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

Technological Anti-Utopianism

Sven Birkerts essay "The Electronic Hive--Refuse It" comes from his larger book The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in the Electronic Age. Birkerts' essay serves as a vivid counterpoint to Kevin Kelly's essay by criticizing as alienating the kind of enmeshment in nets that Kelly finds so satisfying. Birkerts is particularly concerned that humanly meaningful events and experiences are most-often anchored in human-scale and bodily experiences. While we can send messages across a computer net in a few seconds, or even milliseconds, we don't have meaningful conversations or meaningful life experiences in seconds or milliseconds. Computer networks can be seductive places to work, play and communicate. But Birkerts views them as further removing people from their natural worlds, much as life in the largest paved and built up cities have removed us from the rhythms and textures of the natural world. Where Kelly sees computer networks as deepening people's humanity, Birkerts sees them as fundamentally alienating.

Langdon Winner's short description of worklife in electronic offices ("Electronic Office: Playpen or Prison") serves as a counterpoint to Weiland's essay about desktop conferencing, as well as to Kelly's essay about the new freedom's of computer networks. Winner distinguishes three classes of participants: technical professionals, ordinary workers, and upper managers. His brief vignette indicates that each group experiences different kinds of work worlds. The technical professionals are likely to have significant freedom in maneuvering through computer networks and communicating with their co-workers. He claims that "ordinary workers," (who seem to be primarily clerical), are highly regimented and that their performance is tightly monitored through computerized control systems. Last, upper managers sit outside of these computer networks, and constrain their workers within them.

Winner echoes Birkerts' concern that people will be further alienated through the use of computer networks through his sarcastic characterization of technical professionals-- They experience computer networks as spheres of democratic or even anarchic activity. Especially for those ill at ease in the physical presence of others (a feeling not uncommon among male engineers), the phenomenon of disembodied space seems to offer comfort and fulfillment. Here are new opportunities for self-expression, creativity, and a sense of mastery! Some begin to feel they are most alive, most free when wandering through the networks; they often "disappear" into them for days on end. (Winner, 1992:57).

Technological anti-utopians craft tragedies that serve as counterpoints to the technological utopians inspiring romances. Technological anti-utopianism is a particular form of cultural criticism which portrays the troublesome potentials of new technologies as relentlessly harsh. For example, both Birkerts and Winner acknowledge that people may enjoy playing with and communicating through computer networks. But they portray them as superficial seductions which suck the life from people's souls--much like heroin. --

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