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Netflix's The Circle is a creepy voice assistant dystopia, and I can't stop watching it

The Circle Netflix recap and review
(Image credit: Netflix)

The Circle should be my favorite show on Netflix. Getting to live in total isolation as I do nothing but stalk social media and scream at my TV all day sounds like just the escape I crave a little too regularly. 

But after watching the 12-episode reality competition—which feeds the creepy, weird and addictive appetites that fuel binge-able television—I’m left feeling jittery about a like-based, voice-controlled existence. That is, a heightened version of the one I’m already living. 

The Circle is, essentially, a popularity contest. But instead of dueling it out in the high school cafeteria, the competitors must make themselves likeable using nothing but a custom social media account. They live alone in apartments and must rely on the Circle to form alliances and build status. And with no face-to-face interaction, players can choose to play as themselves or catfish their competition. 

To play, contestants communicate with the show’s proprietary voice assistant called the Circle. Using vocal commands, they play games, conduct private chats and curate their profiles through one of the 4 or so TVs in their apartments. 

When players receive an alert or message, they must read it, decipher it and then respond with their voice as deliberately as one might when seeking an answer from Alexa or Google Assistant. The result is a mess of manipulative phrasing, tedious requests and artificial sense of companionship. And it’s everything I fear my relationship with my voice assistants will become.

My parents already taunt me about how I rely on Alexa to control my smart lights, make calls and help out in the kitchen. "Alexa, this, Alexa, that," they mock, triggering the dozen Echo devices in my apartment’s blue-ringed ecosystem in a frustrating effort to make their point. "Great, now it’s listening to us," my dad will concede, as he always does.

While some companies have beefed up privacy and data protection measures, most smart home manufacturers continue to launch voice-controlled devices as if there’s no alternative. Nearly all the best TVs of CES, for example, sport far-field mics designed to pick up commands from every corner of the house. 

Though The Circle's contestants wore mics around their necks as any reality show contestant might, their success relied on their smart TVs. It didn’t matter how likable they are in real life (although kudos to the show’s casting team for scoring a charismatic ensemble,) they just had to convince others of their likability by screaming at their sets to send social messages.  

The show’s killer cocktail of Big Brother’s surveillance state, Black Mirror’s tech dystopia and Instagram’s influencer hierarchy simultaneously makes me want to ditch AI and wonder when season 2 will arrive. Plus I’ve already made the mistake of hollering for Circle instead of Alexa a few times.

As an Instagram-obsessed Gen Z-er who writes about smart home technology every day, I can see a convergence of social media and voice assistants in the future. And it freaks me the hell out. There’s already so much pressure to be popular online, now imagine having to navigate it with your voice. Which, of course, raises a number of privacy issues and could accelerate the deterioration of human language. 

Surprisingly, however, The Circle earned vindication when the players at last meet face to face. Not everyone may have been who they said they were during the game, but the physical introductions are TLC-level wholesome and suggest we’re not as subject to voice-controlled purgatory as we might think. Despite being pitted against each other for the cash prize, The Circle’s contestants seemed to have formed genuine friendships. 

At least they convinced me. If I spent any extended period of time in the Circle, I know I would struggle to make connections using nothing but likes and robot-speak. As much as I’d like to think I’d nail my profile, I’m not ready to use a technology like Alexa to foster popularity. I’ll leave that pursuit to the players of season 2.