The Circle's Old, Tired Narrative of Women Controlled by Technology

The movie adds to a centuries-long tradition of depicting men as tech’s string-pullers. But women started subverting this story before it even took hold.

In 'The Circle,' Mae Holland (Emma Watson) is surrounded by her bosses at a life-enveloping social-media company.  (STX Entertainment)

The new film The Circle, based on Dave Eggers’s 2013 novel of the same name, offers a familiar world: an internet dystopia in which proliferating screens, pinging alerts, livestreaming video, and near-constant performance evaluations are the iron cage of modern life. The heroine, Mae Holland, played by Emma Watson, takes a job at The Circle, a life-enveloping e-commerce and social-media company. Mae, a digital Cinderella, feels grateful to be plucked out of lower-middle-class obscurity in Fresno and settled down in the Bay Area at the world’s greatest company.

Every few weeks, supervisors give Mae an additional screen of information to manage: One updates with customer demands, another with her supervisors’ requests, another with news of mandatory corporate social engagements. Her advancement as an employee depends on maintaining a near 100-percent satisfaction rate with customers and co-workers, measured through an endless stream of surveys, likes, and follow-ups. Soon, Mae is both employee and product, as The Circle sells her attention and consumer preferences to corporate “partners.” And, in a move that prefigures Facebook’s recent introduction of live video, the male business partners who guide The Circle trap Mae into wearing a camera and “going transparent.” She serves as The Circle’s livestreaming video ambassador, allowed to mute the recorder (not switch off the video) only for bathroom breaks—three minutes, max.

In Mae’s story—as in so many other stories about women and communications technologies—women are cast as consumers, rather than agents; controlled, rather than controlling. Men—in The Circle, the company’s CEOs and founders—do the controlling, extending their will through the tools they invent. This narrative is a powerful one, reaching across centuries of depictions of women in fiction and film. Before the internet, it was apparent in links drawn between women and books. In The Sound of Music, Rolf, the teenage Austrian courier, sings to Liesl von Trapp, “Your life, little girl, is an empty page that men will want to write on.” Liesl, 16 going on 17, echoes, “…to write on.”

The oppressive tale in The Circle isn’t the only script available for women in technology, but it gained prominence in the 18th and 19th centuries with the rise of the novel and mass reading (and viewing) publics. Before this time, what possibilities does history offer for getting outside this story? How can the past be used to reimagine women’s technological agency?

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Two women, Margery Kempe and Margaret Cavendish, stand out for mastering the men in their lives, taking control of their stories through their use of the technologies of writing and printing. Kempe, a medieval pilgrim, is the author of the earliest surviving autobiography in English. Cavendish, a 17th–century writer, published serious philosophical commentary as well as utopian fiction satirizing the work of the largely male scientific community.

Transported by spiritual ecstasy, Kempe cried everywhere she went: at home in a market town in northeast England; in Canterbury Cathedral; in Rome, with various priests and noble ladies. When she wasn’t crying, she bargained with her husband over when he would release her from their marital vows (sex interfered with sanctity). He finally agreed, over a bottle of beer, to set her free if she would pay all his debts before she went on pilgrimage to Jerusalem.

Though she found herself mocked and scorned, especially for her constant crying, Kempe formed a plan. Feeling compelled by her God, she was determined, above all else, to get the story of her life down on paper. But there was a problem: She didn’t know how to write. In her time, writing was a technical skill, largely the province of monks, priests, nuns, and professional scribes, along with a few university educated doctors and lawyers. Even literate lay elites dictated their messages to a scribe.

Undaunted, Kempe found a man who knew her well, probably her son, to act as her scribe. He began her book, writing in a mix of German and English. Unfortunately, he died before he could finish the job. So Kempe turned to a priest, who could make neither heads nor tails of such an incomplete linguistic mishmash and sent her away. Next she went to a third man, an acquaintance of the first, familiar with his hand writing. She offered him some money, but the story stymied him, too.

Eventually, the priest, feeling guilty for having sent her away, asked her to come back. Kempe prayed that God would open his eyes and clear his mind. Miraculously, according to Kempe, the priest was able to read the script and continue the story. When the priest was subsequently afflicted by a peculiar blindness that interfered only with his ability to serve as her scribe, Kempe again requested divine intervention. Finally, the thing was done.

For Kempe, these trials reinforced the importance of her story: Hers was a holy manuscript, blessed by a God who advanced and encouraged her efforts through all her trials.

Fast-forward 200 years. The abilities to read and write now commonly travel together, but getting one’s ideas out to a wider public generally requires the use of a printing press. Like Margery Kempe, in order to tell her story, Margaret Cavendish took technological agency into her own hands. In her 1666 proto-science-fiction novel, The Blazing World, Margaret Cavendish tells the story of a young woman who travels from Earth to another world, where she is anointed all-powerful Empress. The woman decides, first off, to spend her time questioning her scientists, represented by animal-human hybrids: What useful knowledge have they produced? How do they contribute to the public good?

The Empress asks her astronomers, bear men, to train their telescopes on the heavens. But the bear-men can hardly agree on what telescopes reveal. Does the sun move? Or the Earth, or both? How many stars are there, and how big are they?  The Empress, growing angry that they have failed to produce sure knowledge that’s useful to the public, commands the bear men to break their telescopes. When they confess that without their telescopes they would have nothing to argue over—their great joy in life—she relents. As long as they promise to keep their pointless arguments contained within the university, they can keep their toys.

Cavendish, in putting her empress at center stage and shooing the bear-men off to the wings—in publishing at all—flipped the script. While increasing numbers of women read and wrote in the late 17th century—correspondence, notes, recipes, diaries, annotations in the margins of their books—fewer entered into print. For a woman to set herself up as an authority in print was to impinge on a male domain. Yet Cavendish turned to her own ends the communications technology of her day: As the Digital Cavendish Project and Project Vox have shown, she hired her own printers, most of them men, and managed distribution and publicity herself.

“Though I cannot be Henry the Fifth, or Charles the Second; yet, I endeavor to be Margaret the First,” Cavendish writes in The Blazing World’s preface. “Although I have neither power, time nor occasion to conquer the world as Alexander and Caesar did; yet rather than not be Mistress of one, since Fortune and the Fates would give me none, I have made a World of my own.”

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Kempe and Cavendish wrote into being worlds in which they mastered technologies (and men) to tell their stories. Mae Holland, in her career at The Circle, on the other hand, is a tool that various men seek to wield. In the novel, Tom Stenton, a member of The Circle’s three-man management team, uses her to advance his plans for economic and political world domination. This includes forcing all politicians to “go transparent” (shaming those who don’t with data leaks “proving” their corruption) and planting tracking and data-storage chips in the world’s children.

As the cheerful face of the corporation, Mae moves willingly into her fate, only briefly considering bringing down the system. This fleeting agency still comes through a dude—a hoodied lurker who turns out to be the company’s founder. In the novel, Ty, played by John Boyega, is an engineer who wrote the code that is the source of The Circle’s power and prosperity, a few lines that forged unbreakable links between real life and internet identities. He now regrets that his invention has facilitated his co-leader’s totalitarian ambitions. In between bathroom-stall sex and cryptic political pronouncements, Ty urges Mae to bring The Circle down from within. But she decides, ultimately, that clarity, openness, transparency, and accountability are all they’re cracked up to be.

Mae, trapped in a farcical internet dystopia, has got too many dudes, including Dave Eggers, writing on her life’s blank page. If we follow her story, to be controlled by one’s technologies is to be feminized. Though the novel satirizes a reliance on social media (and the commercial and political aims of social-media companies), it also reinforces this deeper cultural preconception. The Circle is hardly the last word on the question of women and technology (judging from the unfavorable reviews of the movie and the book), but this centuries-old narrative still exerts a powerful pull, obscuring women’s contributions as engineers, entrepreneurs, and authors.

Kempe and Cavendish are distant reminders of how the opposite has always been possible: Technological control can be feminine, too. The two women may not have set all the terms of their lives; certain skills and certain kinds of power were out of their reach. Yet they created their own worlds in paper, ink, and print. What allowed Cavendish and Kempe to do so? Like today, money and status mattered. Margery Kempe’s father was a well-off merchant and local civic leader; Margaret Cavendish a duke’s wife. They wrote from positions of privilege that relatively few of their contemporaries, women or men, would attain. But a certain stubborn persistence was also required: an unwillingness to cede territory, a determination that, when one scribe fails you, you’ll find another.

I like to imagine Cavendish, seated at her writing table, surrounded by books written by men—natural philosophers, poets, playwrights. I imagine her pausing, picking up her goose feather quill to draw ink from a well, as if that fluid were thought. I imagine Margery Kempe, dictating her words to a scribe whose eyes were opened, she believed, by her prayers. Cavendish and Kempe filled their own empty pages. “I have made a World of my own,” Cavendish wrote in The Blazing World, “for which no body, I hope, will blame me, since it is in every ones power to do the like.”