Knowing is good. But knowing everything is better.
– Eamon Bailey (Tom Hanks)
The Circle was first released as a dystopian novel by the American author Dave Eggers, who also wrote the screenplay in 2013. And now, in 2017, it has been finally released to the theaters. I read the book back then and have been awaiting the film ever since. Many films that are based on books are slightly different than the original piece The Circle is no exception. This is why I will only be concentrating on the film version of this story.
The film follows the story of Mae Holland, who is portrayed by actress Emma Watson, which I was very excited about. Thanks to her friend, Annie (Karen Gillan of Doctor Who), Mae lands a job at a large technology company. On her first day at The Circle, Mae listens to a speech given by one of the founders called Eamon Bailey, who is portrayed by Tom Hanks. In this speech he not only says, “Sharing is caring,” but also, “Knowing is good. But knowing everything is better.” Both of these quotes are fairly cringe-worthy in the context of this film, as you may soon come to realize.
At first, Mae is happy with her new job in Customer Experience (CE), going home on the weekends and spending time with her family. However, it doesn’t take long until she is asked to spend more time with the people at The Circle and to enroll in social activities as well as interact on her social media with her friends and colleagues. Mae is also asked to share everything she does on her social media, letting everyone see her posts, participate in her life and her activities, even those she used to do on her own. Soon she, too, gets consumed by the online world, feeling the need to share every single second of her life with the world–friends or strangers.
Although she starts out in CE, Mae quickly shows herself to be a valuable asset to the company. Her talent to see the world differently, and her compassion for wanting to connect everyone with each other, help her climb the company ladder and become close to the more influential people of The Circle. As she grows closer to one of the founders, she finds out the secrets the company is keeping and what it means to The Circle to connect the world, as well as their definition of privacy. But even after this, Mae still keeps working hard on her social media profile, sharing everything with everyone and hurting a friend in the process. As she is confronted with this mistake and tries her best to fix it, they fall apart and Mae is left in despair, seeking refuge at the one place that used to just be hers, away from the online world: the bay. With no regard to the late hour and the little light the moon offers her on the water at night, Mae paddles into the darkness. She soon loses control over her kayak, falling into the water and struggling to get back onto it, as she is not wearing a life vest. Only moments later, she is rescued and safely brought back to the mainland, where she finds out that The Circle was the reason she was seen and saved just in time, before anything worse happened to her.
After her accident, Mae receives support from The Circle and is part of a big speech alongside the founder, Eamon Bailey. In this speech, it becomes clear that Bailey is very passionate about people sharing their entire lives online, giving everyone around the world the possibility to take part in everyone’s lives. During this speech, Mae says something that sparks many thoughts and seems slightly out of character at that moment, seeing as she values her time alone and her privacy:
We behave worse when no one is watching, when we’re alone. We behave better when we are watched.
It can be argued that we do not behave better when we are being watched, but that we behave the way people want us to behave, and therefore, it is seen as ‘correct’ behavior.
This statement is followed by Bailey’s comment in which he shares with everyone in the audience that, to him, sharing gained experiences is enriching other people’s lives and keeping these experiences from them is stealing from them. Mae later says that knowledge is a basic human right and not sharing with people is the same as robbing them of this right. At the end of the speech, Mae announces that she is going fully transparent, meaning that she will be sharing every single minute of her day with the world, always wearing a very small camera attached to her top.
When Mae starts doing this, the concept of modern-day vlogging comes to mind in which people take cameras with them wherever they go and document their lives, what they do, eat, say, or who they meet. The footage can then be edited and uploaded. However, the film The Circle takes it a step further. The camera Mae wears streams everything live to people’s homes, laptops, or phones, giving her no chance to undo or redo any mistakes or unpleasant moments. This includes an unintended incident as she tries to video call her parents, estranging her from them for several weeks after.
Still, she keeps documenting and sharing her life with the world, even though the comments after the incident with her parents seemed harsh at first. Mae is invited to the inner circle of the company where she is supposed to live stream a meeting. She ends up not only participating in it but also giving valuable input which leads to her launching a new project which promises to find people in under 20 minutes, no matter where in the world they might be hiding. Sadly, her launch backfires, and the entire world witnesses a tragic accident which leaves Mae and the viewers grieving and leads to Mae receiving hate comments.
She recovers at her parents’, staying away from social media for several days, giving her time to reconnect with an old friend who has returned home to Scotland to recover as well. Talking to her friend gives her new insight on how technology created the possibility for this accident to happen, and it helps her understand how she can improve her project to better the ways The Circle operates in a way that ensures no damage is caused to anyone by technology again.
Mae returns to The Circle against her parents’ will and goes back online, as well as back to sharing her life with the world. She shares her new concept in a speech at the company. Her talk is witty and strong and she starts uncovering the secrets of the company to the world as she live streams on stage. She says that “privacy was a temporary thing and now it’s over,” giving everyone the same rights and saying that if everyone else has to go transparent, so do the company’s founders.
I believe that one of the most powerful messages is then revealed in the following scene. The company turns off the power on stage, trying to keep Mae from continuing her talk. During the entire film, Mae is always one of the few to point out that the purpose of connecting the world through social media and other online features is to actually connect the world. To connect people from everywhere, to let them share their lives, to have them take part in others’ lives and to ensure safety and transparency for everyone, as well as making everyone’s lives easier. And at this moment, when Mae is standing in the dark, the audience turns on their phones, which are supposed to connect them to others in isolation, to light the stage to connect the world through someone else and their message.
Sadly, the film finishes with the simple but thoughtful words, “The future won’t wait,” shortly after this scene, without giving any explanation of how Mae is trying to better the company and connect the world further.
However, I find these words to resonate with today’s society, as does most of the film. Saying that the future won’t wait implies that there is no way around the future, that there is no way around technology and transparency. Maybe it won’t all change tomorrow or next week, but I think we can all agree that technology changes the world fast, and although it can be dangerous at times, it can also be used for good. For example, it can be used to improve the lives of those who can’t go climbing or hiking because of injuries and, therefore, benefit from the people sharing their experiences online. Or it can be used to connect people from all over the world, sharing the same interests and giving them a safe space to exchange their thoughts and stories. But as with many things, it gives people power where there shouldn’t be power. Take, for example, Mae live streaming her life and receiving hate comments from strangers for mistakes she has made during her day. Those comments hurt and cut deep, as they do daily in our own society in the 21st century.
The Circle was an interesting film to watch. It has its beautiful moments, and it shows our world as it is today, exaggerating it to some degree to offer more insight about the good and the bad sides of technology. However, in my eyes, it doesn’t take a side. It implies that the world is changing and that this change will happen, no matter how we choose to use technology in our lives and in our societies. But we do have the choice of what role we want technology to play in our lives. At first, I was disappointed by its very open ending, but I’ve come to enjoy this unsealed fate they show, as there are different ways for technology to create a safer and better space in our future society and lives.
I’ll give it 4 out of 5 stars.