“The Circle” and a World of Total Transparency

By Kathy Winings

Is it possible to go too far with our digital technologies? Is total transparency a good thing? If the majority of people in the world were digitally connected and our lives were out in the open, could we have a better, safer world? Are people ready to live in a totally transparent, digital world?

The new film, “The Circle,” attempts to answer these questions. “The Circle” focuses on a young woman, Mae Holland (Emma Watson), who lands an entry-level job in customer service at the Circle, a massive, powerful tech conglomerate, through a good friend who works in the company. Imagine Google, Facebook and Amazon all rolled into one company. That’s the Circle.

Eamon Bailey (Tom Hanks), CEO and co-founder of the Circle, is an energetic and charismatic leader who appeals to the idealism of his employees — all of whom seem to be under the age of 35. With the personality of a Steve Jobs/Mark Zuckerberg, Bailey and his COO and co-founder, Tom Stenton (Patton Oswalt), emphasize transparency and accountability with each new digital breakthrough they unveil. Much like the practice in today’s big tech firms, there is a regular company-wide gathering in which the new innovative breakthrough of the day is showcased and employees can cheer and marvel as their company pushes the boundaries of technology without questioning it.

Mae is drawn deeper and deeper into the Circle. Bailey is good at coming up with catchy names and phrases and selling the new tech innovations through personal stories that touch the emotions and ignite the idealism of his employees – most especially Mae. In her first week on the job, she is introduced to a webcam the size of a marble that is heralded as a means to a totally transparent world where no one can get away with discrimination, human rights abuses or crime, dubbed “SeeChange.” Bailey’s catchphrase is, “Knowing is good but knowing everything is better.”

Shortly after the launch of SeeChange, a U.S. senator trying to open an investigation against Bailey is forced out of office due to seemingly questionable actions unearthed by Circle technology operating under the guise of transparency.  Mae and her colleagues see this as a reason to celebrate their company’s role in making a change for the better.

We come to see that the Circle is far more than just a company whose workers go home at night. It is a total community composed of a few hundred employees all working on a campus that rivals the size of any major university. Like with Google, employees have access to a wide range of perks and benefits from parties to support groups and health and fitness programs. Employees are strongly encouraged to become fully engaged in these diverse programs.

Though reticent at first, Mae quickly finds herself totally immersed in company activities each day of the week. She soon learns that everyone at the Circle knows almost everything about each other and their families. It isn’t until a disastrous kayaking experience late one night in which Mae is rescued thanks to SeeChange cameras that she has an epiphany. Realizing that total transparency is good and keeping secrets is not good, Mae agrees to make her life totally transparent by being completely surrounded 24/7 by cameras, essentially inviting the vast global network of Circle customers to live with her day and night.

Tweets, emails and messages become a constant for Mae. She is invited to join a planning meeting of upper management so everyone can see how transparent and open the Circle is. Throughout the ups and downs of being constantly “on,” the key people in her life begin to question whether or not total transparency is a good thing, and start to question the ethics of the Circle’s leadership. It’s at this point that Mae has her second epiphany. Since Circle customers are everywhere in the world, why not use the Circle’s massive technological resources and power to find dangerous criminals on the run or find loved ones with whom one has lost track? Isn’t this reason enough to keep pushing the digital envelope?

The official trailer for “The Circle” (courtesy STX Entertainment and EuropaCorp).

Now that she has become a good cheerleader for the company, Mae is asked to introduce this new innovation to the Circle’s employees. In full view of the company and its clients around the world, a woman convicted of murder who has been on the run is located and re-arrested. On the heels of the adrenaline high, Mae demonstrates the use of the technology to find a lost friend. Unfortunately, it becomes personal when the test case chosen by the employees is a friend of Mae’s. In the process, he is tragically killed while fleeing those who “found” him, causing Mae to step away and reassess her role in his death and whether or not she went too far with the technology and drive for transparency. Her introspection leads, though, to a most intriguing conclusion.

The film does not seek to provide any clear answers to the moral and ethical questions it raises. The fact Mae and those at the Circle or its clients did not really lose their idealism leads one to wonder if the film is just playing it safe in this regard. Or is it because there is no simple answer to these questions concerning total transparency and whether or not being a fully wired planet will create a safer world? I am not sure.

The pairing of Tom Hanks and Emma Watson works well for this film. Watson’s seeming innocence and naïveté and Hanks’ ability to make a character believable and trustworthy add to the thought-provoking quality of the film. Although it was not their best performances, the film did make me think. Any film that makes me continue the discussion and debate on my walk home from the theater is not a failure.

Who wouldn’t be swayed by an argument that paints a picture of a connected world, which brings out the Imago Dei in each of us; where violence, abuse and social injustice can be stopped and maybe even prevented. This image certainly appeals to my feminine perspective and sensibilities. In this way, I identify with Mae’s unfaltering idealism. Nor can I fault the value of transparency and accountability. On the other hand, I also have images of George Orwell’s 1984 and “Big Brother is watching,” and fear that with such pervasive, powerful technology, how can we resist this dangerous path?

When all is said and done, I’m glad the film offers no clear answers. The film leaves things wide open so each of us has to think for ourselves. While I’m not sure everyone in the theater appreciated that decision, I saw people talking about it as they left and could almost hear the wheels turning in their heads. On my walk home, had anyone heard me, I’m sure they would have thought me one of those “odd” people who talk to themselves. But it was only me trying to work out how I would answer these deep questions.

I asked myself, “Would we dare to have cameras on us day and night and live so completely transparent?” My answer? I am not sure the world is ready for that.♦

“The Circle” (rated PG-13) is currently in theaters. Running time: 110 minutes. Directed by James Ponsoldt; written by James Ponsoldt and Dave Eggers. Main cast: Emma Watson, Tom Hanks, John Boyega, Patton Oswalt, and Bill Paxton. See IMDB for full details.

Dr. Kathy Winings is Vice President for Academic Affairs; Director, Doctor of Ministry Program; and, Professor of Religious Education and Ministry at UTS. She is also Vice President of the Board of Directors for the International Relief Friendship Foundation.

Photo at top: Tom Hanks, Emma Watson and Patton Oswalt in a scene from “The Circle” (courtesy STX Entertainment and EuropaCorp).


3 thoughts on ““The Circle” and a World of Total Transparency

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  1. Easily I answer no.

    There is much in the world that does not need nor should be allowed to be seen. Usually they are in developmental stages. Seeds open unobserved, roots lay foundations that support the to-be-seen, the night obscures, the gaze turns inward and thoughts coalesce, congeal, and evolve. The practicing child is not labeled and branded in formative stages, preventing the additional steps that will lead to mastery. Balance is needed, like the non-moral view of positive and negative: breathing in and breathing out, the tides, cycles of seasons and regeneration.

    Total transparency does not support sustainability, development, or that which cannot be seen: the internal world of freedom and all that implies. Why? Because in time “total transparency” will claim that only that which can be seen “really” exists (the “total”), and will necessarily endeavor to refute the legitimacy of any and all that is not visible. Sound familiar?

  2. Easily I counter yes.

    I can easily understand the fears of having our failings exposed to the world, but what is important to remember is, in the movie, the technology was new and the main character very famous in her world. Mae was the first person to go totally transparent at a mega tech firm. They held her up for the world to watch the new technology work and watch they did.

    In a world where everyone is watchable, how many people would actually be seen? I fancy myself as likable, but I highly doubt more than a dozen people in my life would watch a live 24/7 show about my life. Donald Trump would easily be scrutinized by millions. I believe that is the right ratio. His position should be one of transparency. People would want to know if his staff were ill-intentioned. On the other hand, people (other than my mother) wouldn’t care if I did something. Both could be known and cared about in their own way.

    My failings would be good to be able to review. Not in the (send me to prison for sneaking off with a freshly baked cookie at age 6) way. Nor in the (I failed to play the “Piano Man” perfectly at that party so I must be a loser) way either. But looking back at a lie I told and watching/reliving the moment to learn why I felt it was so necessary. Learning to become our better selves by having a tool that helps us see why we failed is worth having.

    Imagine being able to see the failings of others too. Watching Adele as a child struggle to build what would become her great voice could help other little girls find the confidence to keep singing through the rough notes. Watching a younger JK Rowling stare at blank pieces of paper wishing her life could find a break and magically change for the better could help a homeless person know working at it does pay off. And yes, watching my 6 year old self fidget with my nose on the wall for stealing a cookie from the jar could brighten someone’s day too (likely my spouse).

    Seeing the Unseen is harder, and for the very best reasons. Having the ability to see a charitable act, or a sunset, or an astronomer’s view is something that would inspire faith not dismiss it. The more I can see, the more my own faith becomes steadier. I believe in Einstein and the big Him. Watching a live cam of kittens on YouTube has not diminished that belief, but rather added to it slightly.

    I believe what really turned a potential dystopia in the film into the beginnings of peace was the inclusiveness of leaders in being totally transparent (albeit not really by choice). I would do it, and am even considering trying. A better world one lens at a time.

  3. Isn’t everything in our life already being “videotaped” and prepared for playback when we die? Since total transparency already exists, the only relevant question is, “Will I be ashamed to stand in the limelight?”

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