This April, a movie called The Circle will arrive in theaters, and it just might generate enough buzz to displace political headlines. The previews start innocently enough: a wide-eyed young woman “Mae”, who can’t believe her good fortune at being hired into the thoroughly glamorous Internet company “Circle” (a super-hybrid of Apple, Google, and Facebook). Predictably, things take a turn for the not-so-good when Mae realizes her new employer seeks a singularly “true” Internet identity for its consumers, revealing all there is to know about a person.
The previews for The Circle intrigued me enough to give the book a try, even though the reviews were mediocre at best. But no matter; the premise draws me in and keeps me reading. What resolution can possibly exist in a not-so-distant future where an individual’s “privacy” goes completely out the window? The Circle proposes an all-knowing (and therefore) all-exploiting Internet service; a corporate version of totalitarianism. I can’t imagine a happy ending, can you? As Ray Bradbury would say, something wicked this way comes.
Ray Bradbury authored countless short stories placing believable humans in not-quite-so believable circumstances, yet seeking a peek into a probable future. “Fahrenheit 451” is perhaps his most famous example, but I have my own favorites, including “The Golden Apples of the Sun”, “A Sound of Thunder”, “Skeleton”, and “The Veldt”. I own a collection of Bradbury’s “hundred best”, and find them just as compelling as when I first read them forty years ago. Why? Because they still aren’t quite believable. The presumptions and technologies and societies of Bradbury’s stories are still somewhere around the corner of the world of today. But I have no doubt they’re coming.
The same case can be made for the cult-classic neo-noir film Blade Runner, produced in 1982 but based on a book written decades earlier. Blade Runner made several far-reaching assumptions about a dystopian Los Angeles of the future: a) climate change, creating an environment dominated by darkness and rain, b) culture change, where its inhabitants, language, and food are decidedly Asian, and c) technological change, where “replicants” (robots) perform the mundane tasks humans no longer care to do. Blade Runner’s mystique is in the depiction of a familiar place transformed by radical changes; the kind that aren’t so unbelievable. Not now perhaps, but they’re coming. (Also coming: a sequel to Blade Runner later this year).
Here’s another example from Hollywood. Logan’s Run (which was an on-screen disaster just begging to be remade thirty years later), depicted a completely controlled, pleasure-filled world inside a giant, sterile dome – but only until age thirty, when its inhabitants were ceremoniously put to death (to conserve the resources of a supposedly dying planet). By default, Logan’s world is a society where everything is new and clean, everyone is “young”, and a day in the life is controlled by some behind-the-scenes, largely technological presence. “Logan 5” and “Jenny 6” (a delightful nod to the loss of individualism) are too dependent on the comforts of their world to ever acknowledge its limitations. Considering how technology shapes our actions and decisions today, perhaps Logan’s world is not so far-fetched anymore.
The appeal of Ray Bradbury, Blade Runner, and Logan’s Run – even today – is stories about worlds that are (still) not believable. We can enjoy them yet keep them at arm’s length, comforted by the thought “can’t really happen”. And that’s what makes The Circle a serious conversation piece (even if it’s a box-office flop): a taste of an all-powerful, all-knowing Internet – if governments and corporations let it get that far. Once we reach that point is there any turning back, or will “drones” more aptly describe humans than cool little flying machines? Terrifying foresight for sure, but hopefully not prescient thinking.
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