Screenshot from Official Trailer
Written By Simon Moetara, New Zealand
I recently read Dave Eggers’ 2013 novel The Circle, which was released a couple of weeks ago as a film starring Tom Hanks and Emma Watson. The story follows 24-year-old graduate Mae Holland who leaves her boring hometown job to get a customer relations position at the world’s most powerful social media corporation, the Circle, a combination of Google, Facebook, PayPal, Twitter, Amazon, Apple and Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory.
Mae quickly rises through the ranks and things seem wonderful at first, but as the story progresses, Mae’s story takes on a darker tone, allowing Eggers’ tale to confront questions raised by the growth of social media regarding issues such as transparency, the right to privacy, and democracy. Described as this generation’s 1984, Eggers presents a chilling Orwellian view of the possible effects of rampant technology.
One of the ideas I found most interesting in Eggers’ novel is the poor substitute for genuine community that the online world provides, and the insecurity that can result. Connecting mainly by online means, one can detect a real insecurity among the Circle’s members.
A hypersensitive colleague is offended when Mae doesn’t reply to his invitation to come to a brunch he puts on; the situation gets so bad that it requires mediation involving Mae’s supervisor. On another occasion, a friend sends increasingly hostile and paranoid emails, aggrieved that Mae hasn’t replied immediately; they saw each other only 20 minutes ago. Others are offended that she hasn’t taken an interest in their online clubs or posts, or responded immediately to their requests. When a public survey finds that 97 percent of the Circle campus agree that Mae is awesome, she fixates on the three percent who responded with a “frown”. “Likes” and “Smiles” become the dopamine-producing hit that bolsters fragile self-esteem in this digital world that passes for true human communication. As Mae’s ex-boyfriend states, “There’s a new neediness—it pervades everything”.
Mae finds that she acquires a new skill in this brave new technological world: “the ability to look, to the outside world, utterly serene and even cheerful, while in her skull, all was chaos” (p. 322). This desire to appear better than we actually are reflects a lack of true connection and a deep insecurity.
Steven Furtick, the pastor of Elevation Church in North Carolina, says, “The reason we struggle with insecurity is because we compare our behind-the-scenes with everyone else’s highlight reel.” Author Simon Sinek says that growing up in a Facebook-Instagram world has made millennials (people born since 1984) “good at showing that life is a-maz-ing even though I’m depressed.” Sinek’s concern is that these young people lack deep meaningful relationships, and when deep stress arises, they turn not to a person, but to a device, to social media.
The pressure to appear “amazing” while we interact with the profiles of others who are also “amazing” takes a toll. A 2016 University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine survey of 1,787 U.S. millennials found that those who used social media frequently had 2.7 times more likelihood of depression than those who used it less regularly. Sadly, it can become hard to be honest about ourselves in such a forum. As one pastor notes about social interaction on Facebook: “Am I interacting with their vulnerable and far more beautiful real self, or their ideal self?”
As Christian psychologist David Benner puts it, revealing my true self means seeking to turn up as who I am in reality and who I am becoming as I seek after God. In contrast, our false self is a type of playacting, pretending, knowingly or unknowingly, to be someone we’re not. It’s a self we craft, package, and present to the world in the hope that it will earn us love based on what we do, what we have, and what others think of us.
We were created for community. As American pastor and missionary Howard Snyder puts it, community in the New Testament sense of koinonia “assumes and requires face-to-face communication” whether in the ancient world or in the age of the Internet. The “one another” life of the New Testament calls us into loving community: accept one another (Rom 15:7), submit to one another out of reverence for Christ (Eph 5:21), bear with each other and forgive one another (Col 3:13), encourage one another and build each other up (1 Thes 5:11)
There is no app for deep relationships. Such relationships take time and can be awkward, fun, infuriating, fulfilling, and lasting. It is in such relations that we can know love and experience joy as we are accepted and loved by those who know us as we truly are. As we learn to live honestly before God and one another, knowing ourselves as loved and accepted, we can increasingly step out free to be who God created us to be. As we enjoy technology and all it has to offer, let’s continue to engage in the New Testament “one another” life.