“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

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“Magical” Data Collection (part 3 of 3)

MagicBands(cont’d from part 2)

One of the initial praises for this smart technology was the ability for it to collect and assess data through algorithms by assigning a pseudonym to the user—collecting data anonymously. This is not the case with the Disney Magic Band. The Magic Band is just one tool in the entire My Disney Experience vacation management platform. Once a user receives his or her Magic Band (whether a “tourist” or a local annual passholder), he or she has to go online and customize the band with names, select a profile picture (from a list of Disney characters), and other contact information. This, in and of itself, takes the pseudonym (anonymity) out of the equation. For now, not only can information and data be gathered, but it is attached to a specific person whose identity is not a secret. Unlike your smartphone or other mobile devices (e.g. tablet), in which the user can turn off the location sharing features (either for the whole device or app-specific), the location sharing and smart technology in the Magic Band (RFID and GPS) cannot be turned off. The inability for the user to not turn off the location sharing features can be viewed as an encroachment upon personal privacy. However, Disney World does not require park guests to wear/use the Magic Bands. Therefore, if a part guest chooses to wear/use the Magic Band, then he or she accepts the fact that prolific amounts of information are being shared, including but not limited to: location, dining preferences, FastPasses, etc).

Although conspiracy theorists can tout the whole “big brother—or in this case Big Mickey—is watching,” it is more likely that issues of database privacy should be explored (Mokbel, 2006). The treasure trove of information gathered and processed by the My Disney Experience system provides the media giant with unparalleled data that can be integrated into the park operations and, by extension, can be presumed to be integrated into other decisions. Still, the program is too new in order to know for sure where the data is going. Looking at other models of smart data, we can certainly explore the possibilities. The goal in database privacy is to provide access to the gathered information without risk of breaching privacy (attributing numbers instead of names to the sources of information).

The GPS technology built into the Magic Band builds upon decades of GIS  (global information system) research and integration in order to factor location into the database. Location provides a way to link information on a user (or subject) from one database into another. This method of data collection and organization is referred to as data matching (Curry, 2015). Without location, then the information would not be as valuable because it would be more difficult to find links between what the park guests want to experience, and in which order, during a vacation or visit to the Walt Disney World Resort. Since data matching requires the use of a figurative data map anyway, actually using a map of Disney World adds to the effectiveness of the data when factoring it into an algorithm. Integrating GIS technology into how the Magic Bands are monitored and used, allows Disney to create hyper-sensitive remote surveillance technologies (Curry, 2015). This is the basis for the character meet and greet feature referred to earlier in this series of articles.

By designing the Magic Bands to work with GPS, GIS, RFID, and POS (point of sale) technologies, Disney can take data matching to the next level and create data profiles based on the smart data collected (Curry, 2015). Whether in name or anonymously, this degree of smart data is highly effective because once a profile archetype is formed, Disney can reflect upon that profile type’s history and forecast what that particular archetype is going to do in the future and could target ads, characters, purchases, etc to that person.

But what about invasion of personal privacy while at Disney World? How should Disney respond if accused of invading the privacy of its guests? “One traditional response, here, has been that just because the data in a profiling system are not “real facts,” there can be no invasion of a person’s privacy, at least in the traditional informational sense…just as the development of GIS has been associated with the devaluation of the local, where attributes of the local come to  be seen merely as contingent features of a Euclidean set of spatial coordinates, so too has it been associated with a devaluation-or at least revaluation-of the individual and of the nature of identity” (Curry, P258, 2015). Although Curry is not referring to the Magic Bands, his research can be applied to them by extension since little is actually known about the digital data collected and all the ways that the media giant uses it.

The information collected through MyDisneyExperience (and the Magic Bands) aid in creating digital people, places, and lives. Just like an individual is responsible for one’s financial identity (credit score), then should not a Disney park guest be responsible for and how their digital self is used? But because of the aforementioned reasoning, the data collected may not be legally treated as “real facts,” this splitting of the proverbial hair gives Disney carte blanche to use the data however it chooses. It may be that the data is simply used to make park visit logistics more efficient and convenient for park guests, but it is clear that the collected data could be used in figuratively infinite ways without any due compensation for the park guest or details notification of how the data is used or interpreted.

Although privacy conspiracy theorists and some legalistic Christian fundamentalists may see this smart data technology as a gateway to the apocalypse, the truth is, this technology has been part of our lives for a long time—at least the basics of the hard technology. This is really no different than the introduction of the printed barcode back in the 1970s (Laugheinrich, 2007). RFID/GPS technology (as a means of location and payment) is found in every automated toll stickers and units in cars in order to use the express-thru lanes on the turnpikes and expressways without having to stop at the booth. Similar technology can be found in keyless electronic ignition in many contemporary cars that responds to a particular key fob instead of metal key—takes the RFID chip to the next level. That technology does not seem to fall under scrutiny or appear to be frocked with privacy concerns.

Laugheinrich highlights that RFID [and by extension RFID-GPS technologies for purposes of this paper] has three distinct advantages over more traditional means of collecting or processing data: (1)Automation—the scanners/receivers provide the company with nearly unsupervised readouts. (2)Identification—RFID offers much more in the way of information density. (3)Integration—embedding the technology in unobtrusive ways thus freeing the product design (2007). Think of RFID technology as the latest version of the now antiquated barcode. Programmed to only work with a specific person allows for RFID to be integrated into token-based authentication based applications because of the size (Laugheinrich, 2007). Token-based authentication (which is essentially the foundation of the Magic Band) provides a means to issue and then collect information that cannot be [easily] duplicated or forged. Sorry, that means you can no longer print your own or hoard past FastPasses to skip the long queue at ToyStory Midway Mania or the Seven Dwarves Mine Train.

Whether the Walt Disney Company has plans beyond park operations and planning for its Magic Bands will have to wait to be seen; however, just because Disney may not be engaging in any illegitimate or unethical uses of the smart data gathered by the Magic Band readers, that does not mean that there do not exist those who use data gathering technologies that can hack into the RFID/GPS system the Magic Bands use and modify or sell that data, or anything else unscrupulous. Potential digital privacy violations may happen if an authorized reader eavesdrops on authorized transactions  or if a rogue sensor tricks the transmitter to divulging personal information since MyDisneyExperience includes all kinds of personal and financial information on a given park guest. (Laugheinrich, 2007). Echoing the three benefits to RFID/GPS technologies, there are principally three privacy concerns as well: (1)Clandestine scanning—simply stated, the RFID is scanned or read without the user/owner’s consent. (2)Eavesdropping scanning—“listening” in on authorized or authenticated transactions between a transmitter and reader. (3)Data leakage—reading out more information from a transaction than is necessary to carry out the task (Laugheinrich, 2007).

A fairly innocent invasion of privacy in the Disney Parks could be something like this: you stop by the Brown Derby at Hollywood Studios to look at the menu. There are readers all over the place anyway, and having on in the menu board at the Derby is no different. You receive a text message or email from WDPR (Walt Disney Parks and Resorts) that asks why you did not dine at the restaurant or offers you a coupon or something along those lines. Another scenario is a little more sinister. An unauthorized individual has developed a reader that as he or she walks past park guests, picks up on the personal, park, or financial information on an individual’s Magic Band. As far as business development or pushing products, Disney could examine the attractions or characters you visit most and target merchandise at you through your mobile phone or email. Since RFID/GPS technology-driven devices are extremely small and can be integrated into almost any item, it would be very difficult for WDPR security to monitor the entrances for said devices. At the end of the day, the biggest privacy concern with the Magic Bands is the unauthorized automatic data collection that is not explicitly stated in the terms of use or user agreement that comes with the Magic Band—where WDPR finds indirect loopholes to monitor your movements in financial information while visiting the parks.

Although RFID/GPS technologies have come a long way and security company and user security measures have better developed over time, clearly more research needs to be done in order to truly understand the ramifications of the implementation of the Magic Bands into the daily operation of the Disney parks. Literature has shown us how the technology works and how it could be used. Most of what has been written about in these articles requires looking at past research on either privacy or wearable technology and apply it to how it may affect the manner in which Magic Bands are used. Furthermore, it is not always one of the two parties in the RFID relationship (i.e. WDPR and the park guest), but it can be other park guests with intrusive technologies that breach the relationship that can pose a privacy or security threat.

Click HERE for part 1

Click HERE for part 2

 

Bibliography

Ball, R., et al (2015). The Future of Luxury: Capital of Creation, Fashion Institute of Technology, Capstone Research Project, Master’s Degree Program.

Curry, M.R. (2015), Digital People, Digital Places: Rethinking Privacy in a World of Geographic Information, University of California Los Angeles, Ethics and Behavior 7:3, P253-263

Dockterman, E. (2014). Now Disney Can Track Your Every Move with NSA-Style Wristbands, Time.Com, 1.

Kuang, C. (2015, March 15). Disney’s $1 Billion Bet on a Magical Wristband. Retrieved May13, 2015, from http://www.wired.com: http://www.wired.com/2015/03/disney-magicband

Laugheinrich, M. (2007), RFID and Privacy, Security, Privacy, and Trust in Modern Data Management, Part V, P433-450.

Mokbel, M.F. (2006). Towards Privacy-Aware Location-Based Data Servers, Department of Computer Science and Engineering, University of Minnesota, Twin Cities.

Palmeri, C., & Faries, B. (2014). Big Mickey Is Watching. Business Week, (4370), 22-23.

Panetta, K. (2014). Why I’m A-OK with Disney tracking me “NSA-style.” ECN: Electronic Component News, 58(2), 10.

Schnell, E. (2013). Near Field Communications: Features and Considerations, Journal of Electronic Resources in Medical Libraries, Vol.10, No.2.

Thierer, A. (2014). Permissionless Innovation: The Continuing Case for Comprehensive Technological Freedom, George Mason University, Mercatus Center.

Thierer, A. (2015). The Internet of Things and Wearable Technology: Addressing Privacy and Security Concerns without Derailing Innovation, George Mason University, Mercatus Center.

Winsor, R.M. (2015). The Magic of the Mouse: An Exploration of Brand Personality in the Walt Disney Company, University of New Hampshire, Senior Honor’s Thesis.