You know what they say about good intentions and that one road they pave. That’s the essential distressing message of “The Circle,” Dave Eggers’s 2013 bestseller, which has now been made into a feature film starring Emma Watson and Tom Hanks.
In the story, the employees of the Circle, an all-consuming digital Goliath that comes across as equal parts Google, Facebook, Apple, and the Thought Police of “1984” convince themselves, and much of humanity, that their work is creating a safer, kinder, more just society. Everyone is connected; everything is quantifiable. Cameras make everything in the world utterly knowable. As a result, crime, corruption, suffering, and stupidity all will plummet.
It’s the dawn of the Second Enlightenment, claims Eamon Bailey, one of the “Three Wise Men” who created the all-in culture of the Circle. At a presentation, he unveils a new company slogan: “All That Happens Must Be Known.”
Inevitably, however, the blissful renunciation of our right to privacy leads to some rather disturbing developments. We’ve seen this movie before, or at least we’ve seen various elements of it.
THX 1138 (1971)
In George Lucas’s directorial debut, the 25th-century population is subjugated by android police officers and mandatory drug cocktails. But who needs drugs when we have the opiate of social media? (In “The Circle,” its constant Twitter-like jabber of digital posts is called “zings.”)
The Conversation (1974)
Francis Ford Coppola’s surveillance thriller finds bugging expert Gene Hackman agonizing over the fate of the San Francisco couple he has been hired to monitor. In “The Circle,” thousands of politicians agree to equip themselves with “SeeChange” cameras, going “transparent” to prove their incorruptibility. Soon the public is voluntarily submitting, too, and a lone dissenting character warns against “the unrestrained Manifest Destiny of it all.”
Logan’s Run (1976)
In “the perfect world of total pleasure,” the surviving human beings of the 23rd century live in an ostensible utopia controlled by computer. There’s just one catch: when they turn 30, their lives are expended. In “The Circle,” our young, fast-rising protagonist, Mae, is reassured: “You’re not just some cog in a machine.” Are we sure about that?
Nineteen Eighty-Four (1984)
George Orwell’s famous nightmare enjoyed its best film adaptation in its namesake year. Winston Smith, played by John Hurt, works for the government’s Ministry of Truth, rewriting history. Privately, however, he keeps a personal journal, which is, of course, a “thoughtcrime.” In “The Circle,” too, secrets are forbidden; all is to be shared. “Privacy Is Theft,” as the company insists.
The Matrix (1999)
They’re looking for “the One” — the chosen son who will lead the oppressed humans against the intelligent machines they created. Could it be Neo? In “The Circle,” there is precious little resistance to the company’s innovations. Only Mercer, Mae’s mountain-man ex-boyfriend, sounds the alarm, and — spoiler alert — it doesn’t end well for him.
Minority Report (2002)
In this thriller — based on a short story by Philip K. Dick, the sci-fi master who created “a universe of simulation” (Baudrillard) — Tom Cruise is chief of the “PreCrime” unit, which predicts criminal acts and stops them before they take place. In Eggers’s story, abductions will be eliminated by installing a microchip in the bones of every child — and the tracking undoubtedly won’t end there.
of the Spotless Mind (2004)
Michel Gondry’s oddball feature proposes a memory-erasing technique to help former lovers get over their sense of loss. There’s plenty of subtle brainwashing in “The Circle”; in the book, there’s a brief, weird encounter in a bar with a long-ago divinity student who turned to computers instead. “You found a way to save all the souls,” he gushes to Mae.
The Social Network (2010)
In David Fincher’s telling of the Zuckerberg saga, we’re reminded that the ubiquitous Facebook began as a vindictive website that invited users to rate the looks of college women. In “The Circle,” everything gets assigned a number: employees obsess over their “participation rank,” watching their standings rise and fall with each social post, and their influence on the buying habits of others is tabulated as a dollar figure known as the “Retail Raw.”
In Spike Jonze’s synthetic romance, Joaquin Phoenix’s lovelorn Theodore falls for the voice of his intelligent computer operating system. In “The Circle,” Mae sets an alert to the sound of her own voice speaking her own name. In a company that embraces “Community First,” where “our opinions are dignified, where our voices are heard,” the one that enraptures her is her own.James Sullivan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.