I had a conversation recently with a woman in her mid-20s who was excited about the idea of self-driving cars. She couldn’t wait to get one, dreaming of the day when she would be chauffeured home from work while nodding off in the back seat. When she finished rhapsodizing about this future, I wondered out loud who would be legally responsible in the case of an accident involving two self-driving cars.
“Oh,” she said, with no hint of irony, “there won’t be any more accidents.”
Have you seen “The Circle,” with Tom Hanks and Emma Watson? Directed by James Ponsoldt and based on the novel by Dave Eggers, this techno-thriller came out in April and grossed $33 million. But that didn’t stop the critics from hating it. or me from thinking you should see it. The film is one in a long line of cautionary tales that warn viewers against the naïve belief that all human problems can be solved by technology.
Obviously based on Google, the Circle is a tech company that boasts 80 percent of the world’s population among its users. Hanks plays the charismatic founder, a bearded guru who holds weekly pep-rallies to motivate an arena filled with adoring staff. The social media mogul hopes to place his latest invention — tiny, nearly-invisible cameras — everywhere on the planet. He calls this new product “See Change,” claiming it will usher in a new utopia of human transparency.
Watson is Mae Holland who gets a job as a customer service representative at the Circle and immediately discovers that she has joined a cult. Employees are expected to post constantly to social media and are chastised if they go home on the weekends instead of attending team-building social functions. Everyone there knows everything about everyone else. The Circle even takes a big step forward when it convinces a candidate for Congress to wear a camera 24/7 to broadcast her every move.
Mae is skeptical of this Orwellian Kool-Aid at first, but when she nearly dies in a boating accident and is rescued because of the ever-present Circle cameras, she suddenly turns into a proselyte of the company’s message. Mae agrees to become its first employee to use the “See Change” web-cam so that viewers everywhere can follow and comment on her minute-by-minute life. Facebook meets “The Truman Show.”
Movie critics complained that the Circle’s intentions to monopolize all the world’s data are all too obvious from the beginning, but the film does present a seductive case for the kind of transparency that might seem desirable as an antidote to the corruption and toxic secrecy of modern life. In the assembly where Mae announces that she’s going viral with her life, the company founder makes a poignant revelation.
His son has cerebral palsy, and whenever someone broadcasts climbing a mountain or running a race, his boy watches and lives vicariously through that person. Hanks, who wants his son to do it all, then delivers the punchline: “Access to all human experience is a basic human right.” Having private adventures that are not shared is selfish, he argues, when disadvantaged others could benefit from them.
Of course, the last person to want access to all human experience was a fellow named Faust. You may have read about what happened to him.
“Secrets are lies.” That’s the other mantra at the Circle. A completely open society, they believe, is the path to a truly democratic and humane world. But, of course, the mantra is only half true. Yes, privacy does cover up some truly bad behavior. Politicians conduct back-room deals in secret. Criminals operate in secret. Friends betray each other in secret. People watch Steven Segal movies in secret. So many horrible things happen in the dark.
But without privacy, there is also no intimacy. There are no pleasant surprises. Personal spirituality is compromised (“When you pray, go into your room and close the door.”). Without privacy, there is also no activism, no resistance. In one telling scene, a man who just wants a little time to himself is hunted down and shamed, not by armed guards, but by ordinary people with their phones. And, as Mae discovers to her horror, without privacy, there is no break from the relentless, exhausting fan service of the broadcast life.
Mae eventually wins her freedom in the end. Or does she? Even films that are skeptical of utopias often struggle not to be seduced by the false promises they critique. At one point, Hanks boasts that “I believe in the perfectibility of human beings.” And for him, technology is the answer. I, too, think humans can be perfect, but for reasons never mentioned in this film. I put my confidence in the oldest of technologies: a hammer, some nails and a cross of wood.