Masthead CMC Magazine / February 1, 1996
 Hopes and Horrors, by Rob Kling

Conventions of Technological Utopianism and Anti-Utopianism

Utopian and anti-utopian analysts paint their portraits of computerization with monochromatic brushes: white or black. The anti-utopians' characterizations of the tragic possibilities of computerization provide an essential counterbalance to the giddy-headed optimism of the utopian accounts. The romances and tragedies are not all identical. For example, some anti-utopian writings examine the possibilities of computerized systems for coercion, while others emphasize alienation. But the utopian and anti-utopian genres have some important inherent limitations

It is simply unclear how a social group can move from where it is to the more utopian social order. Unfortunately, computer specialists--like most scientists and technologists--aren't taught how to assess the social viability of different clusters of social assumptions. Nor are computer specialists taught to understand the dynamics of social change.

Utopian visions are sometimes characterized as "reality transcending" (Kumar, 1987; Kumar, 1991). They play important roles in stimulating hope and giving people a positive sense of direction. But they can mislead when their architects exaggerate the likelihood of easy and desirable social changes. Writing about technological utopianism in the 1930s, Wilson, Pilgrim and Tasjian (1986:335) comment:

"Belief in the limitless future potential of the machine had both its positive and negative aspects. During the 1930s this almost blind faith in the power of the machine to make the world a better place helped hold a badly shattered nation together. ... These science fiction fantasies contributed to an almost naive approach to serious problems and a denial of problems that could already be foreseen."

In any of its forms, technological utopianism can be exciting and expand the range of people's visions of what is possible.

"Utopia confronts reality not with a measured assessment of the possibilities of change but with the demand for change. This is the way the world should be. It refuses to accept current definitions of the possible because it knows these to be a part of the reality it seeks to change. In its guise as utopia, by the very force of its imaginative presentation, it energizes reality, infusing it ... with "the power of the new." (Kumar, 1991:107).

But in characterizing "a world that should be," technological utopians embed specific commitments to ways of life within their visions. In the first selection, Ross Weiland expressed his enthusiasm for desktop video conferencing in terms that trivialized any serious discussion of the ways of living and working with and without these technologies. I repeat some of his comments here:

"While the techno-types are working to perfect a brand-new field of applied science, sociologists worry about the human element: What about the loss of human contact? What about the employer's enhanced capability to monitor a person's work? Such concerns may well slow the acceptance of desktop videoconferencing. But like the fax and the PC before it, we will embrace this technology in the near future and ask a familiar question: How did we do business without it? "

We can extract a set of Weiland' s demands from this brief passage: ignore the possible loss of human contact; ignore the employer's enhanced capability to monitor a person's work; embrace desktop videoconferencing soon not do business without it.

The actual uses and consequences of developing computer systems depend upon the "way the world works". Conversely, computerized systems may slowly, but inexorably, change "the way the world works"--often with unforeseen consequences. A key issue is how to understand the social opportunities and dilemmas of computerization without becoming seduced by the social simplifications of utopian romance, or becoming discouraged by anti-utopian nightmares. Both kinds of images are far too simplified. But they do serve to help identify an interesting and important set of social possibilities.

Anti-utopian writings are far less numerous in the United States. They serve as an important counterbalance to technological utopianism. But they could encourage a comparably ineffective sense of despair and inaction. Utopian and anti-utopian visions embody extreme assumptions about technology and human behavior. But their causal simplicity gives them great clarity and makes them easy to grasp--to enjoy or to abhor. They can resonate with our dreams or nightmares. Consequently, they have immense influence in shaping the discussions (and real directions) of computerization.

-- Writings in each genre have formulaic limits much in the way that romantic fiction (or any other literary genre) has important limits (Cawelti, 1976). Cawelti notes that "The moral fantasy of the romance is that of love triumphant and permanent, overcoming all obstacles and difficulties (Cawelti, 1976:41-42)." This does not mean that we can't be entertained or our appreciation of life enriched by romantic fictions; it is simply a genre with important formulaic limits. The moral fantasies of technological utopianism and anti-utopianism similarly limit the way that they can teach us about the likely social realities of new forms of computerization: one is romantic and the other is tragic.


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