Review – The Circle by Dave Eggers

the circle book coverI mostly enjoyed reading Dave Eggers’ current novel, The Circle, in the same way I mostly enjoyed William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition
when it came out a decade ago.

Both novels follow numerous science-fiction conventions, but neither can be described as purely in the sci-fi genre, as neither are (or, in Pattern Recognition‘s case, was) set in another time frame or place, nor do they involve conceptual technology or some form of device, power  or capability that won’t be available until some imaginary future.

While not necessarily “in the present,” both novels are clearly “contemporary.” Indeed, in my observation and opinion, today’s “first worlder” under the age of 25 is far closer to being in the social-media dominated culture described in The Circle, than not. (And, for that matter, the novel Pattern Recognition probably already needs annotations to explain references to tech constructs that would have today’s reader wondering, “Why didn’t they just use YouTube”? (not recognizing it was written before YouTube existed).

Reading The Circle will especially make longtime social media junkies feel a bit guilty and goofy, at times. We (I’ll confess) see so much promise in those things about our lives that can be be tracked and shared for the common good, that we tend to dismiss privacy concerns as being overstated…and for those who question our willingness to share the Kool Aid, we reserve the ultimate insult: ‘they just don’t get it.”

For that reason, it’s especially amusing to me that reviewers describe The Circle as “dystopian,” since so much of the book is merely an extension of current technology and two or three steps ahead of where most people who call themselves “social media gurus” think utopia exists. If The Circle is dystopian, welcome to their United States of Dystopia.

As a book, Eggers’ novel shows off his compelling (page-turning) story telling skills and creativity and branding savvy and understanding of marketing and deep insight into what the promise of social media can provide — and knowledge of the extraordinary benefits to society and individuals of transparency and the community-building tool enabled by the technology of the web.

Of course, as with any good techno-thrilling novel, the obvious benefits of such technology always provide the counter-balanced underbelly of the benefit–where you’ll find the story worth telling.

Did I praise the novel–I guess it’s time to say something that proves I’m not just a fan-boy, so: At the same time, Eggers’ book can seem overly derivative and, at times, over-wrought with Ayn Rand-esque preachiness and redundant “let’s make sure you get the point” dialogue. 1984 also comes to mind. Heck, even the 1984 Apple commercial comes to mind.

I was reading (and listening) to the book last week when, in the news, the FDA ordered 23AndMe to stop selling their $99 DNA testing product with claims previously rejected by the agency. The “we know better than the government” response of many netizens felt frighteningly straight out of Eggers’ book.

A couple of days later, while reading a headline that “Eight Democratic Senators Want Tech Companies To Serve As Healthcare.gov Alternative,” it started making me think that if a reader is interested in the book, The Circle, they better hurry before it becomes science non-fiction.

If you’ve stuck with this review to this point, you should read the book. I like it, but to be too gushy about it would probably indicate that I didn’t quite get the point if I’m using my blog to write Eggers book a love letter.

If you’ve ever used the word “social media metric” in your professional life, you should read this book in order to understand why you should ratchet back the buzzwords and cult membership in the churches of Google, Facebook, Twitter, et al.

This is neither a business book or a book about technology. It’s a social media book. But don’t expect it to be a “pro” social media book. Because it’s not.

Bottomline: If you’ve ever wondered what the Hunger Games written by Dave Eggers would be like, read this novel.