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Cyber-utopianism – the belief that online communication is in itself emancipatory, and that the Internet favors the oppressed rather than the oppressor – has accompanied the Internet from its beginnings; and was the subject of critique by the Critical Art Ensemble as early as 1995.[1] While the romantic view of cyberspace was partially dented by the bursting of the dot-com bubble, utopian views of the internet continued to re-invent themselves through the Noughties.[2]

Douglas Rushkoff sings the praises of Web 2.0 by stating, "The Internet's ability to network human beings is its very life's blood. It fosters communication, collaboration, sharing, helpfulness, and community... The ideas, information, and applications now launching on Web sites around the world capitalize on the transparency, usability, and accessibility that the internet was born to deliver".[3]

The rise of Internet censorship and surveillance and cyber sovereignty across the world has led to a growing number of "cyber skeptics" arguing that repressive governments are able to adapt their tactics to respond to threats, using technology against the interests of dissenting movements.[4] In 2011, cyber-utopianism, particularly in global politics, was powerfully critiqued by Evgeny Morozov in his 2011 book The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom.[5] Acknowledging his own past as a cyber-utopian, Morozov calls the belief naive and stubborn for its refusal to acknowledge the downside – the opportunities for authoritarian monitoring and control – of cyber-space.[6] He goes on to blame the "former hippies" in the 1990s, for causing this utopian belief.

"Cyber-utopians ambitiously set out to build a new and improved United Nations, only to end up with a digital Cirque du Soleil"[6]

Origins: Californian ideology[edit]

The Californian Ideology is a set of beliefs combining bohemian and anti-authoritarian attitudes from the counterculture of the 1960s with techno-utopianism and support for neoliberal economic policies.[7] These beliefs are thought by some to have been characteristic of the culture of the IT industry in Silicon Valley and the West Coast of the United States during the dot-com boom of the 1990s.[8] Adam Curtis connects it to Ayn Rand's Objectivist philosophy. Such an ideology of digital utopianism fuelled the first generation of Internet pioneers.[9]

Further criticisms[edit]

Critical reservations about popular positivist readings of the Internet have surfaced repeatedly over the decades: In 2006, Andrew Keen wrote that Web 2.0 is a "grand utopian movement" similar to "communist society" as described by Karl Marx. According to Shirky, "By lowering transaction costs, social tools provide a platform for communities of practice...Communities of practice are inherently cooperative, and are beautifully supported by social tools, because that is exactly the kind of community whose members can recruit one another or allow themselves to be found by interested searchers."[10] In an article from The New Yorker from 2010, Malcolm Gladwell argues his doubts about the emancipatory and empowering qualities of social media in general. In the article he criticizes Clay Shirky for propagating and overestimating the revolutionary potential of social media. In the conclusion he says: "Shirky considers this model of activism an upgrade. But it is simply a form of organizing which favors the weak-tie connections that give us access to information over the strong-tie connections that help us persevere in the face of danger."[11] Cyber-utopianism has been compared to a secular religion for the postmodern world.[12]

Cognate utopias[edit]

Cyber-utopianism is somewhat derivative of the views espoused by the Extropians, whose ultimate goal is to upload human consciousness to the Internet.

Additionally, Ray Kurzweil's books, especially The Age of Spiritual Machines, espouses a kind of cyber-utopianism, in that he views an event, the Singularity, where advances in technology will be so rapid as to represent a barrier after which life will be experientially different, incomprehensible, and advanced.


In August 2007, David Nye presented the idea of cyber-dystopia, which envisions a world made worse by technological advancements.[13] Cyber-dystopias center around the principles of the individual losing control, becoming dependent and being unable to stop change. Nye describes a society where the elite use technology to oppress and control mass groups of people. He also presents technology as a form of false hope; promising success and change, but causing pain and inconvenience when that goal is not reached. In her book Personal Connections, Nancy Baym talks about the way a cyber-dystopia would negatively affect social interactions. "The dystopian alternative is usually articulated as a fear that new media will take people away from their intimate relationships, as they substitute mediated relationships or even media use itself for face to face engagement".[14]:36 She compares this fear with the fear that many felt during the introduction of the television and the telephone, as people grew weary about the potential for substitution of meaningful relationships.[14]:28–36

The dystopian voices of Andrew Keen, Jaron Lanier, and Nicholas Carr have pointed out that what we as a society are sacrificing to the cult of cyber-utopians is our humanity. Lanier describes it as "an apocalypse of self-abdication".[15] Lanier states that "consciousness is attempting to will itself out of existence".[15] He then asks us to consider, "What is a person?".[15] Lanier warns that by emphasizing the crowd we are de-emphasizing individual humans and when you ask people to stop being people, they revert to mob-like behaviors. Keen and Carr also agree that there is a dangerous mob mentality that dominates the internet. Keen states that rather than creating more democracy, the internet is empowering the rule of the mob and that rather than fostering a renaissance of social equality it has created a "selfie-centered"[16] culture of voyeurism and narcissism.

As Nicholas Carr states in The Glass Cage, "the prevailing methods of computerized communication and coordination pretty much ensure that the role of people will go on shrinking. We’ve designed a system that discards us".[17]

In politics[edit]

Cyber-utopian discourses have been used in the political context, notably by the Pirate Parties. In Italy, the Five Star Movement extensively uses cyber-utopian rhetoric, promising direct democracy and better environmental regulations through the Web.[18]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Stepehn Wilson, Information Arts (2002) p. 477
  2. ^ P. Buckley/D. Clark, The Rough Guide to the Internet (2009) p. 312-5
  3. ^ Rushkoff, Douglas (2002). Renaissance Now! Media Ecology and the New Global Narrative. Hampton Press. pp. 26–28.
  4. ^ "The Impact of Information and Communication Technology on State Sovereignty: An Analysis of the Cyber Utopian and Cyber Skeptic Perspectives - Tufts Digital Library".
  5. ^ R. Sassower, Digital Exposure: Postmodern Capitalism (2013) p. ix and p. 16
  6. ^ a b Morozov, Evgeny (2011). The Net Delusion. London: Penguin Group. ISBN 978-1-84614-353-3.
  7. ^ Turner, Fred (2008-05-15). From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism. Chicago, Ill.: University Of Chicago Press. ISBN 9780226817422.
  8. ^ Barbrook, Richard; Cameron, Andy. "The Californian Ideology". Imaginary Futures. Retrieved April 27, 2014.
  9. ^ J.M Reagle jr, Good Faith Collaboration (2010) p. 162
  10. ^ Shirky, Clay (February 2009). Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Everybody. Penguin Books. p. 190. ISBN 978-0143114949.
  11. ^ Gladwell, Malcolm (4 October 2010). "Small Change". The New Yorker. Retrieved 26 September 2011.
  12. ^ B. Neilson, Free Trade in the Bermuda Triangle (2004) p. 181
  13. ^ Nye, David E. (August 2007). Technology Matters: Questions to Live With. The MIT Press. ISBN 9780262640671. Retrieved April 27, 2014.
  14. ^ a b Baym, Nancy K. (Apr 2010). Personal Connections in the Digital Age. Polity. ISBN 9780745643311. Retrieved April 27, 2014.
  15. ^ a b c Lanier, Jaron (February 2011). You Are Not A Gadget: A Manifesto. Vintage. p. 15. ISBN 978-0307389978.
  16. ^ Keen, Andrew (January 2015). The Internet Is Not the Answer. Atlantic Monthly Press. ISBN 978-0802123138.
  17. ^ Carr, Nicholas (September 2014). The Glass Cage: Automation and Us. Norton & Company. ISBN 978-0393240764.
  18. ^ Natale, Simone; Ballatore, Andrea (2014-01-01). "The web will kill them all: new media, digital utopia, and political struggle in the Italian 5-Star Movement". Media, Culture & Society. 36 (1): 105–121. doi:10.1177/0163443713511902. ISSN 0163-4437.

Further reading[edit]

  • Dickel, Sascha, and Schrape, Jan-Felix (2017): The Logic of Digital Utopianism. Nano Ethics
  • Margaret Wertheim, The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace (2000)
  • Evgeny Morozov, To Save Everything, Click Here (2013)
  • Turner, Fred. From counterculture to cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the rise of digital utopianism. University Of Chicago Press, 2010.
  • Flichy, Patrice. The internet imaginaire. Mit Press, 2007.

External links[edit]