“Mankind is not a circle with a single center but an ellipse with two focal points of which facts are one and ideas the other.”—Victor Hugo
Last week I climbed higher than the Sears Tower in a near-fugue state, brought on by a Netflix series. “The Circle” is a surreal distillation of our zeitgeist, one that is eminently satisfying on a limbic level. It has the uneasy sensation of a deepfake, of a show entirely designed and cast by a neural net trained on all our contemporary anxieties: “We forced an AI with generalized anxiety disorder to view ten billion Instagram interactions and here’s what it made!”
I had an episode downloaded on my phone when I mounted the stairmaster for a brief warmup at the gym. The show started. I glanced up. It was 50 minutes, 2900 stairs and 833 calories later. There was no sense of exertion or exhaustion. I just wanted to watch the next episode. Like a moth to a flame or a toddler to an unboxing video my urge to consume the flickering content in front of me overrode all physical constraint.
The premise of “The Circle” is, essentially, “Big Brother” meets “Catfish.”
Contestants are segregated in individual apartments, with all interaction between one another done via a faux “social network.” There is no actual contact between the contestants during the game that does not come from a screen. The contestants are either “authentic” or a faked misrepresentation (ie: catfish).
The authentic contestants are jarring in their authenticity. They have the uncanny feel of simulacra sprung from a social-media spiritus mundi; products of a postmodern collective unconsciousness made up of decades worth of defunct reality television.
These archetypes interact and compete with the catfish, many of which, in their authentic selves, already conform to modern archetypes like “childless late millennial cat-dad” or “plus size fashion IG empowering-influencer.” These contestants represent as someone else.They are allowed to post fake photos as avatars and take on whatever persona they desire. At the end of each round the players vote for two “influencers” who then must decide which of the other contestants will be eliminated or “blocked.” New contestants join as players are eliminated, ensuring that the social dynamics are always in flux.
The tensions of the show are reliant on the dissonance and inconsistencies of our modern society. There is the gulf between our chosen online personas and the “real” self and the wider gap between what the contestants see on the screens of The Circle itself and what they perceive to be “reality,” all of which is fully manipulated by what appears to be an AI-mediated social network but what is, in actuality, a group of television producers.
The show is very meta and “wheels-within-wheels” but its depiction of a ruthlessly competitive society comprised of atomized individuals, locked into their separate apartments with food and goods delivered by faceless workers, where their financial worth is derived from both their ability to manipulate others and their capacity to detect manipulation, while under full time surveillance and only capable of expressing themselves to others via text on screens, is a troubling yet utterly compelling metaphor for our current technological dystopia
The crux of the show is, of course, the fact that “On The Internet, Nobody Knows You’re A Dog.” What was a pithy little caption for a New Yorker cartoon in 1993 has become, instead, a fundamental problem at the very heart of society.
It’s this dissonance—alienation and uncertainty as our “real lives” are increasingly mediated and manipulated—that helps account for The Circle’s appeal.
I can express myself on a wide scale through the internet, interacting with dozens, hundreds or even thousands of other individuals. Of course, these individuals have no way of knowing if I am who I present myself to be, even on a “live” stream. And then I have no way of knowing what percentage of these interactions are real and which are the product of a company inflating its viewership metrics, or the mindless approval of a bot farm or even the malicious approval of a bad actor seeking to manipulate public opinion. There’s just no real way of knowing.
All I know is that posting gets me upvotes, retweets and likes which stimulate my brain’s production of dopamine and that’s enough positive reinforcement for me to continue to do so. Social media has become a Skinner Box: an opaque system of rewards and punishment with the overriding goal of “stay on the site” and a secondary one being whatever belief can be most effectively inculcated by the most effective manipulators.
And that manipulation is only going to continue to grow. Technology researcher Aviv Ovadya foresees a future where those online are reduced to little more than “human puppets,” dancing forever at the strings of both artificial intelligences and malicious actors. This potential for abuse will only grow with the introduction and widespread adoption of “augmented reality” and virtual reality technology that will lead to our very senses becoming open to manipulation. The vision of the future is not a boot stomping on a human face but, instead, one where empiricism dies via a hot dog dancing on Thatcher’s grave, forever.
Of course, objective reality still exists beyond what we perceive, and the tension between those who study it and those for whom it is defined by others is growing. A thousand “Alt-Right YouTuber DESTROYS Green New Deal” videos won’t lead to any reduction in atmospheric carbon. An exhaustive debunking of right wing talking points won’t make the isolated, paranoiac senior victims of late capitalism posting O’Bummer memes fifteen hours a day any more likely to vote in their own interests. The concentration of wealth in Miami and the optimism of its realtors can’t hold back the rising seas.
The loss of consensus reality and the dissonance that stems from the inherent uncertainty built into every level of its digital replacement, has been, and will continue to be, one of the predominant challenges our species faces in the next century. When all knowledge and experience is mediated via screens and algorithm the very nature of reality is fluid and open to manipulation. When the media becomes reality, then its message is reality.
We are reaching a global tipping point. The crises of resurgent rightwing authoritarianism, systemic inequality, unregulated technological manipulation and, above all, global warming demand a response that our current entrenched systems, by their very nature, are unable to produce. The only solution is mass protest and the harnessing of the popular will, reliant on the recognition of shared crisis. There is no more pressing issue.
And I’ll be sure to get to it. I just need to watch one more episode first.