Is raging against the machine the zeitgeist?


I do appreciate it when Google Now tells me I have to leave to get to a meeting on time, even though I didn’t ask it. I love that I can find my phone when it wanders, that I can get book recommendations that understand my taste, or find the best tacos near me.  Or at least I did until I read Dave Eggers’ enormously entertaining – and seriously chilling – novel about a newbie in a tech company: The Circle.

If you exist in any way at all in today’s smart-phone-enabled, Facebook-Amazon-Google-Twitter led world, you will stress anew over the information you are sharing both voluntarily and unwittingly – even though that sharing is helping to make your life easier.  You’ll start to wonder what might be the ultimate cost of reliance on that help.  The answers will not make you comfortable.  There is a constant pull between the desirable benefits to be gained from responsive, aware systems and communities and the rapidly advancing specter of totalitarianism. If you work in marketing or communications or media or HR or government, this book will resonate in every aspect of your work.   It is a page-turner – you won’t want to set it aside.  It’s funny, it’s satirical, it’s human and its horrors are all too plausible.

Twenty-four year old Mae Holland’s new job at The Circle is her dream job.  The campus is a high-tech paradise filled with innovation and music, interest groups and free food, next-generation gadgets and self-massage demonstrations.  Her new colleagues are super-passionate, super-smart people working on their pet projects. Outside, the Bay Area seems grubby and third world.

Mae does astoundingly well in her Customer Service role.  She quickly gets the hang of her first two task screens, and now Gina from CircleSocial briefs Mae on how she can participate in the all-important social world of The Circle:

“The third screen is your social, Inner- and OuterCircle. But these messages aren’t, like, superfluous. They’re just as important as any other messages, but are prioritized third. And sometimes they’re urgent. Keep an eye on the InnerCircle feed in particular, because that’s where you’ll hear about staff meetings, mandatory gatherings, and any breaking news. If there’s a Circle notice that’s really pressing, that’ll be marked in orange. Something extremely urgent will prompt a message on your phone, too. You keep that in view?” Mae nodded at her phone, resting just below the screens on her desk. “Good,” Gina said. “So those are the priorities, with your fourth priority your own OuterCircle participation. Which is just as important as anything else, because we value your work-life balance, you know, the calibration between your online life here at the company and outside it. I hope that’s clear. Is it?”

Margaret Atwood, in the NY Review of Books, writes “…don’t look to The Circle for Chekhovian nuance or thoroughly rounded characters with many-layered inwardness, it isn’t “literary fiction” of that kind. It’s an entertainment, but a challenging one: it demands that the reader think its positions through in the same way that the characters must. Some of its incidents are funny, some of them are appalling, and some of them are both at once, like a nightmare in which you find yourself making a speech with no clothes on.”

In the Harvard Business Review blog, H James Wilson writes: “The Circle may be the most provocative business book you’ll read this year. It challenged me deeply, especially in the areas I’ve focused on for HBR—auto-analytics, wearable computing, and social technology. All feature prominently in The Circle, and not necessarily in the positive way that I view those technologies. But that’s what a good business book should do: challenge your assumptions, and make you think in new ways.”

And in Digital Trends, Andrew Couts says “The Circle is the first attempt I’ve seen in contemporary literature that paints, in vivid detail, the consequences of living in a world that shuns the ideal of privacy. Unlike its predecessor, George Orwell’s 1984, however, it explores the path to tyranny rather than a world consumed by it, far beyond the point of no return.”

Eggers’s book apparently has tapped into the zeitgeist (sorry Google!): JWTIntelligence reports a trend for 2014 they call “raging against the machine,” or an increasing fear and resentment of “what’s been lost in our embrace of unprecedented change.” Consumers will place a higher value on “all things human.”  (source: Media Post)

Read the book – to the end – and let me know what you think.  Could Mae be right when she says Secrets are lies, Sharing is Caring, Privacy is theft?  Or should we be afraid?

As a postscript I thought you’d like to review this image of Apple’s new 2.8 million square-foot headquarters.  (Wait, I thought The Circle was a work of fiction!)