We live in a world where success has become a more vague concept. Some would say that it has a declining appeal. To become successful is to surrender your identity to the world, something scorned in the digital age. Fame has its price. A Dionysian feeding frenzy is likely to send you to the tabloids and mere oblivion. Who are the agents of this fame cull? It’s more than just the red tops. Something dark lurks behind every screen tap. An algorithmic surveillance filters all our communication. Fear stalks our thoughts. Fiction is developing new anti-heroes hiding in shadows on the dark web. Identity destruction or identity theft? Who we are is perhaps all we have left and it can be traded cheaply in an increasingly unforgiving digital world. Reduced to random combinations of numbers and letters, the Internet has moved its knowledge appeal to become something threatening. Perhaps it always was. Knowledge and connectivity, a feeding democratisation, its early unpoliced years were fertile ground for the cynically aware early tecchies. Governments and local organisations began to deploy it to save money, but their parsimony was at the cost of employment opportunities for ordinary people. ‘Progress’ seemed anything but its etymological promise.
So where are we headed? Is our only hope that the world might run out of power, out of the very thing that drives the web? The race to make the most of its potential is being won by darker forces than we would like to see beyond us. The Cold War now looks like a playground squabble. Our phones, tablets and computers are never elsewhere. Our thoughts and movements are tapped, our lives documented, our value to ourselves and our country, plundered. Privacy has become a wanton anachronism, and now we know the World Wide Web will be with us forever, we must take steps to limit its power, to limit its viscosity or we may never recover the fertile sobriety of aloneness.
Mercy is a novel whose central character deploys his discovery of the internet in 1995 to his own evil ends. Its potential for character annihilation, homing in on the things we value and love the most, have suddenly made it something to be feared.