A Futurist Consultant Explains How She Developed Terrifying Tech in 'The Circle'

To build a post-privacy world in "The Circle," Yvette Granata applied her background studying art and artificial intelligence.

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Apr 29 2017, 12:50pm

Photo by Paul Zimmerman via Getty Images

The trailer for The Circle, which hit theaters Friday, takes Emma Watson's character Mae from a confident job interview to the stage of a packed auditorium, with both hands on her face trying to bottle in her scream at some offscreen horror.

In between, she lands that job at a tech company called the Circle, which is trying to revolutionize how knowledge—including real-time, video streamed knowledge—is shared online. Soon, Mae is asked to be the company's guinea pig for a "transparency" experiment, living her whole life in the public eye, and in the process losing touch with her family and closest friends.

The Circle explores how much privacy we're willing to sacrifice for convenience, career, and conformity. The tech dystopia shown in the movie, adapted from a 2013 novel, may feel eerily familiar if you've ever worried about how much your phone knows about you. And it should: We already have most of the technologies seen in the film—we just haven't invested in or developed them as much.

Read more: Women Are Better at Coding than Men

That's according to Yvette Granata, who studies the intersection of art and technology. During the summer of 2015, she spent two weeks on the set of The Circle as a futurist consultant—a title she admits may sound more glamorous than the job really is. Drawing on her background in film and academic research into artificial intelligence, she offered advice to the art department and other crew members on details like what materials phones were made of and where server farms were located, to bigger things like how to portray tech like drones or video feeds.

Granata was one of several consultants the movie brought in to help make the film's world of tech dystopia seem real, but she says her art background gave her a different perspective from other futurist consultants, who tend to focus exclusively on Silicon Valley. "The great thing about art is you learn how to always push your creativity and put yourself in different situations and try new things," Granata explains. "It allows us to see things that we wouldn't necessarily see."

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Even with her extensive knowledge of the tech world, Granata says she was surprised by how strongly the movie's portrayal of a post-privacy society struck her. "It definitely made me think more about the convergence of social media and surveillance and the Internet of Things," she says. "But how far it goes is really scary, and I think the movie really does push it so it's something else."

Especially fascinating to consider, Granata says, is the social context of a gadget. The devices themselves, she says, are all about technology—but what we do with them is cultural. Right now, she notes, a lot of new tech comes from men, so these innovations tend to address the wants and needs those men see.

That's why Granata particularly likes to explore the ways technology can build a more sustainable, inclusive, and equitable future through things like more creative types of artificial intelligence or social madia-based sharing economies. Whether Granata and people like her succeed in building this future will determine whether or not The Circle becomes reality.