Closing The Circle

I’ve had a tumultuous relationship with fiction. Growing up, I devoured storybooks, but my reading list was already defined, both by ability and the proliferation of popular series. If I liked the Famous Five book I had just finished, there were fifty five more of them waiting for me.

As a teenager, I lost track of reading a little. Contending against Playstation, and playing around, my interest in paperbacked entertainment dwindled. I still read sporadically, but this was limited to my ones my dad bought. Those shelves, groaning with books, were the only thing that kept this wayward reader just about ticking over. Thanks, dad.

In recent years, I’ve moved into the realm of nonfiction. Behavioural economics and social psychology became passions that manifested in pouring through Ariely, Cialdini, and the other seminal works. I’m a business nerd, and love the great business books, but found that reading them before I went to bed was having the opposite effect that I wanted. Rather than winding down, my mind would be buzzing about how I could apply these insights to life, to Stripe, and anything else I was working on.

I needed a distraction.

I needed something to lose myself in.

I needed fiction.

I needed The Circle.

Mae Holland is a recent college graduate who lands a coveted job at tech company, the Circle. The Circle provides access to the web and an ever-growing number of services through a single identity, the TruYou — “one button for the rest of your life online.” Run by the “Three Wise Men”, the Circle recruits “hundreds of gifted young minds” every week and has been voted “most admired company four years running”.

“My God,” Mae thought, “It’s heaven.”

Enthralled by her surroundings and new found friends, Mae becomes more and more involved in the Circle, rising through the ranks and eventually emerging as the embodiment of the firm’s latest frontier. This expansion from the private sector into the public realm, looks to be the initiative that finally ‘closes the circle’, completing the company’s chokehold on society.

The parallels to my experience were probably the main reason I enjoyed this book so much. In truth, the Circle is more of a a dystopian amalgamation of tech than any one company — as the product and culture combines many of today’s big tech firms — but I feel anyone who has dipped their toes into the tech pool will relate it to their own individual experience.In fact, I’d really only recommend this highly to someone who has worked in a big tech company, or else someone very familiar in how they operate.

Although the narrative arc is a little off, the strength of Egger’s book is in his world creation: that mix of representing the familiar and the surreal, the mundane and the madness. Take, for example, Mae’s first role in Customer Experience. As her manager, Dan, states:

“Some people might think that’s the least sexy part of this whole enterprise. But, as I see it, and the Wise Men see it, it’s the foundation of everything that happens here.”

It was around last year that I was interviewing at a number of different companies, across tech, advertising and consulting. Working in a support role wasn’t really on my radar, but now that I am, I really love it. Although Dan goes a little over the top in his description, I do agree with the overall point he makes about the importance of support.

“If we don’t give the customers a satisfying, human and humane experience, then we have no customers. It’s pretty elemental. We’re proof that this company is human.”

Mae, through her Customer Experience role, also gets to meet the businesses who use The Circle. Mae’s understanding of the importance of her company’s services to small businesses across the globe really struck a chord with me. Although she implicitly and “intuitively” had known this for years, “hearing from these people, the businesses counting on the Circle to get the word about about their products, to track their digital impact, to know who was buying their wares and when — made it become real on a very different level”.

Quite soon, Mae is hit with a deluge of mails and messages — a familiar torrent to those using Slack, emails, and the like.

Mae followed the counter on the bottom of the screen, calculating all the message sent to her from everyone else at the Circle. The counter paused at 1,200. Then 4,400. The numbers scrambled higher, stopping periodically but finally settling at 8,276.
“That was last week’s messages? Eight thousand?”

This tirade of cascading notifications continues later in the book. A personal highlight was the Joycean description of the streaming hive-mind consciousness and how, when we set our minds to social media, we lose track of time. That seems like a somewhat ridiculous sentence— and maybe this is why I stick to nonfiction — but read the book and see what I mean.

The Verdict (Read, Skim, or Toss)

Read The Circle if you work — or want to work — in tech. Read The Circle if you value world creation over narrative arc. Read The Circle if you need a gateway drug to fiction from techy business books, it worked for me!

I’d love to know what you thought of this post, and the book if you read it! You can contact me here or on Twitter, I’m @bengbutler.

If you liked this post, I think you’ll enjoy my very first post discussing ‘On Writing Well’. You can find it on LinkedIn and Medium.

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