Alexandra Lange
Architecture & design critic

What 'The Circle' Gets Wrong About Silicon Valley

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If I were to write a romantic comedy set in Silicon Valley today, the opening shot would be of a sunrise—backlit against some pastoral piece of California coast, a man and a woman hold coffee, not hands. As the camera moved closer, you would hear their conversation and realize that this was not a morning-after ramble, but merely the first in a series of walking work meetings. In lieu of Starbucks cups, the not-holding hands would be carrying smartphones. You can imagine the rest.

If I were to write a sci-fi flick set in Silicon Valley today, the opening shot would be of a sunrise—a group of people standing on a corner, all holding coffee, not speaking. As the camera moved closer you would realize they were standing at a bus stop. As a bus neared, certain faces would be illuminated. Those people would step forward and, still in their halos, board. The others would continue to wait in darkness, until their bus appeared. You can imagine who would be left behind.

Both these scenarios are based on my observations of Silicon Valley’s material culture, and the separate cities—complete with their own social conventions, their own Main Streets, and their own transportation systems—that Facebook, Apple, and Google are in the process of creating. I assembled those details in my e-book, The Dot-Com City: Silicon Valley Urbanism, published last year by Strelka Press. This is also the territory of Dave Eggers’s new book, The Circle, which indeed combines romantic comedy and near-term science fiction. No one seems satisfied with the book—not the feminists, not the futurists, not the alarmists. It has an unbelievable “heroine” in Mae Holland, long passages of clunky writing, and few laughs. But what bothered me the most was the architecture. Eggers has said, in a form of self-interview posted on McSweeney’s, that he did no physical research for the book. And that’s a shame. Eggers’s digital doom would have been enriched had he extrapolated from the extravagant and ridiculous reality, rather than his own, often retrograde, visions of the near future.

The architectural history of science fiction is a rich one, stretching backward from J.G. Ballard to H.G. Wells, Edward Bellamy to William Morris. What many of their books have in common is a moment—page one, chapter one, often—when their hero climbs out of the wreckage, opens the door, or wakes up to a brand new horizon. The Circle is no different.

My God, Mae thought. It’s heaven.
The campus was vast and rambling, wild with Pacific color, and yet the smallest detail had been carefully considered, shaped by the most eloquent hands. On land that had once been a shipyard, then a drive-in movie theater, then blight, there were now soft green hills and a Calatrava fountain. And a picnic area, with tables arranged in concentric circles. And tennis courts, clay and grass. And a volleyball court, where tiny children from the company’s daycare center were running, squealing, weaving like water. Amid all this was a workplace, too- four hundred acres of brushed steel and glass on the headquarters of the most influential company in the world.

There are a lot of elements for the architectural reader to trip over, just in those first paragraphs. “Shaped by the most eloquent hands.” What could that mean? “Brushed steel and glass,” sure, but that describes every other office building built since 1970. Mae steps inside, and there’s more glass: Glass etched with the company logo (Eggers really likes “etched”); walls made of glass; “The Glass Eatery,” which even Mae’s guide acknowledges has a terrible name, “designed such that diners ate at nine different levels, all of the floors and walls glass. At first glance, it looked like a hundred people were eating in mid-air.”

Eggers has turned to a material culture made of glass as a way of signaling the role “transparency” will play in the novel’s plot. But in architecture, and in Silicon Valley, we’re already well beyond the obvious equation of glass to transparency or democracy. Bloomberg LP’s New York City headquarters, designed by popular Silicon Valley firm STUDIOS Architecture, was fitted out with a Rainbow Brite glass palette in 2005, plus glass fish tanks (which also make an appearance in The Circle) and the then-novelty of being greeted by someone who already knows your name (ditto). The 2010 Kieran Timberlake design for a new U.S. Embassy in London was criticized for offering a false transparency: the building was glass, but the public would be separated from that “openness” by a grassy fortification.

Meanwhile, Silicon Valley proper has moved on from the physical barrier of glass to technologized, invisible lines. Employees sit not at cubicles but at long communal desks, divided by thin elbow-high barriers. Headphones are used to create zones of privacy; architecture is no longer thought necessary to that end. To get in and out of buildings, or even into specific work groups within buildings, one needs not a code but a badge: a card, with name and photo, typically worn on a lanyard for easiest access and visual reconnaissance. The public can wander off Mountain View’s public sidewalks and get up close to Google’s buildings, but they can’t get in, much less buy water at the café, or vegetables from the garden, without a badge. Once you’ve worked at one of these companies for a while, “badging in” becomes so reflexive that one employee told me she reached for her card at the sliding glass doors of the mall. Eggers’s glass heaven is headed in the wrong direction.

The author seems to be practicing the W Hotel version of architectural description, where thread count, type of wood, and allusions to craftsmanship are supposed to stand in for design innovation and contemporary cool. Mae walks on “tiles with imploring messages of inspiration. ‘Dream,’ one said, the word laser-cut into the red stone.” In the kitchen we see “everything illuminated by a vast hand-blown chandelier aglow with multicolored bulbs”; in the library, “everything fashioned in wood and copper and silver, a symphony of muted color.” A dorm room is “awash in silver fixtures and blond woods.” Awash?! This word choice matters because it disrupts the excitement of entering a new world. We’re supposed to be on a journey with Mae, but we shouldn’t think she’s a bit of a dope (or a dupe) from the start.

When Eggers moves beyond the handblown and laser-cut, he also stumbles at sketching places with words. Buildings at The Circle are named after different historical ages so that, apparently, Eggers can have characters do things like “meet at the Enlightenment.” The names have nothing to do with architectural style, so that the Renaissance is “a building of glass and oxidized copper” (more materials without spatial assignments) and the pool is “a blue parallelogram,” a less interesting metaphor than the bubbly Water Cube built for the Beijing Olympics. Creative naming is a Silicon Valley thing, but companies usually have more fun with it. The conference rooms at Facebook are named for mash-ups of cocktails and Star Wars characters, a combination voted on by the whole staff. The brainstorming around that meaningless bit of fun would have made for a more interesting scene than one in which Eggers imports fire-eaters to The Circle.

The bad sex award for architectural writing has to go to the Protagorean Pavilion, however. He writes,

The designers of the building had taken pains to use organic shapes, to soften the rigid math of the engineers’ daily work. The atrium was encased in silver and seemed to undulate, as if they stood at the bottom of an enormous corrugated tube.

Leaving aside the question of whether engineers do math every day, and whether that’s rigid, and whether it needs to be softened, do you have any idea what such an atrium might look like? In my mind I’m stuck between a silver-painted paper towel roll and sculptor Anish Kapoor’s “Cloud Gate” in Chicago, a.k.a. “The Bean.” If The Circle were a movie, this building would have to do something, symbolize something, but here it just sits, inert and confusing.

Eggers’s love of making words, plus his tone-deaf assessment of the daily lives of engineers, points to another structural flaw: the work of Silicon Valley is clearly of no interest to him. Where, for example, are the whiteboards, which appear in every new dot-com office as a symbol that a billion-dollar idea might strike at any moment—even while you’re walking back from the bathroom? Where are the “breakout spaces,” often furnished with IKEA throw pillows in the bright colors that represent fun at a disposable price? What Mae does at The Circle is customer service, and what she does for The Circle is represent the naïve user, just happy to be asked for her opinion about anything. We don’t see her in the halls cross-pollinating. She’s at her desk, grabbing food, or participating in mandatory company parties. The current state of Silicon Valley urbanism masks intense class divides, which Eggers alludes to but only glancingly engages with.

Those class divides start within companies, where some badges allow more access than others. In Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs, there’s a fascinating description of the top secret, specially designed room in which design discussions of the iPod happen. In Maria Semple’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette, a far fleeter and funnier commentary on dot-com culture in Seattle, she describes different levels of private buses taking downtown employees out to Microsoft, and the worshipful relationship of admins and other support personnel to the core engineering staff. (I wrote about the role of architecture in Semple’s epistolary novel here.) Would Mae really have been able to ascend through the ranks on social media prowess alone? Or would the ability to code have been the virtual barrier it seems to be in real life Silicon Valley? More inaccessible spaces would have dramatized Mae’s desire to succeed.

There’s also the question of Circle employees’ IRL relationships. Here, Eggers crystallizes the To Save Everything, Click Here mentality diagnosed by Evgeny Morozov:

Increasingly, she found it difficult to be off-campus anyway. There were homeless people, and there were the attendant and assaulting smells, and there were machines that didn’t work, and floors and seats that had not been cleaned, and there was, everywhere, the chaos of an orderless world.
Walking through San Francisco, or Oakland, or San Jose, or any city, really, seemed more and more like a Third World experience, with unnecessary filth, and unnecessary strife and unnecessary errors and inefficiencies—on any city block, a thousand problems correctible through simple enough algorithms and the application of available technology and willing members of the digital community.

These paragraphs, both critical and spatial, are couched not in the language of a novel but that of an editorial. He’s putting thoughts in her head without putting a scene on the page. As Ellen Ullman pointed out in the New York Times Book Review, the scenes between Mae and her un-networked ex-boyfriend have a similar expository quality, however valid their critique. It’s funny that Mercer, the ex-boyfriend, makes chandeliers out of antlers, but as with Eggers’s sub-Gehry description of the Protagorean Pavilion, he’s late. As an aesthetic trope that signifies maker culture, Jason Miller’s antler chandeliers are at least ten years old. And Miller’s are more interesting, since the antlers aren’t real.

Eggers misses opportunities to explore the material differences between the haves and the have-nots. As a result of her growing disgust with, and disconnection from, the world of the public, Mae moves into a Circle dorm full-time.

The room had been hers for six weeks now. It no longer made sense to drive back to her apartment, which was expensive and, last time she’s been there, after being gone for eight days, had mice. So she gave it up and became one of the hundred Settlers, Circlers who had moved on campus permanently. The advantages were obvious and the waiting list was now 1,209 names long. There was room on campus now for 288 Circlers, and the company had just bought a nearby building, a former factory, planning to convert it into 500 more rooms. Mae’s had been upgraded and now had fully smart appliances, wallscreens and shades, everything centrally monitored. The room was cleaned daily and the refrigerator stocked with both her standard items—tracked via Homie—and products in beta.

Eggers’s description implies that the cleaning and stocking were performed automatically, much like the tracking (everyone’s still dreaming of the fridge which restocks itself) and the monitoring. But in the near future, service workers still exist. Someone is making her bed and ensuring that, despite her lack of time and interest in housework, her Circle room remains free of mice.

Science fiction of the turn of the 19th century spent a lot of time on the servants and the served; The Time Machine’s Morlocks and Eloi would be the most famous example. As so many techno-utopianists forget, we still need to eat and sleep and breathe, even as the apps solve all of our problems. Had Eggers considered the physical aspect of his social critique, The Circle would have found a more plausible plot, and perhaps a more sympathetic audience. Eggers writes of the potential for revolution, such as it is, as coming from dissatisfaction at the top, and without any attempt at galvanizing popular following. Wouldn’t a revolution by those excluded from the perks of The Circle—the shuttles, the nose-to-tail lunch prepared by a famous chef, the rooms cleaned by unseen hands—be more likely? Even with the entire American political class in its grasp, there would still be many millions more outside The Circle than within. If Eggers had thought harder about physical space, and the real work required to design, create, and maintain those spaces of coding power, The Circle’s logo, with its “knitted grid,” would have been a far more potent symbol.

Originally published in Medium