Loneliness – Limitation – Liberation
Edited By Ina Bergmann and Stefan Hippler
This collection of essays comprises cultural analyses of practices of eremitism and reclusiveness in the USA, which are inseparably linked to the American ideals of individualism and freedom. Covering a time frame from the eighteenth to the twenty-first century, the essays study cultural products such as novels, poems, plays, songs, paintings, television shows, films, and social media, which represent the costs and benefits of deliberate withdrawal and involuntary isolation from society. Thus, this book offers valuable contributions to contemporary cultural discourses on privacy, surveillance, new technology, pathology, anti-consumerism, simplification, and environmentalism. Solitaries can be read as trailblazers for an alternative future or as symptoms of a pathological society.
Solitude in the Digital Age: Privacy, Aloneness, and Withdrawal in Dave Eggers’s The Circle (Stefan Hippler)
Abstract: This essay investigates various forms of solitude against the backdrop of contemporary technological progress and social media. Taking Dave Eggers’s critically acclaimed novel The Circle (2013) as the focus of argumentation, this paper shows and discusses how different experiences of solitude may be altered and shaped by new technologies.
1. Social Media as a Topic of Cultural Discourse
Today, social media have come to feature as an important aspect of many peoples’ everyday lives. José van Dijck observes that “the widespread presence of [social media] platforms [has driven] people to move many of their social, cultural, and professional activities to these online environments” (4). By now, it is undeniable that the emergence of these new media has drastically altered the landscape of human experience. This development has been perceived in various ways by the broad public: as it is often the case with technological advancements, there are people who enthusiastically welcome all forms of social media into their lives and then there are those who are more critical of this trend. The latter group fears that being constantly connected to the internet will lead to nonstop surveillance and a loss of privacy, resulting in negative consequences for their private and ‘offline’ lives. This discourse has over time generated heated debates on the benefits and dangers of the internet and social media in particular, and has furthermore become the subject of many forms of cultural expression. Often, cultural products such as fiction contemplate how technological developments “reshape the … experience of ‘being human’” (Yar 29).
Dave Eggers’s novel The Circle (2013) is a highly controversial fictional rendering of how the ubiquity of social media might impact the makeup of human existence and social interaction on both an individual and on a more universal level. Set in a probable and “not-too-distant future” (Snow; see also Williams; Ludwigs; Tommasi 249), the narrative follows 24-year-old Mae Holland’s rapid ascent in a fictitious company called the Circle. The third-person narrative perspective concentrates on Mae and turns her into “our fictional stand-in” (Williams). Through her experiences the readers can closely observe and simultaneously critically distance themselves from the projected developments. The novel’s eponymous enterprise ranks as “the hottest company on the planet” (Eggers 72) and has secured itself a ← 259 | 260 → steady position “on the forefront of social media” (185) through various innovations and the promise to perfect its users’ online presence. After having overcome some initial struggles to adapt to the pace, workload, and demands of her job, Mae quickly turns into an advocate for the Circle’s ideas (Tommasi 249) and puts her work above all other aspects of her life. Ignoring the skepticism and warnings from the people around her and regardless of any consequences, she makes it her mission to help the company reach all of its goals, even its ultimate one, namely to collect all the information in the world and to make all aspects of life transparent.
Despite some mixed reviews with regard to content, style, and technological accuracy, The Circle quickly turned into a bestseller, a fact that indisputably mirrors contemporary society’s widespread yet ambivalent fascination with social media. The novel ranks as an important cultural product, as it “[explores] a particular set of ideas and their implications” by showing how technology and social media might and even already do influence contemporary life (Galow 115). Presenting an enterprise that has the potential to shape and transform social structures and the overall experience of everyday life, The Circle contributes to the critical discourse on the possible impact of techno-scientific progress on society.
One of the most intriguing aspects of Eggers’s novel is the thought-provoking elaboration on the topic of solitude. Following recent appeals to study the importance of solitude in a technology-driven society that highly values constant connectedness to and participation on social networking sites (Neyfakh), this essay investigates diverse forms of solitude as presented in The Circle. I will show that Eggers’s novel engages in a timely and multilayered discussion of distinct shapes and understandings of solitude against the backdrop of an environment where privacy and aloneness have become nearly impossible.
2. Solitude and Aloneness in the Digital Age: Theoretical Considerations
Self-imposed solitude has often been the topic of philosophical inquiry and scholarly examination alike. In 1854, Henry David Thoreau stated that he “[finds] it wholesome to be alone” (180) in his endeavor “to live deliberately” (135), thereby alluding to the positive effects that spending time alone can entail. Generally speaking, solitude allows for undistracted “contemplation, exploration, problem-solving, introspection, and the escape of pressures” (Rubin xv). Moreover, being alone embraces restorative and recuperative qualities. Throughout history, individuals or groups of people have often chosen to consciously withdraw from society, be it only for a certain amount of time or entirely. They sought solitude in order to relax, reflect, enjoy privacy, or even to make political statements. ← 260 | 261 →
In the wake of the digital and technological revolution, with its side effects of permanent availability and connectedness, spending time alone has become increasingly difficult. Ever since the introduction of the internet, emailing, and cell phones, people feel the pressure to be available around the clock. In fact, it is nearly taken for granted that we are just one click, email, or phone call away. Social media have not only contributed to this trend but also actually intensified it. They have rendered “the worlds of online and offline … increasingly interpenetrating” (van Dijck 4), as they invite users to share their private and offline experiences online. Thus, social media promote being connected to the online community at any time. As a result, privacy and aloneness have come to be rare goods in our contemporary society.
These developments have elicited critical comments by both scholars and the concerned public. Of course, it is important not to lapse into polemic black-and-white thinking on the dangers and pitfalls of the internet. Yet, it is equally necessary to consider how technological progress affects the human experience. Robert J. Coplan and Julie C. Bowker, for instance, wonder “whether any of us will ever truly be alone in the future,” given the fact that “rapidly evolving technological advances intend to connect all of us – all of the time” (11). In the face of ever-expanding social media, it does not seem too far-fetched to assume that a continuous online presence may have negative by-effects, as it might distract users from their offline lives and even deprive them of much-needed time for themselves. “[I]f we are always on,” Sherry Turkle comments, “we may deny ourselves the rewards of solitude” (3). Clearly, experiences of solitude are at least compromised, if not endangered, by the omnipresence of social media and the inherent perceived pressure to always be online. It can definitely be said that, thanks to new communication technologies, “the experience of being alone is being transformed dramatically” (Neyfakh). Thus, it is important to systematically and critically approach the question of how social media might shape and impinge on experiences of solitude (Amichai-Hamburger and Schneider 330). Considering The Circle a revelatory and elaborate contribution to this inquiry, this essay will illuminate and discuss Eggers’s implementation of different forms of solitude. It will thereby grapple with the overall question of how social media might play an important role in shaping forms of solitude in the future.
3. Privacy and Surveillance
The Circle’s policies concerning privacy serve as the basis for the shape and transformation of experiences of solitude in the fictional world Eggers envisions. Therefore, it is essential to first examine how the overall concept of privacy is imagined ← 261 | 262 → in the narrative. Following Mae’s development, which runs parallel to the gradual ramifications on privacy undertaken by the Circle, the reader gains insight into the ways in which the company interferes with users’ private data and how it steadily tries to abolish privacy.
Though a relatively young company, the Circle has quickly developed into a vast enterprise. The company ranks among “the best-known [companies] in the world” (Eggers 2) and has already “subsumed” and eliminated all formerly popular social networking and media platforms (23; see also Atwood). Many people wish to work for this hip firm. At first glance, the Circle seems to offer its employees a utopian idyll (Grossman): situated on “soft green hills” (Eggers 1), the campus of the Circle’s headquarters features not only various office buildings but also a plethora of leisure facilities that cater to every possible need and desire. The vision and mission of the company, too, evoke a utopian flair: it is the Circle’s goal to revolutionize and facilitate people’s online presence, to “[use] social media to create a safer and saner world” (446), and to establish “[o]ne hundred percent democracy” (386) through mandatory user participation. Other than monopolizing social media for themselves, the founders of the Circle, also known as the Three Wise Men – a label that playfully hints at the company’s alleged “messianic” mission (Charles) – plan to make all aspects of life transparent and to collect all the information in the world. The megalomania behind the enterprise becomes apparent when Bailey Stenton, one of the heads of the Circle, summarizes the long-term goals of the company: “We will become all-seeing, all-knowing” (70).
These aims are to be achieved through numerous, seemingly harmless innovations. Although “[n]early all of the technological developments imagined in the book are meant to serve positive ends” (Galow 125) such as lowering crime rates and simplifying peoples’ lives, exactly the same techno-scientific inventions largely affect all dimensions of privacy. For example, the Circle collects and saves all their users’ information and data in a cloud where “[i]t can never be lost” (Eggers 43). Also, the company introduces SeeChange, a monitoring system that facilitates continual world-wide surveillance. The company and its proponents install small cameras all over the world in order to permanently record everything and to “have constant access” (63) to whatever place they want to observe. Notably, this is undertaken “with no permit” (62), yet tolerated by the users. Furthermore, the company encourages politicians and later also the broad public to go completely transparent by streaming their lives online by way of small cameras worn around their necks. Under the pretense of working for the users’ benefits, the innovations and methods of the Circle promote “ultimate transparency” (69) and complete surveillance at the cost of users’ privacy. ← 262 | 263 →
The Circle bears close resemblance to the concept of the panopticon (Axelrod; Charles), both in its virtual and real-life structures. Drawing on Jeremy Bentham’s considerations of architectures that facilitate constant surveillance, Michel Foucault defines the panopticon as “a compact model of … [a] disciplinary mechanism” (197). In more general words, panoptic structures empower certain individuals to constantly watch others and thereby to secure and institutionalize hegemonic order, all of which also holds true for the company presented in Eggers’s narrative. At the Circle, these mechanisms are already part of the architectural appearance of the campus buildings: “the offices [are] fronted by floor-to-ceiling glass, the occupants visible within” (Eggers 7; see also Atwood; Tommasi 249). This design permits that the employees and their activities can be observed at all times. Also, the technologies used at the Circle record all of the employees’ data, collect their personal information, and closely observe their online and offline activities. In its endeavor to make the world transparent, the company encourages and even tries to enforce such behavior also on a larger scale and uses technology to collect, store, and share all information world-wide.
As observed by Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson, The Circle “raises disturbing questions about the end of privacy” (260), as it shows how constant surveillance renders privacy impossible. The Circle’s tools not only capture incriminating material about people, but also make intimate information publicly known and easily accessible. In order to collect and provide “the accumulated knowledge of the world” (Eggers 302), the Circle introduces the motto “PRIVACY IS THEFT” (303), thereby insinuating that privacy is a concept that borders on the fringe of illegality. Having nearly eliminated privacy as a reasonable and rightful demand, the Circle’s policies regulate how solitary and private experiences are shaped.
4. Authentic Solitude Endangered by Social Media
One way in which Eggers’s novel contributes to the discourse on solitude in the digital age is through its critical examination of “authentic solitude.” Generally understood to be “based on the decision to be alone” (Averill and Sundararajan 91), authentic solitude describes voluntary and self-imposed withdrawal. Mae’s personal development as projected throughout the narrative illustrates how experiences of self-chosen solitude can be altered, endangered, and ultimately destroyed by techno-scientific progress and constant surveillance.
Early on, the reader learns that Mae has for quite a while been implementing a form of authentic retreat into her life. Having been introduced to the sportive activity of kayaking by her ex-boyfriend, Mercer, Mae has turned solitary kayaking trips into one of her hobbies. It becomes clear that she often seeks the solitude the ← 263 | 264 → activity offers her in order to flee from the stressors in her life such as the pressure put on her through her new job at the Circle, her father’s multiple sclerosis, and the strained and somewhat complicated relationship she has with Mercer. The time she has to herself during these trips gives her the chance and freedom to relax and recuperate. Only then can she be completely “free of thoughts” (Eggers 145) and temporarily forget her troubles and worries. Voluntary solitude offers “a respite from the stresses of life” and provides people with time “for quiet contemplation” (Coplan and Bowker 3). It is in this way that Mae has integrated self-imposed solitude in her life, at least up to the point where her job interferes.
Soon after starting to work for the Circle, Mae leaves the campus to spend the weekend with her parents after her father had a seizure. On her way back, she goes kayaking in order to unwind and have some alone time. A couple of days later, her work supervisors confront Mae with her sudden disappearance from campus and her failure to participate in the Circle’s social activities over the weekend. After explaining her situation, her supervisors encounter that it is of course “very understandable” (Eggers 178) that she wants to spend time with her parents but that they find it problematic that Mae did not “post anything … about this episode” (183) on the Circle’s social networking in order to “share it” with other Circlers (184). Learning about Mae’s kayaking trip, her supervisors become even more irritated and criticize her of being “selfish” (187) because she has kept her hobby private. They call Mae’s conduct “sub-social” (189) and explain to her that this kind of behavior runs counter to the Circle’s ethos: the employees’ “online presence [is] integral to [their] work” (95) and to the overall mission of complete transparency. On a more abstract level, the novel here insinuates that spending time alone in a collective system that expects its members to be social both physically and virtually at all times might not only be frowned upon but also even reprimanded.
In the long run, the pressure to always participate and to expose all aspects of one’s private life influences and shapes one’s personal downtime. In The Circle, this is illustrated when Mae once again goes kayaking and is being caught in the act by the Circle’s SeeChange cameras. This time, her kayaking trip is illegal, as she takes one of the kayaks onto the bay after the opening hours of the shop. Ironically as well as tellingly, Mae is not primarily reproached for her violation of the law but for the fact that she did not document and share her trip online. One of the company’s heads, Eamon Bailey, explains to her: “the point is that there are millions of people who can’t see what you saw, Mae. Does it feel right to have deprived them of seeing what you saw?” (300). In order to educate the broad public about their mantra that “PRIVACY IS THEFT” (303), the Circle uses Mae’s misconduct as a strategic marketing trick. They put her on a stage where ← 264 | 265 → she has to repent in front of a large audience. On the one hand, this act of public shaming and humiliation is of course installed in order to show that the Circle’s surveillance system has already advanced to a point where there is a good chance that people are observed at all times. This should lead to people’s modification of their behavior. On the other hand, putting Mae on the pillory should deter people from indulging in similar and seemingly selfish behavior and discourage them from yielding to their desire to be alone (Williams).
These disciplinary actions profoundly affect Mae’s overall social behavior. After having been chided for her allegedly antisocial conduct, she starts spending more time on campus, directs her attention to her PartiRank – one of the Circle’s tools that rates the employees’ participation on the social networking site –, and “[uses] every available moment of downtime to quickly scroll through [the site]” in order to partake in online activities (Eggers 104–05). Simultaneously, she gradually neglects her social and private life off-campus and offline and eventually gives up her kayak trips. In his review of the novel, Lev Grossman observes that Mae “spends her nights plowing through drifts of emails and posts and zings and her days sleepwalking through her real-life interactions with one eye always on her phone” so as to never be completely disconnected. The fact that she later even decides to go completely transparent – meaning that she wears a small camera around her neck wherever she goes – is merely the final touch within her development into the automaton-like proponent of the Circle. Over time, Mae willingly waives nearly all of her privacy and gives up her private life completely in favor of her online presence and the “validation” it offers her (Eggers 233; Tommasi 250). Being praised for her good work and for her dedication to the Circle makes her feel good about herself. She enjoys the reputation she has among her colleagues and among the users of the Circle’s network worldwide. What is presented here actually mirrors trends that were observed by scholars and critics in the recent past: fervent users of social networking sites often put more effort into their online presence than into their real life relationships. The virtual community consequently “[becomes] very important to surfers’ identities and their self-esteem” (Amichai-Hamburger and Schneider 319). Mae receives appreciation and recognition for her continuous online activity; meanwhile, her offline life gradually recedes. She loses touch with her parents, hardly spends time completely alone, and has even given up the rare periods of solitude she used to allow herself for recuperation and contemplation. Mae rejects alone time in favor of perfecting her online life and meeting the Circle’s requirements. Simultaneously, the reader can closely observe how she steadily turns into a less rational and less considerate person who blindly devotes her time to an enterprise that devours all of her time and energy. ← 265 | 266 →
Not only does this narrative trajectory confirm Mark Andrejevic’s observation that “new … communication technologies … have had a powerfully transformative effect on … social relations” in general (8), but it also alludes to the corrosive effects of recent techno-scientific progress on the time people used to voluntarily retreat. Thanks to both the opportunity and the pressure to be online all the time, people now rarely seclude themselves. And even when they are physically alone, they are often in one way or another connected to the world through technological devices that promote constant communication and data exchange and thus simulate human contact. As a consequence, “the distinction between ‘alone’ and ‘together’ has become hopelessly blurry” (Neyfakh) and authentic and self-chosen solitude is becoming harder to reach and enjoy.
5. Solitude Generated through Social Media
Whilst Eggers’s narrative explains how contemporary communication technologies may very well pose a danger to authentic solitude, it also provides food for thought on how exactly these same technologies can create another experience of solitude, namely in the sense of loneliness. Defined as “the painful experience of being alone” (Galanaki 71), loneliness might actually be the result of spending too much time in virtual environments at the cost of maintaining real life relationships. Of course, the virtual connections provided through social media networks simulate the feeling of company and communality and purport to their users that they are connected to other human beings (Turkle 1; Amichai-Hamburger and Schneider 330). Still, recent studies show that these virtual relationships are oftentimes of a lower and less intimate quality than their real life counterparts and, moreover, that online social networking platforms might potentially distract and even alienate users from their offline relationships (Amichai-Hamburger and Schneider 319, 330). Consequently, devoting oneself to the care of online contacts at the cost of offline relationships may lead to involuntary solitude and loneliness.
This scenario is also elaborated on in The Circle. Mae grows more socially reclusive as she dedicates more and more time to her presence on the Circle’s social network. At one point in the narrative, the reader gets a vivid description of how Mae tries to improve her PartiRank by the end of one of her workdays:
[S]he embarked on a flurry of activity, sending four zings and thirty-two comments and eighty-eight smiles. In an hour, her PartiRank rose to 7,228. Breaking 7,000 was more difficult, but by eight o’clock, after joining and posting in eleven discussion groups, sending another twelve zings, … and signing up for sixty-seven more feeds, she’d done it. She was at 6,872, and turned to her Inner-Circle social feed. She was a few hundred posts behind, and she made her way through, replying to seventy or so messages, RSVPing to eleven ← 266 | 267 → events on campus, signing nine petitions, and providing comments and constructive criticism on four products … By 10:16 her rank was 5,342. (Eggers 190)
I am quoting in length from the novel here for several reasons: for one, this passage illustrates how Eggers’s writing style perfectly captures and encapsulates the said “flurry of activity” and thereby mimics the hectic frenzy Mae works herself into in order to meet the demands of the Circle’s policy for the employees’ online interaction. For another, this episode grants insights into how the pressure to adequately perform online interferes with Mae’s personal life. Rather than relaxing by herself or socializing with real life contacts, Mae spends her time after work connected to the social network till late at night, which in turn leaves her in a liminal state with regard to companionship. Whilst she is not completely alone due to the fact that she is virtually connected to a multitude of other users, she is still all by herself in her room. Notwithstanding the illusion of being in contact with other people, it soon becomes clear that her online activities do not provide Mae with the same quality of real interpersonal contact. Given the fact that “most of the communication [on online social networks] is shallow” (Amichai-Hamburger and Schneider 330), it stands to reason that depriving oneself of authentic companionship in favor of solely engaging in virtually simulated contact might very well entail emotional repercussions. “Yet, suddenly, in the half-light of virtual community, we may feel utterly alone,” Sherry Turkle comments (11–12), and this is exactly what happens to Mae.
Coinciding with her increasingly excessive online activity, Mae often feels a “black rip” and “loud tear” opening up within her (Eggers 195). In the course of the novel, the tear and the therein projected emptiness gradually intensify, and it becomes clear that the tear symbolically mirrors “the uncompromising bleakness” of the future (Ludwigs) and, more specifically, the emotional impoverishment of Mae’s life. What she herself defines as a “wave of despair” (Eggers 195) can be easily decoded by the reader as the effect of her online behavior, which results in loneliness. After all, there is an ever-growing gap between Mae and her parents and also between her and Mercer, mostly because they antagonize Mae on the grounds of her overweening activities on the social network and her fervent and naive promotion of the Circle’s goals. For Mae, the only way to handle the tear is to “stay busy” (196) and to “[work] through it” (412) – a coping mechanism that catapults her into a vicious circle. In order not to have to face her loneliness, Mae buries herself in online activities for which she receives validation from her company and the online community, but which ultimately lead her to isolate herself even more. Close to the end of the novel, when Mae has lost touch with almost all of her former close relationships and “the tear [opens] up in her again, larger and blacker than ever before” (465), she finds solace in the shallow and virtually ← 267 | 268 → simulated support from the online community. It becomes clear that she has now completely abandoned her offline life in favor of being a showcase Circler.
What Eggers presents here is an illustration of how spending too much time online and relying too heavily on online social networks, which are generally considered to “[fight] loneliness” (Amichai-Hamburger and Schneider 330), can in fact create a rather negative experience of solitude: Mae’s behavior leads her into a state of “solitary confinement” (Atwood) and alienates her from real life contacts and meaningful companionship. On a more general level, it can be stated that social media environments may produce a form of solitude that results in both social and emotional reclusiveness, which in turn nurtures loneliness. In this vein, Eggers’s novel warns of the possible dangers of disproportionate virtual activities at the expense of authentic offline experiences and points out that virtually simulated companionship does not prevent people from feeling isolated, solitary, or lonely.
6. Deliberate Withdrawal and Political Reclusiveness in the Digital Age
In another plotline, The Circle addresses the issue of withdrawal from society to political ends. Mercer, who represents the mouthpiece for critical concerns about techno-scientific progress and the pressure to participate online (Axelrod; Galow 119), sees his only way of escaping the society that is more and more shaped and controlled by the Circle in deliberately distancing himself both emotionally as well as physically from said structures. In his main function as “one of the most vocal critics of the Circle, the death of privacy, and the way that social media has changed personal relationships” (Snow), Mercer contributes to the discourse on the downsides of a techno-communication-based society and moreover exemplifies how resistance to such trends might be registered by an environment that willingly succumbs to such structures.
The novel introduces Mercer as a down-to-earth character, who maintains a modest and simple lifestyle and who seems content with his existence. He is not interested in new communication technologies and online social networking. Even more so, he actually disapproves of these developments as he considers them a threat to traditional, authentic human contact and communication. Already at an early point in the narrative, Mercer expresses his dislike for the obsessive use of virtual communication and explains how the new technology interferes with interpersonal relationships: “It becomes like we’re never alone,” (Eggers 131; see also Snow) he observes during a conversation with Mae, who is constantly checking her messages on her phone. He then voices his critical opinions of the Circle’s modifications of interpersonal interaction: “the tools you guys create … manufacture unnaturally extreme ← 268 | 269 → social needs. No one needs the level of contact you’re purveying” (133). Apart from being concerned about the infringements on privacy, the constant surveillance, and the monetization of information exercised by the Circle, Mercer mostly bemoans the loss of genuine communication and intimacy. To him, new communication technologies produce “socially autistic” people (260) and thus destroy experiences of authentic and meaningful interaction. Considering Mercer’s attitude towards techno-scientific progress, it becomes clear that he “delivers the diagnosis of … [the] condition” (Ludwigs) of a society under the pressure to perform online. He criticizes and aptly predicts the hollowness and superficiality of such communication (Galow 119).
His resistance to give in to the pressures of participating online is perceived as unprogressive, undemocratic, and “antisocial” (Eggers 462) behavior. In the course of the novel, Mae more than once goes over his head and tries to persuade him of the advantages of online social networking, but to no avail. After Mae decides to go transparent and Mercer recognizes the consequences of this act on the lives of the people around her, he severs all contact with her. Using a seemingly old-fashioned medium, namely a letter, he informs her that he does not want anything to do with her and other Circlers anymore on the grounds of the inhumanity of “this [insidious] tool” (368). When Mae still does not stop intervening in other peoples’ lives and when the influence of the Circle has become almost inescapable, Mercer sends Mae a second letter. He explains that he will hide out in order to flee from the society the Circle has created: “By the time you read this, I’ll be off the grid, and I … know others will join me. We’ll be living … like refugees, or hermits” (432–33). Mercer’s social withdrawal can be seen as a form of political expression or statement. As observed by Coby Dowdell with regard to early American culture, citizens have oftentimes “expressed their critical voices through voluntary reclusion from society” (121) in order to “[engage] in public deliberation from a position of physical retirement” (130). This is exactly what Mercer does. His hermitism expresses his political conviction and functions as a practice of active, yet tacit rebellion against prevailing societal structures. The fact that this act is not only personal but also in fact decidedly public and political becomes clear when considering that he is aware that his actions will be observed. Knowing that the broad public will not only have access to his letters but also witness his withdrawal because Mae broadcasts her life, he addresses not only Mae but also her whole “audience” (Eggers 366), namely all the Circlers. His letters take on the function of what Dowdell calls “the hermit’s manuscript” (130). Generally speaking, the hermit’s written account “presents a transcription of the internal political contemplation of the retired citizen for public consumption” (130). Mercer’s letters reveal ← 269 | 270 → his meditations and his political attitude and thereby function as a manifesto of his convictions against complete surveillance and simulated communication. Here, solitude is then implemented as a political tactic that clearly positions a person or a group of people in the matrix of possible opinions on social structures. The act of deliberately opting out of a system turns social withdrawal and the resulting solitude into a radically political statement.
Mercer’s reclusiveness and pursuit of privacy elicit derogatory comments from Circlers all over the world. He is being referred to as “Bigfoot” and “Sasquatch” (Eggers 433), which shows that his resistance to online participation is construed as unprogressive and backwoods behavior. Furthermore, his withdrawal also arouses suspicion and irritation. Kenneth Rubin explains that members of a society are “likely … to think unpleasant thoughts about … solitary individuals,” as their behavior might be interpreted as “unacceptable” and “discomforting” (xiv). This can clearly be seen in Mercer’s case. On top of this, his actions are even perceived as antisocial and therefore undemocratic in the light of the Circle’s goal of an all-encompassing participatory democracy. For Mae personally, Mercer’s withdrawal also poses an annoyance and a personal attack. She simply cannot understand that he does not want to see the alleged benefits the Circle offers in her opinion and takes extreme measures to convert her ex-boyfriend. Shortly after his venture to the margins of society, Mae and the online community make use of the Circle’s latest technologies, highly accurate search tools and drones, in order to locate Mercer’s exact whereabouts. The relentless pursuit results in Mercer driving his car off a bridge in a rush of “unmitigated horror” (Eggers 458). Written off by the heads of the Circle as an act of “madness and paranoia” (463), Mercer’s suicide can be seen as a politically motivated action. Rather than succumbing to pathological societal structures he does not want to be a part of, Mercer follows his convictions and demands his right to privacy in the most extreme way. He manages to evade the Circle’s reach by making himself completely unavailable through death. His rather emblematic demise can easily be seen as the advancing disappearance of privacy and aloneness in the digital age. It alludes to recent concerns as to how the omnipresence of the internet and the possible inherent surveillance pose a serious threat to privacy and deliberate solitude and how it may consequently lead to their complete extinction.
7. Solitude in the Digital Age
Eggers’s novel can be understood as a dystopian parable that elucidates how human life may be transformed in the age of ever-progressing technology (Charles; Galow 125–26; Ludwigs; Snow; Smith and Watson 260; Tommasi 251). On the one hand, ← 270 | 271 → the narrative points out potential dangers of techno-scientific developments on an individual level. It shows how excessive fixation on online presentation might negatively influence an individual’s identity-development. After all, Mae steadily and inexorably turns into a rather shallow and one-dimensional character in the face of her online participation. Furthermore, the novel illustrates how surveillance prompted by social media might heavily infringe on people’s privacy. On the other hand, The Circle focuses on how society at large might be altered by social media by showing how interpersonal dynamics and relationships might become superficial and how quasi-mandatory online participation might result in a society that resembles “a totalitarian regime” (Snow).
Imagining a setting in which social media surveys, controls, and even dictates private lives and social interaction, Eggers’s novel chimes in with timely considerations of how experiences of aloneness and solitude might be altered by continuous availability and the pressure to participate in online interaction. Equipped with “a healthy dose of authentic alarm” (Axelrod), the narrative probes stimulating questions of how common experiences of authentic solitude are changed, if not even endangered and destroyed by techno-scientific progress and how social media environments may in fact create other forms of solitude in terms of loneliness. Moreover, it depicts how deliberate reclusiveness might not only be regarded as an irritation but even as completely unacceptable behavior that needs to be prevented in social structures that build on connectedness and communality. All in all, The Circle invites the reader to critically consider the implications of new technology. In our contemporary society, where aloneness has come to be a rare experience and where solitary activities steadily fade more into the background of human existence, there is good reason to ponder the question “if the experience of solitude is … doomed to become an archaic remnant of a past era” (Coplan and Bowker 11). Rather than providing the reader with a concrete answer to this question, The Circle sketches out possible and rather unsettling scenarios of how the progress of technology might affect our lives. Striking an extremely topical chord, Eggers’s novel not only critically comments on the promotion of complete transparency, but also engages in an intriguing and intricate discourse on possible future shapes of solitude.
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