CinemaTech is Eric Emin Wood’s periodic look at how pop culture depicts the world of tech.
It often surprises me how, in an era where a surveillance state is not only possible but largely exists, where nearly everything is done using electronic devices and nearly everything done on them is tracked, and where at least five major companies (Google, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft, and Amazon) are capable of side projects including but not limited to the development of Internet-beaming planes, floating warehouses, self-driving cars, and computers connected to our brains, that the fictional standby of an evil company out to control the world has fallen by the wayside.
Sure, there’s still the odd example, such as the killer robot manufacturing firm in the underseen Chappie, or WALL·E, but for the most part if society implodes in the near future it will most likely be the work of terrorists, rogue computer hackers, the government, or aliens, if today’s entertainment is to be believed.
And that’s a shame, because as the recent Emma Watson/Tom Hanks drama The Circle ably illustrates, one of the more likely sources of apocalyptic disruption could easily turn out to be… well, Google. Or Facebook. Or Apple. And it would be met with a cheer, not a cry of rage.
First, a disclaimer: The Circle is a terrible movie. On a character level, and for plot-related reasons I’ll explain at the end, it simply doesn’t work.
But as a tech reporter, I’m amazed by how accurately director James Ponsoldt (The Spectacular Now) and writer Dave Eggers’ (Away We Go, Where the Wild Things Are) near-future cautionary tale captures Silicon Valley.
Rather than take the easy route by sending protagonist Mae (Emma Watson) to work at a thinly veiled take on Apple (though the keynotes delivered by Circle co-founder Eamon Bailey, played by Tom Hanks, steal more than a few cues from Steve Jobs), or Facebook (though co-founder and COO Tom Stenton, played by Patton Oswalt, conjures images of Sheryl Sandberg), or Google (that company slogans like “Sharing is caring” echo “Don’t be evil” probably isn’t a coincidence), The Circle’s titular tech giant offers a service that would probably be genuinely useful – and highly lucrative – if it existed: A secure, centralized database of users that acts as a universal digital ID card, allowing members to easily pay for dinner, order items online, or register as a driver with the same account.
Basically the blockchain, if it were a purely proprietary technology.
With that rock-solid foundation – and its parallels to Google’s advertising business and Microsoft’s enterprise software division – in place, the Circle’s various research and development divisions are free to swipe another page from their real-life counterparts and develop fun gadgets that might one day become a new revenue stream – marble-sized cameras that connect to the Internet, say, or automated surveillance drones, or microscopic electronics that monitor your health after you swallow them.
Mae embraces these breakthroughs, especially the camera. “SeeChange” is sold to the public with a mix of slogans such as “Knowing is good; knowing everything is better” and digital evangelism, as Mae quickly rises from her initial customer service position to become the Circle’s lead ambassador by volunteering for Bailey’s latest project: “SeeChange” monitoring 24/7, except for bathroom breaks.
Imagine how much safer the world will be, Bailey says, when we know everything we do is being recorded and can be used to identify us!
Would some people rebel against this encroaching tide of technology? Absolutely – and The Circle clumsily presents it in the form of Mae’s Luddite childhood friend Mercer (Boyhood’s Ellar Coltrane) and the Circle’s third co-founder, reclusive programmer Ty Lafitte (Attack the Block and Star Wars: The Force Awakens’ John Boyega).
I also doubt the majority of people would consent to become 24/7 public viewing – which Mae only does after one of the Circle’s test drones saves her from drowning (it’s likely that the company’s care for her multiple sclerosis-addled father, played by Bill Paxton in his final role, plays a part too).
But someone would step forward, because someone has – over and over again. And the same public that viewed a socialite’s bottom more than 11 million times the day it was posted online would eagerly be there to lap it up.
And honestly, if a single digital ID card could truly be used at any of the dozen or so checkpoints all of us face every day to verify that we are, indeed, who we claim to be, can you really imagine widespread protests against the suggestion that voters use it to register, as Mae eventually suggests? I can’t.
I’ll concede this: I don’t know if the workplace depicted in The Circle is accurate. But the mix of open-concept workspaces, blind faith in technology, and feel-good jargon that its founders use to sell their ideas definitely feels accurate – after all, as more than one writer has pointed out, Mark Zuckerberg can frame his desire to connect the world in altruistic terms all he wants, it doesn’t change the fact that his business stands to benefit.
If only the film’s warning came wrapped in a better story.
I haven’t read the Eggers-penned novel the film is based on, but its Wikipedia summary makes it sound like a worthwhile read. Unlike the movie, it’s straight-up dystopian, with Mae ultimately embracing not only the Circle’s commitment to destroying anything resembling privacy, but the world-dominating ideals behind it. Perhaps the Circle’s users eventually realize what’s happened, but by then it’s too late.
Somehow I doubt that’s the story audiences promised “Emma Watson is hired by an evil Google led by Tom Hanks” wanted to see.
They wanted to see her bring that company down, and so the movie tries to have it both ways, to its great detriment.
There is no consistency to Mae’s actions; based on the devotion she shows her parents and best friend (Doctor Who’s Karen Gillan), you would think she’d be too smart to fall for Bailey and his politician-influencing COO, but Ponsoldt and Eggers seem to believe Mae’s hackneyed near-death experience (which occurs after she steals one of the company’s canoes because she wanted to paddle in the middle of the night) would be enough to convince her to join them, even after an accident involving a drone sends her friend Mercer driving off a cliff.
Or so it seems. After disappearing for the majority of the film Boyega’s Ty (who in the book is betrayed by Mae and “silenced” by the Circle’s other founders) approaches Mae with the perfect solution to her problem: turn Bailey and Stenton’s rhetoric that “secrets are lies” and “privacy is theft” against them by exposing their privately recorded correspondence to the world.
We don’t see the outcome, but it implies that Mae is now in charge of the Circle, which is apparently still attaching SeeChange cameras to drones that spy on people – including Mae herself, who smiles at three of them as the credits roll.