This past weekend, amid fireworks and holiday celebrations, I had the opportunity to watch The Circle, a film released in April of this year. At the time of its release, the movie was not highly publicized and did not boast a large budget despite having a fairly a-list cast. For those unfamiliar with the title, Mae Holland, played by Emma Watson, lands her dream job at the world’s largest social media company, The Circle. Though she initially holds an entry level position, she quickly rises through the ranks as she agrees to participate in a social experiment in which personal privacy is eliminated by “going transparent.” This transparency requires wearing a small video camera that broadcasts a live stream of one’s activities at all times, with the exception of a three minute restroom break (how thoughtful). Her participation in the company’s innovative process grows, and before she knows it, Mae has helped create a product that unfortunately has severe consequences for her loved ones.
The film regrettably suffers from having an interesting premise but a poor execution. However, that doesn’t mean it lacks fascinating discussion points. As society enters a time where more and more of people’s personal lives are made public, one must consider the effects these new developments have on the individual and culture. Additionally, The Circle as a company represents a microcosm of a society in which big government runs rampant, surveilling even the most minute details of a person’s life. This sort of government is not compatible with the Founding Fathers’ original intentions, to say the least. America has traditionally been an extraordinary nation precisely because of the citizens’ desires to limit government involvement in an individual’s personal life. As decades have passed, it would seem that such desires have begun to fade in favor of a heavier reliance on government interference. Although The Circle provides a somewhat extreme example of the results of such interference, it should still inspire unease at the potential for a downward spiral into an Orwellian society.
One of the main ways The Circle and its leaders discourage dissent and gain a following for their ideas is through disguising them as means to creating a better, safer world. Their intentions seem pure when promoted under the guise of human rights protection aids and international criminal trackers, but these sorts of uses do not make up for the extreme invasion of personal privacy that accompanies them. The primary product the company seeks to promote is called “See Change,” which is a minuscule camera that can be stuck virtually anywhere, giving the operator a covert look through the lens at its surroundings. In the film, these cameras are placed all over the world to collect visual and audio data that is then stored in The Circle’s on-campus database system. Because the cameras are located in inconspicuous places, citizens are unaware that they are being filmed and recorded at all times.
The “See Change” camera is also used when people “go transparent.” The idea behind this transparency is two-fold according to Mae. It first allows her to be the person she strives to be in the sense that she is constantly being watched, so she is less likely to commit socially unacceptable acts. Thus, “going transparent” in effect forces the individual to implement an extreme sort of political correctness. However, this type of mentality creates a problem because it forms barriers between Mae and her loved ones. They are less willing to spend time with or confide in her because all of their conversations will be broadcasted for the world to see. She eventually loses contact with her family and her best friend because of the lack of privacy. On the other hand, she starts attracting people as friends who are drawn to the prospect of internet fame. These friends do not portray a real version of themselves in front of Mae but only one they feel would be appealing to the masses.
Secondly, Mae and the CEO of The Circle, played by Tom Hanks, discuss how those with disabilities do not have the opportunities to experience all aspects of life. Hanks’ character shares how his son, dealing with cerebral palsy, mostly experiences things like kayaking, mountain climbing, and etc. through videos of others enjoying the activities. In response, Mae feels guilty and selfish for not sharing all of her experiences online for others to view, leading to her decision to “go transparent.” She declares her decision with the sentiment that withholding access to such experiences and knowledge is a violation of others’ human rights. Again, the taking away of privacy and individual liberties is cloaked in good intentions.
In a nation where the individual is one of the most prominent pillars of society and culture, the standardization and conformity that those who “go transparent” in The Circle experience should be an alarming notion to any American. Unfortunately, the conclusion to the film, though showcasing an epiphany for Mae, does not necessarily reject the practice of absolute, personal transparency. Instead, the CEO and COO are made to “go transparent” as well in order to dispel the belief that the elite are above the lessons they preach. The audience is then led to believe that this will result in the ruin of the two men’s careers. While addressing this sort of hypocrisy feels partially as though justice is being served, it does not address the rest of the company’s employees and the greater public’s continuing desire to demand absolute transparency from each individual in order to police his or her every thought and action.
When individuals are restricted in such ways, innovation, diversity, literature, the arts, etc. are all restricted as well because they all require an application of new and different ideas, some of which do not align with societal norms. A society of people who all subscribe to the same beliefs and ideologies is one that lacks cultural richness and depth. It used to be that diversity of thought and opinion was something to be valued in America, but with the nation’s current trajectory toward conformity, this may not be the case for much longer. Before long, we might all be “going transparent.”