[iDC] Re:From Counter Culture to Cyber Culture: The "Utopian" thing.....

Ryan Shaw ryanshaw at ISchool.Berkeley.EDU
Sat May 5 18:45:55 EDT 2007

On May 5, 2007, at 10:51 AM, Samuel Rose wrote:

> It's important to really define what you mean by "Digital Utopianism".
> Are we really trying thoroughly and accurately examine whether  
> these people are operating on "Utopian" fundamental assumptions?  
> Or, are we really just trying to build a "brand" of intellectualism  
> that has as it's basis an "anti" digital socio-techno bent?

I don't believe Fred Turner is trying to establish an "anti-digital"  
brand (though Andrew Keen most definitely is). I don't think you can  
read Turner's book and come away with the impression that he is anti- 
digital (in fact, a few months ago on this list he was accused of  
being too pro-digital). Rather than taking a stance for or against  
digital technology, Turner tries to escape the pro-digital/anti- 
digital dichotomy by making visible the process by which that  
dichotomy was created.

> So far, my conclusion is that I think it's quite unfair, and  
> definitely not accurate, to label these people discussed in this  
> book as "Digital Utopians".
> A "Utopian" view is generally defined as a non-realistic view of  
> perfection.  I  think this word is misused to describe the social/ 
> technological/cultural phenomenon this book is covering.
> I am part of the networks that have emerged from the "Whole Earth  
> Network"(and also part of many other networks that have nothing to  
> do with this network). The visions and concepts discussed by people  
> like Kevin Kelly, Howard Rheingold, Alan Kay, and others referenced  
> in Fred's book are grounded in reality, and are generally workable,  
> usable theoretical constructs. The works these people put out take  
> into account the pros and cons of technology. Calling them "Digital  
> Utopians" seems to steer me towards the conclusion that these  
> people are are irrationally one-sided in their conclusions about  
> technology, and that they espouse the view that the world will be a  
> perfect place, if people only were to adopt their techno-social  
> visions.

Just because someone acknowledges the impossibility of perfection  
doesn't mean they aren't one-sided in their conclusions. Brand,  
Kelly, Rheingold et al are too rhetorically sophisticated to say that  
their goal is perfection. Instead, their arguments usually take the  
form of asserting that some technological imperative is inevitable,  
acknowledging that there are bound to be problems given human  
fallibility, and then concluding that we have no other choice but to  
let expert technologists guide us through these straits--and that we  
stand to benefit greatly if we do.

> I'd like to get down to direct references. Hard evidence of why we  
> should consider these people "Utopians". Who are the "Digital  
> Utopians", exactly, and why exactly should we regard them as  
> illogical and unrealistic "Utopians" vs. theorists, or designers?  
> Where is the evidence? And, if there is no evidence, then why are  
> we talking about this?

Here are two recent examples just off the top of my head. First,  
Kelly's recent blog post entitled "Lifelogging, An Inevitablity"[1],  
in which he concludes as follows:

"For many skeptics the social challenges of lifelogging will doom it  
to a small minority, or else earn it full prohibition. They don’t  
want ubiquitous lifelogging, and find it implausible than anyone will  
once they see it in action. ... I believe we’ll invent social norms  
to navigate the times when lifelogging recording is appropriate or  
not, but for the most part total recording will become as pervasive  
as text is to us now. It will be everywhere and we won’t even notice  
it – except when it is gone."

Now you might argue that this is not utopian, as Kelly acknowledges  
the existence of "skeptics" (always a smear among the Wired crowd)  
who might have a problem with the constant recording of the world  
around them.  But these nay-sayers may as well not exist, because for  
Kelly there is only one possible future, the one in which total  
recording becomes pervasive. I consider that refusal to consider  
other possible futures one-sided.

The second example is from the recent "New Media and Social Memory"  
symposium held at UC Berkeley in January[2], at which I heard Stewart  
Brand disparage bio-ethicists as "people who like to say no." For  
Brand, the only legitimate response to biotechnology is participation  
in its development or unconditional support. Or as Brand once put it,  
"Once a new technology rolls over you, if you're not part of the  
steamroller, you're part of the road." From this perspective, only  
technologists are qualified to make decisions about what should or  
shouldn't be done. Again, while this attitude may not be utopian it  
is certainly one-sided.

> Are we saying that these people discussed in Fred's book have  
> somehow foisted a lifestyle and culture upon the Western world  
> based on a counter-culture Utopian vision of digital human  
> perfection? If so, should we think the same way about anyone who  
> tries to improve human existence through technological design?  
> Especially if their patterns are rapidly adopted and used on a  
> mainstream scale? Were they "Utopians", or were they pragmatic  
> thinkers? Where is the inherent sinister evil in these "Digital  
> Utopians" that I am missing here? Where were the "Digital Utopians"  
> misguided, and how has reality shown them to be wrong?

We shouldn't condemn people who strive to improve human existence  
through technological design. We should be wary of people who assert  
that the only legitimate way to improve human existence is through  
technological design.

As for "how reality has shown them to be wrong," well, the nice thing  
about being a futurist is that you can always claim that the future  
you foretold just hasn't arrived yet, so you never have to be wrong.

Ryan Shaw


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