I haven't made too many changes to this essay since having handed it in. The general thesis of the work is the same with the only notable changes being the correction of grammar and spelling.
The original deadline for this essay was the 1st of June 2021.
Freazy Warr, 25th August 2021.
Solidarity and friendship, whilst related, are not necessarily the same. Where friendship is concerned with the emotional connections people make with one another, solidarity is more concerned with mutual understanding. The mutual understanding, for example, of workers around the world can be understood as a shared struggle for liberation from capitalism. Whilst friendships can certainly exist among those that have solidarity, it is not necessary. However, the anxieties and enemies which can create solidarity also have an effect on the human ability to form friendships. This essay intends to explore the ways in which both solidarity and friendship are considered in Dave Eggers’ The Circle (2019) and Jeannette Winterson’s Frankissstein: A Love Story (2019). Whilst both texts are concerned with the relationship between humanity and technology, the different forms of technology, such as computers, which exist in either work demonstrate different ways in which our methods of forming friendship and solidarity can be, for the most part negatively, affected by machines.
Dave Eggers’ 2013 novel, The Circle, concerns itself with the expropriation of privacy and human rights by a capitalist Silicon Valley organisation. The novel, written from a third-person perspective, follows Mae, a new member of a company called The Circle. Eggers models the campus aesthetic of his fictional company on real world companies such, as Google and Facebook, with green spaces surrounded by offices. His purpose in doing so is to create a clear analogy between the fiction of his work and reality. The anxieties explored in The Circle are merely extrapolated from our real-world anxieties, particularly regarding our human rights to privacy. The main product of this company, TruYou, exists as a conglomeration of real-world online products. Specifically, it serves as ‘one account, one identity, one password, one payment system, per person’ (p.20). In this fiction, all competitors have been overtaken by this single entity exercising a monopoly over the internet and attempting to expand into the physical realm. Eggers is exploring the blurring lines between ourselves and our online selves. Though this monopoly is fictional, it is clearly based on the desired goals of the previously mentioned Google and Facebook. The acquisition of personal data is the profit motive for Eggers' fictional company as The Circle could track ‘the actual buying habits of actual people’ which were ‘mappable and measurable’ (p.22). The benefit of such systems are made clear throughout the novel. Users of the service were given ‘simplicity, efficiency, a clean and streamlined experience’ (p.22) at the expense of their personal data and privacy. This ideology is demonstrated by Eggers through the architecture and design of the campus. ‘The Glass Eatery’, for instance, are nine levels with ‘all of the floors and walls glass’. Its occupants looking ‘like a hundred people [sic] eating in mid-air' (p.15). On the smaller scale, the desks in the customer experience officers are decorated ‘elaborately but tastefully’ to the styles of their user. Eggers exploration of this ideology of openness peaks with the line ‘secrets are lies’, a line uttered by Mae when announcing she would adopt an always online camera, called SeeChange (p.296). The logic, Eggers expands through Mae, is that secrets make crime possible as we ‘behave worse when we’re not accountable’ (p.296). This justification for the intrusive nature of The Circle’s products explains the most basic consequence of a lack of privacy. What, then, is identity without privacy? And how can any set of individuals truly express themselves to one another when placed under constant scrutiny? Eggers appears to be demonstrating through this lack of privacy that accountability is at odds with the genuine nature of people.
Another aspect of Eggers’ fictional company which challenges to stop the genuine nature of people is through the scale of it. Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman’s propaganda model, as defined in Manufacturing Consent (1998), can easily be applied to The Circle in order to demonstrate the different methods of control which Eggers does not explicitly point out. Although Chomsky and Herman’s model was designed with the reporting of news in the mass media of the 20th century, there is plenty of evidence in our reality that demonstrates how mass media has evolved. According to Ofcom, in 2013, the year of The Circle’s publication, 32% of adults in the UK used the internet for their news (2013, p.5). In 2020 this number has increased to 65% with 45% of all adults using social media (2020, p.3). Considering how The Circle is analogous for real-world social media companies, it is, perhaps, fair then to apply Chomsky and Herman’s propaganda model as social media and the internet are common sources of news information. It can be assumed that The Circle’s main method of making profit is through the selling of data and marketing. According to the propaganda model, this means that the information The Circle presents to its users is relevant to the desires of the company's profit motive. It wouldn’t for example, be in the interest of The Circle to propagate information which negatively affects the company's profits. At the same time, it would be in the interest of The Circle to prioritise marketing information to its users which directly benefits its income. An aspect of this propaganda model that is relevant to this discussion is how it affects working class movements. Mass media, including social media, actively acts against the working class by promoting ideas which hinder unionisation and solidarity. Eggers has, when applying the propaganda model, created a dystopian setting in which solidarity is challenged by the capitalist goals of Silicon Valley.
Jeanette Winterson’s 2019 novel, Frankissstein: A Love Story, concerns itself with consciousness, identity, feminism, technology, and theology. Split between two temporally distant first-person narrators, Winterson explores how modern anxieties towards technological progress are not unlike the anxieties of two hundred years ago. The present-day narrator, Ry Shelley, is mirrored by the non-fictional Mary Shelley. Winterson swaps between these two narrators every, or ever other, chapter. However, the discussions of each period are not presented in isolation. Instead, Winterson explores a certain idea in one time period and then continues it, albeit with the context of discussion changed, into the next. As, for example, Mary and Percy Shelley discuss the relationship between the soul and the body – it is the spirit that ‘shapes the world’, but ‘is it my body that you love?’ (p.15) – Ry Shelley and Ron Lord discuss the objectification of the body. Albeit, Winterson uses these different characters, both fictional and non-fictional, as a method of exploring this discussion. Ron Lord, a capitalist who insists he is on the side of women because ‘who wants some twat to cum in their real hair?’ (p.45), is depicted by Winterson as a purveyor of sex through robots. In the realm of artificial intelligence there are two kinds: weak AI, and strong AI. According to John Searle, weak AI is a ‘very powerful tool’ which is performs a designated task. Meanwhile, strong AI is a mind which can ‘understand and have other cognitive states’ (1980). In some sense, we could apply this relationship of a tool, weak AI, and something akin to a human, strong AI, with sexbots. Masturbatory aids, such as artificial vaginas or dildos, are controlled by hand or rudimentary machine, and serve the sole purpose of simulating genitalia for the user's sexual pleasure. They are, put simply, tools. Winterson’s sexbots on the other hand, whilst also designed as masturbatory aids, exist not just as detached genitals but instead exhibit the form of a complete woman.
Throughout the novel, Lord describes the potential of his sexbots as a replacement for a real partner. ‘This gentle thing of circuits, silicon, and wires will suit me very well’ (p.312). Of course, these sexbots aren’t conscious in the same sense that theoretical strong AI is. It is their form with which they take that is human, not their mind. Aura Schussler notes this same distinction in our own reality. Real-world weak AI sexbots, such as ‘Harmony’ and ‘Samantha’ (2020, p.22), ‘have a number of qualities that bring them closer to the characteristics of human nature’ such as a human form and the ability to mimic orgasm (2020, p.33). A potential dilemma with weak AI sexbots, Schussler points out, is the potential for them to replace genuine human agents (2020, p.36). Winterson explores this fully near the end of the novel when describing, through Ron Lord, a hypothetical future where the potential of sexbots are fully realised. ‘A lot of people will be glad not to have any more crap relationships with crap humans’ (p.312). The relationship-less nature of this hypothetical circumstance is clear in Winterson's vision, but it has some other consequences as well. Ron Lord’s business merchandise and target audience is based on reality. As Schussler points out, weak AI sexbots are, for the most part, based on the female body whilst their customers are, predominantly, male. Someone who willfully isolates themselves ‘on the basis of the superiority of this AI sexbot in relation to a human partner’ has the potential to blur the line between their identification of the object and other people. In particular, the ‘inability of a weak AI sexbot to consent or not to a sexual relationship’ can cause its owner to perceive people as accepting of objectification. A situation which Schussler notes may result in ‘an increasing number of sexual abuses of the female gender and sexual minorities’ (2020, p.36).
As the proliferation of sexbots has the potential to isolate its users, their potential consequence of female objectification and a greater number of sexual abuses itself creates more isolation for the victims. Winterson explores sexual abuse in their novel as an extension of the objectification of the female body. Ry Shelley, a trans man, is sexually assaulted during a confrontation with a cis man in a public toilet. The assailant, whose homophobic anxiety makes him believe that Ry’s choice to use a stall and not a urinal is based on Ry’s perception that the assailant is gay, attempts to force Ry to use the urinal. ‘He lunged at [Ry’s] crotch – and found what [Ry doesn’t] have’ (p.242). Upon realising Ry is trans, the assailant begins his sexual assault. ‘THIS IS THE REAL DEAL YOU FUCKIN’ DYKE FAGGOT. YOU WANT IT?’, which is immediately followed by ‘YOU FUCKIN’ FREAK! YOU HAD YOUR TIT SLASHED OFF? NO TITS. NO DICK. FUCKIN’ FREAK!’ (p.242). In this instance, Ry is reduced to their body. Ry’s consciousness, or soul, is irrelevant to the desire of the assailant and as such they are both alone. Ry, especially so, as Winterson chooses not to reference this assault later in the novel. At most, Winterson suggests Ry is struggling with their condition in life stating that they don’t want eternal life as ‘this life is trouble enough’ (p.281), but it is not clear that there is a connection between this state of mind and their assault. Winterson doesn’t limit the objectification of Ry to just the assailant. Characters such as Ron Lord and Claire are both presented as capable of recognising the difference between the source of identity, which is consciousness, and the body. Yet, in each instance that they discover Ry is trans their perception of Ry changes to focus on the body. For Claire, her theology dictates that ‘God makes us as we are and we shouldn’t tamper with it’ (p.240) whilst Ron, initially confused, constantly reduces Ry identity to the female aspects of his body. Winterson exploration of trans issues leaves Ry isolated not only within the work of fiction but also to the reader. The language and situations Winterson engages with in regards to Ry’s being trans is not typical of real trans identifying people. For example, Winterson describes Ry, through Ry’s own first-person perspective, as a ‘hybrid’ (p.83). This idea of hybridity is a reduction of Ry back to their body, just as calling him a freak. The discussions of trans issues throughout the novel is always focused on Ry’s body, and rarely his identity. In Orientalism (1978), Edward Said argues that Western perceptions of the Eastern world are determined by imperialist scholarship and fiction. It is, perhaps, worth taking a similar post-structuralist approach to Winterson’s work regarding the presumably cis-authorship exploring, and defining, trans issues. Winterson’s description of hybridity, for example, does not suspend Ry’s identity, or body, between the binaries of male and female, but instead is a description of the incongruence of Ry’s gender identity and physical state. The reality for trans people far exceeds this limited concept of a male mind in a female body. As well as non-binary, there are terms to describe identities which are fluid such as ‘bigender’ and ‘genderfluid’. At the same time, those who want to ‘disrupt the gender dichotomy’ identify as ‘genderqueer’ and ‘genderfuck’ (Richards, et al., 2016. p.96). Winterson takes great care in describing to the reader the technicalities of ‘teledildonics’ (p.34) but does very little in describing to the reader the ideas of gender identity and the gender binary. This renders the character Ry, who for a moment we shall hypothetically imagine them as real and separate from the author, as isolated from the understanding of the reader.
Eggers and Winterson both explore identity and the relationship between humanity and technology in regard to contemporary anxieties. For Eggers, social media, as presented through the fictional Circle, is a force which denies people identity by forcing people to become open about everything. The ideology of social media, which perhaps is better described as a capitalist venture than an ideology, is dependent on people giving up privacy for the sake of acceptance among their peers in The Circle. At the same time, applying Chomsky and Herman’s propaganda model to the fictional organisation demonstrates how social media is a force which undermines solidarity. For Winterson, the sexbots pose two potential consequences. The first of these is the isolation men may potentially face by deciding that a sexbot is a more suitable partner than a human. A machine replacing human relationships. The other consequence of these sexbots is through the feminine nature with which their objectification relies. The treatment of these sexbots has the potential to translate into the treatment of real women. We can see this denial of consent to a female body through the rape of Ry. Ry, despite being a trans man, is constantly forced in the novel to be faced with their transness. There is a meta aspect here in the way in which Winterson denies Ry the ability to be understood by the reader due to the language that Winterson chooses.
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Richards, C., Bouman, W.P., Seal, L., Barker, M.J., Neider, T.O., & T’Sjoen, G. 2016. Non-binary or genderqueer genders. International Review of Psychiatry. 28(1), pp.95-102.
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