Dave Eggars’ latest novel, The Circle is on the face of it straightforward. It’s an easy to read yarn about a woman taking a job working for a fictional hybrid of Google and Facebook, telling a gripping story of conspiracy and manipulation on a grand scale. This is Dave Eggars, though – a self-consciously brilliant writer (his first book, a kind of memoir, was called A Hearbreaking Work Of Staggering Genius) - and he’s always as much about ideas as he is about story. That this book manages to twin the two so well is testament to his skill.
The book holds a mirror to our digital culture and invites us to consider if we like what we see. The fictional company - The Circle – has combined online shopping, social media and web searching and seems to be on an unstoppable run of innovation and invention. It’s moving towards total market domination of more or less everything – what will it mean when ‘the circle is closed’? What will that look like, and what will it do to us? It’s an ultimately chilling conclusion.
In the process we see a series of different realities reflected to us. The novel portrays the desire to record and log everything we do, the measuring of viewpoints and popularity by ‘hits’ and ‘likes’, the addiction to screens and surveillance, the habit of experiencing great things second or third hand rather than directly, the need to present to the world a transparent picture of happiness, integrity and balance. The digitized life is well and truly under the microscope here.
It’s an achingly real vision of where we are and where we might be going. So much so that I was stunned to discover that many consider this to be science-fiction; I really don’t see it that way. It seems to me to be simply one perspective, only marginally exaggerated for story purposes, on where our society is headed. I’ve visited the Google campus in California twice; I can tell you that the workplace depicted in Eggars’ novel has roots in real life bricks and mortar. What’s on-screen in the novel’s world is equally recognisable.
Most of us use social media, but increasingly – especially in Christian circles (there’s that word again) – it has a bad reputation as something at best to be wary of, at worst something that’s eating us alive. Whether it’s privacy issues, cyber-bullying, the breakdown of ‘real’ community (a conveniently ill-defined term in the debate), the by-the-back-door marketing, or dangerous #neknomination style crazes, Christians are being warned frequently about the dangers these technologies present.
All of which obviously makes me think about playing music backwards. When I was a young Christian the biggest danger was, apparently, heavy metal. If you listened to it you were worshipping satan; there were messages so subtly written into the songs that they could only be discerned by playing the songs backwards. Slowly. But no matter! Listen to music often enough at the right speed, forwards, and the messages would seep into your soul and soon you’d be sacrificing kittens or killing yourself. Seriously.
It was absurd, of course. Not that there wasn’t destructive music out there, but everyone was looking in the wrong direction. So called Christian music was dangerous for sucking people into an artificial sub-culture of sub-standard music which took them away from the very people amongst whom they were meant to be salt and light. You didn’t have to listen to it backwards to see the danger, but that seemed irrelevant to most. Stick a Christian label on it and it must be kosher.
I was reminded of this when I was thinking on a friend’s recent Facebook post. She lives in a different country to me, and her family was experiencing a horrible crisis. The way she communicated updates and requests for help and prayer was through Facebook. It was such a good way for us all to be connected and involved. As the emergency abated she posted ‘I know Facebook has a bad reputation but …’. She went on to say what a good source of support it had been for her in this hard season. It was that first part of the post that intrigued me – the bad reputation. Add to the mix that one American mega-church has seen fit to set up its own social media platform, which is how much of its material and information is released. Not a Facebook group, you understand. I mean its own equivalent of Facebook. You can only join the platform if you’re a signed up member of the church. It’s Christian social media – for Christians only.
What is going on here? It seems to me that what’s being missed is the simple truth that social media is simply another incarnation of an old Christian dilemma. We see a new thing producing bad fruit, so we retreat and build a Christian version of it. Which misses the point. We brand the thing as evil, forgetting it’s people who make bad choices, not pixels or musical notes. Putting a ‘Christian’ label on something doesn’t make it better; too often it’s just a pale, lifeless version of the original. Ever listened to a Stryper album next to a Metallica one? Don’t. In fact, just don’t listen to Stryper.
These things are what we make them. What social media gives us is a unique opportunity to shape a vision of life that’s true – or false. We can do the bland sun-drenched, Instagrammed version of life or we can do something more real. We can put struggles and confessions of sin up there alongside chilled white wine and cute puppies (don’t put those last two together; chaos would clearly ensue). We can do real debate alongside status-update moralising. A few weeks ago I got into a Facebook argument with someone (another Christian leader) who decided, ultimately to block me. He said he’d rather not engage with me at all than disagree publicly.
I – and he – handled that incident badly. However, does it really do any good, as Christians, to present to the world a fantasy of smiling agreement? Or do we do better to put our sin, brokenness and disagreement on display as we try to work out what it means to be Jesus-people here and now? We need boundaries, of course; as The Circle shows us there are some things we shouldn’t share, some sins that should be confessed privately, some areas that must remain private. We are made to have boundaries. I’ve also learned that for me, Twitter is a bad place to debate. It’s hard to say something helpfully and clearly in such a short space. We all have our limits.
We, though, are called to be living sacrifices, people who live with whole lives laid down before God as worship, open to His use and purifying fire. Shouldn’t that make us more open with the world, not less? Either we do the age-old dance of retreating into a Christianised ghetto, in reality no more than a baptised theme-park version of reality; or we’re so eager to ‘win’ the world and the culture that we present a version of ourselves and our faith and our relationships, so filtered through sunny idealism that it won’t stand real scrutiny away from pixels in actual flesh and blood.
Live life online and in flesh and blood. Like flesh and blood, your online life is what you make it. Be wise, but be honest. Close the circle, but close it with humble honesty not grasping control. Don’t hide your sin; confess it appropriately the move on. Don’t retreat or seek to win the culture war. Just be there, living life and living it well. On screen and in person.
In a word it’s called incarnation. Which has, I think you’ll agree, a noble history.
I rated this book 4/5 on goodreads.com