war & peace
This page looks at the 'etopia' - benign, beautiful or
barmy - heralded by prophets of the digital millennium.
It covers -
is provided by the brief note on utopias here.
Advent of the net has echoed the arrival of electricity,
the telegraph, railway and radio in leading to forecasts
imminent death of the state (or merely the 'autocratic
that is more responsive
end of 'big business' (or merely 'finance capital')
of education ("new ways of learning" that
"fuel a worldwide explosion of intellectual activity,
leading to new ways of expression, new art forms")
of 'citizen politics' and democracy
end of poverty and disease
end of the business cycle or merely the liberation of
demise of big or established media, with revival of
of god or the end of sectarianism
is essentially a blank canvas on which people paint their
aspirations and preconceptions, looking forward to change
and ignoring continuities, contingency and complication.
a new millennium?
In the 1960s Marshall McLuhan
brought the tablets down from the mountain - at that
stage analogue only - and proclaimed the coming death
of the state, big business and big government.
They would be overthrown by the innately democratic effects
of new technology. Technological progress would automatically
turn fashionably nonconformist libertarian principles
into fact. Converging media, computing and telecommunications
would necessarily result in economic plenty, creativity
without intellectual property and an electronic democracy
free from surveillance and censorship. That vision was
packaged in the 1964 Cybernetics Conference Manifesto
of the Ad Hoc Committee on the Triple Revolution.
Thirty years later the famous Being Digital
(New York: Knopf 1995) by guru Nicholas Negroponte in
his role as cheerleader for the emerging "global
infospace" - a sort of one-man National Office for
the Information Economy - similarly offered utopian vision
without analysis, slogans without detail. Most people
just can't help being analogue, but the book is useful
for focussing attention on -
rather than atoms'
importance of charisma in propagation of ideas.
Negroponte is less zany than other gurus. Start off by
savouring John Perry Barlow's A Declaration of the
Independence of Cyberspace (DIC),
an echo of the 1964 Manifesto and replete with
Ayn Rand-style announcements
Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants
of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new
home of Mind ... I declare the global social space we
are building to be naturally independent of the tyrannies
you 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.
is an amusing rhetorical flourish - and an echo of McLuhan's
1964 proclamation in Understanding Media that
the computer would bring "a Pentecostal condition
of universal understanding and unity" - but we have
not been able to find the Cyberspace Consulate to get
our visas stamped (digitally,
of course) for a trip to e-topia.
Views of 'death of the state', cyber-induced or otherwise,
are examined later in this guide and in the Economy
and Governance guides.
Clay Shirky's Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing
Without Organizations (New York: The Penguin Press
2008) exults in a romantic digital anarchism; Cluetrain
guru David Weinberger offers The Hyperlinked Metaphysics
of the Web here.
In an earlier declaration Barlow gushed
are in the middle of the most transforming technological
event since the capture of fire. I used to think that
it was just the biggest thing since Gutenberg, but now
I think you have to go back further.
was echoed by Tim O'Reilly in 2008
the most profound change since the advent of literacy.
And it's bigger than the industrial revolution. We are
on the front of a new renaissance.
Cybergrace: The Search for God in the Digital World
(New York: Crown 1998) by Jennifer Cobb suggests that
cyberspace will somehow liberate us from 'materialism'
(apparently an artefact of 'modernity') and through 'creativity'
partake of the 'divine'. If you are a fan of Teilhard
de Chardin or into Heidegger-lite you will appreciate
Cobb's spin through the noosphere; for us it was unconvincing.
Cobb has been less influential than Stewart Brand, discussed
in Fred Turner's From Counterculture to Cyberculture:
Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of
Digital Utopianism (Chicago: Uni of Chicago Press
interim chair of the Internet Corporation for Assigned
Names & Numbers (ICANN)
and the thinking person's Don Tapscott, is famous for
her ode to cyberspace Release 2.1: A Design for Living
in the Digital Age (London: Penguin 1998).
It is provocative but perhaps best read in conjunction
with some of the less polemical studies and with books
such as resisting The Virtual Life: The Culture &
Politics of Information (San Francisco: City Lights
1995) edited by James Brook & Iain Boal. Dyson, like
the upbeat Rhonda Hauben - whose visions of online community
are discussed elsewhere on this site - considers that
being online will make us brighter and better, with the
net for example as a mechanism to
back new [sic] respect for people, for personal attention,
for service, and for human interaction.
Among sociological and cultural theory studies we recommend
Harmeet Sawhney & Seungwhan Lee's paper
Arenas of Innovation: Fringe Groups & the Discovery
of New Liberties Of Action, The World Wide Web
& Contemporary Cultural Theory: Magic, Metaphor, Power
(London: Routledge 2000) edited by Andrew Herman &
Thomas Swiss and Digital Mythologies: The Hidden Complexities
of the Internet (New Brunswick: Rutgers Uni Press
2000) by Thomas Valovic.
There is a broader perspective in William Akin's Technocracy
& the American Dream (Berkeley: Uni of California
Press 1977) and Howard Segal's Technological Utopianism
in American Culture (Chicago: Uni of Chicago Press
1985). The latter is particularly recommended for fans
of Francis Fukuyama's Our Posthuman Future (London:
Profile 2002) or The Great Disruption (New York:
Simon & Schuster 1999), questioned in Robert Kagan's dour
The Return of History and the End of Dreams (New
York: Knopf 2008).
Fukuyama is most famous for the glibly triumphalist tract
The End of History and the Last Man (New York:
Free Press 1992), proclaiming
we are witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War,
or a passing of a particular period of postwar history,
but the end of history as such: that is, the end point
of mankind's ideological evolution and the universalization
of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human
can not help recalling Alexander Herzen's more perceptive
comment, in response to an earlier teleology, that
has no culmination ... There is no libretto. We need
wit and courage to make our way while our way is making
Chekhov's comment in Three Sisters that
maybe we'll fly in balloons, the cut of jackets will
be different, we'll have discovered a sixth sense, maybe
even developed it - I don't know. But life will be the
same - difficult, full of unknowns, and happy. In a
thousand years, just like today, people will sigh and
say, oh, how hard it is to be alive. They'll still be
scared of death, and won't want to die.
War Triumphalism: Exposing the Misuse of History after
the Fall of Communism (New York: New Press 2004)
edited by Ellen Schrecker offers more bite.
Dyson, George Gilder, George Keyworth & Alvin Toffler
collaborated on the 1994 manifesto
Cyberspace and the American Dream: A Magna Carta for the
It is another digital manifesto built around notions of
the Third Wave - part Robert Heinlein, part misunderstood
Daniel Bell, a dash of Henry Ford and some spice from
Porat, Machlup and Weber - in which technology drives
an information society free from traditional economic,
political and cultural constraints. People, it seems,
like information, "just want to be free", a
freedom that appears to embody the lifestyle of a white
male heterosexual pundit living in one of the funkier
parts of San Francisco or Colorado without the distraction
of anything as mundane as taxes.
We suggest instead Christine Borgman's First Monday
on The Premise & Promise of A Global Information
Infrastructure, drawn from her From Gutenberg
to the Global Information Infrastructure: Access To Information
in the Networked World (Cambridge: MIT Press 2000),
and The Social Life of Information (Boston: Harvard
Business School Press 2000) by John Seely Brown &
Kevin Kelly's New Rules For The New Economy (New
York: Viking 1998) applies the Third Wave mantras to the
'new economy', something explored in our
Economy guide. It builds on his Out of Control:
The New Biology of Machines (London: Fourth Estate
1994) and Michael Rothschild's Bionomics:
Economy As Ecosystem (New York: Holt 1995), which
explore biological models for the information economy
Morley Winograd & Dudley Buffa in Taking Control:
Politics in the Information Age (New York: Holt 1996)
forecast the end of income tax, demise of the party system
(replaced by a "electronic participation") and
"a computer based programmed method of instruction
tailored to the needs and interests of each individual".
Guy Chapman noted the intellectual poverty of the cybertopians,
too many of the young and middle-aged men now directing
the "new economy," history started with the
invention of the microchip. Or at least it "rebooted."
This is the sterile utopia of the high-tech elite today:
that the remainder of history will be merely an uninterrupted
pageant of technological upgrades, and, because of this,
government should simply be a handmaiden to this happy
In this vision, no grander or higher calling awaits
us or our children than to be a frenzied mass of faxers,
e-mailers, Web surfers, meeting-takers, viewgraph makers,
commuters, shoppers and couch potatoes. Contemplating
such a future, it's difficult to remember that we're
talking about the same country that produced Lincoln,
FDR, Eisenhower, LBJ and Martin Luther King, Jr.
was entertainingly, if a tad ungenerously, eviscerated
by Paulina Borsook in Cyberselfish. There
is a similar critique in Michael Surmin's ISOC paper
on Wired Words: Utopia, Revolution & the History
of Electronic Highways and Thomas Streeter's paper
That Deep Romantic Chasm": Libertarianism, Neoliberalism,
and the Computer Culture, questioning the myth of
"escape from history into the computer screen".
Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of
the Modern American Libertarian Movement (New York:
Public Affairs 2007) by Brian Doherty highlights zaniness
on the right and left.
Instead try Information Rules: A Strategic Guide to
the Network Economy (Boston: Harvard Business School
Press 1999) by Hal Varian & Carl Shapiro, an excellent
introduction to the 'new' economy, or Geoffrey Mulgan's
Communication & Control: Networks and the New Economies
of Communication (New York: Guilford Press 1991).
add bandwidth and stir
Telecosm: How Infinite Bandwidth Will Revolutionise
Our World (New York: Free Press 2000) is arguably
the high point of techno-delirium, redolent of the dotcom
and telco bubbles that collapsed
during that year and of volkish anxieties about big bad
cities, corporations and government.
Got a problem? Just add more bandwidth and stir. Kids
don't learn? Get them online. Government doesn't deliver?
Information technology and privatisation to the rescue.
TV puts you to sleep? Job's boring? Worried about the
mortgage? Do not worry, Gilder has the answer in the wacky
Life After Television: The Coming Transformation of
Media & American Life (New York: Norton 1994)
and Microcosm: The Quantum Revolution in Economics
& Technology (New York: Simon & Schuster 1989).
Similar snake oil was peddled in the 1880s when the first
electric power networks spread. Turn instead to Jock Given's
lucid The Death of Broadcasting: Media's Digital
Future (Sydney: Uni of NSW Press 1998), Bruce
Wasserstein's Big Deal (New York: Warner 1998)
and Bruce Owen's The Internet Challenge To Television
(Cambridge: Harvard Uni Press 1999).
Howard Rheingold, author of The Virtual Community:
Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier (London: Secker
& Warburg 1994) and Virtual Reality (New York:
Summit 1991), pushes the digital democracy barrow: out
there on the frontier a sort of digital jeffersonian democracy
of hardy yeomen will emerge, free from big government
and big business (and without, it seems, those pesky injuns).
That theme has had wide but largely uncritical acceptance,
with peers recycling statements such as
With this new medium of the Internet, a free press is
no longer reserved for those rich enough to own one.
A vast number of average people, no longer sitting passively
in front of their television sets, no longer spoon-fed
mass American culture, can now interact with people
around the world, and even become publishers themselves
without the high cost of purchasing or leasing a printing
press or chopping down a forest.
For us there is more value in High Noon On The Electronic
Frontier: Conceptual Issues In Cyberspace (Cambridge:
MIT Press 1996) and Crypto Anarchy, Cyberstates, and
Pirate Utopias (Cambridge: MIT Press 1999) edited
by Peter Ludlow. Richard Barbrook's Media Freedom:
The Contradictions of Communications in the Age of Modernity
(London: Pluto Press 1995) is unfortunately confined to
France but serves to challenge the optimism of Rheingold
and de Sola Pool.
Back in Washington Peter Huber
argues that regulation is irrelevant in the best of all
possible digital worlds, one fit for dotcom heroes. He
is perhaps best known for his 288 page love letter to
the US Federal Communications Commission - Law &
Disorder In Cyberspace: Abolish The FCC & Let Common
Law Rule The Telecosm (New York: Oxford Uni Press
1997). The evil FCC, it appears, has
monopolies, obstructed efficient use of the airwaves,
corrupted common carriage, mispriced services, curtailed
free speech, weakened copyright and undermined privacy.
Large bureaucratic entities like the FCC can never adjust
quickly enough to such rapidly changing technologies
advice to clients is not to hold their breath waiting
for the FCC, and its local counterparts such as ACMA,
bring in the clones
Far far below the digital stratosphere other new economy
enthusiasts have been busy. The Long Boom: A Vision
for the Coming Age of Prosperity (New York: Perseus
1999) by Peter Schwartz, Peter Leyden & Joel Hyatt
offers a vision of the coming golden age with the suspension
of the business cycle and atrophy of traditional states,
in contrast to the equally zany The Long Twentieth
Century: Money, Power, and the Origins of Our Times
(London: Verso 1994) by Giovanni Arrighi.
If you want more, turn to The New Renaissance: Computers
& the Next Level of Civilisation (Oxford: Oxford
Uni Press 1998) by Douglas Robertson: with a chip or two
you will be a Leonardo in your own lunchtime.
Albert Borgmann's Holding On To Reality: The Nature
of Information At The Turn Of The Millennium (Chicago:
Uni of Chicago Press 1999), Fukuyama's The End Of History
and Virginia Postrel's hayekian tract The Future &
Its Enemies: The Growing Conflict Over Creativity, Enterprise
& Progress (New York: Free Press 1998) are other
works in the same vein.
In contrast, Manuel Castell's
elegantly neomarxist three volume The Information
Society (Oxford: Blackwell 1999) tries, with some
success, to tease out the antecedents and consequences
of living in that world. John Mearsheimer's The
Tragedy of Great Power Politics (New York: Norton
2001) is a spirited corrective to Fukuyama.
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