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How Not to Make a Movie About Tech

‘The Circle’ is a dated, far-fetched parable about an imaginary villain — and far less scary than its television counterpart

(STX Entertainment/HBO/Ringer illustration)
(STX Entertainment/HBO/Ringer illustration)

Silicon Valley is legendary for its highly produced auditorium events, the preferred setting for its thought leaders to reveal new gadgets, ruminate over world-saving moonshots, or, simply, get hyped. And it is at one of these gatherings that The Circle — a dystopian film based on a 2013 Dave Eggers book about an all-powerful tech corporation — chooses to deliver what’s meant to be its most terrifying moment.

Mae Holland (Emma Watson) joins the company’s public face, Eamon Bailey (Tom Hanks), onstage for a presentation at The Circle, which is meant to resemble a more mature Facebook or Google that has streamlined the internet’s login systems into one tidy, all-knowing system. They’re there to talk about her recent run-in with the law. Mae, a new employee, stole a kayak and almost drowned, but was saved because strangers watching a constant feed from the company’s camouflaged mini cameras sent for help. As her peers look on from the stands, she repents to Eamon, not only for stealing a boat but for a much graver offense: stealing experiences from the public. “Secrets are lies,” she declares, before announcing that, from now on, she will livestream every moment of her life. The crowd bursts into wild applause.

It’s all a little bit much — absurd enough to make you laugh when maybe you should be worried, and lazy enough to undermine the film’s heavy-handed message about privacy, technology, and our future online identities. Despite all the eerie similarities between the invasive technology presented in the movie and the platforms so integral to modern digital existence, The Circle, as a film, is scoff-worthy to even the most paranoid internet user. (And to moviegoers, it would seem; the movie made only a meager $9.3 million in its opening weekend.) The movie oscillates like the New York Times election-night forecast meter between satire and serious drama. And, like so many techno-dystopias that came before, its premise feels automatically dated. We may live in the age of Facebook Live and Periscope, but the brainwashed groupthink depicted in The Circle doesn’t give individuals like Mae, or the world’s billions of internet users for that matter, enough credit.

Even if the general premise of The Circle — that tech companies will stop at nothing for all-seeing user access — rings true, the movie’s big-picture storytelling feels increasingly ineffective for our time. For one, in an era of such fast-paced innovation, alarmist digital dystopias age about as well as that Cruel Intentions line about how “email is for geeks and pedophiles.” There are notable exceptions: Black Mirror has staying power because its stand-alone dramas are far more focused on establishing an otherworldly atmosphere, and Mr. Robot gets a pass because it tells its nightmarish plot from the perspective of a disillusioned hacker. But for the most part, the tech industry moves at an incredible speed these days, and what may have once appeared to be an exaggerative premise for a book is, four years later, almost too close to our daily lives to feel foreboding.

Hollywood is keen on illustrating the awesome power of modern-day tech companies and the elite class of entrepreneurs who run them. But lately the most effective way to do that is not to focus on what’s possible, but to illustrate the real-life personalities that control the near future of tech. Stylistically, a show like HBO’s Silicon Valley couldn’t be further from a production like The Circle, and yet it succeeds in threading together a host of issues in tech culture, including major corporations’ monopoly-like power to squash competitors, manipulate the unwitting tech press, and bypass the interests of their employees and users for the sake of better stock prices. Now at the beginning of its fourth season, the show is lauded for its highly researched, accurate depictions of the Bay Area’s power players — so much so that it has spurred at least one Business Insider post dedicated to identifying each character’s real-life inspiration. (The show has even featured a handful of cameos from the industry’s power brokers, including Snapchat CEO Evan Spiegel and Alphabet executive chairman Eric Schmidt.) Even if it does take place in a comedy created by the man who gave us Beavis and Butt-Head, the show’s researched interpretation of real life is a much more compelling way to display the tech world’s flaws, rather than simply relying on imagined scaremongering.

Take, for instance, the show’s most recent episode. In his newly appointed position as CEO of PiperChat, Dinesh (Kumail Nanjiani) quickly acquires a cheap blazer, a penchant for hair gel, and a ballooning sense of self worth. As he is swept up in the glory of his new role as a rising startup figurehead, he fails to include a “Terms of Service” user agreement in the PiperChat app. The results are catastrophic: The app’s underage user base makes it an inadvertent hunting ground for pedophiles, and the gang discovers that, because the company is in violation of the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Rule, it’s liable for upward of $21 billion in fines from the FTC. Just when you think it’s all over for PiperChat, the company is saved only by another pompous tech leader’s foolish decision. Driven by his own insecurities and jealousies, Hooli CEO Gavin Belson launches a campaign to spy on the video chats of his perceived nemesis. It ends with his decision to absorb PiperChat and — without knowing — its problematic user base.

Obviously the show is still a comedy, which means that you’re expected to spend as much time laughing at Erlich Bachman’s argument that the plural of hard-on is “hards-on” as you are considering implications of an unregulated user base. Still, the episode highlights the realistic consequences of trusting the leadership of an accidentally successful company to someone who is both overly self-important and inexperienced. Look closer, and it’s also filled with some pretty dystopian stuff: a swath of young girls being exposed to predators by way of sheer incompetence and a powerful head of a Google-type company spying on a fellow employee with no evidence of wrongdoing. And that’s just one of 30 episodes’ worth of believable scenarios that show how easy it is to risk the privacy and safety of a web service even if your motivations aren’t ambitiously evil.

Silicon Valley may be presented as a satire that’s meant to poke fun at the culture that incubates future tech leaders, but the realism behind the show is far more terrifying than most techno-dystopian scenarios imagined in an L.A. writers’ room. Rather than painting a somewhat unbelievable portrait of a cool, calculated techno-idealist and his grand design for world domination, the show demonstrates that we could be almost worse off due to the sheer lack of foresight that company leaders have while pursuing their own selfish desires for money, influence, and the possibility of being able to date Amber Heard. In other words, I’m much more inclined to believe — and be scared of — the things that drive a fragile, indecisive, vengeful CEO like Gavin Belson than I am afraid of an enigmatic stock character like Eamon Bailey. There’s no need to imagine some otherworldly dystopia when the present model gives us Uber CEO Travis Kalanick. Today’s technology companies are scary powerful as it is.