The Limitations of Digital Community

The process of communication is in fact the process of community

(Williams 1965: 55).

Digital communities are by their very nature cosmopolitan: geographically unbound, functioning simultaneously at multiple global sites, and permitting a fluidity of identity and selfhood. Yet communicative technology reconfigures the definition of community, creating a new species of interpersonal relations. Although the internet promises connection, it does not suggest active engagement or that such mediated interaction would be positive. As Sherry Turkle notes, ‘[h]uman relationships are rich; they’re messy and demanding. We have learned the habit of cleaning them up with technology. And the move from conversation to connection is part of this’ (2012: n.pag.). Cosmopolitan connectivity between members of digital networks, Sven Kesselring and Gerlinde Vogl argue, results in ‘solidarity by connectivity’ rather than ‘by origin or by shared values’, distancing and isolating individuals from active interaction in society (2008: 177). Advances in technological communication are clearly not congruous with an increase in ethical agency or global dialogue. The narrative continually interrogates this reorientation of social interaction by global communicative technology. Although a co-worker emphasises to Mae that ‘ community and communication come from the same root word, communis, Latin for common, public, shared by all or many’, communal acts are expressed by writing a message on a co-worker’s virtual profile, rather than engaging with them in person: ‘devices knew who you were, and your one identity - the TruYou, unbendable and unmaskable - was the person paying, signing up, responding, viewing and reviewing, seeing and being seen’ (95, 21). The Circle’s online applications create a digital ecosystem of user-generated content; Mae’s online presence takes precedence over interaction in corporeal space. Such virtual mobility increasingly enables new modes of social interaction and solidarity defined by instantaneous co-presence and convenience. Although cosmopolitanism should directly concern a willingness to engage with diverse peoples and ways of life, digital connections suggest a superficial experience of intercultural engagement. The Circle’s anti-humanist applications spread like a virus and relegate individuals to mere consumers or users of their technology, impoverishing their sense of self. Employees are even ranked on levels of social media participation, which takes into account their contribution to other Circler’s digital profiles and attendance at corporate events.5 The obvious authorial critique of the Circle suggests that digital communication is unlikely to provide the sense of community or empathetic connection required for cosmopolitan values to flourish, merely promoting a commercialised cosmopolitanism founded on capitalistic interests.

Social interactions in the novel are flattened by the ubiquitous gaze of technological connectivity, as digital networks effectively mimic communal relations without the complications or burdens of physical engagement. Digital communication in The Circle is suggestive of an unfilled void at the heart of contemporary globalised culture, signalling the decline of personal intimacies, cosmopolitan ideals and emotional attachments in the face of dominant techno-capitalism. According to Alexander Nazaryan, the narrative purposefully charts the emergence of the contemporary species ‘homo digitus, whose plight is to be always connected yet always alone’ (2013: n.pag.). Western elites in the narrative quickly become socially accessible only via digital communication and suffer from a form of nomophobia - feeling detached and experiencing a form of cultural isolation when disconnected from their digital technology. In a newspaper interview following the release of the novel, Eggers emphasised that this constant connectivity ‘is the perfect recipe for permanent interpersonal catastrophes’ (Wunsch 2014: n.pag.). Mae’s progressive decline into comfortable digital isolation manifests itself as a metaphorical rip in her chest; her nightmare in which she can hear the screams of fellow global citizens represents the lives disrupted by the Circle’s activities. Mae becomes so absorbed in her digital life that she neglects the wishes of her family and friends, unable to process their viewpoints or needs, as her human attachments begin to require digital validation. By prioritising her job, rather than playing a role in the family unit, Mercer is left to support Mae’s father in his battle against multiple sclerosis. Rather than showing appreciation for Mercer’s efforts, Mae begins to resent his limitless empathy towards her family, while she is unable to extricate herself from superficial global connections. Mercer criticises her choices, claiming Mae has ‘willingly become utterly socially autistic [... ] You’re at a table with three humans, all of whom are looking at you and trying to talk to you, and you’re staring at a screen, searching for strangers in Dubai’ (260). Mae comes to perceive other people not as individuals with whom to engage, but nodes on her own personal network, there to be exploited to strengthen her own sense of imagined connectedness.

The Circle manipulate Mae into broadcasting her every movement to millions of Circle devotees purely for commodified global consumption, as the narrative explores the limits of technological intrusion. Mae experiences a veiled and deluded sense of belonging within this digital community, constructing emotional bonds to its members and offering empathy and support (despite being unaware of them personally). Due to her ubiquitous surveillance, however, social interaction is predominantly conducted online in the form of superficial affectations and exaggerated posturing, resulting in peformative dialogues that lack any true empathetic quality. The ties generated in her digital networks are often impersonal and transitory, simply offering a simulacrum of physical society, free of commitment, devoid of tangible engagement, and defined by fleeting connection. The digital viewers validate the apparent superficiality of participatory comment-culture, failing to engage fully with real-world issues and supplying sarcastic jibes towards those with whom Mae disagrees. Eggers’s narrative adheres to Holton’s assessment that the internet’s capacity to be utilised for ‘the transmission of hate as well as cosmopolitan love of others’ ensures digital technology ‘is very far from being a necessary enhancement to the building of a cosmopolitan world [... ] Inter-personal networks still seem to matter more than electronic ones’ (2009: 203). By offering a direct critique of how individual agency is constantly destabilised by the digital, the narrative suggests a dangerous displacement of contemporary identity and communal relations in a fluid world of digital connections.

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