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Cyber-utopianism is the belief that online communication is emancipatory and that the internet favours the oppressed rather than the oppressor; which, has been present since the beginning of the internet and has been the subject of critique as early as 1995 by the Critical Art Ensemble. Utopian views of cyberspace were considerably diminished by the bursting of the dot-com bubble; however, such views re-emerged in the 2000–2010 period. Douglas Rushkoff notes that, "ideas, information, and applications now launching on Web sites around the world capitalise on the transparency, usability, and accessibility that the internet was born to deliver".
However, the rise of Internet censorship and surveillance and cyber sovereignty across the world has led to a growing number of "cyber skeptics", who argue that repressive governments are now able to adapt their tactics to respond to threats by using technology against dissenting movements. In 2011, Evgeny Morozov, in his 2011 book The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom, critiqued the role of cyber-utopianism in global politics; stating that the belief is naïve and stubborn, enabling the opportunity for authoritarian control and monitoring. Morozov notes that "former hippies", in the 1990s, are responsible for causing this misplaced utopian belief: "Cyber-utopians ambitiously set out to build a new and improved United Nations, only to end up with a digital Cirque du Soleil".
Origins: Californian IdeologyEdit
The Californian Ideology is a set of beliefs combining bohemian and anti-authoritarian attitudes from the counterculture of the 1960s with techno-utopianism and support for neoliberal economic policies. These beliefs are thought by some to have been characteristic of the culture of the IT industry in Silicon Valley and the West Coast of the United States during the dot-com boom of the 1990s. Adam Curtis connects it to Ayn Rand's Objectivist philosophy. Such an ideology of digital utopianism fueled the first generation of Internet pioneers.
Criticism in the past couple of decades has been made out against positivist readings of the internet. In 2010, Malcolm Gladwell, argued his doubts about the emancipatory and empowering qualities of social media in an article in The New Yorker. In the article, Gladwell criticises Clay Shirky for propagating and overestimating the revolutionary potential of social media: "Shirky considers this model of activism an upgrade. But it is simply a form of organizing which favors the weak-tie connections that give us access to information over the strong-tie connections that help us persevere in the face of danger."
Cyber-utopianism has also been compared to a secular religion for the postmodern world and, in 2006, Andrew Keen wrote that Web 2.0 is a "grand utopian movement" similar to "communist society" as described by Karl Marx.
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Cyber-utopianism has been considered a derivative of Extropianism, in which the ultimate goal is to upload human consciousness to the internet. Ray Kurzweil, especially in The Age of Spiritual Machines, writes about a form of cyber-utopianism known as the Singularity; wherein, technological advancement will be so rapid that life will become experientially different, incomprehensible, and advanced.
In August 2007, David Nye presented the idea of cyber-dystopia, which envisions a world made worse by technological advancements. Cyber-dystopian principles focus on the individual losing control, becoming dependent and being unable to stop change. Nye describes a society where the elite use technology to oppress and control mass groups of people. He also presents technology as a form of false hope; promising success and change, but causing pain and inconvenience when that goal is not reached.
Nancy Baym, in her book Personal Connections, discusses how a cyber-dystopia would negatively affect social interactions: "new media will take people away from their intimate relationships, as they substitute mediated relationships or even media use itself for face to face engagement".:36 Baym compares this type of dystopian fear with the fear present at the introduction of earlier technology (e.g. televisions, telephones, etc.), as people then were also concerned with such technology substituting meaningful relationships.:28–36
The dystopian voices of Andrew Keen, Jaron Lanier, and Nicholas Carr argue that society as a whole is currently sacrificing our humanity to the cult of cyber-utopianism. In particular, Lanier describes it as "an apocalypse of self-abdication" and that "consciousness is attempting to will itself out of existence"; warning that by emphasising the majority or crowd, we are de-emphasising individuality. Similarly, Keen and Carr write that there is a dangerous mob mentality that dominates the internet; since, rather than creating more democracy, the internet is empowering the rule of the mob. Instead of achieving social equality or utopianism, the internet has created a "selfie-centered" culture of voyeurism and narcissism.
Nicholas Carr, in The Glass Cage, states that "the prevailing methods of computerized communication and coordination pretty much ensure that the role of people will go on shrinking. We’ve designed a system that discards us".
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Cyber-utopian discourses have been used in the political context, notably by the Pirate Parties. In Italy, the Five Star Movement extensively uses cyber-utopian rhetoric, promising direct democracy and better environmental regulations through the Web.
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