Cynthia Zugaib Westover
IS 246
December 8, 1999
 
To Hell in a Hand-Basket?
Techno-Utopian Futurist Perspectives and the
Dystopian Perspectives They Spawn
 
"I don't try to describe the future. I try to prevent it." Ray Bradbury

 
'Utopian' and 'dystopian' are descriptors applied to philosophies most familiarly expressed in works of science fiction. Despite improvements in the many areas of human existence we consider of primary importance - human rights, prosperity, peace - there are few, if any, works that suggest that we are in a utopian era presently. Rather, there is the perpetual suggestion that we are on our way to one or the other ultimate destination. With 2001 just a year away and 1984 being fifteen years ago, we see our present catching up to science fiction, both symbolically and technologically. The terms that have been used to describe the future are being used to describe our current era, acknowledging that it is in its nascent stage. So much of the technology we envision in the future already exists, therefore futuristic scenarios tend to center around how the technology will evolve and be used.

Technological utopianism, a philosophical movement which had its initial heyday in the first half of this century, is characterized by a belief that technology is the primary tool for carving out an ideal society. A second wave of this movement, seemingly more pervasive and powerful than earlier, is in full force in the 1990s. Only instead of 25 proponents, hundreds of people are seeing today's information technology as the key to unlock the gates of human misery.(1) The suggestion that technology will save us is resurfacing today.

Pessimism about the role of technology in the future stems largely from technology failing to live up to its utopian promise and its tendency to further distressing trends. The gap between haves and have-nots is widening and a new demographic measure, the information haves and have-nots, products of the "digital divide", are moving to the foreground. However, when observed from the global perspective, information technology seems frivolous in the face of the poverty that envelops most of the world's people. The technology has further empowered the powerful and few of us see the new wealth - financial or otherwise - trickling down into our daily lives. With the corporations that produce the technology making decisions about its role in public policy it appears that the wolf is guarding the hen house.

Many techno-utopian visions of the future inadequately address issues such as the digital divide, cultural oppression and "globalization," or the myriad of ways the new technologies can be used against individuals and groups by the technology owners or governments. Naive responses to these concerns render these visions mere fancy at best, at worst they are what fuels the dystopian engine and its byproducts of cynicism and pessimism. While addressing the dark side of technology with platitudes, technological utopians often positively portray scenarios that are at the core of the fear behind dystopian views.

Perhaps the quietest voice is the one that suggests technology is a non-issue in determining what kind of world we will live in, that it is only a tool by which we can progress more rapidly in one direction or another. The biggest danger is that our very preoccupation with technology will land us in the dystopian because we failed to pay attention to the bigger issues.

Fiction and Prediction

Dystopian perspectives are reactions to utopian ones. They cohabit in our mythology -- Olympus and Hades, Heaven and Hell - and in many mythologies they represent subsequent eras with the dark or dystopian era leading to an enlightened or utopian or vice versa. The dystopian point of view observes that the gap between what exists and what we fear is narrowing. Technological utopia is "favoured by academics, management gurus, corporate types and advertising people," one writer suggests.(2) Indeed, many current technological utopians are sellers of an information-technology product. They are manufacturers, entrepreneurs, engineers, or they are involved in accompanying enterprises such as advertising or reporting on these products. The same writer, Ziauddin Sardar, suggests that the "nightmare" perspective is the domain of science-fiction writers and filmmakers.(3) By relegating fearful outlooks to the world of fiction we may ignore the cautionary messages being sent by the non-utopians, especially those who are also deeply involved with the real world of information technology.

Dystopian works often operate on the premise that technology is in the hands of the greedy and powerful and therein lies the problem. It is a theme of fiction that when left to our own devices, we allow greed and power-hunger to be our impetus. The myth of the superhero is a powerful illustration of the fear that we cannot control the forces of evil ourselves, but we need an external superhero (or superego) to do it for us. Dystopian fiction portrays what happens when there is no superhero.

Ray Bradbury may have not intended the scenarios he described as a straightforward prediction but he did not create fanciful impossibilities. His and other dystopian works resonate because the seeds have already been planted. Elements of Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, George Orwell's 1984 and Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale are manifested in our past and present history, not always in some remote laboratory, but in often in our homes.

As we anticipate the fallout of the Y2K computer bug we are increasingly conscious of our vulnerability in the wake of all this technology. Events like the Michelangelo and Melissa virus strikes, daily inconveniences of networks being down and preventing all transactions, and growing consciousness of the massive amounts of information being collected about us fuse reality with science-fiction works like Brazil and Wired magazine's "The Great Cyberwar of 2002"(4). How many people have already experienced the "you are not in the computer" challenge? How will we defend the veracity of our own existence in the face of a deleted birth record? This is not science-fiction any more.

This fusion of fiction and reality is not just happening on a personal level but it is being publicly demonstrated. President Clinton has aggressively addressed "new transnational security threats."(5) Among these threats are "cyber-terrorists" who can attack our technological infrastructure with a phone line and a few keystrokes. Perhaps this is an oversimplification, but it is hard to dispute that information technology is the next field of armament.

"The Great Cyberwar of 2002" is perhaps among the most pessimistic future visions put forth in the pages of Wired, although it has a relatively happy ending. It reads like a comic book, with the hero a former Pentagon honcho who was dismissed because of an undying commitment to the truth. Amid the corny Indiana Jones-isms are some scenarios that strike at the meeting place of the real/fiction continuum.

With so many depending on electricity and communications for survival, the cyberspace war will not be bloodless. The crisis that Cyberwar's author, John Acquilla, portrays sounds a lot like the heat-wave black-outs that have taken place in Chicago and New York. Acquilla points out that it is possible that a war could be waged and resolved without ever knowing who the enemy was. Web architecture and technology such as proxy servers and encryption, have made the Internet an effective hiding place. Ultimately, the challenge in the story is to prevent escalation of the conflict. With the absence of a technologically based, effective defense, those that are under attack may resort to technology they are more familiar with - nuclear technology.

In comic books and other science fiction, the forces of good and evil are frequently equipped with technology that is used to further respective aims. Sometimes the technology is identical. We are culturally trained to recognize this duality. However, with the Information Age has come a new batch of utopian visions from those who are intimate with emerging technology. If we go to Brave New World or The Twilight Zone to supply the converse vision we are apt to dismiss the warnings contained therein as less real than the visions propelled by the technology owners. The best source of the converse perspective of the technological-utopian visions is those same visions. The resemblance to dystopian fiction is striking.

One Man's Ceiling

Technology, like the metaphorical glass of water, has two realities. Technological utopians and dystopians can believe the same things are going to happen, but not agree on what that means for society. From innovations such as videophones and little robot dogs to the more intimate technologies, like personal data gathering and DNA mining, those that are in a position to make money from the technology do not want to entertain the idea that these technologies may actually diminish our lives. For example, videophone technology is always demonstrated by showing a parent able to watch her child go to sleep, or companies saving thousands of dollars in travel expenses using tele-conferencing. Who is going to show us the scenario of the telemarketer, or another stranger, able to see you and your surroundings? Who will demonstrate the lack of control we will all have over our own image? Who will show the disappointment as people see who is on the other end of the 900-number line? Will we ever have images to demonstrate these alternative scenarios as powerful as the television commercials? Will Wired describe a new technology as dangerous or even frivolous?

The "digital divide" has moved to the foreground in many discussions about the role of technology in our society and the world at large. The headlines reveal how surprised many of us are to realize that the technology which has so completely transformed our lives has had zero effect in so many other places. Some of this technology seems so 'old' that we are somewhat incredulous that even our European counterparts do not experience the technological penetration that Americans do. This divide also exists internally to a lesser extent, with many Americans having little or no access to information technology.

There is a scenario that has appeared in various speeches that paints a picture of world demographics as represented by a "100 Person Village."(6) As of 1997, only one person would have a college education in this village and no one would own a computer. With the increase of computer penetration in the past couple of years, perhaps today in that village one person would own a computer. That one person, representing 60 million people, about a quarter of the U.S. population, has an extraordinary economic advantage over the five-and-half billion others.(7) There is no doubt that information technology is at the heart of the world economy from this point forward until the next epoch.

Two obvious circumstances that interfere with computer technology penetrating the third world are the lack of infrastructure, namely in the form of telephony and the lack of literacy. Governments would have to commit to infrastructures that are four or five steps beyond the immediate needs of the population (e.g. food production, education, health care, transportation, and a stable means of income for the nation). Literacy, as defined by today's information technology, means the ability to read and write English. Perhaps, a less measurable barrier to information technology access is that it might not matter at all to the people on the other side of the divide. How is it determined that information needs exist or are being met?

With the prevalence of technology in the lives of those who make decisions and its vogue in discussions about economic disparity, distributing technology has become a principle gesture in the arena of aiding poorer nations. It should not be overlooked that food is also prevalent in these same decision-makers' lives, even more than technology, but even after a century of progress, half of the world's population suffers from malnutrition.(8) What does this say about the newest "need" we have created? Information technology, has always existed. Channels of communication exist throughout time in all cultures and civilizations and even in animals. Many technophiles fail to understand that there are many ways to fill an information need, and what is the best information delivery system for contemporary Western society is not necessarily, or not at all, appropriate for other nations and cultures.

The image of starving children surfing the Internet may mock the real charity behind these notions but it is an unavoidable image when confronted with technological utopians like Nicholas Negroponte who suggests that "digital access is a fundamental human right."(9) Negroponte legitimizes his claim by suggesting that we cannot agree on other fundamental human rights and this notion is just as controversial. (His grasp of the conflict seems shaky - those who believe in human rights can generally agree on what they are; the controversy occurs when we cannot agree on what constitutes a violation of those rights.) The barrier to global Internet access, he suggests, is metered telephone lines, because this discourages exploratory use of the Net. His solution is advertising; that is having your phone call preceded or interrupted by an advertisement that will pay for the call. The advertising model for communications has its blueprints in other media, but Negroponte's cloaking a small economic notion in a blanket of "the children are our future" seems to stretch the techno-utopian idea to its limits.

Other prominent techno-futuristic scenario-painters approach the digital divide issue briefly, and with a dismissive assertion that the haves will take care of the have-nots out of the kindness of their hearts. Often that translates into that Reagan-era cornerstone, trickle-down economics. Some suggest that there will be so much wealth that every caste will get bumped up a rung or two just by virtue of the booming economy.

Michael Dertouzos, in his "Agenda to Help the Poor" states outright, "Poor people cannot afford the technology to access and use the Information Marketplace. Most of this agenda is, therefore, aimed at the rest of us, who can find ways to help the people of developing nations, and the poor people of rich nations, to board this fast moving train."(10) The idea is not to turn over the technology to the poor ("people can't eat knowledge") but to help them earn a living in the Information Marketplace. This should be done, Dertouzos suggests, so that we can avoid conflicts and "bloody revolutions." He advises governments, organizations, foundations and commercial entities to contribute technology to the poor in meaningful ways - local projects that help fulfill fundamental needs. How his proposed $200 million annual investment in information kiosks, terrestrial communications, training programs, software and equipment in Sri Lanka fits into that model goes unexplained except for the overriding suggestion that what the poor have to offer the Information Marketplace is their inexpensive labor.(11) Dertouzos acknowledges the potential for exploitation but can only offer the suggestion that we must guard against it.

A much more problematical view of the future is portrayed in "The Long Boom: A History of the Future, 1980-2020", a 1997 cover story for Wired by Peter Schwarz and Peter Leyden that was expanded into a book in 1999. Their future, or at least the next 20 years of it, is one where the impetus to make money fuels all activities including environmental ones. Their "optimistic" view is that we will go on valuing the material over the spiritual, encouraging consumerism, transferring rural peoples into urban areas, assimilating cultures, and oppression, hatred and war will go on. However, the global economy will be booming. Despite their emphasis on the global-ness of everything, whole continents are exempted from this boom.

They devote two paragraphs to the fate of Africa. Continued ethnic wars and new diseases will be introduced and, they conclude. "an estimated 5 million people will die in the space of six months - this on top of the 100 million who perished prematurely over the previous two decades."(12) But it will all be okay. Other nations will recognize that they will benefit from a thriving Africa "which will occupy economic niches that other nations are outgrowing." (In other words "what the poor have to offer the Information Market place is their inexpensive labor.") That the untimely death of 100 million people can be part of an optimistic (touted as bravely so by some) scenario, because, for the most part, a lot of other people will make more money, is a powerful illustration of the utopian/dystopian duality of future visions.

The palpable greed that underlies Schwartz and Leyden's vision of the future is missing the cloak of humanism that Negroponte so proudly wears (for his "digital access is a human right" column he his pictured looking into a crystal ball and seeing a dollar sign). Also missing is a message akin to Dertouzos' admonition against letting our greed interfere with progress. The best they can offer is that when we land on Mars (in the year 2020) we will look back on our planet and realize: "We are a global society, one human race."(13) "Been there. Done that." quips a writer in The Toronto Star, "That's what the 1969 moon landing was supposed to have been about."(14) If it is going to take landing people on Mars before we have such revelations, we will have to wait a bit longer than the 20 years suggested in The Long Boom, especially with the way our Mars exploration is faring these days.

Schwartz and Leyden just happen to think they have painted an encouraging picture because their primary gauge for what will be good about the future is economic and Western-centric. The converse of that perspective is not the idea that there will be declining wealth in the world, just that the distribution of that wealth will not be equitable and it will not alter the core of what global hardships grow out of - greed, corruption, and hate. The dystopian view looks at the prospects of growing social prosperity in the information age and often sees the technology interfering with progress on that level.

Buyer Beware

Wired is the great mouthpiece for today's technological utopians, never stopping a moment to question whether this is all such a good idea and never examining the dark side of information technology. While Mark Slouka's suggestion that editor Kevin Kelly is comparable to Leni Reifenstahl may be a bit extreme, perceiving Wired as a propaganda rag for the Silicon Valley is an unavoidable conclusion.(15)

A prime example of Wired's technological progress über alles philosophy was a group of articles on cloning, including one subtitled, "Richard G. Seed on Why Cloning is God's Work (emphasis added)."(16) The feature, cutely titled Carbon Copy, was a future scenario of the first human cloning. It was carefully composed around a sympathetic situation and sensitively drawn to insure that the reader did not question the internal ethics of the scientist (a woman) who performs the cloning or the potential horrors that the technology can wreak upon society. This future vision, as well as those espoused by Dertouzos and Negroponte, depends far too heavily on a complete absence of malice on the part of the technology owners. (Perhaps that is where the two realities of technology divide; at the juncture of whether or not humanity can be trusted with such powerful tools as illustrated by the comic book creations discussed earlier.) The fictional scientist is quoted as saying, "No one's about to start mass-producing copies of Adolf Hitler or rich people ... Trust me. There's nothing to worry about."(17)

Ziauddin Sardar also discusses cloning, reminding us that prediction becomes prescription. "Human cloning is increasingly presented as a technological challenge, as press and television faithfully report each new advance. So the fallacy gains ground that cloning is inevitable. Then it is justified on social terms ... The moral debate is put aside and the future arrives in the very shape that it was predicted."(18) But as both the Wired story and basic psychology tell us, some people have a lot to gain with this technology (the scientist jokes about receiving her Nobel Prize in prison) and they will fuel the media machine to insure that their work continues.

Each technology presents its own Janus-face. Artificial intelligence will be a boon to us until it is used as a substitute for real human contact. Will health insurance companies generously continue to allow patients to see real doctors or will they be the first to force people to recite their symptoms to a machine? Will all of the data that our banks collect and share with their insurance branches be used to bring us goods and services we've been longing for or will they be used to deny us those services?

Even among those of us for whom technology has completely permeated our lives there is a sense of unfulfilled promise. How many of us have experienced a shortened work week, increased vacation time, extended family leave or increased financial compensation based on the fact that we can get more work done than ever? Where is the great tele-commuting push? There is a lot of talk about the improvements that technology is leading to but it only seems to make the few of us that it touches have to work harder. Maybe the dozen or so Microsoft millionaires that retired at 35 and now spend their days fly-fishing have felt the impact but how many working people have?

Michael Dertouzos, Nicholas Negroponte and even Schwartz and Leyden, all may genuinely believe that the technology they create and promote is making the world a better place. They would be right if 'the world' meant them, their family and friends, people like them and then some other people in the country they live in. The fact of the matter is new technologies are distributed to those that already have access to technology.

The men and women whose lives are deeply meshed with the new and dominating information technologies must promote the idea that their creations are improving our lives, although it is clear that their own lives have improved to the greatest extent. As a self-described Luddite states plainly, "they haven't changed the fact that all this handwaving about the wonders of the Information Age is an attempt to sell us a bill of goods."(19) The fact is that to keep buying the things that the information technology producers create, we, too, must believe that it will improve our lives. Many of us do not hear the dissenting voices. The men and women in our government do not always understand the implications of the technology and they are being educated by the "experts" who are invariably officers from the technology companies. Corporations in the guise of prominent, knowledgeable individuals are shaping public policy. They create good names for their policy groups, like Electronic Frontier Foundation and The Center for Democracy and Technology. They promote seemingly worthy values like free and open access to information and tax-free e-commerce. They are the technological utopians. However, for all intents and purposes they are not the public, even though they are determining what is in the public interest.

Technological Determinism

A school of thought that circulates in the midst of this pre-millennial futurism is that the future is now; we are there. The Long Boom was written in the middle of the future it describes. Dertouzos revels in his own accuracy, "And here we are! A good deal of [my] forecast is already here with the Web and the Internet."(20) He reminds us that "the press and most soothsayers" talk of entering Cyberspace, "Baloney! The Industrial Revolution didn't bring us into 'Motorspace.' It brought the motors into our lives as ... creations that served our human needs. Ditto with the new world of information!"(21) If it is here then how can we alter it?

A symptom of this trend is the tendency to use terms of the future in the present. We describe what is digital as virtual, even though it isn't virtual, it is just online. We describe computers in human terms and describe humans in computer terms. We do it lightly everyday when we compare our brains to hard drives, when we speak in the language of emails and when we name our computers. Donna Haraway, author of The Cyborg Manifesto, sees herself as a cyborg and the human world around her as nodes that interact with each other and with computers. "If you start talking to people about how they cook their dinner or what kind of language they use to describe trouble in a marriage, you're very likely to get notions of tape loops, communication breakdown, noise and signal - amazing stuff."(22) Her Wired interviewer explains further, "The realities of modern life happen to include a relationship between people and technology so intimate that it's no longer possible to tell where we end and machines begin."(23) If this is true, is this something we want for ourselves?

Sardar, who no doubt recoils at the prophesies of Dertouzos and Negroponte, has this most pessimistic perception of the future we are now living: "The truth is that we have reached a plateau in terms of the benefits that we can get from technology.... The trends that are being projected into the future have not, in our own time, led to a world of peace, prosperity and plenty. They have produced a world that is devastated and diminished in nearly every respect."(24) This statement fails to acknowledge some real improvements in the lives of those who have benefited from the application of these new technologies to the fields of medicine, communication and education. However, we cannot accept blindly the techno-utopian notion that technology is a panacea. Technology is not only not a panacea, it is also not interchangeable with progress, and it is not the ultimate achievement.

It is unfortunate that the suggestion that perhaps we should limit the amount of technology we allow in our lives, or reject it outright, is associated with Luddism or technophobia. The concept of progress is so linked with technology that to reject it is to be against progress. Iain A. Boal suggests, "Those who criticize the deployment of certain modern technologies and yet flinch at the sobriquet 'Luddite' are complicit with the logic of progress, fearful about being branded technophobe, or, finally, losers along with the peasantry and the doomed tribes."(25) Those who flinch should be comforted by historical examples. Hundreds of dangerous trends have been halted, and even reversed, by brave outsiders. Many more have been stopped because enough insiders have sided with the outsiders. Many information technology professionals share the sentiment that unfettered technology needs to be countered with the principles of the common good and public interest. However, because technology is not the problem, only the tool, the challenge ahead cannot be met by the IT world alone.

Is it too late to stem the tide and control the direction of technology and progress? Sardar cautions against this tendency to accept the future as written in scenarios: "In a very subtle way, predictions and forecasts silence debate and discussion. They present technology as an autonomous and desirable force and project the future as unavoidable. The desirable products of technology generate more desire; its undesirable side-effects require more technology to solve them. We are locked in a linear, one-dimensional trajectory that has actually foreclosed the future. Forecasts, utopian or otherwise, are inherently undemocratic."(26)



Endnotes

(1) Howard P. Segal, "America's Technological Utopians," Swiss Review of World Affairs, March 1993; available from Lexis-Nexis.  [back to text]

(2) Ziauddin Sardar, "The Future is Ours to Change," New Statesman, 19 March 1999; available from Lexis-Nexis. [back to text]

(3) Ibid. [first citation] [back to text]

(4) John Arquilla, "The Great Cyberwar of 2002," Wired, February 1998 (accessed 9 November 1999); available from www.wired.com, Internet. [back to text]

(5) Lawrence F. Kaplan, "A Bridge Too Far," The National Interest, Fall 1999; available from Lexis-Nexis.  [back to text]

(6) Dr. K. Wayne Smith, former CEO of OCLC, included a reference to the "100 Person Village" in a 1997 speech given on the occasion of his retirement. He describes it as an "Internet message ... [that] apparently comes from a professor at San Diego State University." It was also quoted in a talk given at Georgetown University by the President of Paine Webber in December 1998.  [back to text]

(7) According to the United Nations, on October 12, 1999, a baby was born in Sarajevo bringing the world's population to six billion.  [back to text]

(8) Smith, Retirement speech. [first citation] [back to text]

(9) Nicholas Negroponte, Wired, November 1998, 248.  [back to text]

(10) Michael Dertouzos, What Will Be: How the New World of Information Will Change Our Lives (San Francisco: Harper Edge, 1997) 323.  [back to text]

(11) Ibid, 323-326. [first citation] [back to text]

(12) Peter Schwartz and Peter Leyden, "The Long Boom: A History of the Future, 1980 - 2020," Wired, July 1997 [accessed 9 November 1999]; available from www.wired.com, Internet.  [back to text]

(13) Ibid.  [first citation] [back to text]

(14) Antonia Zerbisias, "Wired's World Must Be From Another Planet," The Toronto Star, 28 June 1997, M8.  [back to text]

(15) Review of War of the Worlds: Cyberspace and the High-Tech Assault on Reality, by Mark Slouka, Amazon.com, Internet.  [back to text]

(16) Richard Kadrey, "Go Forth and Multiply: Richard G. Seed on why cloning is God's Work," Wired, March 1998 [accessed 9 November 1999]; available from www.wired.com, Internet.  [back to text]

(17) Richard Kadrey, "Carbon Copy: Meet the First Human Clone in this Wired Scenario," Wired, March 1998 [accessed 9 November 1999]; available from www.wired.com, Internet.  [back to text]

(18) Sardar, "The Future is Ours."  [first citation] [back to text]

(19) Oscar H. Gandy Jr., "It's Discrimination, Stupid!" in Resisting the Virtual Life: the Culture and Politics of Information, ed. James Brook and Iain A. Boal (San Francisco: City Lights, 1995) 35.  [back to text]

(20) Dertouzos, What Will Be, 11.  [first citation] [back to text]

(21) Ibid.  [first citation] [back to text]

(22) Harry Kunzru, "You Are Cyborg: for Donna Haraway, We Are Already Assimilated," Wired, February 1997; available at www.wired.com, Internet.  [back to text]

(23) Ibid. [first citation] [back to text]

(24) Sardar, "The Future is Ours."  [first citation]  [back to text]

(25) Iain A. Boal, "A Flow of Monsters: Luddism and Virtual Technologies," in Resisting the Virtual Life: the Culture and Politics of Information, ed. James Brook and Iain A. Boal (San Francisco: City Lights, 1995) 11.  [back to text]

(26) Sardar, "The Future is Ours."   [first citation]  [back to text]