The Return of Techno-Utopia and Its Dangers

As postmodernism faded in the 1990s, techno-utopianism replaced techno-pessimism. The rapid transformation of everyday life through technology in the 1990s and 2000s suggested to enthusiasts that technology would naturally lead to positive societal change. Soon, media writers brought back techno-utopianism, blending the bohemianism and libertarianism prevalent in the San Francisco Bay Area with an enthusiasm for technology. Proponents of this position argue that new communications technologies make possible a Jeffersonian democracy of equals, capable of freely expressing themselves and deliberating about the crucial issues of our day in the electronic agora.[1]

Even with the collapse of the economy in the fall of 2008, few seem to expect a slowdown in technological progress. On the contrary, to many technology is the way past economic collapse. In stark distinction from postmodernism, technological pessimism is now hard to find. Although the limits of nature continue to be keenly felt-global warming, peak oil, and genetic abnormalities are all great concerns of our day-generally speaking our hope is that innovation will rescue us. We've absorbed a market mentality: live for the moment and let new technologies or net businesses take care of old problems. The environmentalist movement of the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s is now replaced by the thoroughly commodified "green movement," the call to action of Silent Spring replaced by recycled-plastic shopping bags. Even the concern about global warming evokes technological solutions.

Much of the contemporary writing about technology and society today is enthusiastic about change. This is particularly true for those writers who investigate new, technological forms of cultural production. In part, this is necessary for political purposes-for example to encourage reform (or at least discourage negative change) of copyright laws that inhibit the use of remix or to stimulate government policies that would support the deployment of new media in education. Provisionally, such work is necessary, but such arguments get in the way of fully examining our moment historically. There is much to applaud about network culture, but much to condemn as well.

I set out writing this book without a preconceived idea that network culture is either positive or negative, a position likely to ensure a negative reaction from both network culture's critics and its enthusiasts alike. Unquestionably, there is much to be said for the new, networked life that is emerging. But we must be critical, challenging network culture where it needs to be challenged, curbing our enthusiasm where necessary and agitating against it as conditions warrant.

Finally, a word about the scope of this book. If my goal is a global understanding of network culture, I set out to do this as someone who teaches both in the United States and Ireland and also has roots in Lithuania. One of the defining characteristics of network culture is its global scope. But if the network has no center, its most dominant nodes are nevertheless in the United States and Europe, even as the rest of the world continues its rise. The West continues to dominate the network through its control of political institutions, finance, media, and technology. That said, nothing could be more important than counter-narratives of our time from other cultures, a task for which I am by no means qualified.

[1] . Barbrook and Cameron, "The Californian Ideology," (August 1995),



hi again,

i don't know if you got the previous comment, but i feel i didn't express myself very well. what i meant to say is that perhaps rather than stating a 'dominant node,' your argument is stronger precisely because the effects of the network condition can be felt in any place of the globe (albeit differently, of course)--if you were writing on africa or new zealand, you would get different consequences but they would come from the same process. i guess the argument of dominance bothers me, not so much because i don't like it, but because as i understand it this apparent dominance really relies on other variables--oil, capital, availability of materials and human labor--and understanding the first world's dependency is key in this problem.


a m l

dominant nodes?

hi kazys,

this is a great read, but i keep returning to the last paragraph of this section. i understand that you can't claim a knowledge you don't have, but thinking the dominant nodes are still in the us and europe seems incorrect to me. my impression is that by now we understood the role of latin american gold in the european renaissance, of the imperial dominance of india in victorian england, and of the slave trade between africa and america in the global economy of the 19th century. we should have learned by now that the world has behaved globally for millenia, and that now more than ever no phenomena can be understood independently. if the west "continues to dominate," it is because it depends on the financing and labor of other geographical nodes. perhaps some rephrasing might help.


a m l

Hi Ana Maria, Indeed points

Hi Ana Maria,

Indeed points well taken and points I am deeply concerned with.

Here's where my attempt isn't total. I'd absolutely love to see ten other versions of this book from other perspectives. But I am wary of the sort of globalizing narratives that scholars who never leave the US write. I can think of more than one scholar who spends his or her time writing about issues of nonwestern countries and has been to only one or two and doesn't even leave their university most of the time. It's rather incredible.  

But more than that: as you point out, globalization and the West's dependency on other countries has always been in play. Now more than ever its more dependent, but its also more dominant in other ways, for example by undoing trade barriers and imposing the use of English worldwide. 

I'm trying to suggest that there need to be counter-histories to this project, histories from other perspectives. I don't feel capable of writing these, but perhaps one day there could be a volume two?

Or maybe there is some way to rethink or rephrase this (and I'm very much thinking out loud about this)