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The Circle: Perfectibility Through Participatory Social Interaction
in the news: The Circle opened in theaters nationwide on April 28 to mixed reviews. Owen Gleiberman in Variety provides one of the more positive ones. He describes the movie as "a shrewdly ominous corporate thriller about the death of privacy in the digital age," yet notes that the fictitious corporation involved—The Circle—"fulfills a progressive agenda." Indeed the CEO of the movie's Silicon Valley fictional firm, Eamon Bailey states, "I am a believer in the perfectibility of human beings...At The Circle there isn't a problem we cannot solve." After telling us it's "a chilly parable, a film for the head rather than the heart," Gleiberman says it "asks its audience what sort of society do you really want?" And depicts what life looks like "when people share so much of themselves they no longer have any selves left."
commentary and analysis (by Stephen P. Cook, founder and manager, project Worldview, www.projectworldview.org): The title to this issue of our blog suggests a feedback process in which we attain perfection—or at least solve problems—using social interaction involving many participants. I've done this recognizing that feedback loops can be connected with circular (rather than one way linear) processes. And that the term "feedback" has a technology connection (with electronic circuits). In the movie much of this "participatory social interaction" occurs online—but obviously it doesn't have to and throughout human history (prior to the last few decades) has not.
The second part of movie character Eamon Bailey's above quote points to the important role that worldview theme #46A The Technological Fix Mentality plays in the movie; the first ("perfectibility") part links it to an arrogance that is the antithesis of another theme: #1A Humbly Unsure. The fictitious movie corporation—The Circle—like real life Google, Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Uber, Tesla, and others, while embodying theme Corporate Capitalism (theme #19B) is progressive in that it seeks to be "sensitive to the needs of all their stakeholders" and provide solutions to problems and thus enhance the common good. One might say that collectively such corporations ideally want to use technology to create "a perfect world."
Consider three reasons (of many that could be cited) why this is naive. First, given all of the different things people value, getting them to agree on the key components of a perfect world is a monumental task. To extend the discussion let's pick one: say we all agree we should love each other / our neighbors. This leads to a second difficulty behind our seeking to create a perfect world: our human biological nature may be incompatible with idealized notions of love and tolerance. Neuroscience suggests that the hormone oxyotocin—the so-called "love chemical" popularly associated with bonding between mother and child—also has a dark side. This involves how we react to people perceived to be different from us. Recent studies suggest it motivates tribal / in-group favoritism and, to a lesser extent, promotes out-group derogation--giving it a role in the emergence of intergroup conflict and violence. Finally those seeking to use technology to shape that perfect world need lots of data. Our third point: no measurements are perfect (all have associated uncertainties) and real world societal problems involve gauging incredible numbers of variables typically related in complex—difficult, if not impossible to discern—ways.
Critics of these progressive technology companies charge that their most important goal is not making the world a better place, but rather making lots of money and increasingly dominating whole economic sectors (theme #43 Seeking Wealth & Power.) They—and especially their investors—worship economic growth (theme #22A) and typically promote a Consumerism (theme #26A ) built on a More is Better Mentality (theme #26B ). Thus the inclusion of the instrumental version of the "Simple Gifts" song in the movie is interesting, in that one associates it with the antithesis of this theme: Enoughness (theme #23B). Interestingly this song is not allowed to play through completely during the multiple times throughout the movie we hear it: it is typically interrupted (as if "the circle" was never completed or we never find our way back home or to a place of comfort!)
Back to love. Imagine simplifying what was alluded to earlier and merely tackling a problem involving one, perhaps shy, person seeking love and intimacy. By its nature, love— especially lovemaking—is a participatory activity. Imagine shyness—and a need for privacy—precludes this person from using the online social sharing of needs approach that many would employ. In the most extreme case imagine this person has no social digital presence at all—nor does he or she desire one. Can technology still help? Those backing Japanese developer Tenga would say "Yes!" and urge purchase of their virtual reality product. According to an April 2016 story, "At £300, it is just for men at the moment, who can remain fully clothed while they experience intimate time with a virtually non-existent partner."
The movie's song suggests a quite different, more natural way of a shy person's finding intimacy. Consider these lyrics (which we never hear!): 'Tis the gift to be simple, 'tis the gift to be free, Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be, And when we find ourselves in the place just right, 'Twill be in the valley of love and delight." Of course this is an old (1840s) song associated with a traditional (Shaker) culture. The movie—while not visiting the virtual reality Hedonistic Orientation (theme #28A)—is clearly set in the modern social media driven world where online dating is an important route to intimacy. It goes without saying that technology has incredibly changed the world (and society) in the last two centuries and will continue to do so. The movie focuses our attention on recent changes and possible upcoming ones. It leads to our questioning whether we like (or will like) those changes??
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