Cyber-Utopianism

Somewhat ironically, the Wikipedia page on cyber-utopianism offers a decent overview.

(It’s ironic because cyber-utopianists are always offering Wikipedia as an example of why the internet is so great.)

In a nutshell, cyber-utopianism is the view that the internet and new media will dramatically change society for the better. Our digitally enabled future will be more peaceful, more democratic, more productive, more efficient, more equitable, more environmentally sustainable, and generally more pleasant than the social world we currently inhabit.

Cyber-utopianism is one example of technological utopianism. Every major technological change in history has its fan club. I recently stumbled across a blog post by historian Will MacKintosh that was illuminating:

When printing was a new technology in Europe in the 15th and 16th centuries, its radical potential both excited and scared people.  The theological dissidents who were in the process of inventing modern Protestantism and the natural philosophers who were in the process of inventing modern science tended to see the press and the print media it enabled as tools for radical social improvement.  Individual believers’ souls would be more effectively saved through large-scale and direct encounter with the word of God in mass-produced Bibles…  Their ultimate goals … a perfect Christian society and a complete description of nature … were no less utopian than the ultimate ends prophesied by modern futurists imagining a world of perfect data interconnectedness.

Unsurprisingly, the main advocates of technological utopianism tend to be people and organizations that stand to derive financial gain or power from a new technology. In recent years, some tech corporations have successfully constructed quasi-religious justifying ideologies around their products. New devices or design features, in these circles, are presented as solutions to all of modern life’s problems:

There is no question that the internet has improved aspects of our lives. And it is understandable that Steve Jobs (R.I.P.) was enthusiastic about the products he helped bring to market. Ethan Zuckerman, in one of our readings for this class, thinks that technological utopianism has been a positive force, that directs technological change toward positive outcomes.

But technology scholars as well have been accused of cyber-utopianism, including one or two who we will become acquainted with in this semester, and whatever else we might say about utopianism, it doesn’t make for particularly good social science. We lose objectivity when an aura of positivity – let’s call it a halo – comes to surround new technologies and blind us to their dark sides. For this reason, utopianism is arguably something to watch out for in your readings, and something to guard against in your own thought and writing, in this class and beyond.

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