The internet as an innocent fraud

The paperback edition of Utopia Is Creepy is out today, September 12, from W. W. Norton & Company. Collecting seventy-nine of the best posts from Rough Type as well as sixteen essays and reviews I published between 2008 and 2016, the book, says Time, “punches a hole in Silicon Valley cultural hubris.”

Here’s an excerpt from the introduction:

“The most unfree souls go west, and shout of freedom.”
–D. H. Lawrence, Studies in Classic American Literature

The greatest of America’s homegrown religions — greater than Jehovah’s Witnesses, greater than the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, greater even than Scientology — is the religion of technology. John Adolphus Etzler, a Pittsburgher, sounded the trumpet in his 1833 testament The Paradise within the Reach of All Men. By fulfilling its “mechanical purposes,” he wrote, the United States would turn itself into a new Eden, a “state of superabundance” where “there will be a continual feast, parties of pleasures, novelties, delights and instructive occupations,” not to mention “vegetables of infinite variety and appearance.”

Similar predictions proliferated throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and in their visions of “technological majesty,” as the critic and historian Perry Miller wrote, we find the true American sublime. We may blow kisses to agrarians like Jefferson and tree-huggers like Thoreau, but we put our faith in Edison and Ford, Gates and Zuckerberg. It is the technologists who shall lead us.

The internet, with its disembodied voices and ethereal avatars, seemed mystical from the start, its unearthly vastness a receptacle for America’s spiritual yearnings and tropes. “What better way,” wrote Cal State philosopher Michael Heim in 1991, “to emulate God’s knowledge than to generate a virtual world constituted by bits of information?” In 1999, the year Google moved from a Menlo Park garage to a Palo Alto office, the Yale computer scientist David Gelernter wrote a manifesto predicting “the second coming of the computer,” replete with gauzy images of “cyberbodies drift[ing] in the computational cosmos” and “beautifully-laid-out collections of information, like immaculate giant gardens.” The millenarian rhetoric swelled with the arrival of Web 2.0. “Behold,” proclaimed Kevin Kelly in an August 2005 Wired cover story: We are entering a “new world,” powered not by God’s grace but by the web’s “electricity of participation.” It would be a paradise of our own making, “manufactured by users.” History’s databases would be erased, humankind rebooted. “You and I are alive at this moment.”

The revelation continues to this day, the technological paradise forever glittering on the horizon. Even money men have taken sidelines in starry-eyed futurism. In 2014, venture capitalist Marc Andreessen sent out a rhapsodic series of tweets — he called it a “tweetstorm” — announcing that computers and robots were about to liberate us all from “physical need constraints.” Echoing John Adolphus Etzler (and also Karl Marx), he declared that “for the first time in history” humankind would be able to express its full and true nature: “We will be whoever we want to be. The main fields of human endeavor will be culture, arts, sciences, creativity, philosophy, experimentation, exploration, adventure.” The only thing he left out was the vegetables.

Such prophesies might be dismissed as the prattle of overindulged rich guys, but for one thing: They’ve shaped public opinion. By spreading a utopian view of technology, a view that defines progress as essentially technological, they’ve encouraged people to switch off their critical faculties and give Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and financiers free rein in remaking culture to fit their commercial interests. If, after all, the technologists are creating a world of superabundance, a world without work or want, their interests must be indistinguishable from society’s. To stand in their way, or even to question their motives and tactics, would be self-defeating. It would serve only to delay the wonderful inevitable.

The Silicon Valley line has been given an academic imprimatur by theorists from universities and think tanks. Intellectuals spanning the political spectrum, from Randian right to Marxian left, have portrayed the computer network as a technology of emancipation. The virtual world, they argue, provides an escape from repressive social, corporate, and governmental constraints; it frees people to exercise their volition and creativity unfettered, whether as entrepreneurs seeking riches in the marketplace or as volunteers engaged in “social production” outside the marketplace. “This new freedom,” wrote law professor Yochai Benkler in his influential 2006 book The Wealth of Networks, “holds great practical promise: as a dimension of individual freedom; as a platform for better democratic participation; as a medium to foster a more critical and self-reflective culture; and, in an increasingly information-dependent global economy, as a mechanism to achieve improvements in human development everywhere.” Calling it a revolution, he went on, is no exaggeration.

Benkler and his cohorts had good intentions, but their assumptions were bad. They put too much stock in the early history of the web, when its commercial and social structures were inchoate, its users a skewed sample of the population. They failed to appreciate how the network would funnel the energies of the people into a centrally administered, tightly monitored information system organized to enrich a small group of businesses and their owners.

The network would indeed generate a lot of wealth, but it would be wealth of the Adam Smith sort—and it would be concentrated in a few hands, not widely spread. The culture that emerged on the network, and that now extends deep into our lives and psyches, is characterized by frenetic production and consumption — smartphones have made media machines of us all — but little real empowerment and even less reflectiveness. It’s a culture of distraction and dependency. That’s not to deny the benefits of having easy access to an efficient, universal system of information exchange. It is to deny the mythology that has come to shroud the system. And it is to deny the assumption that the system, in order to provide its benefits, had to take its present form.

Late in his life, the economist John Kenneth Galbraith coined the term “innocent fraud.” He used it to describe a lie or a half-truth that, because it suits the needs or views of those in power, is presented as fact. After much repetition, the fiction becomes common wisdom. “It is innocent because most who employ it are without conscious guilt,” Galbraith wrote. “It is fraud because it is quietly in the service of special interest.” The idea of the computer network as an engine of liberation is an innocent fraud.

A longer excerpt from the introduction appears in Aeon. The paperback edition of Utopia Is Creepy is available now at your local independent bookstore or from Barnes & Noble, Amazon, or Powell’s.