Digital Casualties

A flawless, perfectly, digitally ethical society [... ] would not be good for individuals. A little noise [... ] is needed if there is to be creativity or individuality (Lanier 2011: 201).

Eggers’s critique of the digital age in general is further channelled through Mae’s ex-boyfriend, Mercer Medeiros, who earns his living fashioning chandeliers from deer antlers. By directly engaging with the natural world, Mercer functions as a throwback to pre-digital times and holds a technophobic aversion to the Circle’s activities, accurately perceiving their technology to foster disconnection, rather than increased socio-cultural connectivity. The ubiquitous nature of digital communication results in Mercer’s free time being wasted on unsubscribing from participatory online groups, arguing that individuals should be allowed to opt out of a totalitarian state founded on forced social attachments. However, although Mercer avoids playing a role in the global digital community, that is not to say he neglects cultural exchange or disrupts cosmopolitan conviviality. Instead, he assumes the role of the narrative’s ethical subject, attempting to direct humanity back towards physical engagement and communal bonding. Mercer wishes to speak to Mae face-to-face, rather than through the invasive filter of digital social media, urging her to escape from the claustrophobic network of commodified images and the surveillance of digital flows: ‘[y]ou don’t just want your data, you need mine. You’re not complete without it. It’s a sickness’ (432). He dismisses the supposed emancipatory potential of the company’s digital tools, claiming they merely manufacture unnatural social needs that fail to improve society or truly increase cultural contact, and leave individuals and communities devoid of personality and dependent on technology. Mae fails to appreciate this ethical appeal to her better nature, merely musing over an online petition she’d signed to improve job opportunities for Parisian immigrants. By idealistically perceiving the Circle’s applications to possess the ability to directly affect global events (even though they are often vanity projects, like the decision to map the Marianas Trench), Mae avoids demonstrating cultural agency in her everyday life. Digital actions in the narrative become indistinguishable from physical engagement and rely on the bare minimum of social interaction: ‘[y]ou look at pictures of Nepal, push a smile button, and you think that’s the same as going there’ (261). The narcissistic tendencies of digital communication, connecting people at a more superficial level, act as a buffer to true human and cultural connection, becoming the path of least resistance to the formation of cosmopolitan ties.

A burgeoning resistance to the Circle’s practices in the narrative comes to reflect Bart Barendregt’s assessment that: ‘the very dominance of idealized digital futures has always led to at least a marginal dissident fringe in both the digital hinterlands and in the very heart of the information society’ (2013: 203). Mercer, sensitive to the rapid descent of the Circle’s plans from techno-utopianism to digital dystopia, reaches the same conclusion as Ty, perceiving the participatory ideals of SeeChange as the first step towards a technophobic surveillance society. Current levels of global connectivity become unsustainable and reflect the ‘usual utopian vision’ which ‘sounds perfect, sounds progressive’ but merely leads to ‘more control, more central tracking of everything we do’ (259). The company’s latest scheme, ‘ChildTrack’, inserts chips into children’s bones to prevent abductions, rapes and murders, but Mercer discerns that this seemingly ethical procedure will leave a digital echo of individuals’ movements for the rest of their lives: citizens ‘will be tracked, cradle to grave, with no possibility of escape’ (86, 481). Richard K. Moore claims that any surveillance society’s ‘corporate domination of societal information flows’ functions as ‘an inherent part of the seemingly unstoppable globalisation process’ (1999: 50). As people’s actions become part of the collective global record, the Circle can therefore construct a memory-system of personal and communal histories; the conception of digital locatability results in domination of corporeal global space. Techno-capitalism has led to an enforced regulation of individual rights and the move signals a clear resistance to corporate control. Through his critique of digital communication, Eggers avoids simply espousing an anti-technological ethos, or doubting the merits of digital technological progress; instead, he resists the logic that techno-capitalism proffers a valuable form of global connectivity or is conducive to the spread of ethical values.

In an attempt to escape the progressive location-surveillance, Mercer decides to remove himself from society. He warns Mae of a digital divide emerging whereby ‘two humanities will live apart, but parallel’, those under the ‘surveillance dome’ and those ‘who live, or try to live, apart from it’ (433). But not even a reclusive, insular lifestyle provides an escape from the forced connectedness the Circle espouses. The company’s surveillance ensures no global citizen is safe from the coercion of the technological control. The digital has seeped into the physical world with tangible consequences; neither domain can be perceived as distinct spheres of life or extrapolated from one another. In order to operate effectively, the Circle cannot allow any dissenters to impede the faux-utopian transformation of the world. The digital panopticon ridicules those who shun connectivity and manoeuvres them into a state of compliance. In a demonstration of the Circle’s omnipotence, Mae sends drones to track down Mercer in a tiny Oregon town. Due to his lack of digital presence, the Circle must verify his corporeal identity; if an individual is not locatable online, then their very existence is questioned. The drones are assisted by global users of the company’s technology, now functioning as one digital organism. By using their digital devices for coordinated surveillance on the streets, citizens can locate individuals who wish to remain anonymous. The potential progressive power of this hive-mind descends to a mob mentality as invasive digital technology subsequently becomes integrated into every aspect of day-to-day life. The Circle encourages society to pinpoint Mercer’s location, hounding him from his home and selfenforced isolation, proving how futile it is to ‘hide in a world as interconnected as ours’ (446).

Rheingold terms individuals who utilise communication technology to work ‘in concert even if they don’t know each other’ as ‘smart mobs’ (2002: xii). Despite these individuals benefiting from new forms of social and global connectivity, Rheingold claims that the ‘metatechnologies that could constrain the dangers of smart mob technology and channel their power to beneficial ends are not fully formed yet’ (2002: 214). Accordingly, he argues that the same digital technologies that open ‘new vistas of cooperation’ and connectedness also ensure the potential for ‘a universal surveillance economy’ that ‘empowers the bloodthirsty as well as the altruistic’ (2002: xviii). The global digital audience in the narrative fail to display any signs of cosmopolitan empathy for Mercer’s fate, validating his prior accusation that: ‘ [i]ndividually you don’t know what you’re doing collectively’ (259). Global citizens who reject the Circle’s technology are perceived as cultural dinosaurs holding back the progression of society (and who therefore must be made extinct). Rather than digital communication amplifying positive cultural cooperation, the Circle’s power-structure is dependent upon the submission of its own subjects. The events signal the dystopian logical end-point of the company’s ubiquitous digital surveillance, in which citizens are complicit in their own compliance to corporate policy; even dissent is suppressed through technological means. In attempting to flee from both the drones and the Circle’s supporters who mock and ridicule his lifestyle, Mercer resolves to drive off a bridge, aware that he will never be free from digital surveillance, becoming one of the first casualties in the war against technological centralisation. The global community watch Mercer’s death through the digital video-feed of the drones, robbing him of his physical corporeality, and reducing his life to an online narrative and a digital death.

As Holton argues, the issue of whether media ‘representations of others evoke pity, compassion, identification or active solidarity [... ] are very salient to questions of the scope and limits of cosmopolitanism’ (2009: 128). Yet Mae merely exaggerates a mediated grief for her millions of viewers and irrationally interprets the event as further evidence of the Circle’s inherent ethicality: the ‘pain experienced in public, in view of loving millions, was no longer pain. It was communion’ (441). By echoing Bailey in perceiving Mercer’s death as an attempt to escape a harmonious, unified world, Mae mistakenly determines that Mercer was acting in opposition to the cosmopolitan values of openness and exposure to difference. The tragic event, coupled with the company’s rejection of Ty’s digital bill of rights, signals the termination of a progressive global future and the corruption of ethical ideals to neoliberal corporate ideology. In a recent lecture at Stanford University, Eggers emphasised his faith in the future of a society beset by digital threats, stating: ‘I have every confidence [this] generation will figure out [how to solve this problem]’ (2014b: n.pag.).8 His remarks suggest an optimism absent from the narrative, as the corporate force of the Circle employs digital communication to project the horrors of a borderless world and the apathetic annihilation of cosmopolitan ideals. That said, Eggers is no Luddite. The Circle becomes more than simply a technophobic lament against an artificial world, emerging as a pro-humanist text that longs for society to escape the more destructive forms of digital dogma. The narrative is not criticising technology itself, but the elite sectors of global society who control it. By charting Mae’s ethical struggle, Eggers is questioning whether digital ubiquity results in a loss of humanity, or whether contemporary society will succeed in developing a global digital ethics. Indeed, Eggers’s novel bears several similarities with Jaron Lanier’s pro-human manifesto You Are Not A Gadget, most notably the theoretical digital expansion of the ‘circle of empathy’; expanding the circle ‘indefinitely can lead to oppression, because the rights of potential entities’ (in this case, the digital community) often exist in conflict ‘with the rights of indisputably real people’ (2011: 36, 37). Localised engagement is therefore neglected in favour of an abstract and superficial connectivity with global others. As Taylor identifies, although ‘networked power’ in contemporary society has ‘dismantled and distributed power in more egalitarian ways, it has also extended and obscured power, making it less visible and, arguably, harder to resist’ (2014: 30). Accordingly, The Circle depicts the decline of an idealistic but ultimately opaque corporation, whose practices become all-invasive rather than lib- eratory. The narrative suggests that technology alone remains insufficient to create an open cosmopolitan society of ethical ideals. Instead, Eggers indicates that an emergent digital cosmopolitanism, founded on active ethical agency, is required to combat the increasing obsolescence of the human species and confront a digital age of accelerating and unprecedented change.

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