Updated: May 5
Sometimes movies sneak up and surprise us. But not that often these days, if I'm honest. Not, at least, when looking a most of what the studio system has to offer.
I am impressed with The Circle. But I can tell from its rather low ratings on IMDb that the film has not been met with nearly the same favorable reception I've given it. That's not to say that the film is without fault. Far from it. I have my misgivings with some aspects of the film as well, not the least of which is a key character that just gets dropped at the end. I think I need to read the novel to find out what happens with him.
What fascinates me about The Circle is the tone of the film's ending. I suspect that it hits too close to home in ways we're not quite comfortable even acknowledging. If you haven't seen the film, you may want to stop reading here and go check it out this weekend and then revisit this post.
What stood out to me about The Circle? I have three specific observations to make.
1. Our technological development is moving faster than our moral evolution.
The movie presents a world that at once feels foreign and far too familiar. The Circle (the fictional company) is a massive organization that connects much of the world. Think, Facebook, Apple, Twitter, Instagram, and Google all wrapped up in one. That's The Circle. A social network and tech company of this stature can wield some pretty hefty power and influence in our world. And in the movie, they most definitely do.
While we might want to dismiss the film as "just science fiction being overdramatic," I must point out that we're in the middle of yet another debate about Net Neutrality, something I've written about in the past on a different blog. The internet has evolved quickly in the last couple of decades. What was once conceived by DARPA scientists as a network for information sharing between military installations (known in 1978 as ARPANET, as Annie Jacobsen details in her book, The Pentagon's Brain) eventually became the internet we have today. But today the internet and its various uses have developed in ways that lawmakers did not see coming. Frankly, many such lawmakers are not prepared intellectually or experientially to grasp the real impact of these changes and how to legally respond. But the ethical questions being brought up with each new development (and the possible dismantling of Net Neutrality) will continue to increase with each passing year.
In The Circle, the desire to connect the whole world and every person in it drives all of the decisions being made. Cameras are placed everywhere, voting registration becomes centralized and digitized, and people are invited to experience every waking moment of the main character's life, Mae (played by Emma Watson). Each new development happens so quickly that there's little time to discuss the ramifications or potential downsides. The drive to innovate is guided in part by greed. But there's also a sense of pride in being the first to produce results. American culture is very results-oriented. Our worth is often predicated on our moment-by-moment ability to deliver new results. Naturally, who has the time (or even the desire) to ask philosophical questions about the possible moral impact of a new development when there's money to be made and status to be maintained?
2. Our online lives allow us to move at the speed of outrage.
One of the most haunting things about The Circle is what happens to Mercer (played by Ellar Coltrane) who was a friend of Mae's but who ultimately finds that the broad-reaching and immediate world of social media can be as destructive as it is connective. When Mae, who is live-streaming her life for the world to see, makes mention of one of Mercer's creations, the world takes notice. The issue is that Mercer makes chandeliers from deer antlers. This doesn't sit well with many people and the postmodern outrage machine kicks into overdrive. Overnight, Mercer becomes infamous and receives hate mail and death threats in spite of his assertions that he kills no deer. For a guy who seemed reluctant to even bother with text messaging at the beginning of the film, this is a nightmare.
This part of the movie is all too real. For better or for worse, we are becoming a culture driven by instant outrage. We see a post on Facebook, a tweet, a picture on Instagram, or a quick video on YouTube, and we can be off and running with indignation and outrage. It happens easily. I'm so prone to this that I have to actively remind myself to slow down and take the time to think more carefully.
This isn't to say that there are not appropriate times to be outraged. But with everything coming at us every day, it can be easy to fall into one of two extremes. We're either outraged by everything and doing our part to make sure everyone else is as outraged as us, or we become overwhelmed with all this outrage and we find we cannot drum up the energy to properly care about much of anything that's going in our world. I can't help but think of Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics here. In this book, the ancient Greek philosopher argues that the life of virtue is found in living in the mean between extremes. We must find a middle ground. The life of virtue is a life of tension between various battling forces. But it's also a thoughtful life lived with purpose where the individual takes deliberate actions rather than simply and constantly living in reaction to the world around them.
The tendency to react with outrage before having gathered all the facts is a very easy one. I do it often. It's something I really don't like about myself. Again, I have to remind myself to slow down and think and not just react. The problem with reacting is that reactions assume we have all facts already. We know what's going on, so we can react. There's a time to react. There's even a right time for outrage. But if something is genuinely worthy of our outrage, it will still be worthy of our outrage an hour from now, or day from now, or a week from now when we've had a chance to actually think things through and ask some important questions.
In The Circle, we see the speed at which outrage can move. In the process, it becomes clear that the technology that can connect us so instantly can also sometimes make us forget that on the other side of that screen is a real human being who even after a lifetime of relationship with we will struggle to truly know.
3. Our addiction to social media and technology are here to stay.
If you've read this far, I've not given too much away. But now I'm really going to spoil things for you. So, fair warning...
The ending of The Circle was probably too dark for a movie with Emma Watson and Tom Hanks, as the review on IndieWire indicates. It's ultimately an edgy concept story where our hero turns out to be an antihero. The cult-like nature of The Circle (which is not too far from the reality of many tech companies today, I've been told by a good friend in the IT world) eventually pulls her in to such a degree that she gains the power and admiration to stage a coup and become the new leader of the "cult." The drive to innovate in The Circle is moving so fast that even those at the top are not prepared for the dramatic change in the social current.
I suspect the ending probably caught standard blockbuster fans off guard. It did for me. But then I was pleasantly surprised that it was not a standard "David v. Goliath" story that the trailers indicated (which is a whole problem of its own--trailers set up too many wrong expectations these days). With a different cast and different marketing, maybe the ending would have been met with more praise. I find the dark twist to be beautifully disconcerting--something distinctly lacking in pop cinema today.
The ending of The Circle strikes me as rather realistic, sadly. The draw of power and influence and money offered by becoming top dog in our tech/social media age is hard to pass up. Rather than an ending where we learn our lesson and overthrow the system that has become too powerful and too destructive, human nature indicates we're far more likely to double down and go for broke. After all, no one wants to be left behind. Hell, I don't want to be left behind! (Please notice me. Read my blog. Buy my books.)
Maybe The Circle is overly pessimistic. Maybe we will learn to balance our tech and social media addictions. Can we learn to apply Nicomachean Ethics to our interconnected and immediate digital world?
Well, I'm hoping for the best, but quietly preparing for the worst.