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The Circle

There is no such thing as a public Internet: everything flows through private pipes (Taylor 2014: 224).

The Circle envisions a dystopic near-future when the global matrix of networked culture is finally reaching its apex in the United States. The narrative opens with Mae Holland, a twenty-something American graduate, on her first day of employment at the Circle, the largest technology company in the world. The Circle began life as an internet search engine, before expanding into a monolithic network that subsumed all other digital companies and now manufactures its own digital technology in Silicon Valley, California. The company was founded following Ty Gospodinov’s creation of the ‘Unified Operating System’, which ‘combined everything online that had heretofore been separate and sloppy - users’ social media profiles, their payment systems, their various passwords, their email accounts, user names, preferences, every last tool and manifestation of their interests’ (2014a: 201). Individuals’ personal details were now condensed into a unitary ‘TruYou’ account, ‘[o]ne button for the rest ofyour life online’, to establish a singular identity for global citizens (21).3 The system rapidly overpowers both existing digital systems, drowning out the cries of free-internet advocates concerned about the ethical and political implications of private and commercial habits now being visibly quantifiable and measurable. TruYou constitutes the first step towards implementing dangerous forms of social control, preventing the possibility of counter-discourse. The application operates against the ideals of Net Neutrality - the belief that all data on the internet should be treated equally by governments and corporations to ensure an open platform - as the Circle’s elites begin to prioritise their own data over all else.4 Further, the Unified Operating System is essentially illusory in nature, neglecting the vast majority of the world’s population without access to the internet.

Initially, the company seemingly advocates cosmopolitan ideals, privileging the notions of openness, transparency and cultural engagement; such transparency is reflected in the architectural glass of their campus offices and a workforce representing ‘every race and ethnicity [... ] a dizzying range of national origins’ (59). The communal environment of the campus manipulates Mae into believing she is being morally shaped by the Circle’s ethical community. By becoming accustomed to the internet lingo, techno-neologisms and digital discourse favoured by her co-workers, the company provides Mae with the illusion of in-group community. The company mission statement claims that a workplace should also be a ‘humanplace [... ] that means the fostering of community’ and stresses the need for employees to establish a work environment ‘where our humanity is respected, where our opinions are dignified, where our voices are heard’ (47). The private corporation, then, assumes the ideals of near-utopian cosmopolitan community. Mae perceives the world outside the harmonious ‘walls of the Circle’ as: ‘noise and struggle, failure and filth. But here, all had been perfected [... ] Who else but utopians could make utopia?’ (30). Digital technology is therefore positioned as a possible catalyst for the realisation of an egalitarian community founded on global interaction. Online communities in the narrative provide the opportunity for consensus-based interaction, providing a multitude of differing perspectives, while global society becomes dependent on a single digital system for personal, communal and eventually political concerns. Indoctrinated by the company’s ethos and installed into her position like technological equipment, Mae avoids sleep so she can break into the T2K - the top 2,000 most active online employees - simply to become interconnected with people she will never really know or meet. Her first role in customer service requires a rapid response to consumer queries in order to gain a perfect satisfaction rating: ‘99 out of 100 points, that’s nearly perfect [... ] But at the Circle, that missing point nags at us’ (51). Cosmopolitan ideals are exaggerated until they betray an unhealthy need for acceptance and tolerance of others. Despite this, Mae fails to be unsettled by the hyper-mediated environment of the company, and learns to appreciate the autonomous technological practices of her co-workers, resulting in ‘the happy visual of a herd of heads nodding in what appeared to be unison, as if there were some common music playing in all of their minds’ (234). This bleak image of programmed beings indicates that the concentrated use of digital communication in social contexts fosters superficial connections and false proximity to others.

The company use surveys to track an individual’s buying habits, consumer preferences and the communities to which they are connected, in order to create a participatory culture of digital engagement. Society thus becomes an active collaborator in both its own surveillance and commodification. Mae fails to detect these early warning signs indicating the panoptic nature of the Circle. Covert links emerge between transparency and surveillance, as the Circle surreptitiously accumulates biometric data on a centralised electronic corporate database. The naivety, goodwill and altruistic motives of young digital natives who have grown up assimilated into digital culture are progressively derailed and manipulated by the internal workings of the company. These young prospective employees, who pitch socially progressive business ideas to the founders of the company, are unaware that their ethical agency is to be exploited for capitalistic gain; the employees blindly place their trust in the company’s allegedly cosmopolitan mantra of transparency and unadulterated openness, and the forward momentum of Western technology. Despite its questionable monopolistic strategies, the Circle seems to perceive its practices as constituting a genuine cosmopolitan project, administering equality and transparency to a globally unjust world. Each action taken is defended as a normative responsibility - implementing digital global ethics. Tellingly, when a Chinese artist designs a transparent hand for an installation on campus, which reaches out through a computer screen, the company interpret the piece as a metaphor for their digital altruism; in perceiving the hand to reach out through physical barriers and connect the global community, the company fail to understand the artist’s well-publicised sardonic intentions. The installation indicates digital communication to be an oppressive and often intrusive force - the claustrophobic realisation ofa cosmopolitan world without borders. Through a fetishisation of digital technology, the Circle claim to address global inequalities, tackle domestic abuse and curb political fraudulence; yet the corporation is simply enforcing top-down regulation under the guise of a democratic structure, ensuring the spread of its own interests on a global scale. The US Senate subsequently launches a task force against the Circle, claiming the company functions as an unethical monopoly but: ‘every time someone started shouting about the supposed monopoly of the Circle, or the Circle’s unfair monetarization of the personal data of its users [... ] it was revealed that the person was a criminal or deviant of the highest order. One was connected to a terror network in Iran. One was a buyer of child porn’ (240). Although the Circle ostensibly aims to harness the digital potential of the internet, achieving the cosmopolitan virtues of openness and global participation, the company slowly becomes an autonomous force hiding behind seemingly altruistic social applications, manipulating governmental and corporate structures for its own gain.

According to Howard Rheingold, although ‘[v]irtual communities could help citizens revitalize democracy’, they could also ‘be luring us into an attractively packaged substitute for democratic discourse’ (2000: 295). Fear of the latter alternative is envisioned in the narrative when the Circle makes digital citizenship mandatory through an individual’s TruYou account, indicating a further retreat from corporeal connectivity. In order to possess democratic rights and be able to vote, US citizens must now possess a valid Circle account. The push for a mandatory online identity discourages multiplicity and restricts an individual’s social agency - the digital self assumes dominance over the power of the situated corporeal self. The company name the scheme Demoxie, hoping to achieve full and complete transparency through a form of democracy that ensures full and enforced participation from society. These mandatory measures merely ensure all governmental structures and corporate firms will be subsumed within the Circle’s monolithic digital interface. The cosmopolitan ideals of openness and engagement are therefore taken to their logical extremes, creating a unified system of total participation by every global citizen. Digital theorist Martin Gak argues that the internet disseminates a ‘cyber-cosmopolitanism’ for the digital age, emerging as both ‘the ideal space for the trans-national and meta-geographic construction of communities of care’ and ‘the most powerful tool for the development, fostering and practice of a trans-national, meta-juridical, global and inter-demographic democracy’ (2012: n.pag.). However, this cyber-utopian vision adheres to the myth that the internet automatically fosters an egalitarian system, neglecting non-elite citizens who are denied such connectivity. Digital applications in the novel ought to serve as a prototype for digital democracy, promoting open access and participatory measures. Instead, Eggers echoes Tara Brabazon’s assertion that ‘[digitisation is not a proxy for democracy’ (2012: 253). The democraticising potential of the Circle’s technology is misused as a means of corporate control, disguised as socially beneficial applications. The myth of open access results in further centralisation of interests, ceded to those with the cultural power to enforce their will. Despite engaging the public in decision-making processes, Demoxie fails to engender a participatory democracy, instead strengthening e-commerce for the private sector. Society has essentially surrendered control to a governing elite who determine which issues are appropriate for public debate: under ‘the guise of having every voice heard, you create mob rule, a filterless society where secrets are crimes’ (483). Demoxie subsequently leads to the centralisation of a decentralised network, turning the online world, an ecosystem of heterogeneity, into a unitary, monolithic power-structure.

As Taylor notes, in digital culture at large, centralisation is ‘a process aided by the embrace of openness as a guiding ideal’; yet the ethical values of ‘openness, transparency, and participation’ are not sufficient in building ‘a more democratic and durable digital culture’, merely amplifying

‘real-world inequalities as often as it ameliorates them’ (2014: 31, 10). The illusion of decentralisation in the narrative allows the founders of the Circle to exert cultural power over the borderless terrain of the digital, establishing a top-down hierarchy of control. Demoxie simply assumes the new face of American homogeneity, solidifying the belief that the internet itself remains a Western power-structure. The Circle’s protocols of control certainly ignore the fact that the majority of the world’s population possess no internet access, with digital technology in general remaining superfluous to their day-to-day existence. More specifically, the move exposes that the Circle’s cosmopolitan ideals of global participation, openness and transparency remain the privileged purview of a Western elite who fail to change cultural inequalities. Although digital communication offers increased dialogue, interaction and exchange across geographical boundaries, Eggers’s novel suggests it is susceptible to corporate manipulation, leading to an enforced reduction in personal and ethical freedoms. The narrative’s hyper-extension of social and cultural interconnectedness thus follows idealised cosmopolitan frameworks through to their logical conclusion.

 
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