Spoilers for The Circle novel and film ahead.
Black Mirror does a fine job of portraying the downsides of technology. but even though it’s now readily available on Netflix, it’s still something that’s targeted at a media and tech-savvy niche audience. A big-budget, wide-release film starring Tom Hanks and Emma Watson has more potential to reach a broader group of people who might not think as deeply about the privacy issues surrounding their Facebook accounts. Sadly, all the film really does is shout, as loudly as possible, that technology is bad and will inevitably lead us towards a totalitarian state.
The basic premise of the film feels like a modern day Charlie in the Chocolate Factory. Mae (Emma Watson) is a twenty-something with a dead-end job who miraculously receives a job with The Circle, a beloved company whose religion is sharing and who now controls the vast majority of the web. You can think of it as the lovechild of Google and Facebook.
Its earliest innovation was “TruYou,” a unified account that controls everything you do on the web and ties you to your real identity. TruYou was heralded as a major convenience win for consumers, which was somehow steamrolled pass regulators and critics. Even more unbelievable, the film claims that it sanitized the web by killing off anonymous comments. Seriously, all it takes is a quick look at any site with Facebook-powered commenting to see that’s false.
The company’s follow-up product — tiny and inexpensive high-definition cameras that can be placed just about anywhere — is a bit more believable. But that’s only until you learn that they also upload video directly to satellites from anywhere on Earth (for free, I guess?). And no, there’s no talk of battery life either. As Eamon Bailey (Tom Hanks), The Circle’s affable figurehead, describes it, the “SeaChange” cameras will lead to a world where nothing is hidden.
It’s easy to see how such a product could be useful, but it’s even easier to grasp how it could lead to a reckless surveillance state. Of course, few people within the company question the cameras. That duty is left up to a mysterious stranger working for The Circle, who warns Mae of the company’s troubling privacy issues, and Mae’s hometown ex-boyfriend, who goes off the grid to avoid tech’s infiltration into his life. All other Circle employees basically seem like idiot children who lap up everything the company does.
Eventually, Mae gleefully embraces the idea of the SeaChange cameras by “going transparent,” which involves wearing a camera all day and broadcasting to an online audience of millions. It never occurs to her that this could lead to issues — even when she broadcasts her parents having sex (because, of course, she helpfully had cameras installed in their house too). The film raises some interesting questions about a generation of online users who document and share every aspect of their lives. But it’s more interested in portraying that as something that’s inherently wrong, instead of trying to find any deeper meaning.