Dave Eggers' new thriller: Beware of the IT crowd

Despite a climax involving a leadenly symbolic, Jurassic Park-style “feeding experiment” in the Circle’s aquariums, The Circle is the well-managed thriller Eggers plainly intended it to be.

The Circle
Dave Eggers
Hamish Hamilton, 512pp, £18.99

Dave Eggers’s heartfelt new thriller has an unlikely saint. Mercer is a humourless, squat young man in his early twenties who makes chandeliers out of antlers but in a near future in which the power of independent thought has been commandeered by the Circle, a tech company the size of Google and Facebook smashed together and squared, he has a crucial voice. “The world has dorkified itself,” he protests – but no one is listening to him.

The novel’s lead character is Mae, Mercer’s ex-girlfriend, who loathes him with all the vehemence of a girl in her early twenties eager to disown her younger self. The story begins on Mae’s first day working for the Circle – “a blur of glass rooms and brief, impossibly warm introductions”. Mae’s best friend, Annie, has helped her get the job. Eggers sets up a neat chick-lit division of characteristics between them: Annie is the tall, thin, naturally blonde one with a “mysterious core sense of destiny”, a tonne of old “Mayflower” money and an existing prestige in the company; Mae is more ordinary, middle class – and, ultimately, robust.

Right away, the Circle seems to have the makings of a cult. Its “campus” is the venue for endless after-work events designed to enthral the young workforce; there are “shuttles” to take them home when they are drunk and rooms for the increasing number who choose never to leave. There is a large-scale drive to generate a sense of specialness. In “the Great Hall”, the “Circlers” assemble to enjoy early access to Circle innovations. Though the products are flagrantly designed to appeal to them as consumers, they give credulous whoops of assent. Mae’s seduction by the Circle is total. Her job is to manage a relentless “chute” of user questions on an ever-increasing number of screens and at the same time answer consumer surveys using a headset, and yet “Mae knew she never wanted to work – never wanted to be anywhere else”.

The Circle is a fizzy mix of entertainment and ideological debate but it makes few claims to being a work of art. Eggers makes no use of the structure to add to the texture of his world – the story has a neat beginning, middle and end, divided into three “books”. The writing, line by line, is mostly inconspicuous but sometimes rushed – in the aquarium, “The shark was still holding still” – and the characters often speak as if enlisted in a stiff Platonic dialogue. At dinner with Mae, Mercer says, “I mean, like everything else you guys are pushing, it sounds perfect . . . but it carries with it more control, more central tracking of everything we do.” Mae replies, “Mercer, the Circle is a group of people like me. Are you saying we’re all in a room somewhere . . . planning world domination?”

Comparably thudding are Mae’s kayaking trips, which symbolise a private involvement with the physical world that she and other Circlers are throwing away. Seal sightings, like guys who make chandeliers out of antlers, are an under-realised rival to Eggers’s hi-tech world. When, at a moment of crisis, Mae is begged by another character to abandon her job, his alternative is another kind of smug fantasy life: “We can hike through Tibet . . . We can sail around the world in a boat we built ourselves.”

But there is no questioning Eggers’s inventiveness. As utopian tech vision is tarnished by capitalist drive, the Circle’s products grow increasingly macabre. A kind of doublethink is soon required to justify its infringements of privacy and liberty: “Caring is sharing” and “Equal access to all possible human experiences is a basic human right” are two infocommunist slogans. Ideas become products at white-knuckle speed. Mae suggests that if voting were done online through the Circle servers, it might be made mandatory. A day later, she receives a “zing” (a tweet, but it makes for a neater verb) from her boss: “We’re calling it Demoxie . . . It’s democracy with your voice and your moxie.”

Given the energy he devotes to detailing his vision of the Circle, it’s striking that Eggers does not attempt to locate it in its historical context. He seems incurious about why this particular generation of twentysomethings should be so intolerant of anxiety and so ready to believe in self-aggrandising “rights”. He takes care to dramatise their existential terrors – Annie’s jokes about the decrepitude of Mae’s love interest (he has grey in his hair and may be over 30) attain a pathological quality, for instance – but makes no hint at what has created this group of cerebral infants.

Despite a climax involving a leadenly symbolic, Jurassic Park-style “feeding experiment” in the Circle’s aquariums, The Circle is the well-managed thriller Eggers plainly intended it to be. If it weren’t for his pitchperfect rendition of tech grandiosity, there would be no reason to long for the wiser satire he might have given us.

Could Google + Facebook = something like The Circle? Image: Getty

This article first appeared in the 17 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Austerity Pope

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In the age of podcasts, the era of communal listening is over

Where once the nation would listen to radio events together, now, it is the booming podcast market that commands our attention

It’s a moment so celebrated that no TV drama about the Second World War is complete without it. At 11.15am on 3 September 1939, Neville Chamberlain made a live radio broadcast from Downing Street announcing that “this country is now at war with Germany”. A silence fell over the nation as people rushed to the wireless to hear him. The whole country was listening, but crucially, it was listening together.

Nearly eight decades later, it is difficult to imagine a communal audio event like that ever happening again. The arrival of the Walkman in 1979, since superseded by the iPod and then the smartphone, turned listening into a personal, solitary pastime. It was no longer necessary for families to get a radio on a hire-purchase arrangement and gather round it in the sitting room. The technology that delivers audio to us is now small and cheap enough for each of us to have one in our pocket (with headphones tangled around it, of course).

At the same time, the method of delivery changed, too. “Radio” ceased to indicate simply “programming transmitted by electromagnetic waves” in the late 1990s, when conventional radio stations began to make their output available on the internet. Online-only radio stations sprang up, streaming their shows directly to computers. Free from any regulation and with the internet as a free distribution platform, these early stations echoed the tone of pirate radio stations in the 1960s.

The idea of “audioblogging” – making short voice recordings available for download online – has been around since the early 1980s, but it wasn’t until 2004 that the word “podcasting” was coined by the technology journalist Ben Hammersley in an article for the Guardian. He was looking for a name for the “new boom in amateur radio” that the internet had enabled.

Thanks to technological advances, by the early 2000s, a podcaster could record a sound clip and upload it to his or her feed, and it would arrive automatically on the computer of anyone who had subscribed. Apple began to include podcasts as a default option on iPods; in 2008 iPhones offered a podcast app as standard. The market boomed.

Apple is notoriously reluctant to provide data on its products, but in 2013 it announced that there had been more than a billion podcast subscriptions through its iTunes store, which carried over 250,000 podcasts in 100 languages. In 2016, Edison Research released a study suggesting that 21 per cent of all Americans over the age of 12 had listened to at least one podcast in the past month – roughly 57 million people. Audiobooks, too, are booming in this new age of listening; the New York Times reported that
although publishing revenue in the US was down overall in the first quarter of 2016, digital audio sales had risen by 35.3 per cent.

The vast share of this listening will be solitary. This is because audio is a secondary medium. For all the talk about the rise of “second screening”, it isn’t really possible to do much more than idly scroll through Twitter on your phone as you watch television, but you can easily get things done while you listen to a podcast. Put on a pair of headphones, and you can go for a run or clean out the oven in the company of your favourite show. In this sense, the medium has been a game-changer for commuters and those doing repetitive or manual work: there’s no longer any need to put up with sniffling on the train or your boss’s obsession with Magic FM.

Though podcasts are an internet phenomenon, they have managed to remain free from the culture of trolling and abuse found elsewhere. It is difficult to make audio go viral, because it’s tricky to isolate a single moment from it in a form that can be easily shared. That also deters casual haters. You can’t just copy and paste something a host said into an insulting tweet.

Our new and solitary way of listening is reflected in the subjects that most podcasts cover. While there is the occasional mega-hit – the American true crime podcast Serial attracted 3.4 million downloads per episode in 2014, the year it launched – most shows exist in a niche. A few hundred listeners who share the host’s passion for pens or for music from antique phonographs can be enough to sustain a series over hundreds of episodes (there are real podcasts on both of these topics).

This is also where the commercial opportunity lies. It costs relatively little to produce even high-quality podcasts, compared to TV or conventional radio, yet they can ­attract very high advertising rates (thanks to the dedication of regular listeners and the trust they have in the host). The US is far ahead of the UK in this regard, and podcast advertising revenue there is expected to grow 25 per cent year on year, reaching half a billion dollars in 2020. Where this was once a hobby for internet enthusiasts, it is now big business, with venture capitalists investing in new networks and production companies. The US network Gimlet attracted $6m in funding in 2015. However, in the UK, the BBC crowds out smaller, independent operations (the trade-off is that it makes undeniably outstanding programmes).

There is even a movement to make listening a communal activity again. The same hipsters responsible for the resurgence of vinyl sales are organising “listening parties” at trendy venues with high-quality sound systems. Live shows have become an important source of revenue for podcasters. Eleanor McDowall, a producer at the Falling Tree radio production company, organises subtitled “screenings” for podcasts in languages other than English. I even have a friend who is part of a “podcast club”, run on the same lines as a monthly book group, with a group of people coming together to discuss one show on a regular schedule.

The next big technological breakthrough for audio will be when cars can support internet-based shows as easily as conventional radio. We might never again gather around the wireless, but our family holidays could be much improved by a podcast.

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times