Wednesday, December 29, 2010


Some thoughts about networking and internet based on an analysis of Edward Bellamy's Utopia, “Looking Backward”, and Aldous Huxley's Dystopia” Brave New World”.

There’s always Dystopia if Utopia isn’t available; on a regular basis, in my humble opinion.

“We can now literally "look backwards" at the 20th Century and as we do so, the contrast between Bellamy's utopia and Huxley's dystopia is a useful one to simulate reflection on what went wrong. And, clearly, something very important did go wrong to confound the reasonable hopes of men and women. While they expected that moral and social progress would continue in parallel with technical progress, in reality every forward advance seems to have been accompanied by catastrophes that call into question the very survival of the human race.
In Brave New World, the radical overextension of rationalization makes human beings into objects of technique on much the same basis as raw materials or machines. This same view underlies much 20th Century thought, for example, pessimistic social theories such as Max Weber's and the various philosophies of technology influenced by Martin Heidegger.

What is it about networking that has the effect of erasing dystopian consciousness? Instead of the passivity associated with participation in a broadcast audience, the online subject is constantly solicited to "interact" either by making choices or responding to communications. This interactive relationship to the medium and through it to other users appears non-hierarchical and liberating. Like the automobile, that fetish of modernity, the Internet opens rather than closes vistas. But unlike the automobile, the Internet does not merely transport individuals from one location to another; rather, it constitutes a "virtual" world in which the logic of action is participative and individual initiative supported rather than suppressed by technology. This explains the proliferation on the Internet of expressions with the pronoun "my," as in "My Yahoo," "My MP3," and so on.

It is noteworthy that this evolution of the network owes more to users than to its original designers who saw it as a system for the distribution of information. The real revolution occurred when the Internet became a medium for personal communication. As such it is a switched system like the telephone in which the corporate giants who manage the communication have no control at all over what is communicated. Such systems, called "common carriers" in English, extend the freedom of assembly and so are inherently liberating.
What is more, because computer networking supports group communication, both in real time and asynchronously, the Internet can host a wide variety of social activities, from work to education to exchanges about hobbies and the pursuit of dating partners. These social activities on the Internet take place in virtual worlds constructed out of words by the participants. The "written world" of the Internet is indeed a place where man and machine appear to be reconciled (Feenberg, 1989).

At this point, a note of caution is in order. The enthusiastic discourse of the Information Highway has become predictable and tedious. It awakens instant and to some extent justified skepticism. It is unlikely that the 21st Century will realize the dream of a perfectly transparent, libertarian society in which everyone can work from their home, publish their own book, choose multiple identities and genders, find a life partner and buy personalized goods at an electronic mall, and complete their college education in their spare time for $49.99. It is reasonable to be suspicious of this vision. After all, someone devises the menus that offer the choices, and then makes money off the users. The choices are thus not really free in either the economic or the political sense. The dystopian critic finds here merely a more refined and disguised incorporation of the individual into the machine.

The Internet will certainly have an impact on society, but it will not revolutionize everything. It is ludicrous to compare it with the industrial revolution, which pulled nearly everyone off the farm and landed them in a radically different urban environment. My "migration" to virtual space over the last 20 years can hardly be compared with my ancestors' migration from the country to the city. Unless something far more innovative than the Internet comes along, the 21st Century will be continuous with our world, not a radical and disruptive break. The real significance of the Internet lies not in the inauguration of a new era, but in what it reveals about social and technological change at the current level of advance.

The issue is not whether the Internet will liberate us, as though a technology had that power, but rather the subtle change in the conditions of public organization and activity introduced by networking. This change had already begun before the rise of the new medium, but intermittently and laboriously. The Internet promises to enhance the ability of the population to intervene in the technical decisions so vital in a society like ours. This has to do with fundamental changes in the structure of democracy under conditions of technological advance.

So long as the population of modern societies is politically defined by traditional spatial districts, its influence on technical life is severely restricted. What can a local community do about the introduction of a technology that crosses all geographical boundaries, for example, a new medicine or a new method for producing food? The "public" which ought in principle to be able to comment on such changes and influence them democratically is not locally defined. It is fragmented into subgroups which follow the lines of specific technical mediations. For the most part it can only act in the technical sphere through those subgroups, whether they are factory or clerical workers, students, patients, soldiers, or grocery shoppers.

The geographically bounded units of traditional politics may eventually integrate the various technically mediated subgroups through legal or regulatory decisions. But usually where politics in the familiar sense of the term is involved at all, it draws the conclusions of an initial round of struggle that follows the links in technical networks. Unfortunately, all too often the fragmentation of technical publics renders them politically impotent.

The utopian and dystopian visions of the late 19th and early 20th centuries were attempts to understand the fate of humanity in a radically new kind of society in which most social relations are technically mediated. The hope that such mediation would enrich humanity while sparing human beings themselves was disappointed. There is no way of extending technical control without it embracing human beings. But what the dystopian failed to understand was that once inside the machine, human beings gained new powers they could and would increasingly use to change the system that dominated them. We can observe the faint beginnings of such a politics of technology today. How far it will be able to develop is less a matter for predictions than for practice. “

“Looking Backward, Looking Forward: Reflections on the 20th Century”
(Andrew Feenberg , Philosophy Department, San Diego State University)

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