Par­ody and para­noia

How ‘Silicon Val­ley’ and ‘The Cir­cle’ ex­plore high tech and low mo­tives

The Washington Post Sunday - - MOVIES - BY SCOTT TO­BIAS style@wash­post.com

If it hadn’t hap­pened in real life, the HBO com­edy “Silicon Val­ley” surely would have in­vented Juicero. Pitched as “Keurig for juice,” the WiFi-en­abled prod­uct col­lected over $120 mil­lion in ven­ture cap­i­tal with the prom­ise that tech-savvy health nuts would shell out $400 for the hard­ware and $5 to $8 for dis­pos­able, pre­cut “pro­duce packs.”

But in mid-April, Juicero turned into a folly for the ages, after two Bloomberg re­porters dis­cov­ered that they could get close to the promised eight ounces of juice sim­ply by squeez­ing a pro­duce pack for 90 sec­onds. So­cial media was abuzz with Juicero jokes when Alec Berg, a fre­quent writer and di­rec­tor on “Silicon Val­ley,” called to dis­cuss the re­al­life quirks and anx­i­eties the show so scrupu­lously re­flects.

“In gen­eral, ven­ture cap­i­tal­ists don’t know the dif­fer­ence, go­ing in, be­tween a $10 bil­lion idea and some­thing that’s go­ing to blow out in three months,” Berg says. “But Juicero has raised hun­dreds of mil­lions of dol­lars, so there is a sweet, de­li­cious irony to the idea that there’s a ver­sion of the Juicero ma­chine that’s free, and it’s called ‘your hands.’ ”

Less than a week after “Silicon Val­ley” pre­miered its fourth sea­son, “The Cir­cle,” star­ring Emma Wat­son and Tom Hanks, hit the­aters na­tion­wide. Based on Dave Eg­gers’s 2013 novel about the di­a­bol­i­cal cor­po­rate cul­ture at a Face­book-like tech be­he­moth, “The Cir­cle” would seem to have lit­tle in com­mon with “Silicon Val­ley,” save for a cor­po­rate cam­pus that re­sem­bles one of those state-of-the-art, candy-col­ored play­grounds for en­gi­neers and “vi­sion­ar­ies.” One is an af­fec­tion­ate par­ody of Val­ley ex­cess, the other a Snow­den-era up­dat­ing of '70s para­noid thrillers such as “The Con­ver­sa­tion” and “The Par­al­lax View.” Yet each cap­tures the tenor of un­cer­tain and rapidly chang­ing times, as the Val­ley’s vaunted ideals are get­ting squeezed like so much hand­pressed juice.

Con­sider one of President Trump’s early leg­isla­tive vic­to­ries, a roll­back of pri­vacy pro­tec­tions for In­ter­net users. Un­der the new law, In­ter­net providers such as Com­cast and AT&T will have an eas­ier time col­lect­ing and sell­ing the browser his­to­ries and app us­age of its sub­scribers.

For many, in­clud­ing the pro­test­ers who raised $200,000 to buy the pri­vate data of mem­bers of Congress — which is not pos­si­ble, in­ci­den­tally — the in­vol­un­tary give­away of per­sonal in­for­ma­tion seemed like the In­for­ma­tion Su­per­high­way in re­verse. In­stead of users hav­ing a win­dow on the world, the world would have a win­dow onto us. This per­verse twist on “trans­parency” is a core theme of “The Cir­cle.”

“I think Silicon Val­ley has roots in so­cial jus­tice and dis­rup­tion and demo­cratic” prin­ci­ples, says James Pon­soldt, di­rec­tor of “The Cir­cle.” “I think that’s the per­cep­tion, any­way. The snag for most, I think, is that if some­one wants to send some­thing to outer space or map the mind or give away free apps, that’s all well and good. But why does our data have to be ac­quired, stored and, in some cases, po­ten­tially mon­e­tized? The sim­plest an­swer is, to sell to us and make us bet­ter con­sumers, but there’s many more para­noid an­swers, too.”

In “The Cir­cle,” Mae Hol­land (Emma Wat­son) is ini­tially thrilled to get a job in cus­tomer ser­vice at the epony­mous com­pany, which its co-founder, Ea­mon Bai­ley (Tom Hanks), has pro­moted as a lim­it­less provider of high­tech so­lu­tions to the planet’s most vex­ing prob­lems. With his ca­sual dress and stir­ring cor­po­rate or­a­to­ries, Bai­ley is not un­like Gavin Bel­son (Matt Ross) on “Silicon Val­ley,” a mes­sianic Steve Jobs type with the val­ues of an In­dus­trial Age rob­ber baron. After some co­er­cion, Mae agrees to make her­self fully “trans­par­ent,” al­low­ing her ev­ery wak­ing mo­ment to be broad­cast to mil­lions of “Cir­clers” world­wide.

It might sound like an op­pres­sive and in­va­sive ex­pe­ri­ence — and, spoiler alert, it is — but Mae’s ex­per­i­ment is an ex­treme ver­sion of a trade-off that many make on so­cial media ev­ery day: In ex­change for com­mu­nity and the dopamine rush of likes and retweets, we give away in­for­ma­tion about our­selves for free. “My hope would be that peo­ple will come out of [the film] and ask them­selves how they are liv­ing their lives, if they’re in­ten­tional and thought­ful about what they share, if they’re even aware of what in­for­ma­tion they’re giv­ing away for free,” Pon­soldt says. “The re­al­ity is that most peo­ple I know don’t even really care.”

De­spite all ev­i­dence to the con­trary, Pon­soldt in­sists that he and his film are not techno­pho­bic, and so does Berg with “Silicon Val­ley,” which jabs mer­ci­lessly at the Val­ley’s cap­i­tal­ist hypocrisies but roots for its un­der­dog char­ac­ters to find a toe­hold in the in­dus­try. The ten­sion on “Silicon Val­ley” arises from the push-and-pull be­tween Richard Hen­dricks (Thomas Mid­dled­itch), who wants to change the world with a “revo­lu­tion­ary” com­pres­sion engine, and CEOs such as Bel­son and Jack Barker (Stephen Tobolowsky), who lit­er­ally want to put his dream in a box.

Even for a show renowned for its verisimil­i­tude, the fourth sea­son of “Silicon Val­ley” hits re­al­ity in stride. The newly ap­pointed chair­man of the Fed­eral Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Com­mis­sion, Ajit Pai, has re­leased a plan to undo “net neu­tral­ity” reg­u­la­tions, a move that would give In­ter­net providers more power to con­trol the flow of in­for­ma­tion, at the ex­pense of a more open In­ter­net. Hav­ing failed to turn his com­pres­sion engine into vi­able plat­form, Hen­dricks piv­ots to the moon­shot idea of a “new In­ter­net” that would be to­tally de­cen­tral­ized, work­ing around the sorts of cor­po­rate gate­keep­ers the FCC plans to re­ward.

Berg talks about Richard’s “pie-in-the-sky” idea with such en­thu­si­asm, it sounds as though the tech­nol­ogy ac­tu­ally ex­ists. “There is a world where, if this works cor­rectly, no one would ever have to pay data fees again be­cause no one would need a cell,” Berg says. “Ev­ery phone would talk to ev­ery other phone, so you’d pay noth­ing for data, and the en­tire In­ter­net would just come through a mas­sive mu­tual net­work of every­one’s de­vices.”

“Govern­ment con­trol and net neu­tral­ity and cor­po­rate greed and who con­trols what and the NSA — all of those things play into it,” Berg says. “There is this ‘free­dom fron­tier’ of tak­ing ev­ery­thing out of the hands of our cor­po­rate over­lords that seems like Richard’s ethos.”

If “The Cir­cle” and “Silicon Val­ley” have any­thing in com­mon, it’s the con­cern that turtle­neck-wear­ing ide­al­ists such as Ea­mon Bai­ley and Gavin Bel­son have fallen short of their ideals, and real dis­rup­tion is nec­es­sary, whether it’s as per­sonal as Mae pad­dling a kayak to the mid­dle of the San Fran­cisco Bay or the large-scale fan­tasy of Richard blow­ing up the In­ter­net as we know it and start­ing again. But Berg is quick to em­pha­size the gen­uine op­ti­mism that’s as ev­i­dent in “Silicon Val­ley” as the sar­cas­tic barbs.

“The re­al­ity is that this is a show about dream­ers, un­der­dogs and peo­ple who are try­ing to do some­thing that can bring a lot of pos­i­tive change to the world. If we’re say­ing the busi­ness is [ex­ple­tive], then our guys want­ing to thrive in that busi­ness be­comes an empty goal.”

FRANK MASI/STX EN­TER­TAIN­MENT

John Boyega and Emma Wat­son in “The Cir­cle,” which also stars Tom Hanks as the co-founder of a tech be­he­moth. In the movie, Wat­son plays a new hire who al­lows her ev­ery mo­ment to be broad­cast.

JOHN P. JOHN­SON/HBO

TOP: Tom Hanks and Pat­ton Oswalt in “The Cir­cle.” ABOVE: T.J. Miller and Josh Brener in HBO’s “Silicon Val­ley.” Both the movie, a thriller, and the se­ries, an af­fec­tion­ate par­ody that re­cently started its fourth sea­son, ex­plore the rapidly chang­ing tech world.

FRANK MASI/STX EN­TER­TAIN­MENT

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