Is this the real life?
I thought The Circle didn't resemble reality. Then reality started to resemble The Circle.
^ gif by @thecirclenetflix, featuring The Circle contestant Joey
A few months ago, I watched a Netflix show about 12 contestants who live in solitary isolation in an apartment complex. For an undisclosed amount of time—perhaps a month or two—they’re forbidden to leave, except to go up to the rooftop deck for some fresh air. They’re alone, always. Or are they?
They’re playing a game, which could be called The Internet but instead is called The Circle. Given the show’s off-kilter mix of cleverness and vacuity, it’s hard to guess if the reference to Dave Eggers’ work of dystopian science fiction was intentional.
In The Circle, all you can present is a digital version of yourself, as you message back and forth with other players’ versions of themselves, never knowing who is lying with their words or their profile pictures. The players aren’t allowed phones. An app on their TVs listens to voice commands and sends and receives messages; it’s an unappealing mix of Alexa and Facebook, filling their waking lives with a blue glow. Every few days the contestants conduct a popularity vote, and the players who come out on top get to pick someone to “block” from The Circle. Only after a player is eliminated do the others find out who was really lurking behind that username.
Because cameras are embedded in the apartments, the audience knows all along who’s playing it straight, who’s playing the game in the guise of his real-life girlfriend, and who’s pretending to be 10 years younger. This information imbalance is called dramatic irony (I looked it up), and it’s most of the joy of The Circle. Listening to contestants say “Circle, add winking smileyface emoji” over and over is not.
If you go watch The Circle, you can see the contestants get creative with their cooking, throw a ball against the wall, give each other pushup challenges, and start puzzles they don’t seem to finish. You can experience the other kind of irony, situational irony, the kind we know is nothing like rain on your wedding day. When it comes to irony, The Circle has become a real two-for-one deal.
“The world is flat,” wrote an author in the NY Times recently, speaking of the pandemic’s effect of reducing the world to two dimensions, formatted to fit the size of your screen. The metaphor is, I think, appropriate. When dimensions are removed, something—something hard actually to quantify—is lost from every part, and the whole picture is distorted. Back when I binge-watched The Circle with a kind of perverse fascination (this was only a few months ago but feels like a decade) I thought to myself that this wasn’t the show we wanted, but perhaps it was the show we deserved.
The idea has been haunting me these past few weeks.
The Circle lights up: a new message. The recipient paces around their living room, wracking their brain for a reply that strikes just the right balance of positive vibes and—let us never forget—authenticity. “Hmm, they’re taking a while to respond,” the other person is thinking out loud, because they know nobody has anything better to do. Then it’s: “What did they mean by that?”
Jokes don’t go over. Emojis are misunderstood or not understood at all. Flirtation seems to be a cat and mouse game where both sides think they’re the cat. The conversations that do go well escalate quickly to a kind of climax of the previously mentioned positive vibes, and then both players abruptly sign off in a crescendo of emojis, knowing this peak cannot be sustained. Reality TV used to be about giving us flawed people and breaking down their filters, with cameras, pressure, and alcohol. The Circle asks, instead, what if reality was the filter? The winners might be the ones whose settings are tuned just right: chillers with hearts of gold, if we could say we ever knew them at all.
You might draw the frightening conclusion that an AI player could win this game (Circle producers, call me?). But maybe not, because on the show people were being humanly inhuman. They were behaving the way people do when they’re lacking context, when they’re judged by strangers, when they’re afraid, when they’re under threat. In the end, it was kind of sad, seeing them all alone in their homes, surviving on empty platitudes and heart emojis. It reminded me a little bit of the future.
I guess that’s why I’m writing to you: to add more dimensions to myself, and to the world that exists between you and me. If you want, you can write back. It’ll be like a long phone call. Only I’ll be able to think it all through, and you’ll have it all written down. There’s a word for that, isn’t there?
This letter was brought to you by Kharuangbin’s album The Universe Smiles Upon You, by The Circle, and by the TV hosts reminding me that you can, in reality, live forever: Jeff Probst, Chris Harrison, and Ryan Seacrest (screw, marry, kill). And by you. Wherever you are, I hope you’re able to find a way to appreciate the view.
Finally, here are some things I recommend:
Terrace House, a show about Japanese twenty-somethings living in a very different reality than the one I’m used to, complete with comedians discussing the show from their own couch & undertaking a character study that is as ruthlessly funny as any Bachelor watch party and as deftly insightful as any Austen novel.
My friend Andrew Stromme’s new startup Pocketspace, which is exploring how to convert local underutilized spaces like garages and backyards into gyms and studios (use the form on the site to indicate if you want this in your neighborhood).
How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy, by Jenny Odell. This book came out about a year ago but seems made for right now. It isn’t really about doing nothing but rather about doing something local and meaningful, which might look like simply getting to know the two crows that land on your neighbor’s roof every day.