All of us have wondered and worried about the astonishing amounts of private information we share with digital hubs. Google, Facebook, Apple, and so many others collect enough on all of us to enable identity theft, financial pillaging, blackmail, and worse. We know this, and it rightly troubles us.
What should we do about it? Where is this heading?
A movie on this subject sounds promising, especially one starring Tom Hanks and Emma Watson. And yet The Circle might set records for bad reviews and low profitability. It has a Rotten Tomatoes rating of 17% and it seems to be falling from there. It has a D+ CinemaScore, which apparently has no precedent. The reviews are savage.
Abandoned Plot Lines
What went wrong? I counted at least four plot lines that seemed promising but then strangely fizzled into nothingness. Characters were undeveloped. In the main plot, nothing particularly intelligent happens. It was supposed to be dystopian, but the threat to our well-being was never quite threatening enough, and the solution to the supposed problem was unbearably unsatisfying.
I counted at least four plot lines that seemed promising but then strangely fizzled into nothingness.The story is of a young worker who gets the chance to work at The Circle, a company with this huge compound where, she gradually learns, she is expected to spend most all her time. Her position is with customer service and her job is to upsell all customers on new products. But the company also seeks to be the whole of her life: her friends, her parties, her support groups, her lifeline to all good things.
Yes, it’s wildly exaggerated, but that is fine. It is true that companies' of a certain size today do provide an impressive range of employee amenities, all designed to take the edge off the toil of work. The lunch offerings at a place like Google compare with the nicest resorts I’ve been to, and it is common for even small startups to have ping pong tables and cocktail hours.
Work = Life
If you have seen Mad Men, however, you know this isn’t entirely new. The postwar corporate world adapted to new times and sought to play an outsized role in people’s lives, at least as compared with the typical big-city job in the first half of the 20th century. It began with health care provision, of course, and moved to retirement benefits. Over time, the workplace tried to become less like a job and more like a family or community.
It can get creepy, certainly, but whose fault is this? For half a century, government policy has prodded companies to do exactly this, all in the name of granting new rights to employees. The benefits that government mandates employers must provide were supposed to be pro-worker but they actually have the opposite effect. Once you get a secure job and all the benefits it provides (particularly health care), the effect is to lock employees into their jobs, even when they are unhappy in them.
Job lock is indeed a huge problem in American labor markets today, and Obamacare and hyper-regulation of the labor markets has made it worse. Economists have shown that a higher rate of job-to-job transition (the quit rate) is associated with higher earning relative to staying in one place. The IMF has done some remarkable number-crunching to discover what is happening to the American quit rate, and found that it has been in free fall.
A main effect of Obamacare was to wreck the market for health care for independent contractors. Ten years ago, it was possible to obtain a cheap policy with low deductibles and low premiums. No longer. It’s a terrifying market out there, without many options and no guarantee that doctors will even accept what you buy.
Whose fault is this? It’s not the big bad corporations that the movie The Circle tries to demonize. The fault belongs to the regulators who have imposed on business all sorts of benefits that ought to be left to the competitive market.
The Circle Is about Something Else
The problem of job lock could have been an amazing theme for the movie to explore. Incredibly, it doesn’t. As with several other themes, the idea is introduced and quickly dropped.
To be sure, it wasn’t all bad. Portions of the film captured the crazy world of social media beautifully. It happens when the lead protagonist decides to go fully transparent and put her entire life online in real time, gaining millions of followers who comment on her every word and move. Here the movie gets creative, funny, and even alarming. We’ve all been there and it is a strange thing to experience.
And yet, that’s about all that I recommend from the movie.
The implausibility of the main lines of the plot were obvious from the beginning. The Circle is a company that is a “one-stop shop” for all things digital: search, texting, audio, video, entertainment, and so on. One thing you learn from the world of tech startups: anyone who claims to be the “one-stop shop” will fail. This is not how digital technology has come to be. You have to move into a niche and be the best in it, or else you will flop.
This company seems to have a free hand to do what it wants. And that’s absurd. The Circle mysteriously gained some kind of monopoly (90% of the population is enrolled) but we are never told how or why. Oddly, the company never has to deal with competition from anyone else in its space. Huh? Even giants like Amazon, Google, Netflix, and Facebook deal with competition. They live and breathe it. If they have a market share, they all know it could be temporary. Rest and you will lose it, just as Google today is massively under pressure from competitors.
Not so with The Circle. This company seems to have a free hand to do what it wants. And that’s absurd. Even in today’s highly regulated, truncated, and hobbled marketplace, there is always a competitor out there trying to eat your lunch. For this reason, the movie lost me in the first 10 minutes.
What about Privacy?
As this movie flounders around trying to figure out what it is about, it finally hits on a theme: privacy. How much transparency, openness, and information-sharing should there be? How much is too much? Is the demand for privacy only about wanting to hide sin from the world or is there a fundamental human right at stake?
I’m looking at today’s digital world and it does seem alarming how much information “they” have on us. But we have to make some distinctions here. Most of these private companies are collecting data on us precisely so that they can better give us what we want: targeted ads, quicker search results, tools that integrate across platforms, and so on. Google and Facebook desire to serve us better. They don’t always go about it the right way and they often rub us wrong, but this is the prevailing purpose of data collection.
The anti-capitalist agenda was the reason the film lost energy, becoming directionless, tired, and ultimately vapid.To be sure, there is a darker side to data collection. Edward Snowden’s revelations showed us the NSA and the national security state had generally installed backdoors into top companies servers, sometimes with their own complicity, but other times not. There is solid evidence that both Apple and Google were astonished to learn of the extent to which their own server space had been penetrated. Meanwhile, the private sector is innovating to serve the growing market demand for privacy itself.
But in The Circle, the totality of the problem is that private enterprise, and actually just one company with a nearly complete monopoly, is the source of all problems. Sadly, the movie just ends up collapsing into a classic anti-capitalist screed that wildly exaggerates the power of business while completely ignoring the actual real-world problem with government intrusion into the digital space.
For me, the anti-capitalist agenda was the reason the film lost energy, becoming directionless, tired, and ultimately vapid. The overwhelmingly obvious problem with the power of data today is not that we are going to get targeted ads but rather that our masters in the state apparatus are going to use this data as a more effective way to control the population. This is your dystopia. Somehow The Circle completely missed the mark.
And here’s the ultimate irony: the complete financial failure of The Circle as a film beautifully demonstrates that, even in our times, the market still works to sort out winners from losers.