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.

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