In 'The Circle', What We Give Up When We Share Ourselves

Apr 28, 2017
Originally published on May 3, 2017 3:48 pm

The Circle, the film based on the novel by Dave Eggers, presents a dystopian view of the direction Silicon Valley is taking the world. And, as a longtime Silicon Valley correspondent, I have to say there is a lot that this comic and spooky film gets right.

Let's start with the main character, Mae, a recent college grad played by Emma Watson. Mae is eager, idealistic and versed in the kind of marketing verbiage that rolls off the tongues of way too many young people in Silicon Valley. When she goes for a job interview at the Circle — the world's biggest tech company — she impresses her interviewer with a comically perfect description of the company's main service.

Sounding like a commercial voice-over, she says: "Before TrueYou, it was like you needed a different vehicle for every single one of your errands. And no one should have to own 87 different cars. It doesn't make sense. It's the chaos of the Web made elegant and simple."

Mae rises up the corporate ladder quickly. She is taken with the company's charismatic CEO, Eamon Bailey, played by Tom Hanks. Hanks' physicality and manic focus bring to mind Steve Jobs; his zealous belief that his company will make the world better evokes Mark Zuckerberg.

Bailey convinces Mae to take part in an experiment. She will be the first person to wear one of The Circle's small livestreaming consumer cameras all the time. "I'm going fully transparent," she announces at one of the frequent company meetings, where the staff applaud with cultlike enthusiasm.

Mae's authenticity and good looks turn her into an Internet star. But life in the spotlight turns out to have its dark side. Her best friend is having a breakdown and they have to hide in the bathroom to talk privately with a time limit of 3 minutes.

Mae tries to promote her friend Mercer's business — he makes chandeliers from deer antlers. Mercer, played by Ellar Coltrane, ends up the target of an online mob of animal rights activists.

Meanwhile the Circle tightens it grip on the U.S. government — it takes down a senator who is investigating the Circle by leaking his personal information. It tries to take over the voting process so that all Americans must cast ballots using the Circle's technology.

It all feels creepily plausible. The story nails Silicon Valley's failure to acknowledge the downside of its creations. For example, take Facebook's recent reluctance to admit it might play a role in spreading fake news.

Dave Eggers, who wrote the novel the film is based on, says the idea for the book developed after years of living in the San Francisco Bay Area. "I've never met some villainous person that works at all of these companies," he says. But, "every so often you hear something come out of their mouths that you think 'that sounds really, really wrong ... really wrong.' "

For example, it sounds like a great idea to make searching the Web and photo sharing free. But it means collecting personal data and selling it. Eggers refers to "surveillance capitalism," a term coined by Harvard professor Shoshana Zuboff.

"And with all of this has come an acceptance of a base level of surveillance that I would maintain that 30 years ago we would not have accepted," he says.

The Circle's director, James Ponsoldt, a self-described technology addict, says he took on the project in part because he recognized himself in Mae's character.

"Maybe not in her best aspects but in the worst parts of her personality," he says. "The parts of me that are probably too easily available, that will give things away too easily. By things I mean, a level of connection with people when sometimes it's OK to just not reply to your email that day."

Visually the film does a good job of showing the manicured lawns and bright, clean campuses typical of Silicon Valley companies and their seductive self-containment: You never have to leave work — there's food, health care, sometimes even housing. There are even clubs and social activities and you can play volleyball at lunch. At the Circle, the pressure is on to spend every waking moment with colleagues.

The film also captures the tech industry's consolidation trend. The company in the film has outsmarted all other tech companies or it's acquired them. And the idea of all that power in the hands of a single company makes Eggers worry about what will happen to our personal data.

"You put it in the hands of a sinister, black-hearted person, then what would happen?" he says.

Eggers says he wrote the book to see where his darkest fantasies would take him. He wants us to think about what we're giving away in the name of convenience.

The film misses some of the salient details of the book that had me regularly nodding and laughing at how right Eggers had gotten it. It's not a perfect piece of cinema. But most technology isn't perfect either.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And now a Hollywood movie that peers into a fictional Silicon Valley and finds sinister motives there. The movie "The Circle" opened across the country this past weekend. It stars Tom Hanks and Emma Watson. It's based on a novel by Dave Eggers. And it presents a dystopian view of the direction Silicon Valley is taking the world. As NPR's longtime Silicon Valley correspondent Laura Sydell reports, there is a lot that the movie gets right.

LAURA SYDELL, BYLINE: Let's start with the main character, Mae, a recent college grad played by Emma Watson. Watson's Mae is eager, idealistic and versed in the kind of marketing verbiage that rolls off the tongues of way too many young people in Silicon Valley.

When she goes for a job interview with The Circle, the world's biggest tech company, she impresses her interviewer with a comically perfect description of the company's main service, TrueYou, which appears to streamline all of a user's online activity under one identity.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE CIRCLE")

EMMA WATSON: (As Mae) Before TrueYou, it was like you needed a different vehicle for every single one of your errands. And no one should have to own 87 different cars. It doesn't make sense. It's the chaos of the web made elegant and simple.

SYDELL: Mae rises up the corporate ladder quickly. She's taken with the company's CEO, Eamon Bailey, played by Tom Hanks as part Steve Jobs and part Mark Zuckerberg.

He convinces her to take part in an experiment. She will wear one of The Circle's small livestreaming consumer cameras all the time. She announces it at a company meeting.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE CIRCLE")

WATSON: (As Mae) I'm going fully transparent.

(APPLAUSE)

TOM HANKS: (As Eamon Bailey) Maybe not in the bathroom.

(LAUGHTER)

WATSON: (As Mae) I'll be starting immediately.

(APPLAUSE)

HANKS: (As Eamon Bailey) That's right. Mae will be the first Circler to share every single second of her work and her personal life with the public, so let's give her an even bigger hand.

SYDELL: Mae's authenticity and good looks turn her into an Internet star. But life in the spotlight turns out to have its dark side. Her best friend is having a breakdown, and they can't find a private place to talk. Mae tries to promote her friend Mercer's business. He turns deer antlers into chandeliers. Mercer, played by Ellar Coltrane, ends up the target of an online mob of animal rights activists.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE CIRCLE")

ELLAR COLTRANE: (As Mercer) I can't do this. I can't be a part of this world that you're creating.

WATSON: (As Mae) What are you talking about?

COLTRANE: (As Mercer) Jesus Christ, look at these people. Does this really seem OK to you?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Why don't you go kill some more deer, Mercer?

COLTRANE: (As Mercer) I never killed any deer. I don't kill deer.

SYDELL: Things do not end well for Mercer. Meanwhile, The Circle tightens its grip on the U.S. government. It takes down a senator that's investigating The Circle by leaking his personal information. It tries to take over the voting process so that all Americans must cast ballots using The Circle's technology.

All of it feels plausible. The story nails something about Silicon Valley - its failure to acknowledge the downside of its creations. Dave Eggers, who wrote the novel the film is based on, says the idea for the book developed after years of living in the San Francisco Bay area.

DAVE EGGERS: I've never met some villainous person that works at all of these companies, but every so often, you hear something come out of their mouths that you think, that sounds really, really, wrong, really wrong.

SYDELL: For example, it sounds like a great idea to make searching the web and photo sharing free, but it means collecting personal data and selling it. Eggers has coined a term - surveillance capitalism.

EGGERS: With all of this has come an acceptance of a base level of surveillance that I would maintain that 30 years ago we would not have accepted.

SYDELL: "The Circle's" director, James Ponsoldt, says he's a technology addict. He took on the project in part because he recognized himself in Mae's character.

JAMES PONSOLDT: Maybe not in her best aspects but in her - the worst parts of her personality, the parts of me that are probably too easily available, that will give things away too easily. And by things, I mean, you know, a level of connection with people when sometimes it's OK to just not reply to your email that day.

SYDELL: The film catches the manicured lawns and bright, clean campuses typical of Silicon Valley companies and their seductive self-containment. You never have to leave work. There's food, dry cleaning and sometimes even housing.

The company in the film outsmarted all other tech companies or acquired them, reflecting the tendency of today's Silicon Valley companies to keep growing. And the idea of all that power in the hands of a single company makes Eggers worry about what will happen with our personal data.

EGGERS: You put it in the hands of a sinister, black-hearted person, then what would happen?

SYDELL: Eggers says he wrote the book to see where his darkest fantasies are at the present moment might take us. He wants us to think about what we're giving away in the name of convenience. It is not a perfect picture, but neither is most technology. Laura Sydell, NPR News.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In the audio of this report, as in a previous Web version, we mistakenly attribute the first use of the term "surveillance capitalism" to Dave Eggers. In fact, the term was coined by Harvard professor Shoshana Zuboff in an article published in 2015: https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2594754] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.