August 30 2023
Following a long period of oscillation between utopian and dystopian technological thought, Jeremy Gilbert has argued that, by 2017, the British left had reached a critical ambivalence: understanding technology to hold practical utility without resorting to magical thinking or naive adoration. This moment, of course, came after a (mixed) victory for the left – and Gilbert perhaps underplays the extent to which, following the left’s political defeat of 2019, this critical ambivalence has been traded for a generalised technological pessimism in a number of guises.
On the one hand among the anglophone left today there is a kind of techno-realism, which understands the left as having no role in the contestation of development of technologies, but still views engaging with them as a necessary evil (a more conservative iteration of the ‘critical ambivalence’ described by Gilbert), and on the other there is a resurgent primitivism, which tends towards seeing technology as having no role in the pursuit of liberation, redistribution or even (in its most extreme expressions) organisation. These are modes of presenting and understanding technology, not necessarily explicit commitments, but Paris Marx’s podcast Tech Won’t Save Us, which posits itself as a critical examination of the tech industry, has often consolidated a particularly clear example of the second tendency.
If just a few years ago, social media, for instance, could be seen as “enabling Labour activists to counter the extreme anti-Labour bias of the British media” (as Gilbert describes it), revelations around the activity of data surveillance consultancies like Cambridge Analytica and the prevalence of twitter-bots (and associated speculation around bot-farms) have left little room for such enthusiasm for social media as a tool of counter-hegemonic expression. The view here isn’t simply that the liberatory, democratising potential of digital media has passed, but often that it never was. That social media ever played a role in bringing about the Arab Spring, for instance, once generally accepted, has recently been called into doubt. Such a change in common sense has, of course, been aided by increasing prominence of the manipulation and surveillance of social media (especially the case of Cambridge Analytica), growing understanding of the power of algorithms to dictate what can and cannot be seen, and actual changes in the algorithmic structure of social media platforms (e.g. Twitter blue, etc.).
Those who espouse such a pessimism are often more or less correct in their analyses (cryptocurrency really is mostly a series of ponzi schemes, social media is not truly representative of the public, Amazon and Google do now own vast swathes of vital infrastructure, automation is being used as a veneer to obscure and outsource human labour, carbon capture will not magic away climate change, etc.), but these revelations alone peddle in easy, incomplete truths. All technologies, digital or otherwise, are the results of contestation. And, as results of contestation, they are ambiguous and contradictory – both hostile and receptive to transformational politics. Practically this means that the internet and computing more generally contain what might be called ‘left apparatuses’: components which either embody progressive or transformational drives, or might be taken advantage of for them (not least because some of the people who built them were trying to achieve these things!).
Today we rightly hear plenty about how computing is mobilised towards the purposes of exploitation, extraction and accumulation; of how its systems produce and reproduces racism, misogyny, transphobia, homophobia, ableism, and other bigotries; of its not unrelated debt to eugenics; of its dissemination of fake news, disinformation and division; of the threat it holds to democracy; of its private character; of its commodification. By contrast we now hear very little (from the left) of how technologies might be used to fight or undo these things, or (with caution) of how they might already be helping to undo them. And, practically, very few resources are put towards contesting or mobilising such technologies.
Our material present is particularly amenable to technological pessimism: the internet, once understood to constitute an emergent horizontal and democratic space, is now self-evidently private in terms of its governance, its ownership and the experience of using it; in Britain the state (let alone any genuine collectivity) has very little ownership of the internet’s infrastructure or say over its protocols (especially when compared to previous communication networks like the telegraph or telephone). The personal computer, an individualist ideal which gave the user agency via ownership of their machine, has given way to the cloud, an individualist ideal which promises the user personalisation via overbearing user-interfaces, algorithmic sorting and distributed computing (in other words, no ownership and little agency – although this varies highly between different classes of “users”).
It is hard to imagine by what means a left (conceived whatever way) could capture any meaningful portion of the vast network of copper and fibre-optic cables, servers and exchanges owned by private companies in this country – especially without state power, which has become a very distant prospect. And yet, not just in spite but because of our material weakness in the realm of cybernetics, we need to rediscover our digital horizons. Computer networks mediate our social relations; they route (dare I say, determine) some key part of them. Giving in to technological pessimism is to excuse past losses by opting out of any fight for the future. It also means giving up that fight to the worst political factions: corporate capital, or right-wing (now socially regressive) libertarians. Without our own horizons to draw on, two equally bleak imaginaries stand before us; unjust hierarchy, privation, prejudice, exploitation and extraction feature prominently in both, the only question remaining is with what degree of centralisation or distribution these things will come.
This is the first of a series of blogs, intended as an exercise in digital horizon-making. Such a horizon might constitute “horizontal utopianism”, as Christopher Yorke articulates it. Yorke offers a transitional futurity, which understands itself as an articulation of the desires and possibilities of the present; part of the process of the production of change rather than a finite destination. Such a horizon is not absolute or exclusive, there could be many alternatives, but its function ideally is to motivate change and the production of new, likely different, utopian modes. As we walk towards the horizon we find new terrain and, even if we don’t reach the horizon itself, our new position will reveal new expanses of sky, new horizons to strive for. This can sound abstract or overly poetic, but the core of the idea is quite simple: without a bearing you will go nowhere.
Where to begin with such a horizon? Technological pessimism may be the left’s common sense, but there are also exceptions to this tendency. The first few blogs in this series are intended as a loose (and necessarily incomplete) survey of the field. If we want new technical horizons, it helps to know what there is left for the left to build on. It also might help to know what ultimately befell previous horizons, what they achieved and what they did not. I couldn’t possibly address the question of technological utopianism in general, or even from Marx onwards, so I’m limiting myself (loosely) here to the last 30 years, more or less, to the period from 1993 onwards. This is the year the world wide web protocol and code were made royalty free, and also the year that the Mosaic browser was released – the first web browser to more or less resemble what we think of as the internet today.
Such historicization needs to come with the caveat that today’s internet has very little materially in common with that of 1993 (itself radically different from the early internet of the 1960s onwards), and so a later blog will turn from the theoretical to the material: a corollary to a declining prominence of left tech utopianism, I suspect, is a change in the ownership of infrastructures (and to the process of their contestation), correlating to new practices and arrangements. Because the web today mediates so much of our social, cultural and economic life, this is not merely a question of ownership but also of social relations. Put simply, the question is not just of how we access networks (e.g. questions like: do we have to pay? what capacity or speed are we given?), but also of what form the network itself takes, of what kind of routing it is amenable to.
Studies of the ‘shape’ of the internet have taken two distinct routes: topology, which offers a view from inside the network, of the abstracted connections between nodes, and topography which, driven by media theorists like Lisa Parks and Nicole Starosielski, follows the actual cable routes, exchanges, satellites and relays as they meet geography and existing infrastructures. Building on the idea that the internet has concretely taken on different arrangements over the past 30 years, a final blog will take a speculative turn, from topography to this question of topology. If capital has produced new rubrics for the production of digital networks, I will ask what the socialist alternative might look like. What codecs, be they of socialisation, liberation, communality, equity, degrowth, etc., do we want to strive for?
What is left?
The struggle might be hard, but “ecotopia” was almost at hand
– “The Californian Ideology”, Richard Barbrook & Andy Cameron
Perhaps the ur-case of cyber-utopian thinking came out of California, centred around San Francisco and the area now known as Silicon Valley, from a period beginning in the 1960s and running at least into the 1990s. Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron’s classic account of this utopianism, what they call the Californian Ideology, stands as a similar rubric for today’s techno-pessimism. In their analysis, both left and right-wing articulations of this utopianism gave way to what today we know as techno-libertarianism. Anarchist naivety allowed for a coalition, they argue, which espoused the value of individual liberty and liberation through networked communication, ultimately entering into a union with right-wing libertarianism. Today such an ideology is espoused with different inflections by entrepreneurs, computer scientists, legislators and outriders of the far-right (as well, it seems, as the majority of twitter blue’s subscribers). Its proponents include Elon Musk, Dominic Cummings, Rush Limbaugh (now dead) and Julian Assange, although there is some diversity in how they express it.
There is prescience in much of Barbrook and Cameron’s critique of Silicon Valley libertarianism. They are especially clear in their account of the hybrid of cultural forces which produced the Californian Ideology, in the mobilisation of social liberalism towards liberal economics and the mixture of state investment and communal DIY culture required to develop technologies which were later misattributed to individual genius and start-up culture.
And yet I cannot help but be drawn to the “electronic agora” Barbrook and Cameron are so keen to dismiss. That is, of Marshall McLuhan’s vision (described in Understanding Media) of the extension of consciousness through computation into a “global embrace” of instantaneous democracy and horizontal power relations. Barbrook and Cameron dismissively relate this agora to Ecotopia, a utopian novel influential among the Californian left of the 1970s and 80s, depicting a world in which technology has helped bring the US West Coast into an ecologically stable relation with the world. It is a strange book, which I wouldn’t necessarily recommend – more or less a direct statement of its writer’s desires, political and personal. At its best, though, Ectopia suggests that technology is not just a series of tools or devices but an expression of our relation to the world and to each other. Presumably, this reference to Ectopia is meant to emphasise the utopian naivety of the Californian left, but history has been kind to its ideals; Ectopia is flawed, but many of the book’s imagined solutions, such as public streets reclaimed from the car, shorter working weeks, or employee ownership of businesses, fit neatly into a contemporary eco-socialist platform. Its core idea, that our relation to the natural world and to technology are not only interlinked, but also vital expressions of social organisation, is a prescient one, even if it fails to identify capitalism itself as something which needs to be overcome.
Barbrook and Camera’s invocation of Ectopia is an odd one. Is a left articulation of digital utopianism such a bad aspiration? Must we really give up on the idea of technologies of liberation and communality? By contrast to such visions of ecological utopia, when I look around today it is hard to avoid a conclusion that, concerning technology, the British left especially has reached a profoundly anti-utopian moment. Much of Barbarock and Cameron’s analysis (especially at its most cynical/dismissive) has become a common sense for the left, emerging as a dominant position in cultural, media and social studies. But has giving up on notions of technological liberation freed us from the control and exploitation of big tech? While we have been busy getting over our illusions, the internet has only become more private, more integrated with transactions, more readily surveilled, more reactionary, less free, less open, less democratic. Yet, even in Barbrook and Cameron’s strident account, it is clear that both the Californian Ideology and the technologies which accompany it are things which were contested, and which were produced through this contestation. It is also clear, although this is not often stressed in the text’s reception, that they believe a different articulation of networked technologies (a European information superhighway) would help to unlock as of yet unseen creative potential in its users.
And so they can show, for instance, how an anarchist politics in part helps to generate a free-market liberal one, via the professed (but later abandoned) social liberalism of libertarianism. This was possible only, they argue, through a naive technological determinism of the Californian left, which believed networked communication would necessarily be a liberatory technology. This critique is especially present today in discourses around “technological solutionism”, which is often expanded into a critique of technological determinism as such. Practically, this means any cultural account which is interested in the precise operations of technology will be treated with suspicion from some quarters, even more so any account attempting to construct a positive or aspirational model of that technology.
But, as Jeremy Gilbert and Alex Williams argue compellingly in their recent book Hegemony Now, if you’re looking around today for who has won the world we live in, it is exactly a faction of that Californian Ideology cohort. There is a clear case for a technological determinism here; not a vulgar or naively progressive one, but a modest acknowledgement that network infrastructure and design has determined some part of our social relations, economic order and cultural lives.
If we acknowledge that both the ideological foundations of these networks and their actual articulation were the results of contestation, we might find (and in fact we do find) contradictions in this articulation which are hospitable to left aspirations. None of this means we need to return to the naivety of the Californian left, or that we need to adopt either their specific analysis or their horizons. But it does mean, I think, that we badly need to resurrect some technological or networked horizon of our own.
What is a horizon if not naive? It is a misconception (or a misrepresentation) to suggest that utopian thought is inherently blind to existing injustices or to the difficulties of pursuing progressive change – in fact, an effective horizon needs exactly this awareness. Horizon making can be a sober, pragmatic affair; it only requires a sense of imaginative openness for possibilities beyond the present moment, for things which aren’t yet possible but might one day be, or which might at least be brought closer to possibility. Horizons, in other words, need the ground; the sky must be at once out of reach but also real.
Across the next few blog posts I will work through a few key examples of recent cyber-utopian thought. First of all, there is what I call hypertext utopianism – this is the set of utopian imaginaries produced by social theorists, philosophers and computer scientists around hypertext as a mode of media organisation and technological practice, later realised imperfectly in the world wide web as HTTP, which remains a key infrastructure of the web even today. Closely related to this are projects pursuing the ideals of horizontality, openness and user-agency pursued by computer scientists throughout the early years of the web. From the late 1980s onwards, cyberfeminist thought worked to excavate horizons from a patriarchal discursive field which sought to incorrectly label digital technology as a male endeavour. The work of cyberfeminists clarifies and confronts hypertext utopianism to construct a compelling set of ideals for how digital technology might already be functioning as a tool of gender liberation by giving us new agency over our embodied selves. Finally, Afrofuturism and the more recently coined Broadband Communism represent two very different ideas which reflect different relationships between politics and technology. In both these cases I am interested in the feedback between theorization, aesthetic or political practice and technological development in producing (with varied success) new terrains and horizons for their respective technological projects.
- Jeremy Gilbert, “Platforms and Potency: Democracy and Collective Agency in the Age of Social Media”, Open Cultural Studies 1 (2020), pp.154-168
- Richard Barbrook & Andy Cameron, “The Californian Ideology”, Science as Culture 26.6 (1996), pp.44-72
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.