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Inside the World of Big Data

‘The Circle,’ Dave Eggers’s New Novel

Books of The Times


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“You had to live — did live, from habit that became instinct — in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinized.”

This description of life under the totalitarian regime of the all-seeing Big Brother comes from Orwell’s “1984,” published back in 1949: a dystopian classic that shot up the best-seller lists this summer after revelations about the National Security Agency’s far-reaching collection of data from phone and Internet records, and public fears of a new surveillance state.

In Dave Eggers’s new novel, “The Circle,” Big Brother isn’t the government: it’s a Google-like, Facebook-like tech behemoth, called the Circle, that has a billion-odd users, controls 90 percent of the world’s searches and aspires to record and quantify everything that’s happening to everybody, everywhere in the world. The company credo is “ALL THAT HAPPENS MUST BE KNOWN.” Some of its other Orwellian maxims are “SECRETS ARE LIES,” “SHARING IS CARING” and “PRIVACY IS THEFT.”

Mr. Eggers’s absorbing 2012 novel, “A Hologram for the King,” gave us a story about a middle-aged loser that opened out into a kind of allegory about the besieged American middle class struggling to hold onto its dreams in a recessionary and newly globalized world. The new novel similarly attempts to use the coming-of-age story of a young woman to create a parable about the perils of life in a digital age in which our personal data is increasingly collected, sifted and monetized, an age of surveillance and Big Data, in which privacy is obsolete, and Maoist collectivism is the order of the day.

Photo Credit Sonny Figueroa/The New York Times

Using his fluent prose and instinctive storytelling gifts, Mr. Eggers does a nimble, and sometimes very funny, job of sending up technophiles’ naïveté, self-interest and misguided idealism. As the artist and computer scientist Jaron Lanier has done in several groundbreaking nonfiction books (“You Are Not a Gadget,” 2010, and “Who Owns the Future?,” 2013), Mr. Eggers reminds us how digital utopianism can lead to the datafication of our daily lives, how a belief in the wisdom of the crowd can lead to mob rule, how the embrace of “the hive mind” can lead to a diminution of the individual. The adventures of Mr. Eggers’s heroine, Mae Holland, an ambitious new hire at the company, provide an object lesson in the dangers of drinking the Silicon Valley Kool-Aid and becoming a full-time digital ninja.

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