The Circle – A Hopeful End to Dull Dystopian Yarns

 

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The Hunger Games films are over, yet the Divergent and Maze Runner ones still have a few to go. Clearly the dystopian future-cum-parallel-universe is in – retelling 1984 with guns, swords, monsters and sequels. But then, all these aspects – especially sequels – seem necessary to create a franchise. As mentioned above, they all share the adjective “dystopian” – these hypothetical societies are grim and grey and everyone in them agrees. That’s everyone except the baddies at the top that make the bad stuff happen – they’re having a ball – but they’re the baddies so their opinion doesn’t count. We only care about the plight of the small people at the bottom who want to overthrow the nasty state and, assumingly, establish some sort of free-market system.

This year we’ll see another possible future in the cinemas, as James Ponsoldt adapts Dave Eggers’ novel The Circle into film – writing the screenplay and directing. Emma Watson will be starring as protagonist Mae Holland, who lands a job in the title company – The Circle. Tom Hanks is also involved, playing Eamon Bailey – one of the Three Wise Men; a kooky company renaming of a three-way CEO.

The novel is more of a “utopia” (note the quotation marks) in the same area as a couple of Aldous Huxley’s books – the Washington Post called it a “Brave New World for our brave new world”. The Circle is an online company, or rather the online company. Google, Facebook, Twitter – all are gone; The Circle has taken over everything – all online mail, social media and messaging goes through them. Washington actually tries to intervene at one point because there’s no competition – the company’s towering monopoly has broken capitalism.

On its own, this isn’t the unsettling element of the novel – the company does some nice things with its money; housing projects, free healthcare. It is the combination of absolute corporate rule, and ownership of our online identities that gives us pause. It is utterly impossible to do anything online outside this company. How far can it go?

The Circle’s central aim is to make all digital information available to everyone – which at first seems to have a trendy Edward Snowdon vibe, but soon takes on a social-media twist. A few politicians, using technology from The Circle, volunteer to go Transparent – that is, a web-cam attached to them at all times (with the exception of toilet visits, but this is easily worked around) the footage to which, the public have 24-hour access. After all – we elected them, shouldn’t we have the right to see what they’re doing? And all those who refuse to go Transparent, what have they got to hide? If you refuse to live your life entirely in the public eye, surely there must be something dodgy going on? This is the Orwellian aspect of the novel, but there’s no dictator – it’s the public that has control; the mob rules. As the novel progresses, so too does Mae Holland – through the company. She falls in love with The Circle, and everything it does – their healthcare covers her MS suffering father, easing his way of life considerably.

The development of Mae also coincides with the idea of transparency. There is a beautiful passage in which she steals a kayak and goes for a night-time paddle – intending to return it of course. She is new at the company at this point, and not quite up to speed with their ideology:

She guessed at it all, what might live, moving purposefully or drifting aimlessly, under the deep water around her, but she didn’t think too much about any of it. It was enough to be aware of the million permutations possible around her, and take comfort in knowing she would not, and really could not, know much at all.

This is a spiritual moment; a young woman enjoying her solitariness, certainly more aimless than purposeful. Would she do this if she were Transparent – the rest of the world seeing her doubts, observing her mindful and patient state of confusion? Imagine the world’s population were Transparent; constantly trying to prove themselves (the egoism of Facebook photo uploads springs to mind). Moments like this would cease to exist.

It’s important to remember that this is a satirical piece – and the film will no doubt be satirical too. It isn’t a grim warning about a possible future; it’s an observation of the present. No doubt avid social media fans will say it’s going too far – Wired magazine has already said the book represents “what the internet looks like if you don’t understand it”. But perhaps we need people who don’t understand the internet to give their view – the declining percentage of the population who are bemused by those whose lives revolve around their online image. Those who scratch their heads at the sight of “Please Like and Share!”

No doubt there will be those leaving the cinema saying: “I don’t get it; what’s the problem? This is an ideal world!” or maybe “Take off your tinfoil hat and make a Facebook page, dad – it’s the future! What a silly film.” And, for some of us, hearing comments like that is scarier than anything the Hunger Games can offer.

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