion of personal liberty, it is assumed that they have something to hide. So that The Circle can show that it has nothing to hide, Mae is the employee chosen to wear this sort of monitor.
Mae loves being open to all people at all times. She receives so many messages from people all over the globe as they watch her. She feels that she is connected and that all of these people truly love her. And so she can’t understand why her parents are ungrateful for the excellent health care they are receiving through Mae’s employment or why her former boyfriend is trying to opt out of all social media and go rogue. But life is getting pretty dark for anyone who refuses The Circle’s vision.
High school housekeeping: I think this is a great adult book for teen readers. Granted, Eggers isn’t trying to be subtle here. The problems with giving oneself over to The Circle are the big, obvious kind to people who still care about privacy and the chance to be alone. (What is going to happen after every kid is ‘chipped’ to prevent abduction? The chip will still be there all of his or her life. What power does that give The Circle over him or her?) And yet, the heads of The Circle are always making convincing arguments for why the world will be better if they have their way. The truly scary thing about The Circle is that none of this sounds like science-fiction. Everything The Circle does is something we are already doing on a smaller scale and through a few central corporations and social media outlets. The Circle just manages to absorb these things.
If your teacher would like you to read an updated version of curriculum standards like 1984 and Brave New World, this is your book. It’d make a great compare/contrast project because, as mentioned above, all of the dark things that happen in The Circle are based on current technology. And unlike 1984, no one is torturing anyone to maintain the status quo. They get universal buy-in simply because 21st-century folks are so afraid of being left out, of not being loved and appreciated by the mass of ‘friends’ whom they know nothing about.