So what is the Circle? It’s a tech company — actually, let’s not sugar-coat it; the Circle is Google, if Google Plus had worked out and replaced Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, PayPal, Venmo, and a dozen other services most of us have installed on our phones right now. The Circle’s signature product is a thing called True You, which (from what you can make out from the movie) ties people’s real identities to their online presence, including all their information, their emails, their texts, location data — basically everything most of us already give up freely to various internet companies.
Also like Google (and many other Silicon Valley companies), the Circle has a one-stop-shopping campus on which their employees spend most of their time. At Google’s campus in Mountain View, California (called the “Googleplex”), employees can eat vegan sushi, get a haircut, join an affinity group with other employees, go bowling, and hear a world leader give a talk, all in the course of a normal day, if they can spare the time away from their desk. The Circle’s campus has all these amenities, too, from dog kennels to dorms so employees don’t have to worry about commuting after one of the rad parties that are always happening to “connect” the Circlers to one another.
On her first day working in “customer experience” at the Circle — it’s a euphemism for being on the customer help desk — Mae Holland (Watson) walks past the Dali Lama and is handed a shiny new tablet with her name on it, and she feels euphorically happy about working at a company where all of her young, attractive co-workers are affable and enthusiastic. That feeling only grows when her friend Annie (Gillan, playing Scottish for once) helps her get her parents on the Circle’s health plan so that they can stop worrying about paying for her father’s MS treatments.
Mae’s still a “guppy” (the lingo for newbie Circlers) when the whole campus goes to hear Eamon Bailey (Hanks), one of the company’s three main directors, talk about a new invention: an inexpensive, small, almost undetectable camera that’s about the size of a ping-pong ball and can be placed virtually anywhere to broadcast high-definition video straight to the Internet. He demonstrates first by showing a beach where he likes to surf — and then 10 others. Then he reveals that Circlers have placed the cameras all over the world already, which, he tells the assembled Circlers, will help to eradicate bad behavior from lawless citizens and despotic regimes alike. When everyone’s being watched, everyone behaves, right?
We still tend to believe technology is good for us
If that sounds nervewrackingly dystopic to you, well, good. You’re paying attention.
Tech innovators tend to have a disturbingly optimistic view of human nature, and politicians seem increasingly inclined to go along with it, on both the left and the right. President Barack Obama was famously starry-eyed about tech’s ability to bring about social good, and President Donald Trump has tasked his son-in-law with directing an office that brings in ideas from business and tech to (sigh) disrupt the government. Even though stories crop up nearly every week about some invasion of privacy or swindle or labor abuse or access overreach by one tech company or another (see Uber, or Juicero), people still seem to think that tech’s end skews toward basic goodness.
That’s baked into the industry. When I was a college student studying information technology and computer science in the early aughts, the presumption in every class I took was that our goal was to “solve problems,” and that meant social problems. We identified the social problem and then came up with a technological solution. That, we were trained to believe, was what we were doing in tech: being altruistic. We were the smart ones, the powerful ones, the magic ones, and of course we would use our powers for good.