Digital Surveillance

We know where you are. We know where you’ve been. We can more or less

know what you’re thinking about (D. Thompson 2010: n.pag.).

As Josh Cohen identifies, the company’s ‘tacitly imposed, pseudo-benign mutual monitoring’ serves as an analogy of the ways in which ‘social media culture’ in general threatens ‘our interiority’ and ensures ‘we can never be fully transparent, to others or to ourselves’ (2014: n.pag.). The Circle’s calls for transparency become less an issue of cosmopolitan openness than of totalitarian corporate surveillance. The move towards transparency is spear-headed by co-founder Eamon Bailey, the Circle’s foremost cyberlibertarian and evangelist for digital media, who subscribes to the deceptive mantra: ‘sharing is caring’ (301). Bailey holds a strong humanist belief in the power of technology to connect global citizens, and through his leadership the company tirelessly stresses its apparent motive of working for the greater good rather than corporate gain, positioning the corporation’s digital applications as a panacea to society’s ills.6 The Circle’s trajectory towards ‘Completion’, achieving complete corporate dominance on a global scale, is advocated as the natural progression of society, with digital technology providing the key to the perfectibility of humankind. The company’s logo, a small ‘c’ on a knitted grid, therefore suggests the fork-in-the-road moment at which contemporary society finds itself before ‘the circle’ is closed around all global citizens. Bailey is unwilling to accept that his digital applications represent a form of enforced cultural homogeneity, arguing that the Circle’s omnipotence will simply ensure ‘ALL THAT HAPPENS MUST BE KNOWN’ at ‘the dawn of the Second Enlightenment’ (67). Regardless of the progressive sentiments of Bailey’s rhetoric, the Circle’s influence fails to result in cultural harmony, instead leading to increased cosmopolitical tensions between governmental and corporate forces.

The company strengthens its global surveillance by introducing a program called ‘SeeChange’, promoted as an effort to make its users feel ‘part of an open and welcoming world’ (241). SeeChange involves the development of a series of miniature high-resolution cameras that provide continual access to global locations. By ensuring that the world may watch any activity through hidden devices, Bailey claims the move ostensibly administers radical implications for human rights, as omnipotent accountability will prevent future abuses of power. However, in striving to achieve cosmopolitan openness through digital surveillance, Bailey refuses to acknowledge that the surveillance is an abuse of the jurisdiction of nation-states themselves, even positioning their implementation as an ethical necessity: ‘[e]qual access to all possible human experiences is a basic human right’ (301). In this way, national security measures quickly become compromised to satisfy the unrealistic cosmopolitan demands of a borderless world. SeeChange therefore embodies the potential for imaginative access to other cultures, with very few global locations inaccessible to digital spectatorship. The more users who join the Circle’s network, the easier it is for the company to disseminate their cyber-utopic applications and extend control. Global citizens willingly accept this acceleration of digital surveillance apparatus as a result of the company’s aggressive propaganda, which asserts that surveillance offers subsequent protection from crime or terrorism. While the unparalleled contact and exchange offered by digital technology in the narrative should suggest the creation of a new system for achieving human commonality and socio-cultural interdependence, citizens increasingly find themselves subject to unprecedented surveillance and corporate control. Once the Circle is able to assert its dominance over all sectors of global society, the company’s founders relinquish their original espousal ofcosmopolitan openness and participation, manipulating these ideals for personal and capital gain.

Barry N. Hague and Brian D. Loader note that advocates for ‘the emancipatory potential of the internet’ in general neglect that it ‘remains the domain of a relatively elite association of mainly white, male, professional people from advanced societies’ (1999: 9). A select group exists in the narrative of those employees privy to the founders’ plans, who are themselves white, male, middle-class Westerners. Although Ty intends for his Unified Operating System to ensure the spread rather than the dissolution of wider ethical values, the expansion of the company to include his fellow co-founders, Eamon Bailey and Tom Stenton, gears the Circle towards neoliberal capitalist interests and the espousal of a hyper-corporate ideology: a ‘gateway to all the world’s information, but [...] supported by advertisers’ (248). A portrait of the founders, referred to as the ‘Three Wise Men’, insinuates both the hierarchical nature of their company and the unfeasibility of their designs for global connectivity. The triumvirate of digital gatekeepers are positioned in a pyramid arrangement, their arms connecting one another in a way that defies physical or spatial reasoning. The unrealistic utopian connectivity is questioned further when an aquarium is installed on campus, filled with sea creatures discovered on the company-funded exploration of the Marianas Trench (the deepest spot of the world’s oceans, indicating the Circle’s global reach). The separate creatures inhabiting the tank encapsulate the divided belief-systems of the three co-founders as they begin to disagree on the future of the Circle. The octopus, ‘malleable and infinitely adaptable’, traces ‘the contours of the glass [... ] wanting to know all, touch all’ (471, 472). In this sense, the octopus mirrors the belief- system of Bailey, who perceives in unfettered open access the means by which to help every global citizen. The seahorses embody Ty’s increasing invisibility within his own company, attempting to hide in their environment but lacking the defences to protect themselves. The tentative nature of the seahorses also signifies the passive technophobes of society, unaware of the current levels of global surveillance: ‘showing no sign that they knew anything’ and offering ‘no protestation’ (470). Tom Stenton, with his integration of ‘[i]nfocommunism [... ] with ruthless capitalistic ambition’, decides to disrupt the harmonious habitat by introducing a shark to the aquarium (484). The shark, rather like the Circle’s digital technology, is a ‘new species, omnivorous and blind’, carnivorously devouring any creature placed into its tank: ‘wholly sentient, the embodiment of the predatory instinct’ (307, 314). Mae and the other founders are forced to watch helplessly as the octopus and seahorses are torn apart in a brutal allegory of the dystopian subversion of their company to capitalist interests.

Ty subsequently attempts to dismantle the Circle from within, reversing its pervasive surveillance of the global world and monopolisation of the internet. His menace to the company stems from his invisibility from within a system that desires social and political transparency. In order to subvert corporate control, Ty releases a timely and cogent missive entitled: ‘The Rights of Humans in a Digital Age’ (485). The manifesto insists that global citizens should be allowed to retain their anonymity before the Circle closes around them and enforces a totalitarian participation. His original attempt to make the internet ‘more civil’ through TruYou has failed; he claims Stenton has ‘professionalized our idealism, monetized our utopia’: ‘[p]ublic-private leads to private-private, and soon [... ] Everyone becomes a citizen of the Circle’ (484). Through the indoctrination of their employees, however, the Circle is able to limit the damage caused when Ty decides to expose its secrets and vulnerabilities, labelling him an unethical threat to cooperative achievement, social trust and communal openness. Through his brutal failure, Ty serves as the authorial mouthpiece for Eggers’s own fears regarding global digital surveillance, positioning the centralisation and homogenised control of digital data through mass surveillance to be responsible for nullifying basic and unalienable human rights in the narrative. The triumph of corporate ideology, overriding ethical values and cultural empathy, conveys an authorial critique of the application of cosmopolitan ideals to disguise neoliberal dogma: there ‘are a thousand more Wise Men out there, people with ever-more radical ideas about the criminality of privacy’ (432).7

 
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