Tuesday, 20 June 2017

Media in our Mess "Age": The Circle by Dave Eggers

I often wonder when the perils of social media are discussed there is an almost exclusive focus on cyber-bullying and trolling.  Sure, it is horrible behaviour and the facilitation of aggressive, abusive , discriminatory language can never be tolerated.  Ultimately though it is not a new crime - social media had just made being nasty or a bully easier to communicate but it is literally just that a medium for hate speech.  Twitter, Facebook and the rest though are doing something more insidious to our society though.  Arguably these phenomena are what is novel about social media or the Internet 2.0 as I believe it was labelled in another age (or in realtime about 16 years ago).

Dave Eggers' funny, prescient and genuinely scary novel The Circle nails it in a way which I think raises the book from the rest of his catalogue and indeed most modern American fiction of the last 20 years.

The vehicle for this study is Mae.  A young graduate - and like really young - post millennial almost in her mid twenties she nets a job at Internet giant company via her college pal.

The Circle is the name of this cyberworld behemoth and it is really an amalgam of Google, Apple, Yahoo and Wikipedia and so on- all the friendly faces of ruthless capitalism that have emerged in the last decade.  Eggers does manage to transcend any specific parallels though which I think Franzen struggled with when trying to lacerate Assange by proxy with the character of Wolf in his millennial novel Purity .

For the Circle is more than a workplace (in Mae's world contrasting sharply with her job in a utility company) it is a way of life.   It seeks to unify all information available on the Internet into one with the ultimate aim of "Closing the Circle".   Its base is in effect a mini-city with everything from cinemas to intimate gigs with famous singer songwriters to medical care to accommodation available,  Meaning the workforce never has to leave work.  On top of this each employee is expected to spend a large amount of their worktime engaging in Social Media - both personal and professional with their  equivalent of Twitter/Facebook - Zing.

It is here that I think Eggers really identifies the insidious nature of the current Internet.  Not only can all individuals be monitored they willingly spend hours of the day doing so.  Further that form of "interaction" becomes more important than human contact.  There is a sad scene when Mae returns to her parent's house where her ex- boyfriend Mercer where she shuns discussions with them to Zing comments to complete strangers.  It is a portent on the break of communication to come.

Such an observation may be a bit trite indeed go and sit on a bus or train or watch groups of friends at cafes or pubs the level of actual human contact will be minimal even with people that are actually "socialising".  But Eggers exposes how such developments are ideal conditions for big business.  By giving themselves over to the Circle completely there is a compliant workforce more than that they will vigorously defend their employer in the nature of a religious cult because they provide the products and software that sadly define their lives.   You get a sense of this when you walk into an Apple "Store" and many service based industries try to ape this "employee loyalty" from Weatherspoons to Pret  A Manger to Starbucks.

Thus the worker is Un-alienated.  The Circle is the ideal way of studying this as it is sort of creating a mega corporation from scratch.  If capitalism could do this across the board the Circle would be its model and in a sense there is a distant echo of benevolent  19th Century employers who provided villages and shops even medical care for their workers - as long as you remained tied to the factory,  In such a context the Human Resources department takes on a different dimension.  One of the funniest scenes involves Mae's interview after a few weeks in the job with HR which involves almost every aspect of her life.

Mae is fast-tracked through the Circle starting off in Customer Services but she does not wholly commit to the lifestyle and complete absorption which the Circle demands.  She has a number of liasions with a mysterious man she meets in the Circle complex Kalden although he is unidentifiable in this highly monitored world.  Kalden is sceptical, even resistant to the direction in which the Circle is going.

Mae's other interest significantly is kayaking and interacting directly with nature.  The scenes where she is peacefully on water trying to spot seals and fishes contrast sharply with the frenetic pace of the rest of the work,  In fact nature is a continual motif in the book.  It provides the calm in the heart of the storm.

I think Eggers may have been influenced here by the work of Marshall McLuhan.  McLuhan (memorably performing a cameo in Annie Hall) wrote in the 1950s(!) about the useless noise our new media age was creating.   In his time he was talking about the growth of TV in particular in America with its emphasis on consumerism. McLuhan died in 1980 but  now in 2017 this noise has exponentially increased as much of the Western world is almost permanently connected - in fact some employers (like the Circle) almost demand you are.  Not only is a lot of this noise pointless it also affects harmfully human development.

As a reaction against this McLuhan converted to High Catholicism and attended Mass every day.  This space for him was time for silence and contemplation against the wider world.  In our more secular age at least in the West the placing of religion in this role would be unrealistic so the wider natural world places this role.

However the Circle even tries to control this aspect of life - in quite a disturbing scene one of the founding fathers of the Circle brings a  shark along with other sea-life into the heart of the Circle.  Although the symbolism is clear and maybe a bit over the top it is a genuinely unsettling moment in the book.

Nature is also partially Mae's downfall and in a sense responsible for her complete immersion in the Circle.  After an incident whilst kayaking she becomes open to being a living experiment for the Circle. This involves part of their new technology the See Change camera which essentially is so compact and disposable it can monitor human beings anywhere and everywhere.   The main evangel for this is Bailey (another founding father and ostensibly the most benevolent a la Steve Jobs) who believes there is no such thing as privacy - that See Change provides the ultimate transparency.   In another very believable part politician after politician signs up to be filmed at all times.  Mae as a result of the hold the Circle has on her succumbs fully to this and opens up her whole life to this,

In the second part of the book Mae is almost completely assimilated she turns on her family and her ex-partner Mercer (who introduced her to kayaking) in another very disturbing scene,  Her human desire to escape the endless chatter and mindless drone of social media interaction is almost completely dissolved.   One of the brilliantly observed parts of this is the passive aggressive way in which people communicate in this format - as McLuhan said the media is the message.

Her rejection of Kalden and embracing of another young man Frances is symbolic of this.  He is very immature and his only sexual activity is almost cyber and very distant. However he is very popular in the Circle - Mae rejects the more physical and real world of Kalden,  The sex scenes are a little less icky  by being written by a 40 something guy than Franzen's equivalents in Purity and are making a clear point.

The book progresses to a fairly bleak conclusion as at one reading we could say our society is as well if we maintain our relationship with our technology.  In contrast with Mae's "ascendancy" her friend who got her the gig Annie has a startling decline - showing the limits of complete openness particularly about the past.  There is also a revelation about identity - which as the novel progresses becomes less shocking.

Eggers could be accused in other works of neglecting character to make allegorical points - his sparse prose style aids that.  For the most part I don't think this is the case indeed it becomes more appropriate as Mae loses her character as the novel progresses and the allegory really overtakes the work.  The tone suits the direction of the work

I am aware of the irony of recommending this book on a blog which I have writtten online and which I am sharing on social media but I am!  An essential read and shows the power of fiction (and quasi-science fiction) to expose reality in a way that non-fiction cannot. There is also a film due out but looking at some of the casting decisions I am not sure that it will work.  So read it - in analogue fashion as an old battered paperback,  I'll share my copy and physically hand it over,..

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