September 4 2023
In my previous blog, I discussed what I see as a prevalent tech pessimism (and ascendent primitivism) among the anglophone left today, as well as the need to construct new horizons from which to contest technological development. This second blog l returns to what might be considered the heyday of digital utopianism, from the late 1980s to the early 2000s, to see what can be learned from the left wing horizons of this period. Its initial focus falls upon what I call “hypertext utopianism”, a tendency which attached revolutionary potential to hypertext structures (especially to their potential horizontality, ergodicity and to the link). Second is cyberfeminism, which saw digital media as having brought – or promising to bring – tools of social liberation and gender abolition. While not always explicitly “utopian”, and certainly not uncritical about digital media, cyberfeminism was distinguished from other contemporary feminisms through its identification of digital technological and cybernetics as emancipatory vectors.
These utopian projects are both related to the development of the internet and web from the 1960s through to the late 90s/early 2000s (although by different logics). Hypertext utopianism was a product of a coalition of social theorists, philosophers, practitioners and engineers – engineers who would go on to develop network systems including the world wide web. 1980s/90s cyberfeminism – whilst including programming activities and making claims on significant figures in the history of computing (notably Ada Lovelace, the first computer programmer, although there are many others) – did not benefit from this direct influence on the architects of the internet. In short, while hypertext utopianism inserted some ideas into internet infrastructures, cyberfeminism had to excavate its own affordances. But there is more coherence between the goals of these two groups than might be imagined, and both offer lively routes into the potentialities of the terrain.
In his final book, Chaosmosis (published in 1992) Felix Guattari made a declaration that “The time has come for hypertexts in every genre.” The term “Hypertext” itself was coined by the sociologist Ted Nelson in 1963, although Guattari is likely to have read Nelson’s nonlinear book Literary Machines, which (anticipating the update) was republished nine times between 1991 and 1993 (and he takes his lead primarily from Pierre Levy’s techno-cultural writing). As Nelson had articulated it, hypertext constituted (at a minimum) “non-sequential writing – text that branches and allows choices to the reader”. His sketches of hypertext (fig.1) show blocks of information arranged non-hierarchically, and interlinked thematically; a form of writing no longer bound into sequence by the line, paragraph or page but arranged ergodicly (that is, ordered through reader interaction). For Guattari, such a non-hierarchical text might allow the reader to take on a compositional role. And so the call for Hypertext in every genre was a call for an expansion of this dislocation beyond text into all forms of expression.
For Guattari the emerging terrain of digital media constituted a new “ethico-aesthetic paradigm” which might, if the promises of hypertext were delivered, usher in a post-media era in which the formal authoritarianism of media as substrate (e.g. film, the novel, etc.) and the institutional authoritarianism of media organisations (i.e. mass media) would be dismantled and replaced with the “collective-individual reappropriation and an interactive use of machines of information, communication, intelligence, art and culture.”
Of course, none of this was given, and Guattari’s call for hypertext in every genre is itself a call to action. This is an ethics as well as an aesthetics, and hypermedia alone can offer nothing if practitioners (readers and writers) do not operate with its potential. Still, Guattari foresaw the possibility of a radical expansion of the agency of the artist and of the function of aesthetic practice. Art might become a deterritorialized space, the question of the arrangement of the terrain now one for the practitioner. In doing so, this techno-aesthetic territory might become a determining one, with the art practitioner serving the function of liberator (and with an ethical obligation to do so). Hypertext – the logic of ‘the link’ – was at the centre of this: an aesthetic innovation to rival Eisenstein’s cut some 70 years earlier.
But belief in the radical potential of hypertext was not limited to continental philosophy or art practice; Guattari’s utopianism held a direct corollary in computer science. As an ideal, this horizontal mode of writing is prefigured in Vanevar Bush’s Memex (a proposed writing desk, reading device and filing system) and Paul Otlet’s Mundaneum (a physical institution, which aimed to sort all knowledge into a single physical library), as well as by library cataloguing and citational practices dating to the early enlightenment. Ted Nelson promised to implement computational hypertext in a project he called Xanedu in the early 1960s, which never properly materialised. Nelson’s ideas were, however, taken up directly by engineers and computer programmers, first in the oN-Line System (NLS), released in 1968. Hypertext, here, took the form of the hyperlink: a word which when clicked (the mouse was also an innovation of NLS) would take users to another point in the page. Later, this system was updated to allow links between documents. Tim Bernsers Lee first announced development of the World Wide Web in 1991 on a lively Usenet newsgroup dedicated entirely to the discussion of hypertext, alt.hypertext, as did the developers of the first multimedia web browser, Mosaic, a few years later.
At the end of the 1980s, while Guattari was writing, the internet (and via it, systems of networked communications) was in the ascendancy. This was thanks especially to two such systems: Usenet, which could be accessed through IBM’s PCs, and Minitel, which was developed by the French nationalised postal and telecommunications service, (and in which Guattari was particularly interested). But Hypertext was not central to the structure of either of these systems, which still relied largely on lists, menus and search functions. The World Wide Web was in development, and would soon be made public, but only shortly after Guattari’s death. It is somewhat surprising when reading Chaosmosis, then, to realise that he is not referring to the web at all, but to a still somewhat abstract idea of hypertext. This is an interesting moment: hypertext was an actually existing technology, which had been implemented in computational systems since NLS in the 1960s, but basic systems of networked computing and communication were rapidly displacing one another; HTTP (the hypertext transfer protocol) which is integral to the architecture of the world wide web and today is synonymous with hypertext, was not yet in wide use. And so hypertext, at this moment, was more of an ideal of technological development than a specific protocol, and therefore embodied a set of potentialities much more keenly than it does today.
As in “The Californian Ideology”, late 80s and early 90s techno-culture is often presented as having had an ultimately right-wing libertarian character, with liberal economic ideology at its core. This may have been essentially true, but it is not fair to characterise it as simply so; the Californian Ideology always had its dissidents. For Guattari and his fellow travellers, hypertext (and later the web – although Guattari never saw it) embodied a new liberatory aesthetic paradigm in which the user (or practitioner) could explore and arrange knowledge from a position of horizontality – without any a priori hierarchy or normative arrangement. In this sense, hypertext might have been a kind of detournement machine: undermining linearity and hierarchy with frequent and limitless departures triggered at the behest of the reader, not the author. But it also described a potential mode of relation as much as a computational system. Taken alone, Hypertext (and especially the link), functions as a technology of access; if a user can see a link, they can navigate to its contents. And this was not without its detractors. So, in his initial announcement of the World Wide Web on alt.hypertext, Tim Berners Lee anticipates concern about data security and copyright infringement by specifying that “information exchange is still more important than secrecy” at CERN. This is a diplomatic rejoinder: if copyright or security are incompatible with openness, so be it.
It is important to remember these characters – anti-hierarchical horizontality, radical access and detournement – as primary horizons within hypertext utopianism. Such instincts remain, partial and effaced, through systems like HTTP and TCP/IP in the digital infrastructures we’ve inherited today. It is interesting, in Chaosmosis, to see Guattari align himself so unconditionally with computing, and with one part of what would soon be called the Californian Ideology. Doubtless, there is some historical naivety in Guattari’s writing, but the coalition between left-wing social and aesthetic theory with computer science of which he was part relied upon a unity of intention towards the formation of specific kinds of infrastructures – that is open, common, anti-hierarchical ones facilitating horizontality, radical access and detournement.
This left-libertarian or anarchist sensibility was integral to the left wing of computer and network development from the 1980s onwards and, even if this sentiment never became the hegemonic one, it has produced infrastructures (some of which have indeed been useful to global capital). At the same time as tech corporations were busy developing the personal computers a far more idealistic faction (with a variety of motivations – mostly these are not anarchists) were busy constructing the fundamental protocols for communication and organisation, for networking. These two groups, while mutually reliant, had neither the same motivations or ideological bases for their work and, whatever the network has become, such intentionalities have contributed to its form. And so, the same cultural milieu which produced Google, Apple and Microsoft also developed HTTP, open and free software, creative commons, Wikipedia and BitTorrent. By 2000, five years after publishing “The Californian Ideology”, Richard Barbrook would write enthusiastically of the gift economies and networks of kinship emerging through the web as practices of “cyber-communism.”
The cyberfeminist horizon
Unlike the hypertext utopians, cyberfeminists had few opportunities to directly influence the development of the web. But that doesn’t mean it had no structures which were amenable to them. Instead, it means that cyberfeminists were given the difficult work of locating for themselves those parts of the assemblage which aligned with their purposes. Often this acts as a partial return to those structures built though hypertext utopianism – access, horizontality, the link, etc. There is some irony in this alignment, and it shouldn’t go unnoted that opposing the overwhelmingly male technoculture (and consequent chauvinism) of tech development in the 1980s and 90s, including of the hypertext utopians, was a significant instigating factor behind cyberfeminism.
Against such attempts to cast both digital technology and its production as uniquely male domains, cyber-feminism offers a set of particularly rich technological horizons. This is in no small part due to the media/technological archeology work carried out by cyberfeminists which offers both necessary methodological and conceptual material to draw from. Indeed, any conception of computation or information technology as being essentially male is deeply ahistorical; as many cyber-feminists are eager to highlight, for instance, until several decades into the twentieth century the word computer referred not to a machine but to a profession. Human computers carried out calculations, and such intricate, monotonous labour was not only carried out almost exclusively by women but also thought to be work that women were particularly suited to.
Sadie Plant’s Zeros + ones (1997) constitutes such an archeology, and forms an especially lucid debunking of the idea that the computer is, or ever was, an essentially male technology. There is a joint aspiration in her work to emancipate computation from the cultural trappings of masculinity and to emancipate ourselves from gender through computational communication, which she presents as uniquely appropriate to this task. Returning repeatedly to the inventor of the computer programme, Ada Lovelace, Plant exhumes the suppressed femininity of computation, especially with regards to its early and prehistory which prominently featured the loom. Weaving, as Plant argues, is almost certainly the oldest form of human computation, and without it we would not have developed the digital computer, which was a product of its automation. Both a machinic desire for production and the logics of the glitch were embodied in the fingers and looms of (mostly female) weavers across thousands of years before this knowledge could be concretised into computing machines.
Zeros + ones isn’t quite hypertextual – there is no link as such – but it is nonlinear, and presented as a series of entries very clearly drawn from the structures of digital media. Other cyberfeminists experimented more explicitly with the utility of these structures to their work. Linda Dement’s Cyberflesh Girlmonster, for instance, took the form of a series of animated collages made from the body parts and voices of thirty women, reconstructed into “conglomerate bodies… monsters”. Clicking on a body part would take the user to a new video, or to voice recording or biological information. You could draw a fairly direct line from the use of digital collage to deconstruct the body in the 90s to the fragmentary hyperpop of an artist like SOPHIE twenty years later, whose music simultaneously describes the gender affirming potentials of such digital reconstruction (as in ‘Faceshopping’ – “I’m real when I shop my face”), while also performing it through digital sound production.
Returning to the 1990s, Plant argues that the web fell short of the interactivity (and idealised user-agency) promised by Xanedu’s conception of hypertext. Still, she identifies its structures as containing a liberatory, even gender abolitionist, mechanism. When Plant was writing Zeros + ones, Usenet and the web both operated on the assumption of pseudonymity: posts were made under usernames, which may or may not have anything to do with their user’s irl identity. Physical characteristics, or even basic cultural identifiers, like given names, are not generally coded into networked communication, and so every user is given an equal right to anonymity. Barriers based on gender, race and sexuality present in the real world did not apply when none of these things could be read from physiology, and so anyone could access any information. It also, and this is intrinsic to the liberatory potentiality of pseudonymity on the internet, allowed anyone to present themselves as anything. So, already, in these early years people were living public lives as men and virtual lives as women, or vice versa, or enjoying the freedom to be neither of these things; at the same time queer networks of communication, including for those with no such networks in real life or for whom being out in real life risked real harm, were developing. Pseudonymity is still possible today, of course, even on social media sites like Facebook and Instagram, but it is no longer the default situation. In fact, anonymity has become a scapegoat for extreme views and especially racism posted online. Returning to Plant makes clear that this is an essentially conservative politics which seeks to curtail anonymity, including of those who might need it most, in name of their protection from harassment.
As Katherine Hayles describes in the prologue of her book How we became posthuman, the Turing test was first of all designed as a test of gender, before becoming one of humanity; at the other end of a channel, man and women are equally as indistinguishable as man and machine. By a backwards step, Turing identifies gender as an essentially technological construction. From its origins, then, networked communication has served to make ambiguous gender binary as much as that of human/machine. And, as Plant highlights, Turing himself was dislodged from such a binary when he developed breasts after the state compelled him to take oestrogen as punishment for his homosexuality. Plant’s book is titled after a binary (0 and 1, whose difference is both the basis of code and gender) but she is attentive to the ontological fragility of such a frame. She writes that, “if there was more than one sex to have, there were more than two to be.” And this situation didn’t only coincide with the popularisation of the internet, it was co-determinate with it; in the early 1990s “men who presumably wouldn’t have dreamt of trying to pass as female in any other context or medium were eagerly cross-dressing their Net messages.” In many cases, the pseudonymity of the internet offered people an early staging ground for what we would now call transitioning.
For a “utopian” text (although she makes no such claim), Plant’s in particular is perhaps surprisingly focused on what already is and has been rather than what is to come. Her horizon is pulled from the ground, revealed to already be here. There is a great deal of utility in such an approach, which it absolves us of actively developing new technologies. She starts by identifying features in the present or past of computing and leverages them as pressure points to imagining, and producing (albeit to varying success) a future. For Plant, an immense cultural liberation with regards to gender and sexuality is historically aligned to (if not necessarily, determined by) the widespread adoption of computing technology, which forms part of such a reconstitution of our embodied selves, and loosens the hegemony of binary and biologically determined gender.
Cyberfeminism (and closely related posthumanism) is far more attentive than other utopian technological writings to the construction of our embodied selves (in this case as gendered) in relation to technology (cultural technologies and physical technologies. As in Donna Harraway’s Cyborg Manifesto, the potential here was for newly arranged cyborg assemblages in which individuals can become actors in their own gendered embodiment. If we can claim technologic assemblages, the logic of technological determinacy gives us counter-hegemonic power over the construction of ourselves as embodied beings. The difficult-to-kick habit of the mainstream left to instead reach for the human as the sole location of political agency (and to reject technology as outside that, an unnatural apparatus of capital) becomes an unwitting participant in the reification of all things contained within “the human.” Rather than freeing us from technology, insisting on the non-technological foundation of the human is to surrender the construction of our embodied selves to those same forces which birthed capitalism as we know it.
The figure of the cyborg offers an escape from hegemonic constructions of gender which “capital N”, Nature never could. As Laboria Cuboniks write in Xenofeminism – A Politics for Alienation: “If nature is unjust, change nature!” To acknowledge our bodies as coded is also to give ourselves some agency in that coding. It creates opportunities for intervention, what Helen Hester calls “Xenofeminist technologies”. In this contemporary mobilisation of cyber-feminism we see a reorientation from reappropriation and excavation towards a more active attempt to identify and even develop technologies of gender liberation.
“digitisation has done nothing to shift the extreme imbalances of power that were in place twenty years ago and are even more pronounced today, and those seeking to maintain or restore this status quo male superiority, white supremacy, neat divides between sexes and sexualities – are bound to use whatever platforms are at hand. Fortunately it is equally inevitable that those who are working to change the status quo will use them too”
Reflecting on Zeros + ones in a 2017 interview, Plant is somewhat ambivalent as to the legacy of 90s cyberfeminism. If the web allowed cyberfeminists to contest its terrain, it ultimately did nothing to overturn the hegemonies they worked counter to. This is a failure, essentially, of postmedia to meet Guattari’s promise of the overturning of hegemony. Perhaps we shouldn’t be too surprised by this; I haven’t yet mentioned, for instance, that in addition to coining hypertext and hypermedia, Ted Nelson came up with the idea of micropayments. In his view, the network channels of hypertext were for commerce as well as communication – exactly the naivety highlighted by “The Californian Ideology”.
Still, as Plant suggests, both the forces of regression and transformation will continue to contest the web. The victories of hypertext have been partial, but not non-existent; even (and especially) in its early years, the web was offering routes of departure to the cyberfeminists – what Plant called the “genderquake”. Even if their technological context now seems obscure, the question is as much what we can steal from these horizons as what we can learn from them. It is not enough to say that hypertext has already been realised (or that it has already failed); in fact it is actively being degraded! The question becomes not who won the web, but what remaining aspects of hypertext might be advantageous to us, what might we wish to rebuild or defend, and what alternate structures might we want to construct.
- Felix Guattari, Chaosmosis: an ethico-aesthetic paradigm (Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1995)
- Helen Hester, Xenofeminism (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2018)
- Katherine Hayles, How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature and Informatics (London: University of Chicago Press, 1999)
- Richard Barbrook, “Cyber-Communism: How the Americans are Superseding Capitalism in Cyberspace”, Science as Culture 9.1 (2000), pp.5-35
- Sadie Plant, Zeros + ones: digital women + the new technoculture (London: Fourth Estate, 1997)
- Ted Nelson, Literary Machines Edition 87.1 (California: Computer books, 1987)
Liam is a CHASE funded PhD candidate in Cultural Studies at Goldsmiths, University of London. His research interests include digital culture, the history of computing, information theory, glitch studies, and the politics and philosophy of noise. Previously he has worked as a copywriter and tech journalist. He is working on several projects with Autonomy, from skills commissions to policy strategy.