TECHNOLOGICAL UTOPIANISM IN SILICON VALLEY
Since the dawn of civilization, there have always been dreams about a future in which problems of the respective present are gone and where harmony and abundance rule. People of all sorts of backgrounds — novelists, socialists, environmentalists, scientists, philosophers, engineers — have all publicized visions of such futures, while some have even worked on realizing them. But what are today’s utopian visions? Where do they come from? Where are they predominantly present and what impact do they have?
When someone strives to answer such questions, he or she might stumble upon the Silicon Valley, a region south of San Francisco, California, most notably known for its startup and innovation culture. Here, entrepreneurs, university students, corporations and investors alike are attracted by an ecosystem best suited for inventing the „next big thing“: young talented professionals, government funding, venture capitalism and a mindset that technology makes everything possible. It is this mindset that this seminar paper tries to analyze, a technological utopian ideology that inspires individuals to come to the Valley, to strive for disruptive innovation, and to built the future.
The notion of the coming Technological Singularity comes to mind. The idea, that technological progress accelerates exponentially and that approximately in the middle of the 21st century we might witness such rapid changes that human life and the whole world will be irreversibly transformed. The Singularitarians argue, that this will ultimately usher in an era where humans merge with machines, where resources become abundant and where immortality and super-intelligence becomes possible. One, so argue its proponents, just has to grasp the potentials of the so-called exponential technologies in order to built the utopian future the Technological Singularity promises. Hence, corporations, entrepreneurs and investors are highly attracted by it. However, many questions remain. Looking at the broad history of technological utopianism for example, various visions, predictions and theories have proven untrue or just haven’t become reality yet. So what makes these new utopian ideas different, especially in regards to their seemingly influential role in a region that leads in innovative thinking and doing?
This seminar paper is examining the development and role of technological utopian ideologies in the Silicon Valley region. In the first chapter, a brief look at the history of utopias and the term itself gives a basic overview of what utopianism really is. In addition, a more comprehensive analysis of the principles of technological utopianism is outlined. The second chapter then focuses on such technological utopian thinking in Silicon Valley. A clear definition of the region and a look at its history is followed by an extensive analysis of techno-utopian ideologies in the Valley. In this subchapter, the seminar paper ultimately examines three techno-utopian ideologies and the respective roles they had or still have. A conclusion then tries to compare this new techno-utopianism with traditional utopianism and further looks at the role these optimistic visions of the future might have.
Defining Technological Utopianism
This chapter is split up into two parts: First, the history of utopias in general is looked at in order to give a quick overview of where utopianism comes from and why people strive to imagine utopias. Afterwards, a more comprehensive analysis of a specific form of utopianism, technological utopianism, tries to clarify the terms and meanings behind it. This first section shall provide a brief and basic overview of the paper’s topics, before chapter two goes into more detail regarding technological utopianism in Silicon Valley.
History of Utopias
„When we speak of “utopianism” we can speak of a persistent tradition of thought about the perfect society, in which perfection is defined as harmony. The harmony is of each man with himself and of each man with all others.“
Although the origin of utopian thinking is often attributed specifically to Sir Thomas More’s famous „Utopia“ from the year 1516, prefigurements of utopianism can already be found in the mythology of the Classical Age (e.g. in many stories of the Golden Age) as well as in ancient Greek philosophy. Glaucon, Plato’s older brother, for example, called Socrates’ description of the felicities of a pre-civilized society in Plato’s utopian „Republic“ a city of pigs. And even though More’s „Utopia“ defined a new literary genre, of which Campanella, Francis Bacon, Morelly, William Morris and H. G. Wells among others are part of, utopian thinking is also evident in the writings of renowned thinkers of the Age of Enlightenment such as Hegel, Rousseau, Turgot, Condorcet and later also all over Marx’ ideas.
The large variety of utopian literature and thought can be explained by the fact that the conditions of the respective present world, from which an utopian idea is devised of, are obviously constantly changing. Hence, as the level of technology, the state of scientific knowledge, the society, politics and economy are changing, so is the utopian thought. That is why utopian ideas span from mythologies derived from biblical stories, to dreams of alternative unreachable civilizations, to criticism of and deviation-demands from religious beliefs, to demands for revolution and real world, earth-based utopias.
In this regard, there are three benefits that come with an engagement with utopianism: Utopianism reveals and criticizes the deficiencies of the real world and calls for a change. Utopianism enriches the sense of human possibility by giving perspective through contrast. And utopianism literature improves our understanding of the respective present social relations and issues in a similar way as social sciences does.
The upcoming chapter takes a deeper look at one form of utopianism, the so-called technological utopianism, and tries to explore its distinctive characteristics and principles.
Principles of Technological Utopianism
As seen in the chapter above, one can find differences between the utopias found in the literature, while the respective present status quo seems to always define the main factors on which the utopia focuses on. This holds true, even when the utopia presented encompasses a whole range of different aspects and illustrates a completely alternative or future picture of not just one aspect, but an entire world. Although, classifying such utopias to a distinct form of utopianism, such as technological utopianism, obviously proves to be more difficult in such cases.
Nonetheless, looking at the literature one can see that at times in which science and technology has not played such a big part or was not even fully developed yet, utopias are often based on myths, miracles or are set far apart from the „real“ world (see for instance the Golden Age or More’s Utopia). It wasn’t until the Age of Enlightenment and the beginning of modern science in the 17th century that the literature of utopias increasingly integrated the potentials of scientific and technological progress as well as predictions of it. Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis (1627), for example, is seen as „[…] one of the most optimistic imaginative projections of beneficial impacts that science and technology might have on humanity.“ This correlation between the state of the respective present world or reality and the utopian ideas that are devised from it is crucial when one wants to analyze the technological utopianism of our age.
It can be said, that all techno-utopians have a relatively strong belief in technology in common, as the means of achieving a perfect, harmonious society in the future. According to many of these utopians, such a society would not only be the result of the progress of technology, but in addition be modeled on technology in its institutions, values and culture. Such thinking can be found, for example, in the early praising of the Internet in the mid-1990s by so-called cyber-utopians. The Internet — as they proclaimed — „[…] would level social hierarchies, distribute and personalize work, and dematerialize communication […].“ It would „[…] embody new, egalitarian forms of political organization […]“ and put „[…] an end to corporate power.“
In his book Technology and the Human Condition philosopher Bernard Gendron defines four principles or assumptions that are guiding the view and visions of all technological utopians: 1. Technological growth will be sustained; 2. Technological growth will eventually bring an end to economic scarcity; 3. The end of economic scarcity results in the elimination of every major social evil.
These four principles can be repeatedly found in modern utopian literature and thinking, especially in the technological utopianism analyzed in the upcoming chapters. The mere fact, that Gendron distilled these principles already in 1977 in his study of utopian thinkers such as Buckminster Fuller, Arthur Clarke and Alvin Toffler, might to some extent already diminish or viewed from another perspective, emphasize the claims of today’s technological utopians. Nonetheless, a more comprehensive analysis of 21st century technological utopian views should shine more light on the reasons and validity of such thinking.
Technological Utopianism in Silicon Valley
When exploring ideas of technological utopianism specifically in the region of the Silicon Valley, an analysis of the literature reveals three ideologies: the Californian Ideology, Cyber-Liberterianism and Singularitarianism. Although all of these cannot solely traced back to what is being described as the geographic region of the Silicon Valley, prominent figures of these ideologies have been and are still playing a relatively important role in the Valley’s success. This correlation between utopian thinking regarding technological progress and the location of Silicon Valley can mainly be explained by the leading role the Valley has had in recent decades in terms of technological innovation and breakthroughs, especially considering digitalization.
The next chapter is trying to give a brief overview of how the Silicon Valley has come to be the innovation hub we know it for, and look at important factors that have shaped its success. Thereafter, we will look at ideas of technological utopianism that have sprung out of the Valley, analyze the underlying assumptions of these utopias and examine possible implications such techno-utopian thinking might have.
The History of the Silicon Valley
„In truth, you can look at any industry that has yet to be optimized by tech and bet that in the not so distant future it will experience a revolution in part due to innovations from Silicon Valley.“
The Silicon Valley, a region located between Stanford and San Jose just 30 miles south of San Francisco, is known worldwide as a vibrant center of numerous, widely successful technology corporations and an ever-growing population of start-up companies. The Silicon Valley is not for nothing referred to as „[…] the world’s […] high-tech heartland“, the „[…] seedbed of innovation […]“, or „[…] the Holy Grail of economic development“.
The term „Silicon Valley“ itself can be traced back to entrepreneur Ralph Vaerst and his friend and journalist Don Hoefler. In 1971, Hoefler was trying to find a suitable name for his article series about the emerging semiconductor industry he was writing for the magazine Electronic News. His friend and valley entrepreneur Vaerst suggested „Silicon Valley“ and Hoefler chose to name his article series „Silicon Valley USA“. However, the story of Silicon Valley and the foundations of its ongoing success, go back over a century.
Evidence of a vibrant electronics industry in the San Francisco Bay area can be traced back to the early days in the radio, television and military electronics industry. Already in the beginning of the 20th century, there were graduates of the renowned Stanford University that, with the help of the university’s administration and faculties as well as large amounts of military funding during World War I and II, were founding their own companies in the fields of radio, wireless voice and telegraph communication, and later television. In the 1930s, the further development of Silicon Valley’s role as the world’s tech hub was driven by a man called Frederick Terman. Terman, as dean of Stanford University’s Department of Electrical Engineering, was determined to keep up the aforementioned regional developments by creating an industry close by, so his students would not have to leave the valley to work in the electronics industry, which at the time was primarily based on the East Coast. The first students that followed Terman’s idea were William Hewlett and David Packard, who — with Terman’s guidance — founded the renowned Hewlett-Packard company — one of today’s largest information technology companies. Another important boost to Silicon Valley’s success story was when William Shockley, the inventor of the transistor and Nobel Prize laureate, moved to Palo Alto in 1955 to live closer to his mother and eventually to start his own company, Shockley Transistor Corporation. After recruiting eight young promising engineers, the company quickly fell apart due to Shockley’s authoritarianism and stubbornness. However, as all eight wanted to work on silicon as the most promising route to the larger integration of transistors — in opposition to Shockley’s ideas -, they created their own company together with the help of Fairchild Cameras, which was named Fairchild Semiconductors. Here, new inventions like the integrated circuit followed that enabled more and more subsequent business opportunities. Thus in 1963, the so-called Fairchild Eight as well as their new employees — the Fairchildren — split up to start their own firms (among others Intel and AMD). Looking back, about one-half of the 85 largest American semiconductor firms can be traced back to this spin-off from Fairchild Semiconductors. The building blocks that have been critical to the success story of these companies and of the region in general since its early days — local venture capital, close cooperation between universities and the local industry, a product mix focusing on electronic components and advanced communications, as well as an awareness of the region as existing outside of large, bureaucratic firms — are still its propellent backbone today.
The Silicon Valley, besides being the home to numerous innovations, highly successful companies and huge amounts of venture capital, is nowadays considered to be the best place to start a company worldwide. And the companies born in the Valley are disrupting industries on a global scale: from AirBnB transforming the hospitality industry, to Uber transforming the transportation industry and Twitter transforming the media industry — just to name a few.
The next chapter of this paper is examining how ideologies that are related to technological utopianism have played a role in the young phase of the region’s development and how they are present today. Furthermore, the chapter tries to identify underlying assumptions of these utopias and possible implications that come with such techno-utopian thinking.
From Californian Ideology to Singulariatarianism
„An analysis of the history of technology shows that technological change is exponential […]. So we won’t experience 100 years of progress in the 21st century — it will be more like 20,000 years of progress (at today’s rate). […] Within a few decades, machine intelligence will surpass human intelligence, leading to The Singularity — technological change so rapid and profound it represents a rupture in the fabric of human history. The implications include the merger of biological and nonbiological intelligence, immortal software-based humans, and ultra-high levels of intelligence that expand outward in the universe at the speed of light.“
The roots of techno-utopian thinking in the Silicon Valley area can be traced back to the early hippie movement in the 1960s and 70s and to influential intellectuals such as philosopher Marshall McLuhan and novelist Ernest Callenbach. The visions of the hippie radicals of the San Francisco Bay Area were highly influential to the political and cultural style of new left and green movements across the world. This counter-culture dreamt of pacifism, the end of racism and capitalism, true social justice and democracy, as well as collectivism and sustainability. However, as the IT economy of the Valley began to grow sociologists Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron claim to have noticed the emergence of a new kind of hippie movement. While some hippies more or less rejected scientific progress and focused solely on the returning to nature, others in the Bay Area increasingly believed that technological advances would turn their visions into reality. As a reflection of the ongoing developments* in California, Barbrook and Cameron coined the term Californian Ideology which represents „[…] a bizarre mish-mash of hippie anarchism and economic liberalism beefed up with lots of technological determinism.“ According to the two sociologists, „these technophiliacs thought that the convergence of media, computing and telecommunications would inevitably create the electronic agora — a virtual place where everyone would be able to express their opinions without fear of censorship.“ Barbrook and Cameron of course had to accept lots of criticism regarding their characterization of Californian utopianism, which is also the only paper on this topic.
Later the term Californian Ideology and the ideas behind it, were more or less replaced by Cyber-Utopianism or Cyber-Libertarianism. These two terms are more related to the actual creation and evolution of the internet — the cyber world. Such cyper-utopian thinking can be evidenced in the early works of Douglas Rushkoff, Terence McKenna and Kevin Kelly in the 1990s and in ideas of the pioneers of cyberspace such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation (e.g. John Barlow, Mitchell Kapor). The cyber-utopians were convinced that the internet, which at the time looked much different to today’s state of being, would boost democracy, favor the oppressed and foster communication, collaboration, sharing and community. They all in all attributed lots of power to technology and saw technology and scientific progress as the leading tools for change and prosperity. One of the most influential publications of the cyber-utopian era was the Wired magazine. Critiques such as Barbrook and Cameron see the Wired of the 1990s as the culmination and leading advocate of Californian Ideology and Cyber-Utopianism. One generic Wired article by Mitchell Kapor, a founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, on the future of the internet from 1993 argues that: „In fact, life in cyberspace seems to be shaping up exactly like Thomas Jefferson would have wanted: founded on the primacy of individual liberty and a commitment to pluralism, diversity, and community.“ And even though this article also mentions doubts about the realization of these Jefferson principles, it concludes by saying that the true promise of the internet was the promotion of „[…] openness, freedom, and diversity […].“ The ideas the cyber-utopians had, however weren’t as comprehensive as technological utopias traditionally have been and also not as ideological and profound as the Californian Ideology can be characterized. Nonetheless, while the status quo has always changed, all ideas encompass the technological utopian principles Bernard Gendron analyzed in his 1977 study (as seen above in Chapter 1.2.). This is also the case for a rather new utopian idea, the Technological Singularity.
The Technological Singularity is the theory that technological progress will lead to „[…] a future period during which the pace of technological change will be so rapid, its impact so deep, that human life will be irreversibly transformed.“ Ray Kurzweil, probably the most prominent thinker behind this idea, predicts this period to happen approximately in the year 2045. This prediction is derived from his statistical analysis and what he calls the Law of Accelerating Returns, a theory which claims that the rate of change in a variety of evolutionary systems tends to increase exponentially. Thus, Kurzweil says the „[…] exponential growth in the power and price-performance of information-based technologies is not limited to computers but is true for essentially all information technologies.“ His definition of information technologies includes an amplitude of phenomena and will, due to digitalization, according to his views „[…] ultimately include the full range of economic activity and cultural endeavor.“
While the idea behind the Technological Singularity stems back to the early beginnings and successes in artificial intelligence, the term itself was coined by Vernor Vinge. In 1993, computer scientist and science-fiction writer Vinge defined it as a moment when humans create smarter-than-human machines that will cause such rapid change that the human era will end. The difference between what Vinge and Kurzweil are saying and what early AI-scientists would call the intelligence explosion theory, is Kuzweil’s and partly also Vinge’s highly optimistic take on it. For them and many other proponents, the Singularity means a transhumanist voyage to an utopia where humans become immortal cyborgs and where everything becomes abundant. It is a form of self-guided evolution of the homo sapiens that will open completely new possibilities for humanity.
These utopian ideas behind the so-called Singularitarianism are of such importance in that manner, as they seem to shape to some extent the imaginations and visions of the Silicon Valley. Many entrepreneurs, investors and intellectuals in the Silicon Valley sympathize with the Singularity theory and Kurzweil’s predictions. Kurzweil himself holds 19 honorary degrees, was awarded the National Medal of Technology by former U.S. president Bill Clinton, is furthermore endorsed by well-known people such as Bill Gates, and currently even resides as Director of Engineering at Google. In 2008, together with other Singularity-enthusiasts and funding from Google, Nokia, Autodesk, IDEO and LinkedIn among others, Kurzweil founded the so-called Singularity University, based at the NASA Ames Research Park in Silicon Valley. This university offers various programs for students, entrepreneurs and executives to learn and study what Kurzweil and his colleagues call exponential technologies. The whole program is based on the ideas and theories behind the Singularity and strives to „[…] educate, inspire and empower leaders to apply exponential technologies to address humanity’s great challenges.“ The young university has managed to built quite a big network of universities, government agencies, entrepreneurs, corporations, business leaders, non-profits, innovators and well-known scientists. In addition, there is also the Machine Intelligence Research Institute (MIRI), formerly known as Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence, based in San Francisco. It counts among its advisers one of the most renowned investors in the Valley, Peter Thiel, as well as Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom. MIRI also believes in the Singularity theory and with its work, tries „[…] to ensure that the creation of smarter-than-human intelligence has a positive impact.“
Such a network of universities, corporations, entrepreneurs and scientists might seem very impressive, one has to mention though that it is unclear how these affiliates see the Singularity theory as there is also much room for diverse opinions. One could suspect that many might just be attracted by the network and the publicity an affiliation with this theory and the people behind it might provide. Furthermore, the Technological Singularity might not even be an utopia, at least in its original sense. Already the name Singularity — a physics term which describes the breakdown of the predictive ability of modern physics, which for example occurs inside a black hole — illustrates that it is actually a theory that only claims to describe the road to a future event or just technological change in general. What might occur after such an event or at the time of a highly accelerated pace of change is impossible to predict or imagine. This is also why many believe Singularitarianism to be more of a religion or a belief than an actual technological utopia or theory. Nonetheless, as explained above, it integrates the same principles as other technological utopias have and many of the Singularity believers or proponents, claim that the event will eventually lead to utopian conditions, such as eradicating disease, immortality and abundance.
This seminar paper examined the history and status quo of technological utopianism in Silicon Valley. At first, a brief overview of the history of utopias illustrated that the respective present state of the world as well as the respective existing developments have always been shaping the ideas and the focus of the utopias imagined. A look at technological utopianism in particular showed however, that there are certain principles most techno-utopians adhere to. After giving an outline of the foundation and development of the Silicon Valley and identifying influential factors of its success, the second part of the paper analyzed technological utopian ideologies of the region itself. The analysis reveals that utopias have been common in the Valley since the early days of the IT industry. However, what was originally a mix between anti-authoritarian, counterculture and technological determinism beliefs, seems nowadays, with ideas such as the Technological Singularity, to focus increasingly on technology and transhumanist ideologies only. The chapter concludes that it is difficult to compare such ideas with traditional utopias as they are a sort of hybrid of various scientific theories, some might say religious-like beliefs, and plain entrepreneurial best practices.
While this seminar paper gives a clear overview of technological utopianism in Silicon Valley, it only partly answers its initially posed question. The latter is the case, because finding out and analyzing the pictures of the future, people in Silicon Valley have, turns out to be a rather difficult task. These individuals usually use their visions of the future to create new businesses and are therefore reluctant to make them public. Hence, this paper is a rather generic look at utopian views in this vibrant region, a more thorough analysis would require more time and resources.
It seems however that utopian-like thinking is a very attractive and enabling competency when building businesses or when seeking to find new ideas and innovations. As Kurzweil says: „being an entrepreneur, you have to be optimistic, because if you knew all the obstacles you would face, you would never start anything.“ A further analysis of this seemingly very important nexus between utopian-thinking and entrepreneurialism would likely prove to be an interesting endeavor. Furthermore, even if the Cyber-Utopians or Singularitarians are completely wrong about the future, they still do something everyone should learn a thing or two from: They are taking the future seriously, looking at the big picture and taking a long view instead of pressing for short-term returns, and fast money, a practice that has long been the norm particularly in the business culture.
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