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Digital Futures

The Internet will not magically turn us into digital cosmopolitans; if we want to maximize the benefits and minimize the harms of connection, we have to take responsibility for shaping the tools we use to encounter the world (Zuckerman 2013: 27).

A discussion of digital connectivity is vital to appreciating neoteric forms of global participation emerging in contemporary literature. Although virtual presence is an ineffectual proxy for physical engagement in both The Circle and Transmission, it nonetheless increases global awareness, allowing for new configurations of socio-cultural connectivity and transnational cooperation. The internet in particular undoubtedly possesses an unparalleled techno-cultural means of investing ourselves in the ethical troubles of distant ‘others’ and fostering an appreciation of mutual interdependency. As Gilroy argues, this ‘mobilizing power of the Internet’ can foster a ‘[c]osmopolitan solidarity from below’ (2004: 89). Thomas Friedman concurs, claiming that the digital revolution ensures ‘hierarchies are being challenged from below or are transforming themselves from top-down structures into more horizontal and collaborative ones’ (2006: 48). But digital forms of cultural connectivity generate profound changes to human interaction, with corporeal engagement overlooked in favour of a more protean and fluid space of communal exchange, and notions oflocality subsumed by a networked space of homogenous flows. And yet, Taylor emphasises that digital transformation, that ‘great cultural leveler’, has the potential to both ‘liberate humanity’ and ‘tether us with virtual chains’ (2014: 2, 6). The notion of the network, operating outside of nation-state frameworks, is not merely a technological reconceptualisation of society, but constitutes a rewiring of existing cultural connections and relations.

As John Gray identifies, with regards to the utopian potential of virtual communities, ‘new technologies never create new societies, solve immemorial problems or conjure away existing scarcities. They simply change the terms in which social and political conflicts are played out. The uses to which new technologies are put depend on [... ] the level of cultural and moral development in society’ (1997: 120). Although The Circle is overtly pro-privacy, the narrative resists the contention that the US should opt out of an interconnected global community, instead simply offering a cautionary tale of the blind faith placed in digital technology as a substitute to communal attachments. The Circle’s digital network is merely feigning the characteristics of a global community - there is no real engagement of contemporary concerns and the company manipulates commercialised data to drown out the banalities of everyday life. The digital permeates and envelops human interactions in every way acting as both the catalyst for, and solution to, social isolation in the novel. Rather than the sharing of data serving as an indicator of positive social change, enforced participation ironically establishes the antithesis of an ethically-open cosmopolitan network. Norris and Inglehart define ‘cosmopolitan communications’ as crossborder systems that offer ‘potentially beneficial consequences’, improving cultural understanding and ensuring ‘universal human rights and democratic governance are disseminated around the world’ (2009: 197). However, they acknowledge that digital communications ‘are not and have not become global but are rather ‘in the process of becoming increasingly networked’ (6). The Circle’s social networking in the narrative provides every global citizen a voice, as long as they inhabit a privileged nation-state. The company’s digital infrastructure has the potential to foster and strengthen the cosmopolitan values that sustain existing corporeal networks - such as cultural exchange, openness and reciprocity - but by exploiting such ideals for corporate gain, the digital engenders a false cosmopolitanism devoid of true connection. The Circle therefore imagines two digital futures for a world balancing on the brink of irreversible change. On the one hand, digital communication offers an unparalleled opportunity for true planetary engagement, raising consciousness of humanitarian needs and global inequalities through its cosmopolitan networking capabilities. On the other, the company’s electronic surveillance of citizens and homogenising force of their technology results in even greater cultural marginalisation and destabilises corporeal human connections. Although the Circle’s digital applications seemingly point towards the capacity for technology to reorganise societies around cosmopolitan ideals, ensuring more accountability and cooperation between peoples, plans for technological democratisation merely suggest the triumph of homogeneity over heterogeneity.

According to Boyer, the internet must address inequalities inherited from physical space, concerning ‘the future of democratic public space’, the ‘increasing privatization, commercialization, and hierarchical control that create a new periphery’, and an emerging ‘digital divide’ (1999: 75). The Circle’s founders fail to address these concerns and ignore the fact that the cosmopolitan potential of networks relies on the absence of a governing centralised authority. By imposing a novel form of social control under the guise of democratic reasoning, alongside the illusion of a people’s network that flattens hierarchies, the company negates the internet’s capacity for promoting cultural difference. Despite the narrative’s interrogation of the digital, Eggers is not predominantly concerned with technological software or virtual worlds. The novel remains firmly focused on humanity’s capacity for ethical subjectivity in the face of technological transformation. Eggers’s forward-thinking narrative reflects Zuckerman’s distinction between ‘cyberutopianism’ and ‘digital cosmopolitanism’; whereas cyber-utopianism suggests that ‘technological innovations will lead to social progress, to positive connections between people with different perceptions and beliefs’, digital cosmopolitanism is more pragmatic in requiring society ‘to take responsibility for making these potential connections real’ (2013: 31, 30). The Circle therefore yearns for the liberation of humanity from the more controlling impositions of technology while appreciating the permeability of global boundaries to creating a shared future.

While The Circle offers a sustained critique ofthe digital age, the narrative fails to widen its scope beyond the localised corporate interests of the US, and thereby neglects the geographically and economically marginalised subjects whose lives are becoming increasingly shaped by their digital products. Consequently, whereas in The Circle digital communication is an efficient means of social mobilisation for corporate advantage, in Transmission it becomes a catalyst for revising geographical inequalities or human rights concerns. It may be, as Hardt and Negri suggest, that to live in ‘the age of globalisation’ is to live in the ‘age of universal contagion’, but it is also to live in the age of burden-sharing (2000: 136). Transmission demonstrates that although digital technology allegedly transfers power from the centre to the peripheries, fostering a horizontal network of collaboration, cultural levelling only occurs through acts of subversion or desperate defiance. Power is merely redistributed rather than elite hierarchies being dismantled, ensuring that vast inequalities persist in the digital domain. The novel therefore reflects what Schoene terms ‘humanity’s hitherto unprecedented glocal entanglement’, examining both the effects of unbounded connectivity generated by digital technology and the dissonance which global crises bring to globalisation’s discontents (much of the narrative’s drive derives from this dynamic interplay, permeation and tension between the global and the local) (2010a: 127). For Schoene, Transmission interrogates the distinction and interdependence between ‘the processes of globalisation and cosmopolitanisation’; whereas globalisation ‘requires individuals to give up their local affiliation’ for a homogenised ‘globalised dream’, the heterogenising force of cosmopolitanisation suggests that ‘one can only make a worthwhile contribution to world culture by drawing on the local specificity of one’s origin’ (2010a: 149). Undoubtedly, the nostalgic longing for forms of localised community works alongside the imposition of digital technologies in the novel. Kunzru tethers digital culture to social experience in order to question how cultural identities are dislocated and geographical spaces deterritorialised by the digital. Through this incongruity of digital and physical flows, Transmission suggests an intensification of transnational identities and histories within a global system, which are finally forced to acknowledge the presence of one another and contemplate a shared future. Arjun’s disappearance at the conclusion of the narrative points towards the liberation of the global diaspora from the imposition of globalised culture - remaining free of surveillance and suppression, exploring the spaces of the world unchecked and crossing boundaries untroubled. The presence of digital technology in the novel is therefore not responsible for redefining the nation-state system, nor rendering it defunct, but acts as a form of cultural transmission and reformulates the conception of global space through novel forms of planetary connectivity.

Both novels avoid the early idealistic faith that digital technology holds the potential for a utopian future of cosmopolitan connections. As Lee Komito notes, ‘[n]ew technologies have enabled a vast diversity of new worlds for individuals to dip into; whether this constitutes a cosmopolitan experience must remain a matter of debate’ (2010: 147). Kunzru especially emphasises that a more achievable and viable solution is to maintain both social and digital communication and transform our technologies to meet the unparalleled interdependence and vast inequalities of the contemporary moment. Digital communication fails to rewire characters in either novel into ethically cosmopolitan subjects; instead, digital technology is exploited for personal gain and divorces individuals from their communal attachments. Guy and Arjun are representative of this estrangement, becoming more digital than human, alienated from both their environment and themselves, and submitting to the dominance of the global over the local. According to Nicholas Carr, ‘[w]hat makes us most human’ is that which ‘is least computable about us’, including ‘our capacity for emotion and empathy’ (2010: 207). In spite of the narrative’s constant movement across global space, any mobility is tempered by the personal stasis in which Kunzru places his protagonists. While cosmopolitanism should not ignore processes which are non-dependent on direct intercultural engagement, digital propinquity proves to be a poor substitute for face-to-face interaction.

Despite Transmission’s focus on transnational migrants, the novel ultimately emulates The Circle in reflecting a decidedly Western insight into the digital age. Although digital communication offers almost unlimited potential for intercultural dialogue and exchange, both novels suggest that corporate technology functions as the new elite form of socio-cultural and ethno-political dominance, bestowing planetary omnipotence on globally oppressive forces. There continues to be an inherent control, rather than freedom, in networks of communication, with transnational corporations identified as the driving force behind this digital divide. Whereas The Circle highlights the benefits and dangers of horizontal, decentralised civil networks, Transmission suggests that active individual agency can function as a form of emancipation against top-down, hierarchical structures. Transnational corporations, represented by Databodies in the narrative, possess more power than some nation-states, and manipulate labour laws to exploit nonWestern migrants. This Westernisation of the global landscape, a digital imperialism intensified by globalisation, washes over global space, rendering every locality a glocality. As Irr argues, by positioning ‘media systems as figures for transnational cultural exchanges', Transmission depicts a transformation of literary focus from ‘the discrete geography of nations to the overlapping and virtual spaces of communication technologies', and reformulates the migration narrative for the twenty-first century (2014: 26). For Kunzru and other contemporary authors addressing digital migration, ‘“roots” become “routes,” and then “routes” become “routers”’ (2014: 28). Kunzru therefore marks the rise ofthe transnational digital migrant within a network ofmobility and exchange by transforming Arjun into a ‘router’ for Western digitalisation of the global system. A struggle subsequently emerges between cosmopolitanism from above, defined by transnational corporate control, and cosmopolitanism from below, arising from the new-found cultural mobility and agency of digital migrant workers.

As Transmission and The Circle demonstrate, the digital revolution has not instigated a corresponding revolution in cosmopolitan engagement. In The Net Delusion, Evgeny Morozov concludes that the ‘cyber-utopian belief that the Internet would turn us into uber-tolerant citizens of the world [... ] has proven to be unfounded’ (2011: 247). He argues that such cyber-utopianism stems from ‘the starry-eyed digital fervour of the 1990s’, during which a ‘naive belief in the emancipatory nature of online communication that rests on a stubborn refusal to acknowledge its downside’, has resulted in ‘significant global consequences that may risk undermining the very project of promoting democracy’ (2011: xiii, xvii). The virtues of digital communication have proven to be inherent vices. Openness invites cultural cohesion, but it also permits participation without permission. Surveillance may reduce criminal activity, yet it can be subverted as an autocratic means of tracking dissenters. The borderless nature ofthe digital fails to transcend the corporeal, for while geographical borders are dismantled, personal borders are erected in their place. To perceive digital technology as inherently cosmopolitan is to ignore the vicious and detrimental effects to which it can be put to use, as evidenced in the novels’ focus on homogenous control and viral transmission, respectively. A realistic approach to the possibilities of digital communication is required, warning of the danger in treating the internet as, what Morozov terms, ‘a deterministic one-directional force for either global liberation or oppression, for cosmopolitanism or xenophobia’ (2011: 29). These twenty-first century texts therefore demonstrate a purposeful retreat from the polarisation of technological determinism to the potent role of active individual agency in shaping globalising processes and exploring the limitations of an emergent digital cosmopolitanism.

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