Book Review: We Are All Big Brother Now

Book(1)Technology and science fiction are ascendant in contemporary American culture. Literary authors have recently embraced both, with results that are less about the future than the present.

For instance, what seemed three years ago a prescient portrait of social media and the devolution of text and interpretive nuance into mere data points in Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story, is so 2011 in the era of Snapchat and Google Glass. Similarly, George Saunders’ short story Semplica Girl Diaries (from Tenth of December)—about a middle-class family’s attempts to keep up with the Joneses and their lawn displays of developing world refugee children—seemed last year like a Swiftian critique of globalization and commodification. It turns out Saunders was merely channeling 2014’s Texas refugee border crisis, with talking heads and politicos exploiting adolescent refugees as mere political fodder.

Perhaps no recent work embodies this trend more than Dave Eggers’ The Circle. Eggers’ intent with The Circle—other than spinning an entertaining techno-thriller yarn—would seem apiece with its dystopian analogue, Orwell’s 1984. A curious but naive outsider is, along with the reader, initiated into the secret codes of the world’s most powerful organization. Through this parable, the author spins a cautionary tale of a future world that went down the wrong path sometime in the past (the reader’s present).

In 1984, totalitarian government played the villain. In 2013’s The Circle, the outwardly benevolent institutional overlord is a corporate amalgam of Google, Facebook, and Twitter, from which the novel takes its name.

“The Circle,” with a three-headed hydra—a Jobs, a Gates, and a mysterious Musk-like figure—atop its leadership structure, also possesses three corporate missions: information collection, information transparency, and improving the world. To The Circle, pursuit of the first two missions inexorably leads to the success in the third (all three, of course, make the corporation piles of money when packaged into the latest app, social networking platform, or wearable device).

Mae Holland, The Circle’s Winston Smith, is a small-town girl made good. Through her association with Annie, her college roommate and an archetypal overachiever, Mae transcends her modest upbringings, unfocused liberal arts education, and dead-end job at her hometown utility company to gain entry into the uber-elite of Silicon Valley. Mr. Eggers introduces us to Mae on her first day at The Circle, a clever move as it allows us to experience through Mae’s wide, innocent eyes the by-now familiar Silicon Valley tropes of tech “campus” living, from the lunchroom screening of Koyaanisqatsi to the ubiquitous (and now controversial) corporate commuter buses. [1]

Mae is brought up to speed by Annie and a few other Circlers, as they call themselves, given the campus tour and schooled in the founding myth, which begins with TruYou, an app which allowed users to keep all of their identifying information under a single, encrypted corporate umbrella.[2] Within six years of TruYou, The Circle became one of the largest corporations in the world.

Mae moves from novitiate to manager to executive trendsetter at exponential speed, mirroring the compression of culture in the digital age, the blink between early adoption and worldwide saturation. Initially, constant reminders to update her social networking status and disapproving work reviews based on failure to attend voluntary social activities irritate Mae. But she soon finds she prefers giving her every waking hour to The Circle and the Circlers.

Among other Edenic temptations, Circlers get to beta test the newest, trendiest consumer products in exchange for their elite member feedback. And Circlers and their families get the world’s best health care included with their employment. This last benefit is of unique significance to Mae, whose father is stricken with multiple sclerosis. (The prerequisite for top quality service, however, is unwanted surveillance cameras that cause a rift between Mae and her parents.) Even with all of the corporate benefits and perks, Mae only fully embraces The Circle after getting caught in an extracurricular folly shows her The Circle’s transparency-making tentacles are limitless.

The corporation abhors the beatific individualism of one who simply wants to be left alone. But The Circle’s corporate genius is that it expresses no ill will towards individualism per se. On the contrary, The Circle promises empowerment, giving individuals instantaneous access to life-improving information and products and rooting out moral malfeasance with the harsh disinfectant of 24/7, shaming sunlight.

The Circle’s cautionary tale for our times concerns this war between surveillance and privacy. In 1984, Big Brother’s tripartite mantra was “WAR IS PEACE,” “FREEDOM IS SLAVERY,” and “IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH.” The Circle has its own trio of mission statements: “Secrets are Lies”, “Sharing is Caring,” and “Privacy is Theft.”

We know this war well—by the time The Circle was published, the United States and the rest of the world were engaged in a heated debate caused by Edward Snowden’s disclosures about NSA surveillance.

Whereas in 1984, Big Brother was watching, in The Circle, everyone is watching everyone else, most doing so enthusiastically. The 1984 script is flipped—in 1984, the proletariat was completely cut off from the ruling classes, monitored by government for subversive tendencies, but otherwise ignored. In The Circle, only a few losers and outsiders exist outside The Circle’s all-knowing, all-sharing community. And, as occurs in one of the novel’s climactic scenes, those few outsiders can be remotely tracked down in minutes and brought within The Circle’s embrace.

In other words, in the world of The Circle (and The Circle), we are all Big Brother.

This begs the question: Isn’t this our world already? One could be forgiven, in the wake of the NSA scandal, Silicon Valley corporate overreach into our privacy, and the seemingly weekly gigantic data breach, for thinking The Circle’s concerns have escaped their Pandora’s Box. What frightens most about The Circle is the enthusiastic submission of technology’s consumers—all of us, really—to the cult of transparency and the shaming of privacy. Its trendsetters, politicians and power brokers live a life all too-much examined by others, unexamined by themselves.

The Circle puts the improvements technology has made to our daily lives on the scales against the inextricable intrusions into our privacy. The novel accepts that branding and self-promotion are the lingua franca of the youth of today and wonders where all this may end, when the commodification of identity and the tyranny of the over-sharing economy culture will have its Truman Show moment.

While rich with these ideas, The Circle does not reveal where its author, a longtime Bay Area luminary, stands on them. The novel is dystopian, but not pedantic. To Mr. Eggers’ credit, The Circle is enjoyable regardless of where you come down on the questions it raises.

Will The Circle, like 1984, be read in 50 years? Probably not. The strength and accuracy of its depiction of our near-future world also means it may not translate for future generations. The world of The Circle, for better or worse, may be in our rearview mirror soon, given the exponential rate of change in our technologically-driven culture. We tortoise-like holdout readers of fiction can only hope that, to explain that next world, we will have Jonathan Franzen’s sci-fi opus remembering things already past.


[1] E.g., Oreskovic, Alexei, Silicon Valley firms to pay fee for commuter shuttles amid tech backlash, Reuters.com, posted June 21, 2014.

[2] Again here, Eggers mirrors the present more than he portends.  See, e.g., Morozov. Evgeny, Facebook’s Gateway Drug, The New York Times, Sunday Review, August 3, 2014.


By James Hardy, a Senior Deputy Public Defender in the Appellate Division of the State Public Defender’s Office, who majored in English and American Literature at New York University. He can be contacted at jshardy@gmail.com.