“The Circle” movie review

Tries for a perfect circle, but winds up more like an oval. Full of endless circular logic and irony, director James Ponsoldt’s The Circle depicts the story of a not-so-distant future, or perhaps an alternative present, in which one company dominates digital media, data gathering, and surveillance services. Based upon the four-year-old novel by author Dave Eggers, you’ll notice some stark similarities between this motion picture narrative and the smash hit TV series Black Mirror. The biggest difference between the two is that The Circle is fast-faced and poorly written whereas Black Mirror is a slow-burning but well-written anthology series. In addition to the similarities between the aforementioned, there are certainly elements of The Truman Show in this movie as well. With a powerhouse cast, brilliant composer (Danny Elfman), and excellent editing, The Circle appears to have what a blockbuster needs; however, the hollow characters, poor character development, fractured subplots, and overall diegesis hold the film back from reaching the impact that it could have had. Having taken a digital media and privacy class in graduate school, and published a few articles, this is a film that I was looking forward to in order to analyze how the social commentary or commentary on the human condition regarding reasonable expectations of privacy and big data were integrated into the plot. Sadly, the screenplay was not strong or developed significantly enough to provide big data and privacy discussions.

Mae Holland (Emma Watson) hates her job at the water company, so she is incredibly excited when her friend Annie (Karen Gillan) lands Mae an interview at The Circle, the world’s most powerful technology and social media company. Mae’s fear of unfulfilled potential impresses the recruiters at The Circle and she lands the opportunity of a lifetime. After Mae puts herself into harm’s way but rescued, thanks to The Circle’s newest surveillance and data gathering system, she is encouraged by the company founder Eamon Bailey (Tom Hanks) to take a more active role in technology development by participating in an experiment that puts Mae’s life on display for the world (in the vein of The Truman Show) to see. Once Mae turns on that camera, she has more “friends” than she ever imagined and becomes an instant online celebrity. Unfortunately, this decision will affect those closest to Mae and the negative ramifications will reach far beyond her inner circle and begin to impact humanity at large. Sometimes, people just don’t want to be found or be “social.”

For all The Circle has going for it, the weak screenplay keeps it from being the blockbuster that it so desperately wants to be. A great movie typically begins with solid writing, and that is what’s missing here. After five minutes (or so it seems) of opening title logos, perhaps that is indirect evidence that there were just too many hands in the pot, each trying to take the movie’s narrative in a different direction. Much like Frozen plays off like two different movies crudely sewn together, The Circle appears to be one movie for the first two acts, but takes an unexpected and unfulfilling turn in the third. A couple of conspicuous unanswered questions come after Mae meets TrueYou designer and founder Ty (John Boyega). He designed the platform that launched The Circle. At one point he asks Mae to meet him in a secret tunnel (where all the servers are stored) and tells her that “it’s worse than I thought.” Great opportunity to introduce intrigue, suspense, and more. The problem is that the audience is never told what Ty finds or what happens with what he found. You can remove that whole subplot and the movie remains the same. There are other subplots that are nicely introduced, but never carried out as well. Any or all of them can be removed and the film proceeds the same. Not good. If you can remove several subplots or unfulfilled turning points and the film’s diegesis remain largely untouched, then you have poor writing. The third act in and of itself leaves audiences with a hurried ending that does little to provide closure to the narrative; however, it does support the film’s circular logic and irony. Hardly satisfying.

In terms of the allegory here, The Circle is a Google-like company with Apple’s technology. Eamon Bailey is a Steve Jobs type innovator with characteristics of Mark Zuckerberg and Google’s Eric Schmidt. Thankfully, The Circle does not represent any one company, but rather combines all the most notable innovations and technological achievements of Google, Apple, Facebook, Instagram, and more into one globally dominating company. Antitrust issues are introduced early on, but again, that’s never fully developed. The movie highlights many issues faced by private citizens, governments, and digital data driven companies today; therefore, it sets the foundation for a movie that could have been thought-provoking, but the writing hinders that ability. The irony in the movie is for every digital answer to streamlining services or bolstering conveniences, a little privacy is eroded each time. Pretty soon, if one shares enough information, the idea of privacy is extinct. Privacy was central to the plot, but it just wasn’t handled in the most effective way. Concepts such as “off the grid,” self-proclaimed “celebrity,” and “calls to action” are displayed and discussed in the film, connecting this augmented reality to real-world issues each of us encounter or think about. One particularly interesting theme in the movie is deep friendship. Unfortunately, this was not fully fleshed as is the case with most of the movie; but still, it does get touched upon.

Exploring digital media and privacy is something I have written on within the last couple years. More specifically, I explore how entertainment media companies collect big data, and the privacy issues faced therein. In 2016, I published a short series of articles on the Walt Disney World Magic Bands entitled “Magical Data Collection.” You can read those articles by clicking HERE.

If you were hoping for another film like the brilliant Social Network, then you will undoubtedly be disappointed. Films such as The Circle should be memorable, but unfortunately this one is very much forgettable. Coincidentally, the movie itself is as hollow as the plot and characters.

Written by R.L. Terry

Edited by J.M. Wead

“Magical” Data Collection (part 1 of 3)

MagicBandsFrom watches to shoes, wearable technology is slowly but steadily making its way into the everyday life of consumers. Building upon traditional data collection methods while integrating wearable technology trends, Disney introduced the Magic Band® [from here on out referred to as Magic Band(s) or Bands] in beta testing in 2012 and more widely beginning in 2013. Park guests can use the Bands as their room keys at Disney resorts, book FastPasses®, and as admission into the parks. Connecting your Magic Band to the My Disney Experience mobile application and website allows for the park guest or passholder to do much of what a telephone representative used to do. Even while in the car, a park guest can book FastPasses and once in the park, the Magic Band can be used to access (or validate) the booked FastPasses. The Magic Band is the Disney guest’s key to the kingdom, so to speak. But, beyond the more superficial functionality of the Magic Band, what other data is collected by the media giant? And furthermore, how and does the data affect business decisions in the other investments Disney has in media, technology, and entertainment?

Looking into the data collection methods of the Magic Bands requires looking into a relatively new breed of data and collection methods referred to as smart data. Smart Data can be described as simply as big data with the addition of emotion behind it (Ball, et al, 2015). Smart Data allows companies to understand consumer behavior beyond just a set of numbers or algorithms. Smart Data provides realtime information to the company in order for the company to be preemptive and predictive, knowing where the consumer has been, is currently or will be going by reflecting present decisions on past decisions. This data opens a window into the mind and soul of the customer by tracking behaviors from online buying to peer-to-peer conversations (Ball, et al, 2015).

The brilliance behind the design in the Magic Band is the ability for the Walt Disney Company use smart data as a way to put smiles on the faces of its customers—well, most of the time anyway. But does this brilliant design come at a cost of privacy? Prior to investigating the privacy issues with this smart form of data collection, it is important to look at the design and implementation itself. The goal in the creation of the Magic Band system was to mitigate, with the eventual goal of elimination, the fiddling around with admission tickets/passes, forms of payment, room keys, FastPasses, and dining reservations all the while increasing personal/interpersonal interaction and time with family and friends without the hassle of the aforementioned (Kuang, 2015). All the tasks and elements of a typical Walt Disney World Resort® vacation can be handled and processed by the Magic Bands. Disney Magic Bands look like an unassuming rubber bracelet, and that is part of the magic. “The most remarkable thing about the Magic Bands is the fact that they don’t feel remarkable” (Kuang, 2015). Behind the colorized or photo-covered rubberized band is an RFID (radio frequency identification) chip and GPS tracking system. The bands are constantly connected to a vast system of sensors and transmitters within the boundaries of the park.

Although presently concentrated in parks and resorts, the idea of combining the convenience of a wearable accessory with the efficiency of a mobile application, is a trend that will most likely go beyond the borders of Walt Disney World and spread to other parks, resorts, or even academia. Think of the Magic Band as Disney’s answer to the Apple Watch®. It really is a beautiful concept that has many positive affects. The beauty behind the otherwise nondescript bracelet is the combination of a logical approach to business needs and the creation of a more efficient trip to the “happiest place on earth.” Instead of spending time in lines, behind the computer, at Guest Relations, or at FastPass kiosks, the park guest can spend more time with family and friends while customizing nearly every element of a trip to Disney World.

The Walt Disney Company may seem like its leading the pack with integrating wearable technology that serves as a massive way to collect, organize, and attribute data—and in may respects it is—but for many years now, retailers have recognized this trend for what the customer is looking for—a more experiential and participatory relationship with the vendor or brand. In a published study conducted at the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) in New York, researchers uncovered some mega trends that are directly impacting the customer’s experience in brick-and-mortar stores as well as online retailers. Both traditional and non-traditional retailers are recognizing the need for the customer to be digitally linked to the brand or store just as they are digitally linked to social media and other media outlets. Between now and 2020, the digital world is estimated to double in size every year between now and then. And, it is projected that the number of smartphones will surpass 2 billion (US) dollars by 2016 (Bell, et al, 2015). Retailers cannot ignore this, and legacy retailers will have to restructure and adapt to the growing digital media trend or be left behind and face the inevitable.

By retailers and other providers of goods, services, or experiences embracing new media and digital connections via mobile technology, an additional layer in the retail landscape is constructed to further engage the consumer in multiple ways. On the plus side, everyone benefits. Consumers have a quicker and customized access to the goods and services they buy on a regular basis anyway, retailers are able to grow sales at an exponential rate, customers receive items in a fraction of the time it once took, information on both the customer and retailer are just a click away, and you can simply shop on the go—those impulsive buys continue way past the end caps at the supermarket or department store. However, there is a darker side to this symbiotic relationship: loss of privacy. This is not always a malicious action, but by integrating digital media and mobile technology into the retail and hospitality landscape, companies have a copious amount of data that can aid in decision making and provide the company with another revenue source by selling data to the highest bidder, so to speak (Ball, et al, 2015).

In respect to the Disney Magic Bands, which are currently an option in the newly launched MyMagic+® program of vacation/visit management, all the conveniences of the bracelet-like device come with NSA style monitoring by The Mouse (Dockterman, 2014). The constant monitoring and data collection comes in a shiny package. What parent wouldn’t want to set up a child’s visit with a “surprise” visit from his or her favorite Disney character? By signing up for (or you could think of it as signing away of privacy) certain features in MyMagic+, character performers (those employees that are dressed as a face or fur character) in the park can see that a particular child (or even adult for the matter) want to meet them. And by accessing the MagicBand’s GPS tracking system, the character knows where the park guest is and perhaps even where they are heading based upon dining, hotel, or attractions reservations. With the ability for the MagicBand able to track location and serve as a form of payment, post-Snowden, there are worries that a clever hacker can access the band and be able to steal the payment information or be able to be a stalker (Dockterman, 2014).

In the Journal of Electronic Resources in Medical Libraries researcher Eric Schnell explores information sharing and exchanging technologies. One cannot discuss the technology and implications of the Disney Magic Bands without investigating the technology that allows the MyMagic+ system to function. Although his research was conducted to better understand this new technology in how it relates to medical research and libraries of information sharing, this same understanding can, by extension, be applied to the Magic Bands. As RFID, GPS, and Bluetooth technologies continually innovate and develop into smaller, faster methods of communicating over short distances, companies and organizations will integrate, adapt, and change to meet the needs and desires of consumers to have more participatory experiences with favorite brands and these same companies will have a prolific amount of date on each consumer that can be used to target particular goods and services and will have data that can be sold off to other companies

(Continue to Part 2)