It has been said that to really know someone, you should spend a few days in his shoes. While this idiom is often impractical, the newly released film “The Circle,” starring Emma Watson and Tom Hanks, places its audience in the shoes of a young millennial, Mae Holland (Watson). Based on a 2013 novel by Dave Eggars, this film covers what happens when Mae lands her dream job at a tech company whose goal is to bring individuals into a connected global community.
“The Circle” movie is a thoughtfully crafted critique of the digital age. As advancements in technology allow the tech corporation called The Circle to integrate all aspects of an individual’s life into a complete profile, it seems that the company has greatly benefitted the lives of all involved. However, amid technology’s futurist glamour, the film stops to ask an important question: Is an all-connected future the best future?
Many reviewers have condemned the film as vague and empty. These critics have missed the central messages of the movie. Admittedly, “The Circle” is far from perfect. It’s not necessarily an entertaining film. But it makes you think. The film directly points out five major flaws in the mindset of modern American culture.
Myth 1: Humankind Can and Should Be Perfected
In “The Circle,” tech visionary Eamon Bailey (Hanks) states, “I’m a believer in the perfectibility of human beings. … When we become our best selves, the possibilities are endless. We can solve any problem.” This leads Bailey to ask: If every human action could be recorded and monitored, wouldn’t the world be better? After all, won’t everyone act better if someone is watching?
While at first glance this ideology may seem attractive, it misunderstands the heart of mankind. True, social conditioning can alter actions of individuals, but monitoring won’t change the underlying cause for divisions. Artificial attempts to perfect humanity have all been unsuccessful, even though philosophers and politicians have been trying to perfect humanity for centuries.
French utopian socialist Charles Fourier (1772-1837) popularized the concept of creating a perfect society, and directly inspired the writings of communist Karl Marx. Ignoring the impracticality of such a view, perfecting humanity is not desirable. Perfecting humanity would mean removing the ability to choose. While divergent choices can breed conflict, conflict is an essential part of human development.
Attempting to perfect the world would result in a sterile and inhumane society. The book that inspired the film makes this point clear when Bailey declares, “In a world where bad choices are no longer an option, we have no choice but to be good.” The film directly reinforces its source with its dystopian ending, where the supposed peace from perpetual monitoring clashes with a montage of human suffering.
Myth 2: Those Who Control Culture Are Beyond Questions
Even if perfecting humanity were theoretically possible, the film demonstrates why such efforts wouldn’t practically work. For a government or company to control and guide humanity toward perfection, there must be humans in charge. Ultimately, humans are responsible for operating any system of societal control. As such, “forward-thinking” schemes for perfecting humanity are often little more than manipulations of absolute power.
A clear example of this is the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. The USSR actively attempted to create a thriving modernist society where privacy was a prohibited. A core aspect of this process was city planning by elites. The leaders of the USSR sought to create a world where citizens would be perfected in community, just as The Circle sought to control its employees.
In an academic report, Dr. Sonia Hirt and Dr. Kiril Stanilov observed,
Citizen participation was never part of the planning process during communism. … [S]tate and regional economic plans were made by political elites which, as communist theory claimed, represented the interests of all citizens. The political goals were then translated into urban spatial projects by trained experts … who claimed privileged understanding of their subject.
If humanity is not presently perfect, why should a select few be in charge of deciding what a perfect humanity should look like? As Mae discovers, the leadership of The Circle is just as corrupt as the rest of society. Indeed, it would be foolish to absolutely trust that non-perfect individuals can decide what is right for other individuals. It is for this reason that values such as freedom of religion, freedom of the press, and freedom of speech are essential to maintaining a society that, while not perfect, can be free.
Ultimately, attempting to control, perfect, and artificially connect humanity will only produce more conflict. The fate of Mercer (Ellar Coltrane) is a prime example of this. This is why American millennials should be extremely cautious of those who promise to solve humanity’s problems. As the Roman poet Juvenal famously quipped: Who will guard the guards themselves?
Myth 3: Individuality Is Irrelevant
Recent protests in Berkley, California, indicate that a large portion of American millennials wish to ban certain types of thought deemed “intolerant.” This seeks to curtail individuality for the sake of the common good. Although the “common good” can be desirable in some situations, increasing its scope ultimately erases individuality.
“The Circle” understands the danger of this mindset. Humans have inherent value outside of those with whom they interact. After all, every individual is unique. While community is valuable, millennial culture emphasizes building community to the detriment of non-social endeavors.
Every college in the nation displays banners proclaiming how the college is building community. Of course, humans have a desire to be loved and supported in a community, and technology offers to easily satiate this desire. But in their zeal for community, millennials must not forget the importance of living as individuals as well. Human community is only possible when individuals comprise that community.
Unfortunately, modern culture often lives in a contradictory mindset. On the one hand, it proclaims that everyone is unique and valuable. Yet we are also told to find our identity in a community. We cannot simultaneously pursue total individualism and total communalism. “The Circle” clearly demonstrates this dilemma when Mercer tries to avoid communalism and pays a price. Contrary to popular thought, maintaining privacy in the digital realm protects many individuals from the dangers of the brain-dead state a digital life induces.
Myth 4: Knowledge Is a Human Right
When asked why she would go “fully transparent,” (the film’s name for live-streaming one’s life 24/7) Watson’s character Mae replies, “Secrets are lies.” The premise of the argument is that secrets defraud humanity of knowledge, and since knowledge is necessary for an orderly society to function well, it must be a human right.
This argument’s flaw is obvious. Without getting into arguments about intellectual property, the premise that all individuals have a right to know and experience everything destroys the very foundation for individualism and human rights as they are commonly understood. If I have a right to know everything, then one can never truly be unique.
After all, it is unique experiences that develop an individual into his or her own person. This is a perfect example of the Orwellian principle of “doublethink”—claiming to advance every individual by destroying the very foundation for individual self-identification. As Mercer states in the book, “We’re not meant to know everything, Mae.”
Myth 5: True Friendship in the Digital Era
With the advent of social media, people who have never seen each other for years can stay connected. While this sort of connection has made it easier for some to stay close with family near and far, it has also changed the meaning of friendship.
In the technological age, millennial society has lost an important Aristotelian distinction: friendships of utility and pleasure versus true friendship. “The Circle” observes that digital friendships of “smiles and frowns” used to be “a middle school thing.” Now, friendship in the digital age is about proving your own worth by the number of “friends” you have.
This makes friendship utilitarian, about finding friends because they help you look good. Who cares that you’ve never spoken to half of them about anything substantial? In this way, millennial society has divorced relationship from friendship. In an effort to become friends with everyone (made possible by technology), true friendship, which moves each party through reciprocal goodwill towards what is good, has been destroyed.
Perhaps the principle is that humans can only be close to a limited number of individuals. As seen in the deterioration with relationship between Mae and Annie (Karen Gillan), attempting to become close friends with everyone only dilutes true friendship.
The digital age offers incredible blessings, but Americans should not forget that technology is not without danger. “The Circle” attempts to remove our rosy-colored glasses to see that the cloud is stored somewhere, humanity is not perfect, and there is danger in ending privacy.
Viewers should leave the film with an appreciation for individual autonomy, and concern over what the “I Agree” box really means. However, viewers must be cautious not to make the reverse error of total isolationism. Aristotle observes in his “Nicomachean Ethics” that any desirable societal trait is found between extremes. Total privacy can lead to anarchy, as total communalism can lead to oppression. In the end, “The Circle” focuses on the dangers of technology and communalism.
As Mercer states in the book: “[Digital content is] like snack food. You know how they engineer this food? They scientifically determine precisely how much salt and fat they need to include to keep you eating. You’re not hungry, you don’t need the food, it does nothing for you, but you keep eating these empty calories. This is what you’re pushing. Same thing. Endless empty calories, but the digital-social equivalent. And you calibrate it so it’s equally addictive.”