Essence in the Digital Space: Representation, Data, and Consciousness (Spoiler Alert!)

“So what had so mortified her during Gus’s presentation? She couldn’t put her finger on it. Was it only the surprise of it? Was it the pinpoint accuracy of the algorithms? Maybe. But then again, it wasn’t entirely accurate, so was that the problem? Having a matrix of preferences presented as your essence, as the whole you? Maybe that was it. It was some kind of mirror, but it was incomplete, distorted. And if Francis wanted any or all of that information, why couldn’t he just ask her? Her third screen, though, all afternoon was filled with congratulatory messages.”

Here Eggers creates a discernable conflict, or sheds light on a paradox of the present: that as we progress technologically and order the ever-more measurable universe we lose our individuality, our essence, and what is perhaps most human about us. Mae’s character, a relatively adventurous, naturally curious (perhaps curiously natural, or inclined towards nature, considering the setting), and family oriented person, is contrasted with the socialite techy she is transformed into, drawn to the Circle and its utopic functions and facilities, its visceral effect, and aim (although she fails, as Ty points out in the conclusion of the novel, to understand its scope or consequences) of achieving a techno-human multiplicity – a measurable all-knowing world where doxa and data are true understanding, power, control, and being. This passage in particular demonstrates Mae’s internal conflict (which by the end is terrifyingly eradicated) – how the physical, tangible relationship she is fostering with Francis, how she is growing closer to him (before this presentation and supposed betrayal of trust, her disgust, and eventual settling/dishonesty) and revealing herself, her essence, at her own pace is violated, and thus the connection between them also violated and devalued. Gus’s LuvLuv, by using an archival history of Mae’s preferences, allergies, etc, commodifies Mae so she is less a person and instead a set of data points. She is disturbed, as we are as readers, or should be by Eggers tactics here and in many other places throughout the novel, by the reduction of the human being into a digital footprint logged on an ever-growing network of storage.

Francis attempts to redeem himself later by justifying his use of her information (and really Eggers is using Francis to justify LuvLuv/the Circle and this early form of commodification) by explaining that the info was readily submitted by Mae in the past, and is publicly available, that a tool was created simply to organize it and grant easy access. It is framed by TruYou and becomes frightening because Mae isn’t hidden behind any internet anonymity. Eggers, while extrapolating our internet space/technological life now, isn’t far from the reality we inhabit today – facebook and many other sites and apps use face recognition and gather your true personal information – rarely does our activity on the internet (aside from the faceless IP addresses of our computers when navigating Galloway’s protocological distributed network, caring not for the content) lack this true identity – we readily use our real names on social sites, have banking accounts and addresses attached to our amazon and paypal accounts, etc. But sharing ourselves, at least our product preferences, spending habits, and emotional comments, is not all. Later, Bailey and May come to the “sharing is caring” conclusion – that not participating, logging, uploading, allowing others to share in our experience (robbing us of individuality and effectively ruining content and meaning in an individual sense) is actually selfish, a crime, theft of information. That no one can claim an experience as his or her own, frankly, is terrifying. Jaron Lanier makes similar claims, if not infinitely more complex and developed (although at points equally biased and contestable) than my own, in his book You Are Not a Gadget:

“Ever more extreme claims are routinely promoted in the new digital climate. Bits are presented as if they were alive, while humans are transient fragments. Real people must have left all those anonymous comments on blogs and video clips, but who knows where they are now, or if they are dead? The digital hive is growing at the expense of individuality.

Kevin Kelly says that we don’t need authors anymore, that all the ideas of the world, all the fragments that used to be assembled into coherent books by identifiable authors, can be combined into one single, global book…

A computer isn’t even there unless a person experiences it. There will be a warm mass of patterned silicon with electricity coursing through it, but the bits don’t mean anything without a cultured person to interpret them.

This is not solipsism. You can believe that your mind makes up the world, but a bullet will still kill you. A virtual bullet, however, doesn’t even exist unless there is a person to recognize it as a representation of a bullet.” (27)

Eggers greatest, and last, example of this individual human experience/essence as consciousness/representation rather than pure physical data (cutely emphasized as impossible with Transparency’s monstrous red servers) comes as Annie’s coma state, and the problems it poses to the Circle’s philosophy of knowledge, most notably the notion of closing the circle or knowing all:

     ““What was going on in that head of hers? It was exasperating, really, Mae thought, not knowing. It was an affront, a deprivation, to herself and to the world. She would bring this up with Stenton and Bailey, with the Gang of 40, at the earliest opportunity. They needed to talk about Annie, the thoughts she was thinking. Why shouldn’t they know them? ” (497)

How can we propose to turn the true, entire experience of the individual into data?

In many ways we are already in the circle – we are already commodities of consumer information for companies to harvest and put to use, our consciousnesses irrelevant. Some already, like the Circlers, often the emotionally vulnerable (such as Alistair) or socially incompetent (in the physical social space, which Eggers I would argue will forever be tainted by technology and digital space), whose essence is dictated by the perceptions of others – even anonymous digital peers with whom they’ve never made any physical contact – are even more comfortable or see it more regular to be thoroughly, even intrinsically as humans living today, attached and pervaded by technology (and thus live in what Haraway describes as an age obsessed by problems of coding –how do we code consciousness?).

Eggers, in the original passage quoted, also brings to light something he has toyed with or alluded to many times previously and afterward – that of a second world, the digital one and its accelerating saturation of our first world (first, second, third, etc. screens, anyone?), where we are measurable commodities – through the mirror imagery. Mae sees (at least at this early stage, when the Circle’s philosophies are still shocking, even alien to her) that this representation is incomplete, somehow skewed, not her true self, essence. Mae is witnessing herself split, and Eggers is playing here on the multiplicity of any human being, any sense of self, our representations of these selves (Herman Hesse comes to mind here, except he deals more directly with the soul), but now a completely different space is inhabited and controlled – the digital one rather than the many personalities a person can be presently – when you are physically present or hearing their voice – now we have a digital space where Mae is expected to participate (and respond to the hierarchical demands as well as the protocol of the system – things like rank, her Inner and OuterCircle, zing and its uses, etc) and deeply hurts people (second world tangibly affecting first) with her lack of participation, her failure to adhere to the rules. That in the Circle characters view the digital image as a complete one is where the conflict, the mortification Mae feels during the LuvLuv presentation, comes from. We as readers are right there with Mae, at least I am, when imagining the reality Eggers draws in this novel.

Equally frightening is the clinic visit scene, when the Circle’s data gathering norms are crystallized. In case we haven’t gotten it yet, Eggers is very clear here – we are a measurable organism whose existence to the Circle is simply data stored on a server somewhere and predictable, organizable:

  “It’ll feel warm for a few days, then you and the bracelet will get used to each other. But it has to touch the skin, of course, to measure what we’d like to measure—which is everything. You did want the full program, right?

“It’ll collect data on your heart rate, blood pressure, cholesterol, heat flux, caloric intake, sleep duration, sleep quality, digestive efficiency, on and on. A nice thing for the Circlers, especially those like you who might have occasionally stressful jobs, is that it measures galvanic skin response, which allows you to know when you’re amped or anxious. When we see non-normative rates of stress in a Circler or a department, we can make adjustments to workload, for example. It measures the pH level of your sweat, so you can tell when you need to hydrate with alkaline water. It detects your posture, so you know when you need to reposition yourself.”

Not only is a “matrix of preferences” – our opinions – our essence, but to the Circle and through Eggers, through our technological society and nature today, all of ourselves – our vitality, habits, health, the measurable physicality of our being transposed into data that can be referenced, logged, organized, ordered – is our essence, and makes concrete human consciousness. Can measurable data ever equate to human experience?

And who then makes the objective truth that our essence should strive for? Who dictates the morality? To Eggers that is the Circle, the system we inhabit; they are the rule makers, the hierarchy in conflict with the imperfect distributed network of plugged in organisms that we have become.

Edit: I’m realizing on reflection that, in Eggers’ vein, this post is probably asking more questions about our present than positing a proper interpretation. Maybe that’s what he’s after, to challenge us to pay better attention, ask questions of how technology shapes how we see ourselves in this global system and how humanity is constantly changing. 

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3 Responses to Essence in the Digital Space: Representation, Data, and Consciousness (Spoiler Alert!)

  1. Excellent and compelling post.

    Like

  2. Steph Roman says:

    Are you writing your essay on this? You definitely should consider it. Great work pulling in additional sources as well. Lanier’s book sounds quite interesting.

    Like

    • mjp99 says:

      Yeah, Adri had us read Lanier’s book the first time I took Narrative & Technology (I ended up leaving the state to remedy some personal issues, I think it was spring 2012) so a lot of his points ring truer the second time around as Brad has a way of framing things contemporaneously, giving great context to the texts we’re reading where occasionally Adri I felt got lost without exemplified social stakes for some of our assigned texts (protocol in particular). I plan to write placing the Circle’s lack of sexuality, or bleeding of sexuality along masculine-feminine barriers with Haraway’s Manifesto and the knowledge argument (and thought experiment bringing to light experience as a type of knowledge, similar to what I argue here I guess), as well as the experiences and philosophies of Neil Harbisson, the cyborg/artist with what in effect is artificial synesthesia. I have a lot to wrestle with and work through but I look forward to it!

      Like

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