Emma Watson

'The Circle' - Review

There’s a one-word endorsement from The Times on the front cover of The Circle by Dave Eggers – ‘Unputdownable’. Aside from my lack of surety that unputdownable is even a word, my reaction to this pithy assessment is binary – yes-no, one-zero, agree-disagree - which is pretty funny given The Circle’s subject matter.

In Eggers’ fictional yet just-over-the-horizon world, the Circle is the largest and most pervasive internet company on the planet headquartered in an impressive, manicured and ordered city-state-style campus near San Francisco. Think Mountain View, Menlo Park or Cupertino and you’d be very warm.

Anyone with a mobile phone anywhere in the world with wi-fi (and that’s everywhere it seems) has a Circle TruYou account which is so much more than a social media platform.  TruYou aggregates all of a person’s online presences and transactions into one – one identity, one profile, one password, one set of ubiquitous and free online tools – everything one needs to negotiate (and be tracked) in this brave new perpetually online, uber-connected and algorithmed-beyond-all-reason world.

As Mae Holland, the main protagonist in the story says of the Circle, ‘It’s the chaos of the web made elegant’, that and virtually compulsory. Add to this equation another Circle innovation - SeeChange cameras that are tiny, cheap, easily installed and always connected - and the Circle’s corporate push to have all elected officials wear one of these for complete transparency.  Not too far into the book the cult-like, ubiquitous, ‘all that happens must be known’ credo of this Circle-world starts to come into unsettling focus.

Helped by her college friend Annie, Mae lands the job of her dreams at the Circle declaring ‘it’s heaven’ the first time she walks onto the campus. Pretty soon she never wants to leave the campus which really is a world of its own, specifically designed to encourage/coerce ‘Circlers’ to stay inside its gates with free food, curated events every night and on weekends, a myriad of social interest clubs and support groups, and even dormitory accommodation.

It’s here, while Mae undergoes orientation to her new place of work, that my binary reactions to this book’s ‘unputdownable’ claim started bubbling up. Actually, saying I agree/disagree with unputdownable is too clean-cut.  My reactions to three particular events in the early part of the book are better described as ‘don’t want to watch but can’t look away’.

The first time this happens is when Mae attends a ‘Dream Friday’ session where Eamon Bailey, one of the Circle’s so-called ‘three wise men’, demonstrates SeeChange cameras. During the presentation Bailey shows footage from Cairo where several dissidents have placed cameras along the route of a protest rally.  Bailey exhorts the congregation of eager Circlers to imagine the possibilities for enhanced democracy and human rights when these always-on cameras broadcast everything to the world.  No longer will riot police deployed by oppressive regimes be able to drag activists down dark alleys to administer rough justice without witness or impunity. The assembled Circlers roar their approval as the mantra of ALL THAT HAPPENS MUST BE KNOWN appears on the screen.

Then the scene switches to something a little closer to home. With one-click Circlers see Bailey’s own elderly mother padding down a hallway in her house wearing nothing but a towel.  To a chorus of laughter Bailey freely admits that he placed SeeChange devices throughout his mother’s home without her knowledge because, “she wouldn’t have let me do it otherwise”. Any privacy or outright creep-factor concerns are far outweighed by the benefits of Bailey being able to ‘keep an eye’ on his increasingly frail mother who lives alone. The assembled wholeheartedly agree.

The second time my can’t-watch/can’t-look-away reaction popped up is when Mae is sent for a routine health check as part of her orientation. Her assigned doctor is already in possession of Mae’s medical records and is already aware that her father suffers from multiple sclerosis. Mae is asked to drink what looks like a wheatgrass smoothie and after she’s drained the glass, the doctor informs her that she’s just swallowed a sensor that tracks and analyses her vital signs. The data is visible to Mae via a bracelet monitor which she wears all the time and, naturally, that real-time data is also received and stored on the Circle medical centre’s database. Spooky doesn’t quite cover it.

The third time something like this happened while I was reading The Circle I almost disproved the theory that the book is unputdownable.  I felt actual physical discomfort when, not too long into her new job, Mae gets a visit from Denise and Josiah from HR to ‘counsel’ her on lack of input to the social media life of the Circle.  D and J know Mae went off-campus at 5.42pm the previous Friday and did not return until 8.46am on Monday morning. Mae’s father had had a turn and, understandably, she’d headed home to help her mother deal with the situation. Over that weekend, however, Mae missed a couple of on-campus events but worse than that, her Circle social media feeds had gone dark.

Under the guise of caring for Mae and her family’s welfare, Denise and Josiah explain that while social media activity is not a pre-requisite of employment at the Circle, it is, nonetheless, an important measure of a Circler’s commitment to the job.  Mae is sure she’s about to be fired but saves the day by quickly acquiescing to the assertion that she’s been incredibly selfish, causing worry and hurt to her Circle-family by not sharing her every waking moment both on and off campus.

For someone who regularly ditches the always-on demands of social media in favour of actual work or home duties liking washing clothes and cooking meals, Mae’s exchange with the HR drones made my flesh crawl.

And it gets worse from there. Before long Mae’s life within the Circle extends outside her place of work to invade and inveigle the lives of her parents and her old boyfriend, Mercer, with creepy, voyeuristic and ultimately tragic consequences.

And it’s here we see the stark juxtaposition between those inside the Circle, like Mae, Annie and several thousand other Kool-Aid drinking ‘Circlers’; and those on the outside, desperately trying to get in or trying desperately to avoid being sucked into the Circle’s all-encompassing, global connectedness, ‘all that happens must be known’ vortex.

In the wash-up, however, I guess I’m more often in the agree camp than not in relation to The Times’ claim that The Circle is ‘unputdownable’.  It is eminently so due undeniably to the way in which Dave Eggers has written it. The book is an intricately detailed, inexorable march of a story overlaid with blink-and-you’ll-miss-something compulsion. A bit like a Twitter feed in fact.

The Circle is not so much a cautionary tale for our times but a billboard on a busy highway screaming THIS IS ALREADY HAPPENING!

The Circle movie, directed by James Ponstold, starring Emma Watson, Tom Hanks and Karen Gillan, has just been released in Australia.


Click on the cover image to buy your copy of the book from Booktopia.

Doing It - Women Empowering Women

There are some books that influence you so profoundly that it would be a crime not to share them. My experience with Doing It: A Sex-Positive Anthology edited Karen Pickering, was one such time. This book is a bold and inspiring compilation of essays from a group of fierce and unapologetic feminists who openly discuss pleasure, desire and the important role sex plays in the lives of women. This body of work deconstructs the preconceived societal notions that form our opinions around sex and pleasure. As Karen Pickering says, we hear a lot about what women should be like, or how they can be more appealing as sexual creatures. Women are frequently seen as objects of sexual desire and gratification, but this perception ignores the fact that women are as sexual as men. They are not bystanders to their own sexual experiences. Model and actress Emily Ratajkowski, a vocal feminist and believer in the implicit freedom of sexuality that all women deserve, said this on sexuality: "The implication is that to be sexual is to be trashy because being sexy means playing into men's desires. To me, 'sexy' is a kind of beauty, a kind of self-expression, one that is to be celebrated, one that is wonderfully female. Why does the implication have to be that sex is a thing men get to take from women and women give up?"

There’s a lot of implied shame around being a woman. Women who are brave enough to expose their true selves to the world are often criticised and put down for acting ‘unlady-like’. Women who dare to approach sex in the way that men do, with empowerment and with the correct belief that their bodies are their own and they are free to do whatever they please with them, are deemed sluts or whores. If they don’t show ‘enough’ interest in sex, they’re deemed prudes, nuns or virgins. Take Emma Watson, for example, and the recent debacle over her cover shoot for Vanity Fair, publicizing the release of Beauty and the Beast. Watson stands on the cover, arms crossed, shoulders draped in a knitted throw, looking totally gorgeous. The pages had barely settled after this edition of Vanity Fair hit newsstands when people started to voice their opinions on Watson’s choice of apparel on the cover. The main question seemed to be this; how can Emma Watson be a feminist is she bares her chest on the cover of a magazine? It would seem to me that the answer to this question is painfully obvious, as Watson herself has said; feminism is about liberation and freedom, the right for a woman to have agency and control over her body. I think a better question would be why shouldn’t a feminist, or any other woman (or human for that matter) be able to express themselves in a way that makes them feel comfortable and, god forbid, sexy? Emma Watson, a talented actress, vocal feminist and activist, and overall an educated and intelligent person, has been cut down to no more than a piece of meat by public opinion for the mere crime of exposing a little bit of under-boob. It seems in this society women can’t take a breath without being told who or what they are, with no ability to control their own identities.

“Women love sex. So why do we have such a difficult time accepting them as sexual creatures?”

The attitude towards women who are in touch with their own sexuality and choose to express it is often to scorn and belittle them. A woman has less of a right to connect with her sexual self than a man does.

Karen Pickering says that her love of building communities for women was part of the impetus behind the book. The safe-space created by Doing It which allowed the contributors and readers alike to share their experiences is one of the most poignant things about this work. Too often are women silenced and made to believe their experience or opinions simply don’t matter. One of the most beautiful feelings was diving into the pages of this book and being enveloped in shared experiences and feelings, realising that a woman is not an island.

I am young, and as such am constantly reminded how much I have to learn about the world, but I think one of the most important things I drew from this book was how much I still have to learn about myself. I have been living with the false mentality that merely existing is to know yourself. My mind told me that simply by being alive I must know myself to the fullest scope; there should be no need for self-exploration or discovery because by being me I should know me. I read this book at a time of upheaval; I had just broken up with my boyfriend of over three years and moved into a house with four new roommates. With all these changes I found myself unsure of who I am or where I stand in my own life. Reading Doing It opened up a whole new can of worms in the self-questioning department. This book made me realize how much more I still have to learn, and to understand that there are parts of myself that I am still yet to explore. When reading this book I began to comprehend how closed off I am about my own sexuality, it was as if a veil had been lifted and I began to see that I was purposely ignoring the sexual components of myself in fear to avoid discovering something I may not have liked, or which may have been judged by those around me.

Talking about sex makes me uncomfortable, in fact, this review has probably been one of the hardest I’ve written, and I felt myself constantly questioning what to discuss and in what manner to discuss it in. Although I still feel as if I have a lot to learn about myself as a sexual being, and have many a bridge to cross before I feel more comfortable with discussing sex. I feel that the multitude of experiences and perspectives presented to me within the pages of Doing It, helped me feel a little more comfortable about the nature of sexuality, and develop a more real and tangible understanding that we are all sexual beings in one way or another and that sex and sexuality is nothing to be ashamed of.

That’s often the beauty of a good book, its ability to give us introspection, to apply someone else’s perspective to our own lives and make deductions based on the new lenses through which we’re seeing ourselves for the first time. Before this book, I would have said I don’t enjoy non-fiction, much preferring to lose myself in a story derived from imagination. After Doing It, I have a new appreciation for the real-life, for books written of experience and the importance of reading things that draw attention to the real world, to the issues that plague the existence of so many.