The Circle didn’t do particularly well when it came out last year. Having recently caught up with it on Amazon Prime I can see there are certainly some issues, particularly with the story’s pacing, jerking around suddenly from one idea or plot point to the next, often with little context or transition. It’s not hard to imagine there’s a 3.5 hour version of the movie that works a bit better because some story elements are explored more deeply and given more time to breathe.
In the story, Emma Watson plays Mae, a young woman who thanks to her friend (a misused Karen Gillan) lands an interview – and then a job – at The Circle, a tech giant that’s basically what we all fear when Google, Facebook and Amazon collide. She starts at the same low level many do but rises quickly when she gets the attention of the heads of the company, becoming a sort of in-house influencer. That success helps blind her to some of the problems that already exist within the company, which often resembles a cult that’s suspicious of any tendency to not participate in every available activity and use any non-company resource. Indeed, the celebrity she achieves leads to her creating new problems in the name of furthering the company’s mission.
Watson is very good as Mae, believably going from under-achieving corporate drone to internet sensation and true believer in the company over the course of the story. Also excellent is Tom Hanks, who plays one of The Circle’s founders and leaders. It’s fun watching him be the kind of aww-shucks nice guy we expect from the actor when he’s holding company-wide presentations in Steve Jobs-like fashion only to let the facade drop when threats to his goals emerge. In those moments he shows us the danger that lurks behind the act as we see just what he’s capable of. Similarly, casting genial geek Patton Oswalt as a ruthless, manipulative bastard is a fun twist, though I wish that were explored a bit more.
What struck me as I watched it, though, was how much the world has changed in the year since it came out. In April 2017 we weren’t yet fully dealing with how technology companies have impacted society and what sort of influence they have on everyone’s lives, as well as what sort of insights they have on people’s privacy. The story of the movie – just like that of the Dave Eggers novel it’s based on – illustrates some attitudes that are pervasive in the tech industry, ones which high-profile data breaches and theft have brought into the public’s conscious.
We Can Fix Everything
One of the core beliefs espoused by Hanks’ Bailey is that human beings are perfectible. No matter that his idea of how to do so – constant, complete surveillance – has more in common with totalianairism than democracy, he think the best and only way to create a more egalitarian society is for their to be no more secrets. Late in the story he takes an incident where unwanted intrusion into the life of Meg’s ex-boyfriend leads to his accidental death and sees the solution to be technological safeguards on cars, not admitting it wasn’t the car but the five drones hovering around him that caused his death.
It’s not just Bailey either. It’s only passingly mentioned in the movie but one Circler has the idea that child abductions can be eliminated through location tracking, with an alert being sent if the child moves outside an approved area. In the book that idea is explored a bit more, with the idea that such tracking is not only invasive but also leads to more restrictions introduced but quickly dismissed because who could possibly be against child safety?
All of that, as well as other examples, shows how many in the tech industry see a problem with technology and think the only possible solution is more technology. Damn the privacy or other implications, technology has all the answers, but only if we’re willing to abandon some existing norms.
Indeed the final idea introduced by Mae herself and quickly embraced by Bailey is that The Circle can replace many of the functions of government is a pretty accurate representation of how many tech pioneers aren’t liberal, as they’re often portrayed, but libertarian in their thinking. They don’t necessarily want to introduce equality, they just want to tear the system down because it’s inefficient and inelegant.
Transparency For You, Not Me
There was a great exchange during the recent appearance by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg before a Congressional panel where one Senator asked him if he would share the name of the hotel he stayed at the night before. Zuckerberg declined, at which point the Senator pointed out that Facebook’s automatic location tracking means users aren’t given the chance to not share that information, at least not easily.
At the end of The Circle Meg has decided to upend the apple cart to an extent, working with Ty (John Boyega), the third company founder who’s now a largely enigmatic figure to expose all the secret dealings of the other two. While Bailey and Stenton have been encouraging everyone to plant secret cameras around the world, “go transparent” by wearing always-on cameras themselves and no longer hold any secrets, they’ve been enjoying the sort of privacy that is being denied others. Meg and Ty make public all their secret emails and documents and do so in a public setting, making it difficult for the others to fight back. Why would they not embrace their own ideals, right? When all of this happens, Bailey turns to Stenton and says “We are fucked.”
How much of the current conversation around privacy is because Facebook, Google and others know everything we’re doing and searching for while we have no insights on or exposure to how those companies work?
Outsiders Are To Be Shunned
Who among us, even if we’re on social media only reluctantly or because it’s a necessary part of our jobs hasn’t responded with “Really?” when someone admits they’ve never joined Facebook, Instagram or some other network? The idea that anyone could simply opt not to be part of that is shocking in part because statistically the *are* outliers and because we kind of wish we’d made that choice.
In The Circle, the site already has a membership that accounts for upward of 80% of the U.S. population. That’s already incredible but those creeping steps made toward supplanting government operations come with making Circle participation mandatory as part of citizenship. The assumption is that anyone who refuses the full transparency Bailey and others push for must be guilty of trying to hide something. If you’re not on The Circle, you’re not a citizen. If you’re not willing to open up your entire life to the public, you must be a criminal. Those are the perspectives used to rationalize the company’s actions.
Mobs Are Good
Social media’s core problem is that so much of what is shown to members is based on engagement. Engagement comes largely from appeals to emotion. Material that appeals to emotions isn’t always true, much less news. Therefore, much of what is seen on social media isn’t true.
Not only is engagement a lousy way to run a news distribution service but it encourages the mob mentality. People will pile on and condemn something before knowing all the facts of a situation, sometimes taking down good people who made a simple mistake because it’s easy to get the pitchforks out and hard to read something with a critical eye.
That mob mentality is made physical in a couple ways in The Circle, both involving Mae’s ex-boyfriend Mercer, who prefers a secluded existence in the real world over a “social” one online.
First, he comes under fire when Mae posts a picture of the deer antler chandelier he’s made for her parents. Assuming the worst, the online community chastises him for killing deer solely for his art when he’s done no such thing, only using the antlers of deers already dead. Second, when Mae is running a demonstration of new facial-recognition software and Mercer’s name comes up, the people that hunt him down and stick unwanted cameras in his face cause him to flee and ultimately lead to his death. But, the thinking goes, if he didn’t have anything to hide why did he run? Personal choice is cast aside because it’s seen as contrary to the public good.
Reevaluating The Circle?
As I said, there are certainly a number of problems with the film that make it less than perfect. I would have loved to have seen Hanks’ Bailey go full Skeletor like he does in the book. And as much as I love seeing Bill Paxton and Glenne Headly, both now passed, as Mae’s parents their storyline could have been excised to allow some of the other themes and ideas more room to be developed.
With those and other shortcomings acknowledged, it’s worth wondering if the reception to the movie would have been different if it were coming out now? Would it be folded more fully into the ongoing conversations around privacy and corporate control of media? As we ponder whether Facebook needs to be regulated or broken up would we turn to the subplot about how The Circle seemingly has a member of Congress advocating for just that framed for a crime she likely didn’t commit in an effort to discredit her?
I think the answer on at least some of these counts would be “yes.”
Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.