Rethinking the Internet Metaphors : A Call for Critical Optimism and DIY Utopias
This is a transcript of the speech given by Andres Colmenares, co-director of IAM, during the opening ceremony of IAM Weekend 17: The Renaissance of Utopias on April 28th, 2017 in the Mercat de les Flors of Barcelona.
Let’s have a think about the metaphors we’re using to understand the internet. The early dominant spatial metaphors such as “cyberspace”, “web”, “information superhighway”, “virtual village” and — more recently — “cloud” have an implicit vision of what the internet should be. And they have deep political implications.
These metaphors reveal intentions and indicate where power is concentrated. But as time goes by, the metaphors get deeply embedded in culture and end up shaping not only our perception of reality, but also the future development of the internet itself.
We are navigating complex times. It is mandatory to question and constantly examine the dominant metaphors and narratives to determine if they are reflecting properly the realities of the internet because, like many other technologies, the internet is not good or bad. It just reflects who we are as humans. So in order to navigate these complex imaginary geographies, we also need to decide the best possible direction for them. One that avoids transforming the internet into a self-destructive machine that deliberately spreads ignorance, confusion and manipulation. Hint: google ‘agnotology’.
The “no place” where we should be heading was defined 500 years ago by the English social philosopher Thomas More, and branded as a concept that we should now reclaim from the past: utopia.
Today, utopia could be more than a singular fantasy or contemporary dream. We should use it as a tool to be conscious of the difference between what is possible and a reality that we can’t stand anymore. Utopias can give us access to diverse perspectives and desirable realities that empower us to organise and find a direction to the chaotic transformation our world is experiencing.
We should acknowledge our status as utopian animals and remember that it is our collective imagination that defines reality and creates the cities, political systems and even the algorithms that shape our decisions. We should not lose our capacity to dream in a collective way and imagine ourselves living in better futures.
And this is not a call to ignore dystopias. In fact, understanding them is fundamental. But we need a balance in the future’s narratives to feel empowered and encouraged, not just being pessimistic consumers and evangelists of a dark future.
The time to revise how we think about ‘the future’ is now. And here’s an idea of how we can make the future great again. Take a napkin and a pen. Draw a dot and three lines that escape from it. Label each line with one of the following ways of thinking: long-term, critical and planetary. Now you have a canvas, a mental space to cultivate freedom and enjoy creating DIY utopias.
Here is where you can translate an emerging critical optimism into a mandatory critical resistance. And the word critical should be understood here as being skeptical and demanding as well as crucial and urgent. We need to question, stop and break the algorithmic, mental and physical ‘Berlin walls’ being built around and between us.
Recently, there have been exhilarating examples of the impact of collective dreams that are fuelled by the internet. The Women’s March movement mobilised more than five million people around the globe, sending out the message that women’s rights are human rights. The ‘Casa nostra, casa vostra’ (Our house is your house) campaign organised the biggest protest in Europe against the obsolete policies about borders and refugees.
The influence of these examples of internet age resistance goes way beyond the streets — it is augmented by the digital platforms we use everyday. As social media theorist Nathan Jurgenson writes in an essay about Digital Dualism and the Fallacy of Web Objectivity:
“Our augmented reality is one where the politics, structures and inequalities of the physical world are part of the very essence of the digital domain”.
It is time to accept that we live in post-dichotomy age. The online/offline metaphor is not valid anymore. And the consequences are huge. Just think about the corporations monetising clicks, an apparently banal behaviour that has concentrated unthinkable amounts of power in companies such as Google or Facebook. We need to question the dominant business model of the internet, understand how it works and how to use it instead of being used by those currently defining the metaphors. What if there was a massive click strike, and maybe just for one day millions of users didn’t ‘like’ posts on Facebook?
Let’s get political as we all get digital. If politics is basically about the distribution of power, there is a lot we can apply from how digital networks work. Most institutions, models and frameworks we use to operate our societies today were cultivated in a very different time and for different functions. It is time for us to imagine, cultivate and invent what happens next. Let’s demand better metaphors.
Welcome to The Renaissance of Utopias!