Friday, October 16, 2015

Book Review: The end of the world as we know it - The Circle

(You can read the first two parts of my apocalyptic summer reading book review series, on The Last Days of California and Station Elevenhere and here.)

The Circle by Dave Eggers | Recommended by Erika

Favorite line: "Not every human activity can be measured. The ceaseless pursuit of data to quantify the value of any endeavor is catastrophic to true understanding."

If Station Eleven depicts a post-technology world, The Circle is one where technology has taken on a new degree of authoritarianism over our lives as social creatures and as consumers. It follows Mae, a twenty-something who gets a job at The Circle, a Google-like technology company quickly expanding its reach over a variety of human endeavors. If we're being technical, this is more dystopian than apocalyptic - but it definitely focused on a radically changed world. This was a quick and enjoyable, if a bit predictable and slow-to-start, cautionary tale about the direction we're headed in our social media-obsessed world. Once you grasp the basic conceit, you see where the story is going. But then again, it was also more thought-provoking than I anticipated.

At the Circle, any experience that's not shared socially is essentially worthless. You are expected to be "on" constantly, and to be able to package your interests and travels and achievements in a way that makes you attractive to others. It's the logical conclusion of the idea that "if it's not on Facebook, it didn't happen" - and the temptation to, when you're traveling, get caught up in thinking about how you'll caption your photos later instead of enjoying the moment. I've found myself thinking that about some of my own endeavors - like what good is this if no one knows about it? - so it was a good reminder that there is value in private experience.

Unexpectedly, the book also made me think about how we approach social change. The Circle uses its technology - tracking devices and video cameras and the like - to combat countless social ills. When that leads to a disastrous conclusion, the book (implicitly) challenges the idea that all we need is the brightest minds and the latest technology to solve the world's toughest problems - that there is a simple technical solution we can come to if we just think hard enough / do enough coding / design enough reusable widgets to distribute in the developing world. While widgets are well and good and sometimes necessary, what we need most are political and social solutions.

The line about the "ceaseless pursuit of data" quoted above (which comes from a Circle naysayer) was an especially good, and broadly applicable, reality check. It's certainly an indictment of us Fitbit obsessives who consider a walk wasted if our beloved devices ran out of charge. And it applies broadly across a number of sectors, to education policy and - most relevant to me - to the increasing push to quantify our difficult-to-quantify results in my field of democratic development.

I have loved Dave Eggers' work in the past - both the classic A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, and especially loved his inventive and playful short stories in How We Are Hungry. I actually met him at an event when I was volunteering for his literacy organization, 826DC, a couple years ago - he was gracious to the volunteers and so friendly about signing my book. This book read like he was pulling his punches or writing like a "normal" writer and I don't think it's the best showcase of his talent. If you're interested in a "near future" futuristic novel, I would instead recommend Gary Shteyngart's Super Sad True Love Story, which similarly depicts a world in which our devices are more and more integrated into our identities, but layers it with broader commentary about social change.

And that's it! I'm currently reading All the Light We Cannot See and enjoying it. I'm not sure if I'll continue to do book reviews in the future but this has been a fun writing exercise for sure.

Links throughout this series are not affiliate because I am not that legitAnd because I checked these all out of the library anyway


  1. I just had to say that I love the disclaimer at the end of this post and I love the library.

    1. :) I am on a huge library kick at the moment - the DC public library is so fantastic!

  2. I hope you'll continue to do book reviews sometimes - yours are always so good!!