Our Cybernetic Utopia

Almost 500 years ago, in 1516, Thomas More wrote the satire Utopia, in which he explored the con­cept of a sup­pos­ed­ly per­fect soci­ety. Par­tial­ly set on the epony­mous island, Utopia was an ear­ly effort to hold up a mir­ror to con­tem­po­rary Euro­pean soci­eties and high­light their inequities and injus­tices.

More’s satire began as an exchange of let­ters with var­i­ous offi­cials he had met in Europe where he crit­i­cized prac­tices like enclo­sure (which he said cre­at­ed pover­ty for those unable to secure access to land), and var­i­ous judi­cial pun­ish­ments. But then he segued into explor­ing what a so-called per­fect soci­ety would look like — one with no pri­vate prop­er­ty, no locks on the doors, and no need for eco­nom­ic class. While every­one would be required to work and thus unem­ploy­ment is non-exis­tent in Utopia, slav­ery is ram­pant so as to keep the work day for the non-slaves to around 6 hours or so (the near­by coun­tries in pre-Columbian South Amer­i­ca sup­pos­ed­ly pro­vid­ed the slaves).

More’s Utopia had a lot of fea­tures mod­ern utopi­ans would rec­og­nize: a gen­er­ous wel­fare state with free hos­pi­tals, cler­gy allowed to mar­ry, no hunger, reli­gious tol­er­ance, legal euthana­sia, etc. But it also has a lot of fea­tures, espe­cial­ly around sex, we would con­sid­er dystopi­an in a mod­ern set­ting: pre­mar­i­tal sex was harsh­ly pun­ished through forced life­time celiba­cy, and infi­deli­ty was pun­ished by enslave­ment. More envis­aged a sys­tem of inter­nal pass­ports that would be more famil­iar in a Com­mu­nist coun­try, and he even spec­u­lat­ed that despite the offi­cial equal­i­ty, of course the admin­is­tra­tors and lead­ers would live and eat bet­ter than every­one else.

It was a bril­liant, chal­leng­ing, fas­ci­nat­ing work — and invent­ed a new genre of lit­er­a­ture and spec­u­la­tive fic­tion. In the mod­ern and post-mod­ern era, the idea of utopia has tak­en on a wild vari­ety of mean­ings More would prob­a­bly rec­og­nize, though he’d prob­a­bly find a few things to object to with ful­ly auto­mat­ed lux­u­ry gay space com­mu­nism.

The dream of Utopia nev­er died. The ear­ly years of the inter­net were dri­ven by a utopi­an ide­al — ear­ly “cypher­punks,” as they called them­selves, thought that liv­ing online would cre­ate a state­less ur-soci­ety free from the con­straints of “meat­space.” John Per­ry Bar­low, the Grate­ful Dead lyri­cist who found­ed the activist group Elec­tron­ic Fron­tier Foun­da­tion, wrote a 1996 essay where he declared the “inde­pen­dence of cyber­space.” In Barlow’s imag­i­na­tion, being very online con­sist­ed of “trans­ac­tions, rela­tion­ships, and thought itself,” which was “both every­where and nowhere.”

The vision is appeal­ing pre­cise­ly because it pulls from some very Amer­i­can cul­tur­al threads: cyber­space is por­trayed as a world with­out prej­u­dice or eco­nom­ic pow­er, with unlim­it­ed speech and infi­nite mobil­i­ty. Because it exist­ed apart from “mat­ter,” Bar­low wrote, the con­cepts of prop­er­ty, iden­ti­ty, con­text, and move­ment were imma­te­r­i­al. He want­ed to cre­ate a “civ­i­liza­tion of the Mind in Cyber­space,” more humane and fair than the messy and imper­fect democ­ra­cy of the U.S. gov­ern­ment.

Need­less to say, this utopia has only become even more the­o­ret­i­cal in the 23 years since he wrote it. At around the same time Bar­low was writ­ing his essay, jour­nal­ists who cov­ered the inter­net-as-it-was, as opposed to dream­ing of what it could be, not­ed how chat rooms and prim­i­tive mul­ti­play­er games were unleash­ing new form of crowd-sourced abused at women and minori­ties — con­duct so shock­ing and trau­ma­tiz­ing one com­pared it to being raped.

The chal­lenge to utopia, whether More’s or Barlow’s, is that it seems to only spring from the minds of its time’s wealthy elit­ists. More was not exact­ly a man of the peo­ple in the 1510s, and his book was rather open­ly a plea for employ­ment in the super-hot mar­ket of advis­er-to-the-prince (man­age­ment con­sul­tants are always with us). Bar­low, already wealthy and famous, was writ­ing from a very unac­knowl­edged place that dom­i­nat­ed the internet’s pio­neers: an elite amongst elites. His dri­ving moti­va­tion seems pedes­tri­an, in hind­sight: a jere­mi­ad against the Telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions Act, which was the first piece of leg­is­la­tion to include the inter­net in any way. The most oner­ous aspect of the act was its per­mis­sion of huge con­sol­i­da­tion, which gave us giants like Com­cast own­ing Uni­ver­al, NBC, and a net­work of region­al cable monop­o­lies; it also altered the way car­ri­ers can pro­vide ser­vices and inter­act with each oth­er. Bad stuff, for sure, but is that real­ly worth declar­ing the end of demo­c­ra­t­ic gov­ern­ments and the police?

The real­i­ty is that nor­mal peo­ple sim­ply didn’t use the inter­net when Bar­low wrote his man­i­festo — in 1996, your options for even get­ting online were either an AOL CD some­one left at your door or some­thing like Com­puServe, and for the vast major­i­ty of peo­ple it would be over an aching­ly slow dialup modem (while I have fond mem­o­ries of launch­ing Win­dows 95 from a DOS prompt and lit­er­al­ly read­ing a book whilst a web­page loaded some grainy pho­tos of a fight­er jet I want­ed to use in a school project, it wasn’t exact­ly the web in any form we’d rec­og­nize today). When Bar­low wrote that cyber­space was a place one may enter “with­out priv­i­lege or eco­nom­ic pow­er,” the aver­age com­put­er (like a Gate­way Solo 2100) cost almost $7,000 in 2019 dol­lars. You most cer­tain­ly need­ed the priv­i­lege of eco­nom­ic pow­er in order to par­tic­i­pate in his speech utopia.

This blind­ness to what utopia actu­al­ly means was high­light­ed by John Stu­art Mill in 1868, as he crit­i­cized the British pol­i­cy toward Irish land:

I may be per­mit­ted, as one who, in com­mon with many of my bet­ters, have been sub­ject­ed to the charge of being Utopi­an, to con­grat­u­late the Gov­ern­ment on hav­ing joined that good­ly com­pa­ny. It is, per­haps, too com­pli­men­ta­ry to call them Utopi­ans, they ought rather to be called dys-top­i­ans, or caco­topi­ans. What is com­mon­ly called Utopi­an is some­thing too good to be prac­ti­ca­ble; but what they appear to favour is too bad to be prac­ti­ca­ble.

Yet, despite its rather obvi­ous short­com­ings as a cohe­sive vision of the inter­net, Barlow’s speech utopia dream drove com­pa­ny after com­pa­ny to use it as a found­ing ide­al. Google was found­ed two years after his man­i­festo was pub­lished with the mis­sion to “orga­nize the world’s infor­ma­tion and make it uni­ver­sal­ly acces­si­ble and use­ful.” They did that! But it turns out the world’s infor­ma­tion also includes inva­sive infor­ma­tion about your chil­dren, your health, your income, your inter­ests, your friends, your pornog­ra­phy, your pol­i­tics, your reli­gion, and your inse­cu­ri­ties — and by mak­ing it uni­ver­sal­ly acces­si­ble, mar­keters can buy that infor­ma­tion and use it to micro­tar­get you with ads for use­less garbage or fas­cist polit­i­cal move­ments.

Yet, it was clear fair­ly ear­ly in the internet’s devel­op­ment that the mas­sive inva­sion of pri­va­cy posed by big data was going to be a chal­lenge to basic lib­er­ties. In 1993, years before there was ever a sin­gle web­site, Eric Hugh­es wrote his “Cypherpunk’s Man­i­festo,” which starts by argu­ing “pri­va­cy is nec­es­sary for an open soci­ety in the elec­tron­ic age.” Defin­ing pri­va­cy as “the pow­er to selec­tive­ly reveal one­self to the world,” Hugh­es argued that cryp­tog­ra­phy would give us the pow­er to selec­tive­ly reveal our­selves.

Unlike many of the ear­ly inter­net utopi­ans, Hugh­es saw a dan­ger in retail­ers learn­ing more about us: “When I pur­chase a mag­a­zine at a store and hand cash to the clerk, there is no need to know who I am.” He even felt that email providers had no need to read the con­tents or iden­ti­ties of the mail users: “When my iden­ti­ty is revealed by the under­ly­ing mech­a­nism of the trans­ac­tion, I have no pri­va­cy. I can­not here selec­tive­ly reveal myself; I must always reveal myself.”

Hugh­es was, in some impor­tant ways, a dis­si­dent from the dom­i­nant world­view of Sil­i­con Val­ley, a form of tech­no-lib­er­tar­i­an­ism some­times pigeon­holed as the “Cal­i­forn­ian Ide­ol­o­gy” thanks to Richard Bar­brook and Andy Cameron. It is a belief sys­tem that sees a threat in gov­ern­ment behav­ior but not nec­es­sar­i­ly cor­po­ra­tions (unless they work for the gov­ern­ment). Bar­low didn’t see the biggest threat to per­son­al lib­er­ty as the rise of com­pa­nies that can lit­er­al­ly con­trol what you see and read online; he saw a car­ri­er law that most­ly gov­erned spec­trum allo­ca­tion and cor­po­rate gov­er­nance as the big threat. Hugh­es, on the oth­er hand, saw a vital threat in giv­ing for-prof­it com­pa­nies the pow­er to link our trans­ac­tions to our iden­ti­ties — a minor­i­ty strain of lib­er­tar­i­an­ism from the left rather than the pro-cor­po­ratist wor­ship of Ayn Rand on the right.

Bar­low was no right winger; but his blindspot to cor­po­rate greed was the same blindspot many right wingers share when they rant about the deep state read­ing their email but don’t seem to think twice about installing a Ring door­bell on their house. You could see a sim­i­lar irony in the ear­ly pio­neers of the inter­net cling­ing to the anti-gov­ern­ment para­noia of their coun­ter­cul­ture roots even as they became extreme­ly wealthy by mon­e­tiz­ing non-con­sen­su­al data col­lec­tion of pri­vate cit­i­zens on a sys­tem orig­i­nal­ly built by the gov­ern­ment to safe­guard com­mu­ni­ca­tion links dur­ing a nuclear attack.

Sad­ly, Hugh­es was right to be so wor­ried. It turns out cryp­tog­ra­phy is hard, even now, for most peo­ple, and they just can’t be both­ered. As a result, a few com­pa­nies grew to be impos­si­bly large and know almost every­thing about us. Three firms, Face­book, Google, and Ama­zon, lit­er­al­ly con­trol what you buy, see, read, and hear on the inter­net (which is to say, every­thing — lit­er­al­ly so, some­times as an exper­i­ment con­duct­ed against their own users with­out their con­sent). These plat­forms have destroyed the insti­tu­tion of jour­nal­ism by siphon­ing the adver­tis­ing mon­ey that used to sup­port report­ing to their own adver­tis­ing engines — and in at least some cas­es they did so through out­right fab­ri­ca­tion. They do this by invad­ing your pri­va­cy and sell­ing your data to opaque net­works of actors who nev­er have your best inter­ests at heart, even if it’s just to sell you some­thing. One jour­nal­ist recent­ly got a col­lec­tion of this data and it was shock­ing in its depth:

More than 400 pages long, it con­tained all the mes­sages I’d ever sent to hosts on Airbnb; years of Yelp deliv­ery orders; a log of every time I’d opened the Coin­base app on my iPhone. Many entries includ­ed detailed infor­ma­tion about the device I used to do these things, includ­ing my IP address at the time.

Amer­i­ca is a cyber­punk dystopia: it turns out the inter­net made it eas­i­er to abuse reg­u­lar peo­ple, not hard­er. Bar­low was right that every­one gets an equal voice online, but that turned out to accel­er­ate the rise of glob­al fas­cism. Democ­ra­cy is being bro­ken every sin­gle day by social media firms. Unac­count­able finance firms col­lect your data with­out your con­sent, use it to restrict your access to mon­ey, and then wash their hands of account­abil­i­ty when their exec­u­tives sell off stock right before reveal­ing their own shod­dy secu­ri­ty allowed your infor­ma­tion to be stolen by unknown hack­ers. You are under con­stant sur­veil­lance by your cur­rent and future employ­ers, your bank, and even your doc­tor. There is a mar­ket for your data out there, but it is not avail­able for ordi­nary peo­ple to ben­e­fit from, and it is struc­tured to make your pri­va­cy an impos­si­ble dream.

And yet, the appeal of a tech­no­log­i­cal utopia sol­diers on. Mod­ern day utopi­ans tend to take the form of tech bil­lion­aires want­i­ng to use their vast, lit­er­al­ly unfath­omable wealth to reshape soci­ety in their image. Much like Bar­low, they find the idea of a gov­ern­ment held account­able through elec­tions the worst way to improve soci­ety — they’d rather it hap­pen at their whim, with their pref­er­ences, and only on their terms.

The prob­lem is that sell­ing more gad­gets won’t cre­ate an ide­al soci­ety — by design, it can­not, since sell­ing things means scarci­ty and scarci­ty means pri­va­tion and an ide­al soci­ety won’t have pri­va­tion (for most peo­ple — remem­ber, the real Utopia still had slaved). The very nature of unreg­u­lat­ed cap­i­tal­ism is to cre­ate own­ers and work­ers, and the own­ers will always have more than the work­ers. Unpack­ing that is beyond the scope of this blog­post, but under­stand­ing the assump­tions and bias­es behind the tech­no-utopia cur­rent­ly dri­ving the econ­o­my and, increas­ing­ly, the gov­ern­ment, is impor­tant.

Seek­ing to improve soci­ety is a great thing. But we have evolved our ideas of what an improved soci­ety should be sig­nif­i­cant­ly since the 16th cen­tu­ry. 500 years after More’s Utopia, most peo­ple who aren’t reli­gious fas­cists think of fair­ness, jus­tice, and equal oppor­tu­ni­ty as being the dri­ving val­ues of an ide­al­ized soci­ety. That can take a lot of forms, but we now have 20 years of web cul­ture to show us that it cer­tain­ly won’t take the form of being online more. That turned out to be the oppo­site of utopia.

More from me on this top­ic:

Joshua Foust used to be a foreign policy maven. Now he helps organizations communicate strategically and build audiences.