Eggers' "The Circle" too square


I had this queued up to read, in the hope that Eggers had written something interesting for once. Seems not.

Someone should tell Leo Leporte and his viewers over on … he’s actively trying to get people to watch his webcasts live, and he has a small army of followers, which I guess still qualifies as “almost no one.” That said, I let my Tivo download Security Now, and I watch it roughly 24 hours after it is recorded.

Ouch, great review.

I’m wondering how much this has to do with the waning of the “novel of ideas” as the traditional form of how a culture represents itself. Eliot and Dickens had preeminence 150 years or so ago as the interpreters of England to the English, having a certain control of the cultural marketplace: much less media, no digital media capable of instantaneous mass transmission and consumption, lots of readers for fiction, etc. The critiques of the novel aside, I wish the reviewer had taken some of the cultural issues implicit in the novel’s failures into account: one can already hear the creaking and straining in the novels of Wolfe and DeLillo (“Look at all the condoms,” as one character in Underworld sententiously opines, and you can hear the zeitgeist slip out of the novelist’s hands: it’s a remark both too clever by half and also wholly unnecessary, plastics, barriers, mediation, garbage, we get it writer man, we get it.)

Also, this claim, though wonderfully put, is false:

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.

We’ve known how to do this since Joyce achieved his delicate attention to the crepitations and susurrus of thought in Ulysses nearly a century ago. Cf. Modernism, stream-of-consciousness (what Nabokov endearingly renamed “the stepping-stones of consciousness”), etc. Indeed, this paragraph reads a bit like Bloom online; indeed, a lot of Bloom’s thoughts are hyperlinkey and wired, way back then in 1922 (or, if you prefer, in 1904, when the novel is set):

A procession of whitesmocked sandwichmen marched slowly towards him along the gutter, scarlet sashes across their boards. Bargains. Like that priest they are this morning: we have sinned: we have suffered. He read the scarlet letters on their five tall white hats: H. E. L. Y. S. Wisdom Hely's. Y lagging behind drew a chunk of bread from under his foreboard, crammed it into his mouth and munched as he walked. Our staple food. Three bob a day, walking along the gutters, street after street. Just keep skin and bone together, bread and skilly. They are not Boyl: no, M Glade's men. Doesn't bring in any business either. I suggested to him about a transparent showcart with two smart girls sitting inside writing letters, copybooks, envelopes, blottingpaper. I bet that would have caught on. Smart girls writing something catch the eye at once. Everyone dying to know what she's writing. Get twenty of them round you if you stare at nothing. Have a finger in the pie. Women too. Curiosity. Pillar of salt. Wouldn't have it of course because he didn't think of it himself first. Or the inkbottle I suggested with a false stain of black celluloid. His ideas for ads like Plumtree's potted under the obituaries, cold meat department. You can't lick 'em. What? Our envelopes. Hello, Jones, where are you going? Can't stop, Robinson, I am hastening to purchase the only reliable inkeraser Kansell, sold by Hely's Ltd, 85 Dame street. Well out of that ruck I am. Devil of a job it was collecting accounts of those convents. Tranquilla convent. That was a nice nun there, really sweet face. Wimple suited her small head. Sister? Sister? I am sure she was crossed in love by her eyes. Very hard to bargain with that sort of a woman. I disturbed her at her devotions that morning. But glad to communicate with the outside world. Our great day, she said. Feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel. Sweet name too: caramel. She knew I, I think she knew by the way she. If she had married she would have changed. I suppose they really were short of money. Fried everything in the best butter all the same. No lard for them. My heart's broke eating dripping. They like buttering themselves in and out. Molly tasting it, her veil up. Sister? Pat Claffey, the pawnbroker's daughter. It was a nun they say invented barbed wire.

Surfing the 'Net, Dublin-style. The only thing missing is a mobile device for Bloom to rebroadcast his thoughts and sensations to the rest of us.


That particular line seemed really out-of-touch to me. If you add up all the people watching things on Twitch at any moment, I’m sure it gets to be more than “almost noone.” And of course it is 10,000 times as many as it was a few years ago. In the not too distant future the idea that someone could get a million people to watch them online is not that far fetched.

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I enjoyed reading the review. It does make the book sound dreadful. Even if it were better, it’s just inherently not the sort of thing I’d want to read, if I’m honest.

It’s amusing that the reviewer falls into the same trap as what he’s criticising about the author. She’s right that there’s much more to social media than Eggers seems to understand, of course. But her experience and understanding of social media is apparently very different from mine, and mine is different from the next person’s.

As others are also already mentioning here, her idea that livestreaming is absurd is itself absurd. If the technology were good enough and easy enough, as in the novel, a lot more people would be doing it and a lot more people would be watching it. That seems obvious to me, though perhaps the voyeuristic impulse is not equally distributed.

The Truman Show, among others, already nicely explored the idea, but in a now-outdated medium. Today, some people seemingly inexplicably become stars on YouTube, Twitter, and elsewhere. They have hundreds of thousands of people who watch every video they post, every little thing they write.

Also, today there are young women who charge for access to 24/7 webcam streaming in their bedrooms, as one obvious lead to where that technology might head.

This all leads to something obvious… not everyone who livestreams will have millions of followers, but some will, and who becomes popular and who doesn’t won’t necessarily make sense to everyone. Which is the point both the author and the reviewer miss - the “social media landscape” makes no sense in the way that they’re trying to make sense of it. You can’t really understand what it means to other people who aren’t exactly like you.

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Alexis Madrigal is a bloke.

Already been done.

Ha, thanks for the correction. I am actually familiar with his work at The Atlantic but went blank. I went back to the review when I was writing my comment and just looked at the first name to figure out what to use (originally I wrote “they”). Alexis seems primarily a woman’s name to me, but I have to admit that Alexis C. Madrigal sounds like a guy’s name, in retrospect.

That’s because men are much more likely to use a middle initial in publications.

My mother used her first three initials + last name when writing academically for a long time, before realizing that she was doing it just to sound more like a man.

It doesn’t qualify as Live anymore then does it? I thought that line was in reference to the fact that you don’t need to arrive at the correct time (appointment viewing) to watch it, and everybody these day watches stuff on their own schedule instead of someone else’s schedule.

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I actually enjoyed the book, mostly, but it’s a bizzare kind of uneven that I’ve had a hard time describing. At its heart, it’s a mystery/light thriller, but it’s also trying to be satire at the same time, and the flow of t6he book is completely broken as a result. Why do otherwise rational characters suddenly think that 100%, full-time video surveillance of everyone is really a good idea, without reservations? Or that basic government functions–like voting–should be controlled by a private corporation? Are they both complete authoritarians AND libertarians at the same time? After all, they were acting like normal human beings with normal concerns a moment ago.

I don’t personally watch’s webcasts live, but some people do, and Leo Leporte has indicated that he wants to encourage people to do that. They announce the broadcast times in UTC and they have live streaming content coming from their studios whenever they’re broadcasting. They also have a live chat channel, and frequently refer to the chat audience who provide live commentary and corrections, and ask pertinent questions during their broadcasts. They also allow as how you can get “bonus material” by watching the program’s panel participants chatting before the tape gets rolling. Like I said, though, I personally watch the webcasts on delay at my own convenience.

TV Networks want you to watch live as well, which is why they have all of that “tweet #shownametvslot1 now to be entered to win a prize!” nonsense. Advertisers apparently pay more for live viewers.

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“Almost no one watches livestreams of anything except the Occupy protests, Apple keynotes, puppies, and sports.” …and presidential speeches, breaking news events, gaming conventions, fundraising events, and…

Strikes me that BB falls into a McLuhanesque trap by drawing attention to negative reviews of this particular novel. Doesn’t have anything to do with the subject matter does it? I am going to go out on a limb and surmise we will not see many positive reviews of this particular novel on the interwebs. Besides, did I miss the new rule that says dystopian novels have to be completely ‘nerd proof’ to merit being taken seriously, what, like ‘1984’ or ‘Brave New World’ was? Read it yourself and make up your own mind.

I am no expert (though I play one around here from time to time.) But wouldn’t it be inefficient to stream to a million people? That is what broadcast is for. How many servers would you need to stream like that?

I think if you started getting audiences like that you would move to a more efficient technology.

Yeah, well, you can’t skip the ads on live TV.

Terrifyingly, folks do sometimes successfully “stream to a million people”. NASA’s done it, for example. I don’t know the details, but my hunch is connectionless/datagram-based protocols and a lot of error recovery coding to tolerate missed packets.

Personally I consider high-bandwidth streaming media something of a perversion of the Internet, but somehow or other the servers are tolerating it.

Of course it has to do with the subject matter. We are all sitting here participating in social media so it would be of interest to this audience that he got it so wrong. Do you think we should wait for the reviews by critics that also don’t use or know social media? Just to be fair?

Eggers is supposed to be a hip dude.