James Ponsoldt’s latest film, an adaptation of Dave Eggers’ 2013 novel, The Circle, can best be summarized by the jokes that have proliferated in the week or so since its release: “What if Facebook, but more?” Despite the combined star power of Emma Watson and Tom Hanks, the film opened with only $9 million. Its 16 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes suggests there are a handful of possible explanations, but one could very well be audience fatigue with futurist narratives that fail to depict growing anxieties about the internet, surveillance, and social media with any nuance.
In the film, Mae Holland, played with a questionable American accent by Watson, is a newcomer at the Circle, a powerful Facebook-esque tech company that is at once a social media platform, search engine, and one-stop shop for users’ online needs. Tom Hanks plays Eamon Bailey, the company’s charismatic co-founder and figurehead, who does little beyond spout Silicon Valley-brand platitudes with smarmy charm. Mae is thrilled with the job, but as she climbs the ranks, she discovers more and more about the Circle’s possibly nefarious surveillance practices.
The novel and film both tap into timely and legitimate concerns about the threat of omniscient tech powers. They’re cautionary tales for a future that seems somewhat inevitable, and one that might even be here already. But the narrative is full of doomsayer Luddite language, and Ponsoldt and Eggers (who co-wrote the script) lead viewers to judge the people in this techno-dystopia as weak-minded for unthinkingly accepting the Circle’s dominance and allowing it to dictate the terms of their identities — as if social media and web users aren’t already doing so every single day by, consciously or not, giving massive amounts of information to similar companies. The film encourages us to feel superior to its characters, even though we are far from it.
But The Circle isn’t alone in its failure to accurately reflect the role of tech and the social web in modern life. Despite being so integrated into the everyday, the internet and social media have very rarely been depicted in cinema or on television with much nuance. Films ostensibly mostly concerned with other themes and issues — such as the 2016 drama Personal Shopper or the 2014 horror film Unfriended — have treated digital life with accuracy, avoiding the trap of techno-morality tales by simply telling a story and subtly elevating it with recognizable uses of technology.
The Circle and films like it treat the prospect of tech companies having this sort of power as a far-off shock and moral panic.
Films and TV series that directly approach the digital world tend to be dystopic visions of a near-future in which humanity has made all the wrong decisions, and they act as a kind of warning: “Continue along this path, and this may be the unsettling result.” This is the core of the popular Channel 4/Netflix sci-fi series Black Mirror, whose creator, Charlie Brooker, once explained the show this way: “Each episode has a different cast, a different setting, even a different reality. But they're all about the way we live now — and the way we might be living in 10 minutes’ time if we're clumsy.”
Black Mirror usually relies on simple, effectively alarmist narratives that offer chilling and (understandably) defeatist peeks into what could happen “if we’re clumsy.” But its crowning moment, the season 3 episode “San Junipero,” works precisely because it’s less an explicit warning and more a window into how we might actually live in the future. The Circle, particularly the film version, largely follows Black Mirror’s unfortunate formula. Only once does it approach the subject with some “San Junipero”-style subtlety (when Mae and a friend use video chat technology across continents and connect for the first time in a while).
We live in a world where Standard Innovation, the Canadian maker of a “smart vibrator” called the We-Vibe, was recently forced to pay a $4 million settlement in a class-action lawsuit, after it was discovered the company was collecting data on how often its owners used the device and at what intensity. But Standard Innovation is just one of many tech and social media companies that may have crossed a line in its collection of user data: Uber, Netflix, and Facebook have all been accused of similar violations. But, for many of us, that has become the norm. We’re used to it. We know that advertisers can use our lists of 10 bands we have or haven’t have seen in concert to target us with more specific content; we know that our iPhones may one day be used against us. We’re living this reality, and we are OK with it enough to keep going. Yet The Circle and films like it treat the prospect of tech companies having this sort of power as a far-off shock and moral panic. (To be fair, this may have played better when the book debuted in 2013.)
Naturally, art takes time to understand and reflect new technologies and new cultural phenomena, but it is embarrassing how difficult it is to think of many that have done so successfully. Two exceptions are CBS’s now-defunct The Good Wife and HBO’s Silicon Valley. On the latter, the tension between altruistic dreams and capitalist governance is clearly articulated. The series has been praised for its supposed accurate portrayal of life in Silicon Valley, but more remarkable is its acceptance of the world as it is and its refusal to prescribe a “correct” path to a less terrifying future. After all, audiences deserve more than just didactic and histrionic expressions of the realities we know intimately.
As Wendy Hui Kyong Chun suggests in her book Control and Freedom: Power and Paranoia in the Age of Fiber Optics, the feeling of constant surveillance has been replaced with an ambivalent response to digital control; not only is it accepted as normal, we may even desire it. After all, we continue to participate and enjoy the convenience and satisfaction we receive in return. That subtlety is crucial and its absence from the stories we tell does little to protect us from the future we’re told to fear.