The Zings and Arrows of Dave Eggers

Eggers' new book The Circle tries to caution us about the dangers of social media without grasping its appeal.
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Dave Eggers, hook on hand (flickr/Commonwealth Club)

Many things can be said about Dave Eggers' latest novel, The Circle, the story of an ingenue's improbable rise at a technology company that's like the unholy lovechild of Google and Facebook. 

Most of the hype surrounding the book focused on how this literary giant was going to take on the Twittering classes. Finally, someone to call bullshit on all this social media.

Eggers delivers dire warnings through the book's two male moral centers — an artisan chandelier maker and a mysterious founder of The Circle, who sexes up the young female protagonist in an office bathroom. Both oppose unfettered interpersonal transparency and communicating through social networks. We are clearly supposed to as well.

This point is driven home with dystopian intensity. Social media isn't just bad for people, we discover. It can kill. Or leave you in a coma

The plot follows Mae Holland, who is hired into The Circle by her best friend from college, an executive who softens up governments across the world on behalf of the company. Holland is a customer-service rep, which means she deals with local businesses who buy ads on The Circle. This job is demanding, but Holland is excellent at it, which is to say, we find out her stats are really good. Unfortunately, she doesn't immediately integrate herself into the all-encompassing social world of the company, in part because she loves kayaking alone and her father is suffering from MS. 

Meanwhile, the company launches a product called SeeChange, which, as far as I can tell, is just a smallish, cellular-connected webcam, but that Eggers presents as an epochal event. Everyone suddenly wants to watch live feeds of random places. 

(Caution: spoilers ahead.)

Personally, Holland is torn between three men: her ex-boyfriend (the chandelier maker); a coder with premature ejaculation problems who videos a handjob she gives him; and a sexy, long-fingered mystery man who we later find out is the technical founder of the company. 

Thanks to her friend's connections, her excellent performance, and some productive misbehavior, Holland is swept upward to become The Circle's public face. She begins to carry a nearly-always-on camera and becomes a livestreaming celebrity. 

Eventually, she is implicated in the death of her ex-boyfriend Mercer when she sends a search team after him when he goes off the grid. Mercer, harried by  the magpie-like drones pursuing him, commits suicide by driving off a bridge. Her best friend suffers, too. She slips into a coma from the stress of a company probe of her family history, which reveals some unsavory genealogical events and some humdrum failings in her parents. (How does this send her into a coma? Good question.)

The Circle itself, meanwhile, chugs toward "completion," the day when they capture all meaningful data, roughly. And there is an ill-advised detour into thinking about The Circle's impact on politicians, voting, and democracy.

All the while, an awesomely heavy-handed metaphor looms above all. The company's CEO is an explorer and he's returned from the Marianas Trench with a transparent, ravenous shark. You see, the shark is like The Circle! It eats everything and everything turns to dust. The many shark scenes are obvious and tortuous.

Which brings me to my primary complaint about the book: Everyone is so credulous and naive about The Circle, including Holland herself. I've never encountered anyone who is so dumb and unthinking about social media as roughly all the characters in this book. Middle schoolers tend to have a more nuanced understanding of "openness" and "transparency" on the Internet than Eggers' characters. 

Internet users, en masse, have taken steps to limit "openness," in the Zuckerbergian sense parodied in the book. SnapChat, which is popular with the very youth who are such suckers in Eggers' world, succeeds exactly because it doesn't generate the kind of persistent data Eggers fears. Instagram locked accounts are basically the norm at this point. Hell, Google itself has created a social network in which most sharing is private.  

Not that there aren't problems with all of these companies and solutions, but they're not the problems that Eggers diagnoses. His fundamental conceit is that people don't know or understand the tradeoffs they're making with social media. But the existence and popularity of all these other networks argues otherwise. People know that controlling access to themselves and their data is a way of exerting power, not just vis-a-vis the platforms, but among themselves. Being open, at certain times, can help you move up in the world, but everyone who has ever masturbated understands the limitations of the paradigm.

For all the time Eggers spends writing about social media, he does not understand the different strands of its appeal nor the complex relationships people already have with all the extent platforms.

Eggers (rightly) skewers the quantification of relationships that can occur because of the design of social media. Holland focuses relentlessly (at the behest of her company) on the metrics surrounding her social media performance, known collectively as her PartiRank. As critic Evgeny Morozov would predict, the quantitative aspects of her experience begin to push out her other ways of knowing life. There's some truth in how this work: The crackle associated with a "hit" that racks up a lot of likes or retweets feels good.

But the focus of The Circle, as a book, is only on the quantifiable elements. Nothing interesting ever happens during her social media life. It is purely an obligation. Not once do we see her engage with an idea or a person from her social media following, except people trying to get jobs at The Circle. 

Though he writes often of "zings," his sendup of tweets, it's usually to poke fun at the whole idea that a new word could exist, as though "call" were inscribed in Olde English.

Here's what one company rep explains to Holland about the company's interface: “It takes into account zings, exterior followers of your intra-company zings, comments on your zings, your comments on others’ zings, your comments on other Circlers’ profiles, your photos posted, attendance at Circle events, comments and photos posted about those events—basically it collects and celebrates all you do here."

But more frustrating, Eggers never allows a single profound or interesting thing to be "zinged" (Tweeted). The zings he actually allows us to read are universally asinine. Here's a close to complete list:

Newbie Mae is kicking ass! 

Exciting stuff

Wow, that is gorgeous.

Very cool. Reminds me of something I saw in Barcelona last year.

Absolutely a fish! Class Actinopterygii. Same as cod and tuna.

The croissant of the animal kingdom

Please don’t kill that turtle. It looks like my granddad!

Tech problems at Circle HQ? Next: Santa forgets Christmas?

Where was this 20 yrs ago? My kids would have gone to Yale.

Sure, people say dumb or boring things on social media. People make small talk because they are people. But Eggers' critique here is one half step removed from "Twitter is just people talking about what they had for breakfast," which stopped being funny or interesting in 2009. 

These zings are less satire than caricature of a lame caricature: It's like Eggers microwaved California rolls to critique sushi. 

For me, the truest sign that Eggers is not writing about something he understands is that he places livestreaming video at the very heart of what The Circle does. Almost no one watches livestreams of anything except the Occupy protests, Apple keynotes, puppies, and sports. When Holland becomes the company's public face, Eggers would have us believe that literally millions of people would follow a corporate PR representative around a company campus.

It's credibility shaking not because he gets the tech market wrong, but because it shows that he doesn't understand people's motivations.

The livestreaming aspect really bothered me, as it also appeared in Gary Shteyngart's much more interesting dystopian novel, Super Sad True Love Story. I kept asking myself: Why livestreaming?

And I do have an idea. And it goes right to the heart of The Circle as a critique of technology.

Social media, as most of us experience it, is the practice of reading and writing words. There are numbers of retweets and likes. There are photographs. But underlying all of that are ideas and people: making signs and interpreting them. Being on social networks is interesting for the ideas and words themselves, too, not just the quantified game. 

But livestreams require no act of signmaking or interpretation. They don't require human thought. They're easier to poke fun at precisely because they don't engage the faculties of communication that the writers hold dear.

I found myself profoundly disappointed that Eggers took on these complex, difficult technologies, which we spend a lot of time thinking about, but refused to reckon with their real seductiveness. To only take on the easy-to-jeer stuff in social media is, more than anything, just a terrible failure of imagination for a book that wanted so deeply to be unnerving and new.

To engage with the reality of all this networked life would be very hard. We don't know how to represent what happens in my mind as I walk through the world, scan a Twitter feed, and connect an idea about Obamacare to grandma. Then a joke arrives via text, overlaid on the camera app, which is showing a leaf that's perfect for Instagramming, color desaturating as it moves to the tip. A number sits at the bottom: Work emails left, 560. A bracelet's gentle pressure reminds me that my steps are sensed and tabulated. I'm thankful for its prod: walk more. And then Lou Reed dies. The ideas arrive as two nearly simultaneous waves: What do I feel? How do I represent it? I can always do nothing. Memories, searching backwards for the first. Peeling a sticker off my dad's album. Ingesting my father's music like an animal heart, drawing strength from it. And there was the cab ride from the San Jose airport to the trees along Palm Drive in Palo Alto, oh so close to where The Circle is set, and I can still remember the possibilities of the world curled up in Loaded in that moment. Tiny, infinite dimensions. I could only tweet, "Oh no. LOU REED." And we were a murmuration of mourning for a while. Everyone remembering.

Maybe it's easier to describe the moments when we're alone together than the moments when we're together together. My mind ran to Scott Simon's Twitter vigil for his mother, as she lay dying. Where were those zings in Eggers' novel? Was Simon a stooge in the corporate game, trafficking in his mother's last moments so that some Silicon Valley business could have an initial public offering and slowly erode the real? 

Only someone who hadn't read the zings tweets could think such things and such things alone. It's just not worthy of a novelist with ambition to think such flat thoughts. Simon did a beautiful thing for and with his mother, and Twitter will debut on the New York Stock Exchange soon, raising billions of dollars. 

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer calls Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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