The Circle – Dave Eggers

[This is a journal in four sections. I didn’t start reading a new section until I’d finished writing about the one before, so I didn’t know how any of it would turn out until I got to the end.]

19 October 2014
To page 162…
…of 491 pages, which is roughly the first third of the novel. What I’m wondering is how Dave Eggers will keep it going, because already there have been huge clues about why the ‘utopia’ of The Circle is no such thing. Utopias never are in fiction, and all we are left to wonder is whether Mae, the character whose point of view we follow throughout, is going to be the one to call it into question and/or do something to break it up. I’m guessing that in 300 or so pages’ time she will realise that she’s too small, that the company has spread its tentacles so wide and so tightly that there’s nothing anybody can do about it.

Those clues, not necessarily in order. Mae gets the job not through merit, but because she was the college roommate of Annie, who is already one of the ‘Gang of 40’ at the top of the company. The company is extremely hierarchical, despite endless talk about how everybody is treated the same. There are high-sounding inspirational mottoes printed, embossed and carved on almost every elegant surface in the place. The buildings have non-hierarchical names based on arbitrary periods in history, like the group names in elementary school. Everybody is smiley, all the time. Mae’s first day is all about what the company will do for her, from free health care to a social life, on-campus (campus!), that will exactly match what she wants. I think it might be on this day that the word ‘utopia’ pops into her head. Or is carefully placed there by one of the company apparatchiks. So far, so Brave New World.

But all this is nothing compared to what Dave Eggers’ real agenda seems to be. In this very near future privacy is clearly a thing of the past. It takes a company geek exactly six minutes to download absolutely every file on Mae’s phone and laptop not only on to her new state-of-the-art device, but into the ‘cloud’. Within a few days we see how Mae, not used to life in the goldfish-bowl, is caught out when she misses some emails about a social event. She is tremendously busy from day 2 onwards, has two, then three screens in front of her, and she is a bit overwhelmed. (She never admits this even to herself, which I’ll come back to.) An employee she doesn’t know has invited her to a Portugal-based event, and she knows nothing of it until her boss, in that smiley way of all the company’s managers, points out how hurt the man is. He had searched the cloud to bring up anybody who had ever been to, or had any connection with Portugal – Mae had been on holiday, and her photographs are therefore in the public domain – and he couldn’t understand why she hadn’t been thrilled by the invite. She blags her way out of it, but spends hours late into the night making sure she won’t ever miss a thing in future.

That’s another thing about this utopia. Everybody works inhuman hours. Lunch is 20 or so minutes, if it is taken at all, and in addition to absolutely every working minute being monitored, an algorithm brings up a running total of customer satisfaction, expressed as a percentage. Below 95% is cause for concern, and employees are expected to follow up anything less. Even the customers are kept on their toes. Ty, one of the company founders invented TruYou (the initials only accidentally, of course, spelling out his name) which has replaced all passwords with a single, identifiable internet identity for everybody. Trolling is a thing of the past, and customers are keen to be seen to co-operate.

It gets worse, at both the individual and a much wider level. Mae, however hard she works, always seems a step behind. At the beginning of her third week she is reminded of the medical she should have taken in the first – was she really told? – and accepts the intensely intrusive ‘preventative’ package that is installed. Not only does she get a bracelet to monitor vital signs like heart-rate; she ingests an internal device in a drink she is given without being asked. The beautiful, smiley doctor makes light of it, and pretends she hadn’t realised that Mae’s father is in need of a care-plan for himself. She brings both her parents into the company plan as though it’s a favour, but her mother’s reaction when she finds out makes us realise that Mae is never going to be able to leave: ‘Mae, you’ve saved not just your father’s life but my life too.’ Oh dear.

The wider spread of the company’s tentacles is first seen at a lunchtime presentation given by another of its founders in Mae’s first week. These are like the rallies presented by Steve Jobs in his prime, and use the same techniques of surprise and gadgetry. The device he introduces is a cheap, almost invisible wireless webcam. The spiel begins harmlessly enough, with views of the surf levels on his favourite beach. But soon he’s showing his enthralled audience dozens of streaming videos from Egypt, Tiananmen Square – in fact, wherever they feel like putting them. Governments are going to have to be careful from now on, folks! (I’m paraphrasing.) But it clearly isn’t only foreign governments the company is interested in. Annie is involved in some hush-hush project in Washington – there’s a lot of secrecy in this company that pretends to be so proud of its openness – and we wonder what it might involve. The suspicion, of course, is that the clever people in the Circle are calling the tune.

Other stuff. Eggers has given his main character a lot of work to do, and I don’t just mean in customer services. She has to be the ingénue and, for a clever woman, she seems remarkably obtuse. She’s still wide-eyed in wonder at the wonderful new life she has, and doesn’t only do what she’s told; she believes everything too. (I’m highly suspicious about that best-ever ratings score of 97% she has on her first day, a feat that is publicised across the campus.) And she has a life outside working hours: she starts seeing another employee within a few days – until he lets his friend, who is developing a piece of dating software, reveal everything about her onscreen in a public presentation that makes a mockery of privacy. He sends 50 apologetic emails that afternoon, but he’s toast. For now. And… she likes the bay near where she was brought up, and accidentally meets a middle-aged couple who know about tides and seals and pods of whales. She resents her ex-boyfriend, at her parents’ house for what turns out not to be an emergency, when he mocks the way that social media gets in the way of normal human interaction. And so on.

In other words, Eggers is throwing into the mix just about every misgiving that people above the age of about 35 have about what all our devices are doing to us, and the global power of companies like Facebook and Google. But as I said, I wonder how he’ll fill up another 300 pages.

20 October
To the end of Book 1
Time passes – something like three months since Mae’s first day – and, despite not only Eggers but also her ex sending her very loud warning signals, she is still the ingénue. My problem with this novel has nothing to do with the ideas, although Eggers does tend to spell them out in the three-foot-high letters of the rousing on-screen mottoes at those company presentations. (I’ll come back to those.) It’s the character of Mae. What I previously referred to as her obtuseness is turning into what looks like a wilful disregard for the blindingly obvious. At one stage she is subjected to a kind of interrogation, over many pages, of her neglect of her social media duties. She – gasp! – isn’t sharing, hasn’t posted details of her kayaking activities, and the smiling (or tut-tutting) apparatchiks sent in to put her right are like something from Kafka. So she protests, right? As if. She feels guilt-ridden and spends every available minute from then on clawing her way up the company’s social media rankings. If she needs to stay up all night, so be it. There’s no obligation to do such a thing, of course, just as there’s no obligation to skip lunch, but, well, you know how it is.

It gets worse, as the company adds another ‘layer’, as somebody calls it, to her daily duties. Now she is expected to answer constant lifestyle and product survey questions fed to an earpiece, and again there’s no pressure. But, as ever, a daily tally is mentioned as a norm, and a higher number is fed into the conversation, just as it had been with the social media pep-talk, to let her know what’s really expected. And her responses translate into profits, also tallied, because any Circle employee’s tastes influence the take-up of advertisers’ products…. And at various points she gets more screens on her desk: she’s now ‘commanding’ five.

But all this is as nothing when two threads come together at the end of Book 1. Previously, at a presentation by another of the company’s control-freak founders, a new idea is introduced: ‘transparency’. For some years a company guinea-pig has been road-testing a device that records every moment of his waking life in high definition. (So far, so Truman Show.) Enter a tame US Senator, willing to subject herself to the same regime. From now on, no meeting of hers will ever be in private, which will be fine because she has nothing to hide. This little idea catches hold, and soon more politicians feel obliged to sign up. The company has to open another factory in China to cope with the demand, because within weeks the numbers signing up are in the thousands. Ok, hold that thought.

On her way home from her parents’ one Sunday night, Mae thinks about kayaking. The place for hiring kayaks is closed, obviously, but she goes anyway. And there’s a kayak by the fence, clearly left by someone who was late returning it. Kayaking, of course, is Eggers’ catch-all metaphor for individualism: this is something that defines who Mae really is… and so on. She takes the kayak, has a lovely night-time paddle, encounters seals and a shooting-star (I’m not making this up), but when she gets back the cops are waiting for her. It would have been the end of a lovely career if the owner hadn’t vouched for her. So, no harm done. Phew. Except, in his usual way, her line manager lets her know she’s in deep shit next day. She was caught on one of the company’s webcams, and will have to see Bailey, the founder who developed them. In a conversation that is like a patient teacher going over a misdemeanour with a child, he talks her through her crime, how she wouldn’t have done it if she’d known she was being watched – how nobody would – but how this can turn into a life-lesson for all. It’s Bailey as God, substituting his products for the all-seeing deity of more superstitious times. She is to be the next guinea-pig, because Part 1 ends with a presentation at which she is to go ‘transparent’. She’s about to find herself in a goldfish-bowl where there is absolutely nowhere to hide.

This is where the three-foot high letters come in. We’re not in Brave New World territory now, we’re in 1984. (We’ve already had scenes in which huge images of the founders seem to stare down on Mae.) At the presentation Bailey pretends that Mae herself came up with the watchwords of the new world of 24-hour surveillance: SECRETS ARE LIES; SHARING IS CARING; PRIVACY IS THEFT.

Eggers has made sure we’re ready for the implications of this. Mae, of course, has been manipulated for the sake of company profits. That’s all the founders are really interested in, as demonstrated by the incessant lifestyle surveys added to her appalling workload. But it isn’t only capitalism doing what it does. A senator who had raised objections to the company’s monopolisation of so many online features is suddenly found to have highly incriminating files on her hard drive. Fine. But it seems to happen every time any public figure speaks out. Suddenly they’re under police investigation – and in case we haven’t noticed this for ourselves, Eggers has Mae’s ex spell it out for her. ‘You think it’s just coincidence…?’ For good measure, in the same conversation 50 or so pages from the end of Book 1, he voices all the misgivings an alert reader might have been having about the company so far. Eggers is never one to leave us in any doubt about what we should be thinking.

Other things. Eggers does his best to give Mae an independent-mindedness that sits oddly with her determination to conform. She loves those kayaking expeditions, as I’ve said – and they make her forget all about her life online. Early on, the trouble she gets into is to do with simply not remembering to post anything about it. You’d think she would have learnt, but no, and she gets into deeper trouble than ever. She begins to wonder if she’s schizophrenic, and Eggers has dropped one of those heavy clues of his that she is in denial. As she drives away from the unsatisfactory encounter with her ex, she lists the ways he gets her all wrong: ‘He knew the parts of her he liked and agreed with, and pretended those were her true self, her essence. He knew nothing.’ We know better, obviously.

And… what is it with the sex she has? Francis, the boyfriend she dumped because of the embarrassing presentation, gets a hand-job – before she dumps him all over again for not deleting the video she realises he’s been taking of it. And there’s the mystery man, Kalden. He begins to appear from nowhere quite early in the novel, has an underground lair, and has secretive full-on sex with her either there or in the toilet nearest to her work-station. His role, apparently, is to be the secret she can’t possibly share, to get under the skin of her Circle self, and he’s completely preposterous. Annie can’t identify him when Mae tells her about him – Mae never, ever remembers to ask him his surname – and he comes and goes without any of the surveillance kicking in. I wonder how she’ll get on with him now she has a camera permanently hanging round her neck.

22 October
To page 399…
…roughly speaking, half-way through Part 2 – by which time the controlling tendencies of the company’s founders seem to be approaching their logical conclusion. Since long before the end of Part 1 there’s been talk of ‘completing the circle’, an idea given a boost in that conversation Mae had with Bailey. He describes the company logo: ‘See how the “c” in the middle is open? For years it’s bothered me, and it’s become symbolic of what’s left to do here, which is to close it.’ And because this man never has an unplanned conversation, the ‘c’ in the company logo on the screen he’s set up becomes a circle, ‘the strongest shape in the universe. Nothing can beat it….’ One thing about Dave Eggers is he always gives us plenty of warning of what’s coming.

For me, this novel works best at the level of ideas. It has become a dark satire of some of the most worrying aspects of the information age: Mae the wide-eyed ingénue, like Pangloss in Voltaire’s Candide, still persuades herself that in the Circle all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds. At the beginning of Part 2 she has become the online poster-girl for the company as she takes her ‘watchers’ on guided tours through her day on the Circle’s hallowed campus. Stenton, the least attractive of the founders, has been on a trip to the Marianas Trench – the developers of the submersible craft have let slip the revealing phrase that it is ‘for Stenton, and for him alone’ – and some of the weird creatures he has brought back are on display in tanks. One of them is a wide-jawed blind shark, and its transparent digestive system makes short work of a beautiful, terrified turtle. In minutes it has passed through the shark, which excretes something that looks like ash at the end.

This happens early, and even the usually ultra-explicit Eggers doesn’t need to spell out what the shark represents. Annie has been globe-trotting, ironing out ‘wrinkles’ with foreign governments as the company puts in place initiatives that she is not willing to talk about on-camera. But the top people in the company have always been a secretive bunch, using high-impact presentations to reveal their latest fait accompli. Bailey, in particular, has a wonderful line in double-speak, in which every new money-making development is presented as a saviour of freedom and democracy. And in Mae, he has a willing accomplice. We’ve seen at the end of Part 1 how she is the one credited with thinking up those new company mottoes now, inevitably, displayed prominently all over the campus.

At the point I’ve reached in Part 2, Mae is doing all Bailey’s work for him again. For many pages now we’ve heard of new developments in which the company has been making policy decisions normally expected of governments. But then, what could be better than deep implants that tell parents exactly where their children are at any moment, eradicating abductions in the areas where they have been trialled? What could be more useful to a parent than knowing their child’s precise assessment ranking as compared with every other child in the city, or state, or country – even, one day, the world? What could be better than politicians who will never again be able to make a secret deal – especially now that the company offers big discounts for city halls willing to equip all their officials with the devices? Now Annie, looking haggard and jet-lagged after weeks of travel on secret business, is surprised that Mae has been invited to attend a presentation she thought was intended for the higher echelons. The whole world will know their business!

As at the previous presentation, Mae is the star. She is surprised by this. After Bailey has rolled out for the ‘Gang of 40’ top employees – and, via Mae’s camera, for the world – his vision for the future, she finds herself volunteering a suggestion. Again as at the previous presentation, she wonders at her own boldness. Then, she could hardly believe the words Bailey quoted were her own.(‘Did she really say that?’) Now, she so precisely takes his ideas that bold step further that the reader is bound to suspect something sinister: have those constant voices in her ear been sending her subliminal messages? Bailey will have realised how suggestible she is…. And the programme she rolls out is to be the saviour of democracy. 83% of Americans have a company ‘TruYou’ account, so it would be easy to link this to the electoral register. With Annie helplessly raising objections – she is batted down like the burnt-out case she has suddenly become – Mae ploughs on, until she completes Bailey’s circle for him. Not only will everybody be obliged to have a TruYou account, they will be able to vote online and save the government ‘$200 billion’, according to Stenton, who has the figures conveniently memorised. And why not make voting not merely convenient, but compulsory?

The Circle has become a symbol of every disturbing aspect of the power of Internet corporations. At this level, the novel works for me. Between them Stenton and Bailey, the company’s active founders, have forged an entity in which power over policy – and making a lot of money in the process – is disguised as working for the common good. (Its hypocrisy is seen in the product placement Mae has to ensure even on a visit to her parents. It reveals Bailey’s talk of ‘Circlers’ as leaders of taste for what it really is, a money-making opportunity.) Meanwhile Eggers, in that way he has, makes explicit a tendency the reader has already picked up: the Circle and its founders as God. I think it’s Bailey who presents this as a positive, as the Circle pioneers a new morality based on its own omniscience. Later, as Mae is recognised during one of her rare visits off-campus, a fan draws a circle like a halo above her head. Thanks Dave, got it.

Other aspects of the novel are far less convincing. I’ve already complained a lot about Mae and her relationships, and these don’t get any better. The people she knows are little more than ciphers, representing some aspect or other of the issues Eggers wants to raise. Even the places where they live take on some kind of wider symbolic significance. We’ve had Kalden’s underground lair, but otherwise the campus is the only safe place on earth for Mae. She now has a permanent room there, elegant and clean, and has sold her apartment outside; even American towns and cities, with their dirt and crime, seem to belong to the Third World. Her parents’ house is a shrine to a dark past: they have covered up all but a few of the sixteen spy cameras that have been installed in what she regards as due return for the free healthcare: how can her father’s well-being be monitored otherwise? As for Mercer, her ex: she can’t even see his shop online any more, because he’s doing his best to remove his Internet presence. (The only place immune to her dream of worldwide inclusion, the kayak hire-shop, is off-limits now.)

The characters go with their habitats. Mae… I’ll come back to Mae. Kalden: he’s gone underground, although we know from a gnomic message that he’s not happy about the way the Circle is going, and after Mae’s star performance he starts leaving dozens of voicemail messages she isn’t opening. I’m wondering if he’ll be the one to lead the revolution. Annie: she’s disappearing, as Mae finds it harder to keep in contact and sees the toll that high-octane exploitation by the company has had on her. There’s Francis, becoming more and more a company apparatchik as he widens the scope of the child-monitoring software. She has sex with him now, and it’s ok – although, after he’s questioned her rating of his performance, just as she does wither customers, she upgrades him to 100%. Just as they do with her…. Which leaves the people who live furthest away from the Circle, in every way. (Thanks again, Dave.) Her parents, inevitably, represent a pre-Internet generation, objecting – embarrassingly, on-camera – to the endless messages of support they’re supposed to respond to. Mercer, the ex, is helping them a lot now and, as in Part 1, we get a long critique from him – written, of all things, on paper – of everything that is wrong with Mae, the Circle’s true believer. We’re with him all the way, obviously, because Eggers makes sure we’ve seen how the Circle mind-set has destroyed not only Mae’s relationship with him, but with her parents.

And there’s Mae herself, being given more and more to do not only by her exploitative employers – despite the company’s talk of lifelong security it appears to employ nobody over 30, presumably because they’re as burnt-out as Annie – but by Eggers himself. He has to keep her as the perpetual ingénue for the sake of his satire – she joins the ranks of Candide and Gulliver, products of the great-grand-daddies of Utopia-busting satire – and it’s becoming harder than ever to sustain. She’s always had that ‘schizophrenia’, which makes her do stupid things all the time. And, before the end of Part 1, Eggers has already introduced another feature, the ‘tear’ in the fabric of her little world. It usually opens at a time when evidence of the dangers posed by the Circle have been shown to her. She’s good at denial, as we know, but she can’t help seeing the blackness beyond. It isn’t the most sophisticated of the literary motifs I’ve encountered.

And Eggers has her being constantly subjected to the confusing influences, sexual and otherwise, of the three men in her private life. (Is this why he’s made his main protagonist a young woman prone to bad sexual choices? Maybe.) Francis is the easy one, as he morphs into a company robot. Kalden and Mercer are something else, one explicitly and one covertly trying to lead her away from the true path. Is that tear in the fabric going to be wide enough for her to step through? Or, having learnt to love Big Brother, is she going to ignore the siren voices?

Time to read on.

22 October, later
The rest of Book 2, and Book 3 – to the end
At the beginning of Book 2 I wrote that ‘even the usually ultra-explicit Eggers doesn’t need to spell out what the shark represents.’ Well, I was wrong. 160-odd pages later, after the psychopathic-seeming Stenton has it released into the same tank as the engaging octopus and beautiful seahorses, what is it that Kalden says as he gestures to the whole campus? ‘All this. The fucking shark that eats the world.’ As I’ve said before, thanks Dave.

There are limited options for the main characters reaching the end of dystopian fictions. They can successfully fight it, like Truman in The Truman Show or the ant in Antz. (A rare choice, this outside Hollywood and YA fiction like The Hunger Games.) Or, seeing that there’s no beating the system, they can go for the suicide option – I’ll never forget the hanging body at the end of Brave New World – which is what Mercer opts for, in full view of millions. You can retreat into a catatonic state, which is what Annie does after her effort to curry favour with her bosses goes horribly wrong. Or – and this is the option that had always seemed too obvious – you can learn to love Big Brother. (Sigh.) The problem in this novel is that there was never a time when Mae didn’t love Big Brother. (That pesky little tear in the fabric? Eggers has her sew it up in her mind.)

I don’t know why I’m so disappointed. It was always going to happen, because this whole novel is a warning to the world: look what will happen if you don’t stop it now. Even the original inventor of the concept, the reclusive Ty himself, has no power to stop it because he has to put his faith in a fallible human. Mae, as we’ve seen, is immune to all human reasoning, doesn’t even heed the warnings of Mercer, so deranged by being pursued by the Circle that he kills himself, of Stenton and the shark he can’t take his eyes off, of Annie in her coma. What was he thinking of, asking her to help? Memories of rough sex in the toilet – Ty turns out to have been Kalden all along – just don’t cut it even when the alternative is Francis, Mr Premature Ejaculation.

The second half of Book 2 is all plot, and I’ve told you most of the main events. Annie volunteers to be the guinea-pig in the PastPerfect project, which is going to open up every last available detail of her genealogy. It throws up such a horrific, slave-owning heritage – and, in the way that plot-driven novels do, such a graphic scene of her parents’ utter lack of human feeling caught on video – that the next thing we hear of is her collapse. Mae, ever helpful, has publicised the revelations before Annie has time to withdraw from the project so that her friend can start receiving all that online love. Mercer sends another letter, again on paper, explaining why he is going to escape into the woods. (I’m not making this up.) Mae, because Eggers is happy to have her behave like a complete idiot by now, thinks it will be a good idea to set the whole of the Circle online community in pursuit. She expects him to laugh when he realises she’s just sending him a whole bunch of new friends. He drives off a bridge.

Meanwhile more and more intrusive projects are pitched by young hopefuls. These are ‘plankton’, as the Gang of 40 call them, and we see Stenton devouring them and gobbling up their nasty ideas. When one of them mentions privacy laws, Stenton blandly says that there won’t be any problem. And so on. There’s little new here, just further confirmation that dissenting voices exist – but only in the forms of Kalden/Ty and Mercer. Eggers is so keen on keeping Mae, and the reader, inside the bubble of the Circle and its followers that he feels free to pretend that no other dissenting voices exist in the outside world. Or, he would have us believe, Stenton has the power to silence any objectors. He has Ty telling Mae that he’s seen off a hundred or more in the way we’ve already seen. I realise that Stenton is the James Bond villain of this novel, with his pet shark and his global surveillance empire.

After the horrifying display in the shark tank, watched by tens of millions, Kalden/Ty takes Mae to his lair again. It isn’t for sex this time, but for the sort of lecture we’re used to from Mercer. He describes how a golden vision of fine, upstanding conduct on the Internet has been corrupted, how he never wanted the kind of rampant unregulated surveillance Stenton is bringing about with the still idealistic Bailey. Will she help him break it up?

No she won’t. The end.

Or not quite the end. In the short epilogue that forms Book 3, Mae visits Annie, still comatose months after her collapse. There’s definitely brain activity, and Mae knows that if only it were possible to get inside Annie’s head – the ultimate closing of the Circle, surely – there would be so much more information available for the benefit of mankind. This is the way Mae’s mind works, now that she’s sewn up that pesky little tear in the fabric and she embraces the brainwashing that started almost at the beginning of the novel. (I think it’s Mercer, in his long letter to Mae, who refers to the Circle as a cult.)

So why am I not as impressed by the inevitable doom of this ending as I am by that of 1984? I think a lot of it comes down to the mixed message we’re getting. I’ve referred several times to Eggers’ satirical intent but, for me, the satire never quite works. There are some neat running jokes, particularly Mae’s firm belief in the power of the smile and frown emoticons, but these get lost in a plot that has none of the light touch of great satire. When Mae genuinely believes that the Chinese government will be alarmed by 125 million frowns from Circlers, or worries that a terrorist group might trace a frown back to her and punish her for it, we should be getting a devastating sense that Mae has sold her soul for something that is ultimately pointless.

That isn’t how we feel at all because, as the plot comes to dominate, these individual absurdities get lost. Eggers, throughout most of the novel, makes all his main characters into personifications of something else, and this is problematic because otherwise they are all one-dimensional, even the main character. Mae represents the millions who use the Internet in the mindless, gossipy way Mercer hates so much. (Mercer, of course, is the dissenting voice that has no power to stop it.) The three founders of the Circle represent the idealism of the first creators of the worldwide web (Ty), the way that faith in the power of information has being warped into a gross violation of personal privacy (Bailey) and the relentless takeover of intellectual property by big business (Stenton).

The problem is that Mae doesn’t end up helpless at all. However unwittingly, she becomes a powerful arm of the superstate that Stenton has created. In the pursuit of Mercer and her musings about getting inside Annie’s mind, she is the one who has become like God. She doesn’t merely come to love Big Brother. She is Big Brother. And while this might work at the schematic level, at the level of individual characterisation – which ought to be one of the most important thing offered by any novel – it doesn’t work at all.


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