‘Solidarity by Connectivity’: The Myth of Digital Cosmopolitanism
A version of the most realistic novel possible right now would be the one that took into account the fact that for much of each day in the west, the consciousness of many of us is projected outwards into a 14-inch lit screen.
Smith 2012c: n.pag.
We now have at hand the technological breakthroughs and economic means to bring all the communities in the world together.
Gore 1994: n.pag.
In the last two decades, information technology has made it possible to contact almost any human being in our six-billion-strong biotic community. Early research on digital communication positioned the internet as a transformative, almost utopian force for global community-construction.1 The internet, the premier technological manifestation of the information age, is therefore complicit in the operation and production of globalising flows, offering unparalleled levels of transnational interactivity across networks.2 Delanty emphasises that by operating outside of nation-state paradigms, the internet is central to Manuel Castells’s notion of the ‘network society’: ‘it does not have a centre but nodes and is based on the flow of information in electronic forms’ (2000: 60, 61). The exchange of digital data across global networks not only indicates the decline of nation-state systems as a result of digital technology, but suggests the emancipatory separation of place from existing geographical systems due to new communicative links, forging novel forms of commonality, dialogue and exchange. Although the proliferation of network ties undoubtedly predates the internet, the © The Author(s) 2017
K. Shaw, Cosmopolitanism in Twenty-First Century Fiction, DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-52524-2_5
unprecedented scope of digital technology marks a new moment in global communication.
By compressing spatio-temporal relations, digital technology is responsible for qualitative changes in personal and social interactions, empowering individuals to transcend borders in the exchange of communication. Instantaneous access to distant others, even just through the medium of digital technology, complements cosmopolitan ideals via the sharing of common concerns and the diffusion of cultural practices, and precipitates an appreciation of diverse ways of life. Digital networks, literally existing in no locality, are beginning to replace the geographical as the domain ofglobal connectedness and cosmopolitan associations. Although transnationalism is often erroneously employed as a synonym for cosmopolitanism, the overcoming of physical proximity - border-crossing without mobility - indicates how digital cosmopolitanism may function independently of transnational movement, engendering the emergence of non-mobile transnationalism on a global scale. The connections created between virtually diasporic communities destabilise the experience of the real and the virtual, and problematise the established dichotomy of distance and proximity. The internet, then, holds the potential to reflect limitless subjectivities, project an awareness of planetary concerns and develop global collaboration. According to M. Christine Boyer, this ‘network of networks’, establishing ‘a heterotopia of discourses’ between ‘individuals who will probably never meet face to face’, contains within its wirings the potential for the first technological cosmopolitan construct (1999: 54). Holton concurs, asserting that the internet is ‘intrinsically cosmopolitan’ based on its role in spawning ‘the possibility of a new virtual democracy that could be world-wide and thus finally realize the philosophers’ and activists’ dream ofa cosmopolitan world community’ (2009: 133).
And yet, a utopian belief in digital communication often masks global inequalities. Google employees Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen recently declared that the internet is ‘the world’s largest ungoverned space’, a borderless ‘online world that is not truly bound by terrestrial laws’ (3). However, their assertion neglects the actions of certain countries (such as China) who continue to pursue digital censorship and who filter the internet traffic that attempts to enter their territories, not to mention the lack ofaccess to digital technology in general. Any call for a borderless cosmopolitan world often ignores the destructive tendencies arising from globalising practices. While it is tempting to perceive digital communication as non-hierarchical interaction, taking place on an equal platform irrespective of geography and across the established divides of language, socio-cultural belonging and class, new technologies are not independent of socioeconomic contexts. Castells, a strong supporter of the merits of digital communication, acknowledges that although the internet ‘is indeed a technology of freedom’, it can ‘free the powerful to oppress the uninformed’ and subsequently leads ‘to the exclusion of the devalued by the conquerors of value’ (2001: 275). Moreover, digital technology’s intensification of mobility and connection across unbounded trans-territorial space has also begun to alienate both elite and non-elite global citizens. Idealised beliefs in the connectivity of digital communication expose what Ethan Zuckerman terms a state of ‘imaginary cosmopolitanism’ - the misguided belief that the connectivity of the internet enters users into a global community, as opposed to a world of networked individuals (2013: 38).
Twenty-first century literature has begun to concern itself with the myth of digital cosmopolitanism, interrogating the global inequalities producing and sustaining unprecedented levels of technological interconnection. Eggers’s The Circle and Kunzru’s Transmission reject a utopian blind- faith in communicative technology, examining the role of the digital in circumscribing both local and global forms of community. Both novels explore the fissures and instabilities fostered in the tissue of contemporary society as it adapts to the new digital environment - a culture in transition. Technological developments may be central to twenty-first century communication patterns, but their application is often implemented in a top- down fashion through corporate conglomerates, ensuring that exposure to forms of cultural otherness fails to foster the emergence of more cosmopolitan orientations. Through an overt critique of corporate entities in the digital domain, The Circle examines the commodification of the digital and evaluates its import on global interaction. By parodying the online companies of Facebook and Google, the eponymous networked corporation of the novel attempts to construct a digital world without borders. Whereas The Circle offers a sustained critique of the dangers of privileging digital communication over corporeal engagement, Transmission pays greater attention to the effects of digital interconnectedness on non-elite migrant workers, venturing beneath the shimmering surface of Western digital culture. Kunzru demonstrates that the interdependence of contemporary society brings into play a networked space of unparalleled scale, easily destabilised by ethno-political realities and socio-cultural relations. The chapter will therefore demonstrate how each text responds to the rapidly changing and increasingly complex world of global digital connectivity.