Cyber-Utopianism before the Internet

August 21, 2012

In his 2011 book The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom, Evgeny Morozov defines cyber-utopianism as “a naîve belief in the emancipatory nature of online communication that rests on a stubborn refusal to acknowledge its downside.” This belief, he writes, has entered U.S. foreign policy through the State Department’s internet freedom agenda. Its effects can also be seen in the media, as in misplaced enthusiasm about the role of Twitter in the Iranian uprising of 2009. Foundational to Morozov’s portrayal is Andrew Sullivan’s announcement on his blog that Iranians began communicating using Twitter after the government shut down the cell phone network. “That a new information technology could be improvised for this purpose so swiftly is a sign of the times,” wrote Sullivan. “You cannot stop people any longer. You cannot control them any longer. They can bypass your established media; they can broadcast to one another; they can organize as never before.”

Intriguingly, Morozov traces cyber-utopianism to “former hippies’” attempts “to prove that the Internet could deliver what the 1960s couldn’t: boost democratic participation, trigger a renaissance of moribund communities, strengthen associational life, and serve as a bridge from bowling alone to blogging together.” Morozov is right that the counterculture had some influence on the cyber-utopianism of today, but it’s perhaps deeper than he acknowledges. Hippies did not wait for the emergence of the internet to embrace the vision of a networked society; rather, the countercultural politics of the 1960s already incorporated a belief in the democratizing power of decentralized, electronic media. Indeed, despite Sullivan’s suggestion that the people’s power is unprecedented, one can find rhetoric virtually identical to his decades earlier.

The focus of this earlier cyber-utopianism was on breaking the oligopoly of broadcast television with cable television, satellites, and other new electronic technologies. Central to this vision was a portable device designed, like the cell phone, for an individual user: Sony’s VideoRover II, released in 1970. This portapak, as users called it, was much lighter and less imposing than traditional television cameras. From the beginning, users interpreted it as a new medium for artistic and political expression. In his 1972 memoir The Stoned Apocalypse, spiritual seeker and prolific erotica writer Marco Vassi anticipated Sullivan by 37 years: “The enthusiasm for videotape,” he wrote, “came from the evenings we spent using the equipment with each other, to create portraits, and modes of psychological insight, and sheer technological art. I suppose we all had our first flashes of power through those sessions, the realization that if one had access to the technology, he had as strong a voice in shaping the destiny of the world as the politicians and generals.” Many also saw video as an inherently democratic technology that would distribute this power to be heard more equitably.

This ideology was most fully elaborated by the video collective Raindance, particularly in Michael Shamberg’s 1971 book Guerrilla Television. Shamberg, who went on to become a Hollywood producer, presented television itself as a revolutionary technology which had already created a new “electronic environment,” “Media-America.” He was a technological determinist who believed that society was structured by its media; politics was mere superstructure which would follow automatically. “It’s nostalgia,” he wrote, “to think that… balance can be restored politically when politics are a function of Media-America, not vice-versa. Only through a radical re-design of its information structures to incorporate two-way, decentralized inputs can Media-America optimize the feedback it needs to come back to its senses.”

Shamberg’s influences are evident even in this short quotation. Foremost among them was media theorist Marshall McLuhan, who proposed that electronic media were creating a new social environment for humanity, a highly participatory “global village.” McLuhan’s research assistant Paul Ryan (no relation to the politician) was an experimental videographer who associated with Raindance; it was Ryan who developed the metaphor Shamberg employed of videography as guerrilla warfare in an article in Raindance’s magazine Radical Software. Both McLuhan and Ryan were in turn deeply influenced by the Jesuit paleontologist and mystic Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, particularly his interpretation of human communication as constituting a global mind or “noosphere.” A more effective noosphere—a “videophere,” in art critic Gene Youngblood’s terminology—became the political ideal of experimental videography.

More concretely, Shamberg believed that video would revolutionize particular social relations. “Going out to the suburbs with video cameras and taping commuters,” for example, could show them “how wasted they look from buying the suburban myth.” Being videotaped could sensitize police and prevent brutality. Shamberg’s technological optimism focused specifically on communication technology, as he saw new forms of television and other media as both the sources of social change and the proper replacements for an obsolete political sphere.

There were also those who warned against seeing video as a source of social change, though. Among them was Vassi, himself a founding member of Raindance. “There is some talk, and there will be more, in so-called underground tape circles about the revolutionary impact of tape,” wrote Vassi in Radical Software. “I think it’s too late for all that. Every innovation in technology brought about by heads will be used by the power-trip neanderthals to furnish a more sophisticated 1984.… I think the thing to watch out for is this: That there be as little talking about all this as possible, not to keep the enemy from overhearing or any of that nonsense, but to guard against coming to believe one’s own rhetoric.”

All of which brings us back to the recent past. In January 2010, a few months after the Iranian uprising, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton delivered a speech, “Remarks on Internet Freedom,” at the Newseum in Washington. “The spread of information networks is forming a new nervous system for our planet,” she told her audience. “When something happens in Haiti or Hunan, the rest of us learn about it in real time—from real people.” Clinton invoked the same emphasis on direct communication—media without mediation—which Shamberg celebrated in video and Sullivan in Twitter, and the same notion of a global mind which McLuhan and Ryan found in Teilhard. “Now, in many respects, information has never been so free,” Clinton continued, agreeing with countercultural entrepreneur Stewart Brand, who declared in 1984 that “information wants to be free.”

Clinton’s optimism was tempered, though. “We must also recognize that these technologies are not an unmitigated blessing,” she continued. “These tools are also being exploited to undermine human progress and political rights.” Beyond that, we should heed Vassi’s warning and recognize the threat that we will be seduced by our tools and their false but persistent promise of revolutionary change without our active political effort. These information technologies can contribute to the success of political movements, but not if their users see them as replacements for political life.