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

Utopian Social Visions

I have selected articles that illustrate the ways in which technologically utopian analyses shape some key discussions about the social possibilities of computerization. Utopian thinkers portray --whole societies whose members live very ideal lives. The first such description appeared in Plato's Republic, written some 2500 years ago. But the name "Utopia" derives from Thomas More, who in 1516 published a story about an ideal society D Utopia D where people lived harmoniously and free of privation. More's fanciful name, which literally meant "nowhere," has been picked up and applied to a whole tradition of writing and thinking about the forms of society that would supposedly make many people happiest.

There have been hundreds of utopian blueprints. They differ substantially in their details: some have focused on material abundance as the key to human happiness while other have advanced ideal visions of austerity and simplicity. Some utopian thinkers advocate private property as a central social institution, while alternative visions place a premium on shared property.

The most obvious utopian sources are discourses which the authors explicitly identify as fictional accounts, complete with traditional devices such as invented characters and fanciful dialogue. But here we are concerned with discourses about computerization which authors present as primarily realistic or factual accounts (and which are cataloged as non-fiction in bookstores and libraries).

Utopian images permeate the literatures about computerization in society. I don't criticize utopian ideals that emphasize a good life for all. After all, the United States was founded on premises that were utopian in the 1700s. The Declaration of Independence asserts that "all men are created equal" and that they would be guaranteed the right to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness". This sentiment stood in significant contrast to the political cultures of the European monarchies of the time, where the rule of the king or queen, along with nobles (most of whom were "elected" by heredity) determined people's fates. Of course, asserting the right to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" as universal didn't immediately make it so. Until 1865, for example, slaves were legally property, and could be bought and sold, told where to live, and broken apart from their families. Women were not allowed to vote until 1919. And even in 1963, Martin Luther King's major speech about a country free of racial discrimination was called "I Have a Dream"--not "An Old Dream Has Now Come True".

Furthermore utopian ideals are hard to put into practice. Their advocates often have to fight hard to change social practices to better fit their ideals. The United States broke free of the English Crown through a four year war. Almost two hundred years later, Martin Luther King and others advanced the cause of improved civil rights in the United States through aggressive confrontations: marches, rallies, court injunctions and sit-ins, as well as through more quiet persuasion. The resulting social changes, which altered the balance of privilege and exploitation, did not come quietly and peacefully. Nor have the utopian dreams of our nation's founders been fully achieved after two hundred years of struggle.


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