Utopia Redux


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



Utopia Redux

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 place.

"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 appearance."

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 everywhere."

"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 box.

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