Anarchy and Hierarchy, by A. Griscom

Digital Media and the Internet

The Question of Utopia

For many hundreds of years the prophetic [messianic] vision of the good society slumbered --- until that decisive period in Western history beginning with Renaissance, when the seed of rational and theoretical thought, transferred from Greece into the soil of Europe, began to germinate... A new sense of strength arose, and man began to feel himself the potential master of his world. At this point, two trends of Western civilization were joined: the prophetic version of the good society as a goal of history and the Greek faith in reason and science. The result was that the idea of the utopia was born again, the idea that man was capable of transforming himself, and of building a new world peopled by a just, rational society of men, a world in which justice, love, and solidarity would be realized. Each era --- the Renaissance, the English Revolution, the Age of Enlightenment, the nineteenth century --- created its own utopia. (Fromm viii)

The Digital Era is creating its own utopia, too, but unlike the utopias of yesterday --- which could be nothing more than philosophical pipe dreams actualized only on the writer's page or in a work of art --- today's digital utopia has been given a space to grow that's far bigger than a painter's canvas and more substantive than the imagination. As of now --- and only the cornerstones have been lain --- it's a horizontally distributed (anti-hierarchical) network of computers within which millions of people can actually communicate and travel and make money and meet friends and buy products and argue and pray and develop communities. The utopia that we are (perhaps inadvertently) attempting to construct in cyberspace seems to satisfy the utopian ideals that have been hovering above Western civilization since ancient Greece. In The Religion of Solidarity, late-nineteenth century author Edward Bellamy conceived of the classic American utopia; his egalitarian ideal encapsulates that of his utopian predecessors as well as that of digital utopians today:

The cardinal motive of human life is a tendency and a striving to absorb and be absorbed in or united with other lives and all life... It is the operation of this law in great and low things, in the love of men for women, and for each other, for the race, for nature, and for those great ideas which are the symbols of solidarity, that has ever made up the web and woof of human passion... As individuals we are indeed limited to a narrow spot in today, but as universalists we inherit all time and space. (quote by Fromm viii)

At best, the digital medium, which I will investigate in terms of the Internet, will allow a feeling of unity and interconnectivity to rise, like a phoenix from the ashes of a mighty conflagration, out of the fragmented ruins of the postmodern world.

The Internet is categorically a humanistic utopia. The radical digital utopian, George Gilder believes that, if we assume utopia is some time away, the effusive development of digital technology means that "In one year, if we get n closer to utopia, in the next year we will get n squared closer to utopia... The Internet will multiply by a factor of millions the power of one person at a computer" (Bronson 124). The hypertextual network that is the Internet (or, more specifically, the World Wide Web) allows one individual to journey through an entire world of information, to inform and respond to all humans otherwise geographically displaced. Compared with the world of the pamphleteers, limited by print media itself as well as constricted infrastructure , the possibility for an interactive democracy of individual expression in the Digital Age is exponentially greater. Predictions about the future size --- that is, world-wide inclusiveness --- speed, and function of the Internet are futile. The same goes for writing a book about today's digital medium because by the time the book gets copy-edited, typeset, printed, and shipped, the subject matter isn't so emerging anymore.

Bruce Sterling, in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction discusses the patulous scope and unknowable fate of the Internet:

The headless, anarchic, million-limbed Internet is spreading like bread mold. Any computer of sufficient power is a potential spore for the Internet, and today, such computers sell for less than $1000 and are in the hands of people all over the world. ARPA's network, designed to assure control of a ravaged society after a nuclear holocaust, has been superseded by its mutant child, the Internet, which is thoroughly out of control, and spreading exponentially through the post-ColdWar electronic global village...The future of the Internet bids fair to be ... a multimedia global circus!...Or so it is hoped -- and planned. The real Internet of the future may bear little resemblance to today's plans. Planning has never had very much to do with the seething, fungal development of the Internet. After all, today's Internet bears little resemblance to those original grim plans for RAND's post-holocaust command grid. It's a fine and happy irony. (column #5)

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