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Inside 'The Circle'

This past weekend, the film adaptation of Dave Egger’s The Circle premiered in movie theaters. While the film—at least initially—sticks pretty close to the book, I didn’t find it nearly as creepy or effective in its themes, which challenge us not only to examine the implications of technoconsumerism but also our understanding of transformation.

Like the novel, the film focuses on Mae Holland, a recent college graduate who lands a job at The Circle, a powerful internet corporation that consolidates all your online needs--from tablets, computers and cell phones to biometric devices, social media and financial security and identity—into one service. Picture Apple, Microsoft and Google wrapped up into one and you start to get the picture.

As Mae rises through the ranks, we encounter a society where privacy is slowly being strangled by voyeurism in a world where cameras proliferate, the hunger for connection is insatiably fed by social-pressured and all-consuming social media, and corporations shape the norms and values we live by.

Sound familiar? The story is an apt one for our age, exploring several relevant themes—particularly the implications of equating virtual relationships with intimacy and electronic transparency with honesty and personal authenticity.

In the novel, Mercer tells Mae that her obsessive use of social media has made her “socially autistic.”

"You no longer pick up on basic human communication clues,” he says after having dinner with her and her parents. “You’re at a table with three humans, all of who are looking at you and trying to talk to you, and you’re staring at a screen, searching for strangers in Dubai.”

In the film, we watch Mae’s obsession with rank and connection in social media tear at her relationships. In the novel, we also see its internal affects as we watch Mae use it to help herself suppress questions of whether she is truly connecting with others and drown out a clamoring dark void inside her.

Mae’s story uncomfortably reminds us that the technoconsumerism has the power to change the way we approach life and others, stealing our attention from those in front of us as well as our own thoughts and feelings.

But it was the idea of equating electronic transparency with honesty and authenticity that was the most unsettling for me.

In both the film and the novel, several characters begin to wear small cameras 24-7 in an effort to promote a transparency campaign initiated by Eamon Bailey, the Steve Jobs like co-founder of The Circle (played by Tom Hanks in the film). During a pivotal conversation with Mae, Baily tells Mae he is “a believer in the perfectibility of human beings.” In the novel, he spends pages expounding with a religious-like zeal that constant surveillance will compel humans to become their best selves.

“Finally, finally, we can be good,” he tells her. “In a world where bad choices are no longer an option, we have no choice but to be good. Can you imagine?”

While Mae is entranced by the concept, readers and viewers (hopefully) find this philosophy—that by controlling behavior to a certain norm we can make people better—disturbing. Who determines what is good or the norm? And are we really freed from our “bad” selves—or are we enslaving ourselves to something else?

In the novel, Mercer (unsuccessfully) warns Mae not to presume the benevolence of those in corporate power. “For years there was this happy time when those controlling the major internet conduits were actually decent enough people. Or at least they weren’t predatory and vengeful. But I always worried, what if someone was willing to use this power to punish those who challenged them.”

And the quasi-religious language is also disconcerting.

In The Guardian, Edward Docx references a recent essay by Jonathan Franzen  that touches on this kind language and philosophy associated with technology. "With technoconsumerism," writes Franzen, "a humanist rhetoric of 'empowerment' and 'creativity' and 'freedom' and 'connection' and 'democracy' abets the frank monopolism of the techno-titans; the new infernal machine seems increasingly to obey nothing but its own developmental logic, and it's far more enslavingly addictive, and far more pandering to people's worst impulses, than newspapers ever were."

But I’m also struck by how this kind of philosophy is a constant temptation for believers. In fact, Paul himself seems to spend a great deal of ink devoted to this very thing. We can’t become good people—Christ-like—by controlling our behavior. That kind of transformation must begin within—as Dallas Willard and others put it in The Renovare Spiritual Formation Bible, we become “the kind of person who embodies the goodness of God.” That kind of spiritual formation doesn’t come from merely focusing on changing behavior; it is a substantive formation of heart and soul and mind and body into Christlikeness.” Instead of focusing on our outward behaviors, we work with God to transform from the inside out.

In the end, the film fails to convey the creepiness factor of the novel when it comes to this technoconsumerism philosophy as well as the implications of technoconsumerism on our lives. Some critics say that’s because it’s so close to our reality that we’ve been inured to the creepiness, but I think it’s more because we aren’t as privy to Mae’s thoughts as we are in the novel as well as because of some of the changes the film makes to the novel.

For example, in the both the novel and film, Mercer is angry at Mae after she uploads photos of his deer antler chandeliers—but in the novel, it’s because his business takes off and makes him famous. He doesn’t want that kind of notoriety, but Mae can’t understand that. Her world is wrapped up in likes, zings and followers; her inability to step outside her technoconsumer worldview causes a deep rift between them.

And then there’s the ending. I won’t spoil it here, but if you’re curious, there are others who have written about that and other differences between the film and novel.

I don't think the film is as awful as some critics think, but if you think these themes are interesting and you're up for a creepy, engrossing story, I recommend the novel. It didn't make me give up things like social media or my smartphone, but it certainly did change the way I think about them.