“The ways in which we understand the world, and the ways in which we change the world in the basis of our understanding, are perpetually being redetermined. What unfolds is a dynamic process which is not about re-establishing equilibrium, but superseding the opposition between order and disorder, and recognizing that the catastrophic overturning of intention, and the often disturbing consequences of our technological ingenuity, constitute no objection to the compulsion to foresee and control”
Ray Brassier, Prometheanism and its critics
The term cyber-utopiansm refers to the belief that communication technologies are political tools for democracy and popular emancipation by themselves. This enthusiastic view of cyberspace, which defends that corporate power is selling its gravedigger to the crowd in form of technology, has been present on the internet from its very beginnings, but specially from the development of the Web 2.0. Cyber-utopianism can also be considered as a branch of Extropianism, an heterogeneous ideology mostly developed during the 1990s by the british philosopher Max More and whose principles are based on the defense of the the “boundless expansion, self-transformation, dynamic optimism, intelligent technology [and] spontaneous order” of human kind, all of them allowed by the combination of reason and technology. According to More, who is now the president of the largest provider of cryonics services in the world, "Extropy means supporting social orders that foster freedom of communication, freedom of action, experimentation, innovation, questioning, and learning. Opposing authoritarian social control and unnecessary hierarchy and favoring the rule of law and decentralization of power and responsibility"
The 1996 article Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace by John Perry Marlow, written primarily in response to the passing into law of the Telecommunications Act in the U.S., has been considered, if not a foundational text, a resume of cyber-utopians´ concerns and aspirations. In the Declaration, it is said that netizens “declare the global social space we are building to be naturally independent of the tyrannies you [the governments] seek to impose on us. You have no moral right to rule us nor do you possess any methods of enforcement we have true reason to fear.”
Apart from that, cyber-utopian positions have been widely distributed through Wiredmagazine, which in an article published also in 1996 affirmed for instance that “the Internet, enables average citizens to participate in national discourse, publish a newspaper, distribute an electronic pamphlet to the world . . . while simultaneously protecting their privacy”. Some cyber-utopians technologists and writers, such as Clay Shirky, Howard Rheingold, David Weinberger, Ray Kurzweil, Ricardo Luna, Chris Anderson, David Rowan, Luis Rosetto or Douglas Rushkoff have participated or even been editors of Wired, which has been named the “the official printing organ of the Church of Cyber-Utopianism”. Philosopher Marshal McLuhan, who first described the new human connections created by information technologies as a “global village”, has been also labeled as the magazine´s “patron saint” (Morozov, 2011:17). The widely read american journalist and blogger Doc Searls recently explained his cyber utopian position in a radio interview: “I'm not worried about the internet itself at all, but I understand the internet not as what the phone companies and the television companies deliver to houses through wires and airwaves, but rather the founding protocols of it, which basically were designed to make it easy for any two points in the world to send packets—these little digital packets to each other, without regard for who was in between. And that's a remarkably dumb system. It's dumb in a good way like gravity is dumb in a good way, and sunlight is dumb in a good way. Nobody owns it. And so it's just there. And the there-ness of the internet is just an amazing thing”
Although it has been heavily criticized, mostly because of its alleged naivety, some initiatives such as digital activism, e-democracy, virtual communitarism, digital currencies, alternative social networks or even crowdfunding can be said to be inspired by cyber-utopian aspirations of freedom and independence.
Taking “utopia” as the creation of an ideal or perfect society and a new anthropological definition of man (Breton 1995, p. 44), media technologies have always been closely connected to it through the myth of progress and the yearn for the betterment of society. From the birth of the print to the radio and the portapak, but specially from the advent of the internet and the consequent development of the information society, there is a believe in that media will be able to revive and promote community relations, give voice to marginal discourses and to set up anew communicational agora able to bring humanity in a whole. (Mattellard, 1999). This sensibility towards communication dates back to the Enlightenment, and it actually places the development and transparency of communication as the central axis in the organization of society. “The myth of the machine” or the image of technology and progress as the exploitation of natural resources through the mechanization of labour, has been replaced by the myth of the information. According to Morozov (2011: 13), the origins of cyber-utopianism can be thus traced back to the counter-culture of the 60s, or more precisely, to “the starry-eyed digital fervor of the 1990s, when former hippies (…) went on an argumentative spree to prove that the Internet could deliver what the 1960s couldn’t: boost democratic participation, trigger a renaissance of moribund communities [and] strengthen associational life” (ibíd).
An hybrid ideological orthodoxy
Cyber-utopianism is also intimately entangled with techno-utopianism, a movement that began to flourish in California during the 1990s, specially around Silicon Valley. On his 1995 essay The Californian Ideology, Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron argue that technological utopianism derives its popularity from the ambiguous, even paradoxical mixture between neoliberal economic policies and the anti-corporate ideology of the left. On the one hand, it is believed that the values of the bohemian counter-culture are shaping the development of the information technologies, with the inevitable result of a future emancipation of hypermedia from corporate capitalism and nation-state governments. However, it is becoming more and more evident how the “virtual elite” has enforced a laissez-faire logic of traditional forms of capitalist powers. This tension is well portrayed by Wired magazine, which even if considered as the bible for cyber-utopians and having adopted some precepts of McLuhan technological determinism, has uncritically reproduced the views of Newt Gingrich, the extreme-right Republican leader of the House of Representatives, and the Tofflers, who are his close advisors (Barbrook and Cameron, 1995: 7). Thus, whether the contradictory mix between marxist technological determinism and libertarian individualism will conform the internet as an “electronic agora” (Rheingold) or an electronic marketplace is yet to be disclosed. The concrete focus on social media and communication technologies has been considered as distinctive of cyber-utopianism, whereas the focus of technological utopianism would be broader.
Generally, and specifically within the academic realm, every optimistic perspective about technology which doesn´t openly address the two-folded nature of capitalist information technologies is labeled as cyber-utopian or naïve. However, it´s been said that it might be useful to think about cyber-utopianism in terms of prophecy rather than prediction. As Ethan Zuckermanl posits, “if we figured out how to do this well we could use this incredible technology that we have, we could use the internet as a way to increase understanding between people in different continents, people who speak different languages. Where we make the mistake is if we simply assume that that's what the future holds and that we've no work to do. Reading it prophecy rather than reading it as prediction shows us the work that we have ahead.”
In 2011, cyber-utopianism was powerfully critiqued by Evgeny Morozov in his book The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom. The author questions the ideology within the scope of global politics and his text is probably both the most well-known source of information as well as a virulent criticism to its naive and “stubborn for its refusal to acknowledge the [internet´s] downsides” (Morozov, 2011: 13) The most controversial issues of the cyber-utopian ideology can be resumed as follows:
1. Contested universalism
Cyber-utopian theories are allegedly universalist while Americentric in practice. The incontestable primacy of America in the development of the communication technologies can convey an idea of democracy and social emancipation which is culturally very specific and not applicable to non-Western and particularly nondemocratic contexts. Thus, the illusion created by an enthusiastic, non-critical view of information technologies or the direct identification of technology and democracy could even lead to a new form of colonialism or techno-colonialism. For instance, even if the internet can give voice to minorities by promoting new forms of social association, this affiliations are always going to be constrained and modeled by a precise framework stablished by western ideologies. The same could be applied to the new forms of cultural funding, some of which are directly dependent from centralized platforms with very specific restrictions and aesthetics. As professor Ray Brassier puts it (2014: 467), “the idea of remaking the world according to the ideals of equality and justice is routinely denounced as a dangerous totalitarian phantasy. These narratives, whether on the left or the right, draw a direct line from post-Galilean rationalism, and its advocacy of the rationalization of nature, to the evils of totalitarism”. In The net Delusion, Morozov also posits the risks of not being enough aware of local contexts when applying technology to policy-making:
“We’ll need to opt for policies informed by a realistic assessment of the risks and dangers posed by the Internet, matched by a highly scrupulous and unbiased assessment of its promises, and a theory of action that is highly sensitive to the local context, that is cognizant of the complex connections between the Internet and the rest of foreign policymaking, and that originates not in what technology allows but in what a certain geopolitical environment requires.”
2. Power is on the platforms
Communication technologies have reshaped all ways of political life, but not only the ones conveying democracy. In cyberspace there is a constant battle between the empowerment of individuals and the propagation of a virtual elite which is mainly represented by the corporations owning communication platforms. The assumption that connecting people will inexorably lead to a democratic global understanding does not consider how communication technologies can also be used for propaganda, surveillance, sophisticated censorship and also marketing and commercial purposes. The massive amount of information available can create an illusion of power and independence that
a) Hides the mechanisms of communication platforms, which still dominate and control the landscape despite of the presence of alternative sources of information. The disproportionate amount of alternative informants can actually benefit the stablished authorities of communication, since the chaos and disorientation created by this information overdose reinforces the dependence on traditional, nation-state dependent institutions. As Tim Jordan posits (1999), "By providing powerful tools to the individuals, cyberspace seems to offer power. Yet, the reliance on this tools ensure individuals become more dependent on the elite that create and maintain this tools"
b) Provokes the depolitization of the population through the free, excessive entertainment available.
3. Electronic Civil Disobedience (ECD)
In 1996 the Critical Art Ensemble (CAE) coined the term Electronic Civil Disobedience as an alternative to the political homogenization that cyber-utopianism conveys, affirming that electronic political activism should be kept away from the eye of electronic popular/public media (as in the hacker tradition). Although they share its reliance on information technologies to achieve political change, the CAE, “rather than attempting to create a mass movement of public objectors, suggested a decentralized flow of particularized micro organizations (cells) that would produce multiple currents and trajectories to slow the velocity of capitalist political economy” (CAE, 1999: 13). For the CAE, which takes the notion of nomadic power and the structure of rhizome from Deleuze and Guattari, the diversity and multiplicity of the cells would function as a strength rather than as a weakness; this diversity would produce a dialogue between a variety of becomings that would resist bureaucratic structure as well as provide a space for happy accidents and breakthrough invention“ (ibíd). This kind of electronic social intervention could be thus carried through mechanisms such as temporary webpages, encrypted sites, hacker strategies or even alternative structures such as the deep web. Recently, a new kind of political activism is getting developed within this unindexed World Wide Web in order to avoid the control and persecution that nation-state governments and corporations inevitably carry on the internet.
During the first decade of the 21st Century two alternatives have risen in order to challenge cyber-utopianism as the ideology behind the use of information technologies for social change: technorealism and techno-progressivism. However, some phenomena such as the Wikileaks case have been still interpreted within the scope of a potential cyber-utopian reality. Even if cyber-utopianism has been proved a reductionist ideology, the very formulation of its principles implies that in many cases the internet´s future is viewed within the scope of social justice instead of commercial interests. Given the rapid flow of changing perspectives within the networks, as well as the rapidity with which technology itself evolves, most probably the propositions leading to a constructive conversation about the possibilities of virtual communities on a leaderless revolution will be the ones that flatten the path for both social change and electronic social interventionism. Routinely distinctions between cyber-utopians/skeptics ideologies only disparage and enclose ideas into a predetermined standard, thus leading to static approaches and social stillness.
Bibliography and resources
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