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A wild scene near the end of Emma Watson's new movie, The Circle, encapsulates its take on technology in our future. While introducing a crowd-sourcing video app designed to hunt fugitives, Watson's character Mae asks the audience at her Apple-esque keynote to help locate her estranged friend, Mercer.
This young man's crime? Being a luddite who swears off Mae's employer, The Circle, and its vast web of social networking tools. Disconnection makes him a fugitive from, as Mae says, friendship. In mere minutes, live streams show drones and cell phone-toting lunatics chasing Mercer and his truck off a bridge. To Mae's horror, she learns that a tool created to do good can have wicked effects.
Waiiiiiiiit, that guy died because of a social media experiment gone wrong?
Yes. The Circle, directed by James Ponsoldt and adapted from Dave Eggers' novel of the same name, tells the story of Mae, a young woman who ascends to stardom at a powerful tech company. Like a glossier episode of Black Mirror, her story takes the notion of internet privacy and extends it to a nefarious extreme. It's part satire, part warning. Sadly, a lot of the bite from the book misses the screen. As one reviewer quipped, the fatally streamlined movie warning asks, "What if Google, but too much?"
The Circle hit theaters this weekend, and while it might be absurd, it's still thought-provoking enough to make one consider the techno-horrors taking root in the real world. Just recently, Congress rolled back privacy rules established under the Obama administration, essentially giving internet service providers the chance to cash in on your browsing history and personal data.
Watson wants the movie to serve as a wake-up call for such decisions. "For me, the big thing, having been involved in [this movie], is taking back the idea that that information belongs to us," the star said Wednesday night at The Circle's Tribeca Film Festival screening. "And just being mindful and much more aware of what's unveiling before our very eyes."
In the film, "Circlers" also contemplate ways to make their company's social ideology legal installations. Not only does the company want to set up tiny cameras around the globe to create CCTV feeds, it wants users to wear said cameras to broadcast everything they do. In the argot of The Circle, that last part is called "going transparent," and by movie's end, the future looks a lot like Big Brother. Not just NSA-style; everything is viewable by everyone. In this world, privacy dies in the name of accountability -- for the familiar cause of "making the world a better place."
"When you see someone onstage in front of a great group of people being incredibly charming, do not trust them," Tom Hanks, who plays one of The Circle's head honchos, added Wednesday night. "He may talk about marvelous themes of inclusion and togetherness and a bright happy future somewhere down the line. But the secret that he is keeping from you people is that he does not just want to dominate the competition, he wants to crush it."
In other words, Watson and Hanks don't believe our evolving technology and social media lifestyles are bad, but embracing them blindly can be. Like the mob that sent Mercer hurtling down the highway, the tech powers that be are pushing us toward a rocky fate sealed by cultish compliance. Whether this fate will be good or bad, private or transparent, Hanks believes, is "in the hands of the participants."
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