The Circle: Hollywood and Silicon Valley Pretending to Critique Itself

At first glance, you’d think The Circle, starring Emma Watson and Tom Hanks was a full-blown critique on the encroaching privacy violations by large corporations. most especially monstrous IT or social media giants like Facebook or Google or Apple. Well in many ways it IS a strong attack on these empires and the ever increasing power and control they’re gaining but like any Hollywood establishment big budget movie whose narrative is a critique of the very systems that have given it a voice, we have to slow down and zoom out and look at the bigger picture.

At the very heart of this movie is a battle between privacy and openness. The two concepts are presented here as polar opposites. The mantra of the story is revealed by Emma Watson’s character after her life altering incident where she is nearly killed in a boating misadventure: “secrets are lies” she says to her hundreds of fellow employees at The Circle. What she means is that a secret life is a self-destructive life because we do naughty things when left alone and the answer is that we should be surveilled at all times so that the corporation, the state, the authorities can intervene and rescue us from our secretive naughty dangerous misadventures or better still — we won’t even decide to have such misadventures because we know we’re being watched. This moment in the film then expands to another radical idea namely that if we don’t record and share all our positive experiences like for example climbing a mountain, we are essentially denying those who are physically or emotionally unable to have those experiences from vicariously enjoying them through video or virtual replay. That we are denying them a basic human right to enjoy what we get to enjoy — it’s a fascinating concept. Of course the underlying tone of the narrative is one of cynicism. What about the right to a secretive private adventurous life that is just ours? Not to be recorded, or broadcast live on social media. Just ours.

Later in the film, the plot expands again into the realms of corporate interference (or liberation of?) the political system. Watson’s character becomes so gung ho about the potential of openness that she conceives of an all-in-one corporate/government services grid where every person who registers to vote has to also sign up as a user/customer of the corporation. All this sounds very righteous and well-intentioned as a potent and provocative critique on the seemingly limitless power of behemoths like Google, Microsoft, Facebook or Apple. But what the film refuses to do is reveal what exactly the company is up to. What are the secret agendas of the CEOs? In a classic Hollywood revenge twist, Watson’s heroine turns on the CEOs and exposes all their secrets in one massive info dump hack where every single email and memo from all accounts and sub accounts are exposed. The massive dump is sent directly to the inboxes of every employee of The Circle. A very exciting and very Hollywood moment. But we don’t get to see any of it, or know what any of these transgressions or crimes are. All we get is Tom Hanks whispering under his breath to his partner “We’re fucked”. But why are you fucked Tom? What have you plotted? Who are you in bed with?

For those who are well read on current issues we can fill in the blanks: mass surveillance, mass censorship, one world government, arms deals, technological and informational support for more wars and ‘humanitarian’ regime changes. For those not in the know and not asking questions, what are they supposed to think is in those emails? There is not even a hint as to what sordid and corrupt activity or filthy deals were in the pipeline by the CEOs. In fact, if anything the narrative drops a big fat sympathy bomb for Hanks’s character early in the film. His son has MS and cannot experience anything physical first hand so here we get a humane representation of someone who is probably guilty of some very inhumane activity via his corporate empire.

At the end of the day this is a critique of something that the filmmakers just cannot or will not quite reveal what it really is they’re critiquing and that to me totally stinks of yet another Hollywood/Silicon Valley establishment product disguised as a genuine critique of itself. Bullshit detector says don’t be fooled.