Saturday, November 9, 2013
The Circle (Dave Eggers)
So last week I decided to finally break out of my rut and learn how to do some cooking. I am an expert at ordering take out from the Thai restaurant a block away, or finessing a pizza delivery order, but I decided that before I'm too old I should learn how to make something in the kitchen. Granted, I can slice up limes for a gin and tonic, but I figured that before I die, which could be any day now for someone as ancient as me, I should know how to prepare something a bit more sophisticated and yet still edible. So to put my plan into action, I first went down to the corner liquor store and bought a bottle of Stolichnaya vodka. I love Stoli because it's as good as any other damn vodka as far as I can tell (they all taste like nothing to me, except the cheap ones which taste like leaded gasoline), and the label looks like something designed in the old Soviet Union. The vodka of the people! Next, I went to the local produce market and bought some green and red jalapeno peppers. Returning to my kitchen, I utilized my well-honed lime-cutting skills to chop up the jalapeno peppers into strips, skillfully removing the seeds at the same time. Then I drank a bit of the Stoli...to make some room in the bottle, but more importantly as a quality control measure. With space now freed up, I put the jalapenos into the bottle and let it stand on the kitchen shelf for a week. As a result, I am now sipping on jalapeno-infused vodka as I write tonight's blog post. It's actually quite tasty...a bit spicy, but not overwhelmingly so (I think I got lucky and didn't put in too many jalapenos...I could see this drink going to a very dark place if I had overloaded on the peppers). Oddly enough it tastes much better to me if I drink it at room temperature rather than cold or on ice. When it's chilled it looses the peppery flavor and a lot of the spiciness. So I'm just drinking it at room temperature in a shot glass. Hell, I don't know why I'm not just drinking it out of the bottle. Regardless, I see my first foray into the world of culinary expertise as highly successful, which means I can kick back and rest on my laurels for awhile while drinking warm peppery vodka and waiting for the pizza delivery dude to arrive.
Yeah, so I don't usually cook, and I don't usually read contemporary fiction. But when I saw that Dave Eggers had a new novel out, I decided to branch out a bit, at least for one book. You see, Dave Eggers is a local hero out here in San Francisco. Back in the 90s he put out a magazine called "Might", a bold and daring publication that did not hesitate to run probing exposes into such topics as "Are black people cooler than white people?" He also wrote a fondly-remembered local comic strip called "Smart Feller", which most people don't remember. Then he went big time with his first book, a poignant and humble memoir entitled "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius". He started a philanthropic organization, 826 Valencia, a non-profit dedicated to helping children and young adults develop writing skills and to helping teachers inspire their students to write (and whose physical location also features the world's only independent pirate supply store). He founded McSweeney's Publishing, all while continuing to produce new writing. Yep, he's an energetic, busy, and creative man. So when I found out he had just written a dystopian novel about the tech industry, I was intrigued. You see, living here in San Francisco these days you can't get away from the tech industry. The city, and Silicon Valley to the south, are booming with tech companies, from small startups to huge behemoths like Google and Facebook and Twitter. The money, ideas, and young programmers are pouring in from all over the world, transforming the economy and the way we live with their tweets and apps and operating systems and whatnot. You can read all about the tech industry in the Wall Street Journal and Wired, or hear about it on CNBC and Fox News, but I wanted to hear Eggers take on it. Because, well... Eggers!
Eggers's novel begins with the main character, Mae Holland, excited and nervous about getting a job at a tech company called The Circle. The Circle is pretty clearly modeled after Google, but it's like Google on Steroids, after they've taken over Facebook and Twitter. The Circle wants to digitize and process all knowledge. They have invented a system called TruYou, which has combined all the formerly separate information on the internet about individuals, like e-mail, passwords, user names, passwords, etc. Individuals now can use TrueYou for everything on the internet, but it uses their real names and identity. The Circle wants to make everyone "transparent". Everything in the world must be known, according to their philosophy. Users love it, and The Circle quickly becomes the hugest tech company ever. They come up with new technologies to place cameras everywhere, so that the whole world can watch the whole world, and everyone can watch everyone else. Mae loves working here because it's exciting and happening. She starts out answering customer inquiries, and she strives to be perfect in her job. The Circle also has a social network, and one scores points for how active one is in the network. Mae tries reaching for the top here too. Soon Mae has agreed to be part of an experiment where she wears a camera 24/7 (except when in the bathroom) so she can be "transparent" to the entire world. She becomes an ambassador for The Circle, roving about the company, explaining what she sees to her eager fans. She can check a monitor on her wrist and see exactly how many people are watching her at any particular moment. She can also read and respond to their comments in real time. It's a social network gone exponentially wild. And Mae and her followers love it!
The Circle starts to convince government officials to "go transparent" and have their every move recorded by cameras, to assure their constituents that they are above board. Mae thinks all this is awesome. Soon The Circle is contemplating running all government functions, including voting, because they can do this so much more efficiently than governments. In other words, yes it's an ominous and a creeping totalitarian system, headed up by one tech company. And here's where the novel really misses the mark, I think. Eggers makes an interesting case about how total control of knowledge can lead to bad things. But in the novel, almost everyone, with a few exceptions, is a huge fan of The Circle, and applauds their efforts. And Mae is at the forefront of this. She's definitely not the hero of the novel, but she's not a villain either. Actually, she's kind of an idiot. Even when she loses family and friends, and someone close to her dies tragically because of The Circle's monitoring of their lives, she's still unfazed and loves what The Circle is doing. I wanted to reach into the pages of the book and slap her out of it. I understand that Eggers wants to paint her as someone totally caught up in social media, and who's obsessed by approval of her viewers on the internet, but she's just too naive to be totally believable. And at the very end of the book she has a choice between stopping The Circle and not, and while Eggers seems to think that it's suspenseful to the reader to not know which she's going to choose, it's actually not because we know exactly what she's going to do. Her behavior is both not plausible and entirely too predictable to make things completely interesting.
Besides, in this world of fears about privacy on the internet, outrage over the NSA spying on our phone calls and e-mails, right-wing paranoia about the government coming and taking everyone's guns, left-wing paranoia about corporations taking over, etc., it's hard for me to imagine how people would just lie down and let The Circle monitor everyone and everything at all times and think it's the greatest thing ever. Yes, this novel makes the point that technology is enabling all of us to become a version of Big Brother. I think Eggers makes some great points about where the capabilities of tech can and will go with respect to privacy and monitoring and measuring and controlling our lives, but I think this particular scenario is way overblown, and doesn't take into account the complexities of people's thoughts and concerns about how tech invades our privacy. So while I'd call this book a fun and thought-provoking read, it's also rather maddening, somewhat sloppily plotted, and not so plausible when one really thinks about it. But if you have an evening to curl up with a fast-paced, entertaining read and some pepper-infused vodka, you could certainly do worse.