Pit Schultz on Sun, 21 Apr 96 17:13 MDT

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nettime: Utopia Redux - by Karrie Jacobs

Date: Thu, 18 Apr 96 17:00:07 -0100


Utopia Redux

by Karrie Jacobs

First came the fall of Communism. Then there was the advertising campaign
for the beverage Fruitopia. Now the pitchmen for cyberspace, the so-called
digerati, are promoting this virtual place where you are now as terra
incognita, where we can start life anew.

No question about it, the concept of utopia has been thoroughly degraded
and commercialized.

Wired executive editor Kevin Kelly :

     "The reason why the hippies and people like myself got interested in
     [computers], is that they are model worlds, small universes. They are
     ways to recreate civilization. We get to ask the great questions of all
     time: What is life? What is human? What is civilization? And you ask it
     not in the way the old philosophers asked it, sitting in armchairs, but
     by actually trying it. Let's try and make life. Let's try and make
     community." -- New York Times Magazine

Author Douglas Rushkoff :

     "As computer programmers and psychedelic warriors together realize that
     'all is one,' a common belief emerges that the evolution of humanity
     has been a willful progression toward the construction of Cyberia, the
     next dimensional home for the consciousness." -- Cyberia

Wired editor Louis Rossetto :

     "[Hot Wired readers] connect to us to connect to their friends, to
     connect to a community, to be part of a mind-set and a consciousness
     that transcends the limits of the old media. And in the process, they
     start to begin to build a new society, a new culture, a new way of
     thinking about community." -- New York Times

Electronic Frontier Foundation co-founder John Perry Barlow :

     "All the current power relationships on the planet are currently being
     disassembled, it's going to be up in the air. Ultimately, centralized
     anything is going to be greatly de-emphasized and redistributed." --
     New Perspectives Quarterly

What redistribution of power? I can't believe Kelly, Rushkoff, Rossetto and
Barlow don't know better. I can't believe they don't understand that the
electronic culture in which they operate is still largely run by white men
(and written about by them; see "Scenarios: the Future of the Future,"
published by Wired in October 1995) and still dominated by big corporations
such as ATT, Microsoft and Sony.

Inside this new world, the one that begins where our fingertips touch the
keyboard and ends at a web site advertising Chrysler's newest models or in a
meandering BBS discussion about the movie "Kids," we find the old life and
the old communities. When people put on their electronic masks--disguising
gender, race, physical attributes--mostly they play themselves. When
corporations go on-line and invite us to interact, they are selling the same
products they sell on billboards, TV commercials and newspaper coupons.

The world on this side of the computer screen is such a seamless
continuation of the world on the other side that even the Secret Service is
here. In September, they announced a bust of six "hackers" accused of
trading in stolen cellular phone codes. Apparently, those arrested had no
qualms about discussing their activities on a BBS dedicated to the subjects
of phone and credit card fraud--that the Secret Service had set up
themselves. Perhaps the "hackers" truly believed the Net was an anarchic
environment in which the Feds would not venture.

I agree with one of the harshest critics of computer culture, Jerry Mander,
when he says, "The only problems that will be solved by computers are the
problems that corporations may face."

The cyber hucksters are part of a long tradition. They are doing what
salesmen have always done. They sell us a new technology or a new piece of
turf and we invest in it all our hopes and dreams. We disengage from the
world as we know it and push ourselves forward, believing it will be better.
Our grandparents did it, traveling in steerage, to their next dimensional
home. Our parents went to the World's Fair and came away inspired, believing
in the future according to General Motors. We listen blissfully to the
crackle of our modems, and think that what we're hearing is the theme music
of a new society.

I'm willing to grant that there is at least one truly utopian quality to the
Net: standardization.

The original Utopia, as described by Sir Thomas More's Utopia in 1516, was
an island secreted in the southern hemisphere of the still largely
unexplored New World. The Utopians, women as well as men, worked six hours a
day at their chosen trade, lived in extended families, had no money, and
selected all their necessities from the 16th century equivalent of Wal Mart
for free. Gold and silver were kept on hand only to cover the expenses of
waging war (mostly fought by foreign mercenaries) and, when not needed, were
melted down and stored in the form of chamber pots and shackles on the legs
of the slaves who, conveniently, did the nation's dirty work.

What strikes me as the most oppressive--and familiar--quality of More's
island state is the fact that Utopians couldn't escape the confines of their
own lives because every place on the island was the same as every other

"There are 54 cities on the island, all spacious and magnificent, identical
in language, customs, institutions, and laws," More wrote. "So far as the
location permits, all of them are built on the same plan and have the same

More might have been writing about America's shopping malls or Holiday Inns.
Or his description could apply to the cities built by Soviet architects 450
years after his death, with their identical apartment blocks punctuated
every mile or so by a grim public square, a token shopping area, a pub, and
a drab community center.

Reflections of the original Utopia-- a word, by the way, that literally
means "no-place"--can also be seen in the way software designers have
repackaged the world. You can go anywhere on the Web with Netscape and you
will still be within the familiar confines of your "navigator." Like More's
Utopia, the Net is a place where "if you know one of their cities, you know
them all." Whether hopping from web site to web site or getting money from
an ATM, the electronic world is a place with a limited range of gestures.

Sure, the success of film and television is their ability to channel our
fantasy lives into familiar formats. But on-line, all aspects of our
lives--grocery shopping, religion, sex, conversation--are subject to
formating. They are parceled into rectangles of text or image. We type. We
click. We answer "yes," "no" or "cancel." The net whittles the vastness of
the planet into something neat and manageable.

"Wherever they go, though they take nothing, they lack for nothing," wrote
Sir Thomas More of the first Utopians, "because they are at home

"This is my home," the globe-trotting John Perry Barlow told a conference
last year in Amsterdam, holding his PowerBook aloft. He went on to say that
cyberspace should grow into "a global collective consciousness smart enough
to keep God company, a great eco system of mind."

Like the Utopians, we may find that there is no escape from the confines of
our lives. The old Utopia was an island. The new one is a world stuffed in a

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