The Long View: Enlightenment Ideologies of Science and Technology and the Internet Debate

Remarks presented to the 1st International Summit on Electronic Communication & Culture

Popular Culture Association National Conference
Electronic Communication Area
San Antonio, Texas
March 26-29, 1997

Samuel R. Smith
Center for Mass Media Research
School of Journalism & Mass Communication
University of Colorado

Over the past few years the Internet has become one of the most talked-about innovations in our lifetimes, leading one prominent commentator to assert that “we are in the middle of the most transforming technological event since the capture of fire” (Harper’s 1995). The Net’s growth has been dramatic, to be sure, and is arguably surpassed only by the magnitude of the hype surrounding it. To give you an idea of just how much the online world has been discussed, a Lexis/Nexis search for the word “Internet” in the 1990 database reveals a total of 1624 stories. Two years later that number had more than doubled – in 1992, a search for “Internet” yields 3806 hits. Last year, the word was used in 322,285 articles, constituting an increase of over 8400% in just five years. In the first 84 days of this year alone, “Internet” has been used in 74,929 stories. That adds up to 892 per day, 37 per hour, and – if we can assume that disproportionately more stories are published during the daytime – at least one or two since I started talking. And that’s just in the comparatively few publications catalogued in the Lexis/Nexis News Library.

I’m not here today to talk about the Internet, though – I’m here to talk about all the talk about the Internet. I’m sure we all realize that, as is all too often the case in our media-saturated culture, there’s a notable gap between the rhetoric of the Internet and the actual reality of the thing. However, what is perhaps less obvious, especially to those in our culture who get most or all of their information from “infotainment” sources such as television and mass circulation periodicals, there is also a significant gap between competing rhetorics of the Internet.

We’re all familiar with the utopian line that the Net is going to solve our problems, make us smarter, richer, and healthier, and I think it safe to say that, within popular media, this is the dominant strain of discourse. However, as I hope to demonstrate in the next few minutes, there is a competing dystopian anxiety over the potential of the Internet. I would further suggest that this dialectic between the utopian/messianic view of the Internet and its dystopian/demonic alter-ego is reflective of a much older debate within Western society, a debate whose history and character are potentially of great use to those among us who are trying desperately to understand our various emerging new media.

It’s hard to imagine a better statement of the utopian rhetoric of the Internet than we have from Vice President Al Gore, who in a 1994 address to the International Telecommunications Union in Buenos Aires had this to say about the Administration’s vision of the Information Superhighway:

These highways – or, more accurately, networks of distributed intelligence – will allow us to share information, to connect, and to communicate as a global community. From these connections we will derive robust and sustainable economic progress, strong democracies, better solutions to global and local environmental challenges, improved health care – and, ultimately – a greater sense of shared stewardship of our small planet.

The Global Information Infrastructure will help educate our children and allow us to exchange ideas within a community and among nations. It will be a means by which families and friends will transcend the barriers of time and distance. It will make possible a global information marketplace, where consumers can buy or sell products.

And the distributed intelligence of the GII will spread participatory democracy… I see a new Athenian Age of democracy forged in the fora the GII will create (Gore 2).

According to Gore and the National Information Infrastructure Task Force (NIITF):

1) all students will have access to the best teachers regardless of geography, distance, resources or disabilities; the NIITF estimates this will result in 30% more learning in 40% less time at 30% of the cost;

2) in excess of 300,000 jobs will be created, 80% of which will be in information-intense sectors of the economy; these are high status, well-paying jobs;

3) the quality of health care will be greatly improved, while expenditures will be lowered by $36-100 billion per year;

4) electronic benefits transfers will save $1 billion over five years in food stamp payments alone;

5) participatory democracy will be enhanced through the design of a customer-driven electronic government – perhaps more significantly, even, the decentralized, self-determining Internet becomes the perfect metaphor for democracy (Gore 1994, NIITF 1993).

These are only a few of the remarkable claims made for the Net by the Clinton Administration, and scores of other commentators have offered enthusiastic support for this vision. Some see the Net narrowing the troublesome discourse gap between the public and academia; aiding scientists battling the extinction of species around the globe (Hafrey 1994); helping law enforcement agencies better fight crime (Crawley 1994); eliminating geographical boundaries between nations (Brody 1994); and fostering the establishment and growth of community (Hafrey 1994, Schrage 1993). In this last case, the Net is even seen as reformulating our most basic notions about what and where information is. In the eyes of one commentator, we are approaching the time when information and community will become inextricably linked concepts (Brody 1994). Universal access must and will exist, we are assured (Gore 1994, NIITF 1993, Brody 1994).

While Gore and the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Mitch Kapor carry the flag for profits and participatory democracy, virtual communitarians like Howard Rheingold weep openly at the alleged rebirth via the Internet of America’s long lost sense of pastoral community. I won’t say much on the subject here – my colleague, Jan Fernback, will be addressing some of these issues in her paper tomorrow – but I will note that the communitarians see new technological innovation as offering a potential cure for particular symptoms of the human condition.

Perhaps the most remarkable claim yet, though, issues from a 1995 roundtable published in Harper’s. This discussion featured EFF co-founder John Perry Barlow and WiReD Magazine’s Kevin Kelly on the utopian side of the question, and they were opposed by Sven Birkerts, whom John Lawrence discussed in this morning’s panel, and author Mark Slouka, who fancies himself something of a critical thinker. In response to Birkerts’ assertion that “soul-data doesn’t travel through the wires,” Kelly has this to say:

I have experienced soul-data through silicon. You might be surprised at the amount of soul-data we’ll have in this new space… What we’re talking about now is not a computer revolution, it’s a communications revolution. And communication is, of course, the basis of culture itself…. At one point, in an essay on the experience of reading, you ask the question, “Where am I when I am involved in a book?” Well, here’s the real answer: you’re in cyberspace… You’re in the same place you are when you’re in a movie theater, you’re in the same place you are when you’re on the phone, you’re in the same place you are when you’re on-line (Harper’s 39).

In other words, cyberspace – the consensual hallucination that Gibson first described in Neuromancer – is more than a telecommunications medium. It’s a conduit to the very soul. One does more than communicate there, although communication is certainly critical to the Net’s culture-building function. One experiences soul-data, and all of a sudden cyberspace, heretofore envisioned as a computer-mediated environment, becomes this thing that has always existed. It becomes the domain of thought and reflection, the landscape of the sublime.

The demonic view of technology is well represented in the Harper’s Forum, though. In our cultural migration into the Internet and assorted virtual environments – what Slouka calls “alternative worlds” – the dystopians see a harmful, if not pathological, rejection of or abdication of the “real” world. Slouka calls it a

culture-wide cop-out. Why bother fighting for those last stands of old growth in the Pacific Northwest when you can live on the new electronic frontier? I think the real answer has to be in the physical world. The only choice we have is to resuscitate our failed communities, to bring back Pinedale and Putnam Lake – to align ourselves with physical reality now, before it’s too late (Harper’s 1995, 17).

Birkerts offers a brief and succinct solution: “refuse it.” For him, the productive possibilities of life reside in focused physical interactions with other people, and the online media have the effect of compromising that focus. Instead of fostering community in a Rheingoldesque sense, Birkerts suggests that the Internet serves to impede the very sorts of activities necessary to engender real community.

Illustrative examples supporting the dystopians aren’t hard to come by. Sherry Turkle (1995) chronicles the case of Stewart, a man whose entire social existence seems to depend upon the virtual worlds of MUDs and MOOs. In real life he is physically unappealing and socially inept, but in the Net he takes on the persona of a courtly noble. There he meets and woos a fair lady, strong and intelligent and beautiful, and before all assembled in cyberspace he declares his love and proposes marriage. Virtual marriage, that is. All the grandeur and pomp and romance of the virtual wedding are attended in real space by, as best we can tell, a lot of people sitting around typing at their keyboards.

There are other charges leveled at electronic media, as well. Oscar Gandy’s essay, “It’s Discrimination, Stupid!” catalogues the ways in which electronic commerce creates demographic profiles of people which result in their being denied opportunities solely on the basis of their perceived buying power. This is the dark side of Gore’s Global Information Marketplace – to be sure, these technologies can create markets and profits and entrepreneurial opportunities, but in doing so they almost necessarily mark off those who can purchase from those who can not. Furthermore, much of Gore’s financial prognostication is sleight-of-hand of the most cynical sort. Those 300,000 jobs, 80% of which are in the information sector, are not necessarily the high-tech high-paying jobs he claims they are, because they classify all employees in a software start-up as information sector jobs. Sadly, a poorly-paid janitor at Microsoft is more or less the same as a poorly-paid janitor at US Steel.

Judy Wajcman, Arnold Pacey, and Donna Haraway, among others, have also noted how technology tends to be the product of specific social, economic, political and cultural dynamics, and is often employed in the maintenance of existing power structures. If we examine last year’s Communication Act closely, we readily see the ways in which this seems to be true vis a vis emerging telecommunications policy. We are never allowed to lose sight of the fact that the Internet is to be privately owned and operated, and public policy seems to be most interested in staying out of the way of commerce.

So, is the Internet messiah or demon? In truth, it’s probably some of both and a lot of neither. What is most instructive is the way in which this debate reflects Western culture’s historical split personality regarding the fruits of technology. In 1626 Francis Bacon published New Atlantis, a tract which detailed a fictional shipwreck upon the shores of Bensalem, a lost utopia (Bacon 1942). This highly influential essay offers one of the earliest testaments to the potential of applied science (Outhwaite & Bottomore 1994). The Bensalemites are well-versed in all manner of advanced technology: refrigeration and preservation, mining, agriculture, astronomy, meteorology, genetics, animal husbandry, desalination, medicine, musicology, mechanics, air flight, and mathematics are literally only a few of the society’s advanced technological arts, and taken together these endeavors provide the citizenry with a quality of life unimaginable to the denizens of contemporary 1st World economies, let alone those trapped in 17th Century Europe. Poverty, disease, hunger, ignorance – all these have been conquered by science. “The end of our foundation is the knowledge of causes,” he is told, ” and secret motions of things; and the enlarging of the bounds of human empire, to the effecting of all things possible” (Bacon 1942, 288).

But just as the contemporary Internet debate has a dark side, so too does the long view of Western culture and its technology. In 1818 Mary Shelley published Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus, a novel generally seen as the first work of true science fiction. Writing within the context of the excesses of the Industrial Revolution, Shelley sets out to construct a new kind of horror story – one based in technological plausibility. By this point in history the messianic/utopian view of science had attained almost unquestioned acceptance, but the horror of the Industrial Revolution was impossible for anybody to ignore. Science and technology had promised much since New Atlantis, but the fact of European life in the early 19th Century bore little or no resemblance to Bacon’s utopia, a fact which could not have been lost on a writer of Shelley’s insight. After hearing a lecture by Erasmus Darwin, she set about asking a “what if?” question that the West still grapples with. In many respects, Victor Frankenstein’s monster is the archetypal icon for modern-day angst over science, and in his formulation Shelley isolated a dark crisis in the Euro-American spirit which, more than 175 years later, remains unresolved. Kranzler argues that “the problematics of technological development and application, initially codified in Shelley’s work, correspond directly to modern society, imaged in the hydrogen bomb, the nuclear reactor, and the laboratory test-tube” (1988-89, 42).

And, we should add, in the Internet. Slouka and Birkerts and Stoll and a host of others don’t imagine about the Internet anything as dramatic as Frankenstein’s monster run amok, but they do see a technology which won’t serve its masters the way they intend to be served. Further, they see a technology which poses a danger to those masters, those creator-gods, a danger the masters themselves are too enraptured to see.

In a presentation this brief I can’t begin to do this topic justice. In fact, the sorts of claims we see being made about the Internet have been made before – about television, about cable, about radio, the telegraph, the steam engine, even electricity itself. And while much has changed in the last couple hundred years, much has also remained the same. Technology has not delivered us unto Bensalem or the shining technotopia on the hill, and neither has it annihilated us completely or chased us back into the caves whence we came.

Technology has, however, served those who understand it, who understand that it constitutes power and particular sets of social relations. For every tyrant it has overthrown, it has seated another in his place. The Internet is a remarkable tool, but it is a technology situated within a long history of technologies, and our popular pundits on both ends of the utopia/dystopia spectrum would do well to remember this the next time the microphones are turned on them.


Sources Cited

Aronowitz, S. (1988). Science as power: discourse and ideology in modern society. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Bacon, F. (1942). Essays and new Atlantis. New York: Walter J. Black. (Originally published in 1626.) (http://www.eskimo.com/~masonw/gwwc.htm)

Brody, H. (1994). Seven thinkers in search of an information highway: interview. Technology Review, 97 (6), 42-+.

Crawley, J. (1994). You can interface with city via Internet Mayor. San Diego Union-Tribune, August 2, pp. 8-+.

Fernback, J. (1997). Personal conversations.

Gore, A. (1994). The global information infrastructure – forging a new Athenian age of democracy. Remarks before the International Telecommunications Union, Buenos Aires, March 21. (http://www.whitehouse.gov/WH/EOP/OVP/html/telunion.html)

Hafrey, L. (1994). University presses: at cyberspace university press, paperless publishing looks good. New York Times, October 30, pp. 32-+.

Harper’s (1995). Harper’s forum: what are we doing online? Harper’s, August, pp. 35-46.

Kranzler, L. (1988-89). Frankenstein and the technological future. Foundation 44, Winter, pp. 42-49.

National Information Infrastructure Task Force (1993). The national information infrastructure: agenda for action. Daily Report for Executives, September 16, pp. 178-+.

Outhwaite, W., Bottomore, T., et al (Eds.) (1994). The Blackwell dictionary of twentieth-century social thought. Oxford, England & Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell Reference. (Original hardcover version published in 1993.)

Rheingold, H. (1993). The virtual community. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

Schrage, M. (1993). The internet – this year’s virtual favorite for “Man of the Year.” Los Angeles Times, December 23, pp. D1-+.

Shelley, M. W. (c1932). Frankenstein, or the modern Prometheus. Cleveland, Ohio: World Publishing Company. (Originally published in 1818.)

Turkle, S. (1995). Life on the screen: identity in the age of the internet. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Ziolkowski, T. (1981). Science, Frankenstein, and myth. Sewanee Review 89 (1), Winter, pp. 34-56.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s