Cyberutopianism*—or the belief in the power of the Internet to serve as an emancipatory and even inherently democratic force—is a set of ideals impinged with a seductive romanticism and one that has been embraced by everyone from independent, horizontal** groups like Anonymous to neoliberal political parties. Its 21st-century manifestation has proven so enormously pervasive as to unite these wildly diverse organizations and institutions, to such an extent that many readers doubtlessly espouse cyberutopian ideals that are, at their very core, little more than detrimental myths.
As Fred Turner describes in From Counterculture to Cyberculture—of which I provide a summation because of its role as a seminal work in the field of digital humanities and in clarifying the history of philosophies like cyberutopianism—the left-wing counterculturists of the 1960s and 1970s, who at first harbored fears of the dehumanization of digital technologies, would come to romanticize the notion of a transcendental cyberspace, ultimately embracing the libertarian philosophy of the “New Economy” of the digital age and moving to the right. The 21st century has ushered in a new era of cyberutopianism, in which the ideal itself is perpetuated both by the left and the right; but when that ideal is harbored merely as a means to a corporatized, profit-driven end, should America stand by either party, and what are the implications of endorsing an organization like Anonymous? Digital utopianism is far from dead, but it manifests itself in ways that reflect the rapidly evolving nature of American politics, indicating where the country’s political system stands now, and where it is going, for better or—if citizens do not become informed and engage actively inside and outside of the political system—for worse.
The conception of some ambiguous “cyberspace” hasn’t always served as a hopeful symbol of liberation, especially not for the countercultural thinkers of the 1960s. In a particularly famous speech given at the University of California at Berkeley in 1964, Mario Savio called on his peers to “put your bodies upon the gears [of the metaphorical ‘machine’] and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop” (Turner 11). The military’s research in digital technologies had propagated a sort of computational metaphor that extended to the users of those technologies, rendering humans—in the eyes of the counterculturists at the very least—little more than data, with no worth besides their role in the grand “machine” that was society as a whole.
The counterculture was not, however, the unified force it so often is understood to be. As Turner notes, there had been two distinct components of the movement: the New Left and the New Communalists. The former was “a primarily political movement,” while the latter was a “back-to-the-land movement [that] often embraced the collaborative social practices, the celebration of technology, and the cybernetic rhetoric of mainstream military-industrial-academic research” (33-34). Though the images of hippies at Woodstock and student demonstrators facing off against National Guardsmen are more eminently recognizable by a majority of the population, that is only half of the real picture, ignoring entirely the side that gave up on demonstrations altogether and left for the solace of rural communes, where they would begin to romanticize digital technologies, attempting to legitimize the integration of nature and technological progress.
In 1968, Stewart Brand published the first edition of the Whole Earth Catalog. Influenced by the romantic ideals of scholars like Norbert Wiener, the father of cybernetics,*** the Catalog most certainly reflected an idealistic hope for the power of digital technologies (Turner 22). Indeed, the increasingly cyberutopian nature of New Communalist thought was informed largely by Stewart’s publication. The Catalog contained everything from essays from important thinkers like Buckminster Fuller—a systems theorist like Wiener—to ads for Hewlett-Packard desktop calculators and L.L Bean products (Turner 80). It fueled the dreams of the back-to-the-landers while pointing in a different direction for a vision of a transcendent future, away from LSD and towards a new digital frontier.
By the late 1980s, the Whole Earth Catalog had been rendered a relic of the past, but digital utopianism was still very much alive and well. The hippies and communalists, for the most part, were no longer hippies or communalists, instead joining the ranks of their peers in the private sector. America had moved on, with a new president and a resurgent Republican Party that promised a “New Economy” in the digital age, “one in which digital technologies and networked forms of economic organization combined to liberate the individual entrepreneur” (Turner 175). The romanticized technologies promoted in the Whole Earth Catalog and the new personal computer had inspired the counterculturists, reminding them that the transcendence for which they once yearned was now only a mouse click away. Distancing themselves from the progressive roots of the counterculture, they began to stand behind President Reagan’s assurances of such a “New Economy.” The Internet, they believed, possessed the power to liberate, to dismantle the hierarchies of old. Such a notion was further propagated by individuals like Kevin Kelly, one of the early editors of Wired, who embraced the Net as “the symbol of post-Fordist economic order” (Turner 202). The oppressive, dehumanizing stratification of capitalism, so feared by student protesters decades earlier, would no longer define the economic order. The playing field was about to be leveled with the help of the Web.
Corporations had undergone a transmogrification into a digital-age force for liberation, and the former counterculturists were on board. So, too, was Republican Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, who in the late 1990s based much of his party’s platform on journalist Esther Dyson’s “Magna Carta for the Knowledge Age,” which “extended the cybernetic and countercultural analogies current in the social worlds of the Whole Earth and Wired, linked them to a libertarian political agenda, and ultimately used them as symbolic resources in support of the narrow goal of deregulating the telecommunications industry” (Turner 228). The New Communalists, embracing the cyberutopian potential of the Internet to achieve a transcendental, liberating oneness with nature, and the “New Right,” embracing the cyberutopian potential of the Internet to achieve deregulation of the private sector, had coalesced into one unified force for a free and open Web. Cyberutopianism, once the brainchild of progressive thinkers and left-leaning communards, was now an ideal controlled and advocated by the conservative right that the counterculture had opposed with such enmity.
The political order was further altered in the twenty-first century, as politics itself shifted to accommodate that which had once been called a “New Economy.” As the nation would come to understand, the economy citizens were promised was most certainly not the one they got. The atom structure that had once characterized the economy was gone, but the hierarchies thereof, rather than being leveled, manifested themselves surreptitiously as “nested hierarchies.” David Golumbia in “High-Frequency Trading: Networks of Wealth and the Concentration of Power” writes that though “[w]e are told today with remarkable insistence and frequency that computerizing parts of society can or even does inherently lead to their democratization,” in actuality the new digital economy has merely created and perpetuated “new concentrations of wealth and power,” providing “powerful actors with relatively more power as well” (1). The coalition of New Communalists and the New Right had been wrong: a digitalized economy was far from inherently democratic. It served not to weaken corporations and strengthen less powerful players in the economy, but merely to strengthen corporations at the expense of everyone else. When sociologist and economist Saskia Sassen contends nothing is inherently democratic about the Internet and that the notion of technological determinism is therefore fundamentally flawed, she is correct (Rey). To simply put faith in the power of the Internet to democratize is wrong; it can do so, if used for the right purposes, but has no natural inclination to do so on its own. Nonetheless, a culture of pervasive deregulation, inspired by the idealistic faith in the power of this “New Economy” to regulate itself and level the playing field for its citizenry, remains ever present.
In 2009, the culture of deregulation in the digitalized private sector would bring about a landmark Supreme Court decision that drastically altered the political landscape. Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission established corporate political donations as a form of free speech, which could not therefore be regulated or restricted, lest the terms of the Constitution, and the First Amendment more specifically, should be violated (“Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission”). The case itself, pushed by conservative non-profit organization Citizens United, which has its roots in cyberutopian support for increased deregulation of the private marketplace, made money in politics all the more important, and the impact cannot be clearer. Spending on the 2012 election, for instance, jumped to nearly $1.1 billion, compared to the little more than $220 million spent in 2010 (Cillizza). Analysis of such a steep increase should take into consideration the fact that 2012 brought a presidential election as well as congressional elections, but nonetheless should reflect the tremendous increase that is largely thanks to Citizens United. Spending on the 2014 midterm elections approached $520 million, a historic figure for a midterm election and more than double that spent in 2010 (“Estimated Cost of Election 2014”). In an age of escalating deregulation predicated upon the belief in the power of digital technologies to regulate in place of legislation, Citizens United ensured that corporations—many of which, it may be noted, contribute minimally to employment in the United States—would be free to donate wildly vast sums of wealth to the two major parties in Washington, rendering money and politics in the New Economy inseparable.
With the new corporatized face of politics as the backdrop, both parties have begun to champion cyberutopian ideals, perhaps no more noticeably than on the issue of Net Neutrality, the notion that Internet service providers should provide access to all content without favoring certain websites. Neither party has taken a particularly unpredictable stance, as the GOP has defended large corporations like Comcast, while the Democratic Party stands behind neutrality in the hopes of protecting smaller websites that might otherwise be treated inequitably and given less of a chance than a larger, corporate-owned site with access to more resources.
Republican Senator Ted Cruz, speaking out in a Washington Post op-ed against the legislation, went so far as to deem it “Obamacare for the Internet” and insist that it would “put the government in charge of determining Internet pricing, terms of service and what types of products and services can be delivered, leading to fewer choices, fewer opportunities and higher prices.” Cruz’s argument is an effective example of digital utopianism, promising a freer, more open Internet if Net Neutrality is shot down. In making the case he makes, he and the Republican Party appeal to the cyberutopian libertarianism underpinning much of their beliefs, though the GOP did finally acquiesce.
Interestingly enough, in responding to Cruz, Democratic Senator Al Franken and President Obama made very similar arguments, but for the opposite intent. Explaining the origins of YouTube, Franken describes the Internet as a new realm of the economy where dreams can come true if afforded necessary freedom. If left unregulated—in this instance by corporations as opposed to the government—the Internet can enable the creators of YouTube to become billionaires by selling their website to Google (Johnston). President Obama, in an official statement, makes a nearly identical case. “An open Internet,” he writes, “is essential to the American economy, and increasingly to our very way of life. By lowering the cost of launching a new idea, igniting new political movements, and bringing communities closer together, it has been one of the most significant democratizing influences the world has ever known” (Obama). Both men use fiscally conservative buzzwords reminiscent of President Reagan’s promises of a “New Economy,” especially with the President’s technologically determinist assertion that the Internet is a democratizing force, and Franken’s support for small start-ups selling themselves to monolithic powers like Google. Theirs are indubitably cyberutopian ideals. Like the Republican Party, the Democratic Party has begun to tout a libertarian trust in the power of the so-called “free and open Internet.”
Taken at face value, each party’s increased emphasis on digital utopianism seems refreshing, an acknowledgment of the importance of an egalitarian Web; when analyzed more deeply, however, digital utopianism in politics is clearly not a genuine expression of trust in the unregulated Internet to democratize so much as a superficial means of ensuring corporate support in a fiduciary sense. Though four out of five Republicans support Net Neutrality, for example, elected Republican officials and the party itself have remained nonetheless in solidarity with corporations like Comcast and Verizon for the purposes of ensuring monetary backing come election season, all the while purporting to support a policy that ensures a freer Web (Edwards). Democrats are using the same tactics on different issues; by calling recently for an Internet sales tax that would take away online retailers’ advantage over physical retailers, the left actually pandered to Amazon, which had advocated for such a tax to hamper lesser competition (Worstall). The same party that had claimed to support Net Neutrality to protect the interests of small websites and online businesses was now using the same tactics as the GOP, taking sides against those small sites and businesses. It stood behind Amazon and Wal-Mart, two of the largest corporations in the world, seeking merely long-term recompense (Rubin). Thanks to Citizen United and the era of deregulation encouraged by digital libertarianism, the role of cyberutopianism in politics has been merely commodified, rendered a means of promoting crony capitalism and the veiled hierarchies of the “New Economy.”
The Machiavellian political opportunism of digital utopianism in the twenty-first century may well alienate voters, who subsequently doubt that either side can adequately earn their support; but if the current political order loses citizens’ trust, where do they turn? Such a question constitutes the context in which extra-political organizations like Anonymous emerge.
On November 17, 2014, Anonymous Australia posted a video on YouTube. It was a response targeted at the Ku Klux Klan for its attack on Anonymous protesters in Ferguson, Missouri. Those protesters had in August planned a “National Day of Rage” to take a stand against the Ferguson Police Department on behalf of the residents of the city (Chen). When the KKK retaliated, it effectively—and imprudently—antagonized one of the most powerful groups in the world. “Due to your actions,” Anonymous Australia’s computerized narrator explains in the video, “we have started Operation KKK. The aim of our operation is nothing more than cyber warfare. Anything you upload will be taken down. Anything you use to promote the KKK will be shut down.” Literally declaring (cyber) war on the infamous hate group and promising DDoS—or Distributed Denial of Service—attacks, Anonymous took a serious political stance, asserting itself as a defender of oppressed peoples across the globe.
Six years earlier, on July 17, 2008, the San Antonio Express-News had published an article about actions taken by an Anonymous affiliate in Texas. The group had posted a sign outside a local pool that read “Pool Closed,” with a black avatar underneath. It was an appeal to a racist meme and an attempt on the part of the organization to prevent black children from entering the pool, but Anonymous justified the actions by explaining that “Pool Closed” was merely an “Internet fad.” In 2006, the group had done something markedly similar, raiding online teen game Habbo Hotel with the same aforementioned black avatars. Anonymous members posted messages like “Pool Closed due to AIDS” and other racially tinged comments (Croteau). The same organization that had previously executed such hideously racist stunts was six years later launching Operation KKK and organizing a National Day of Rage to protest the Ferguson Police Department for its treatment of African Americans.
Without any central leadership, Anonymous is an immensely complicated movement, horizontal at its very core, to such an extent that any clear motive can never be certain. Torn between the “moralfags,” pushing for political change and increased cyber freedom, and the “lulzfags,” desiring only lulz—or the Internet term for the enjoyment of others’ suffering—the organization stands simultaneously on both sides of an issue and on neither side (Hamill). The group evades the risks that potentially come with centralized leadership and a more defined structure, but is an unreliable ally for individuals hoping for sociopolitical change to be effected.
Journalist Quinn Norton, in spite of the group’s many contradictions and its troubling history, regards the group in high esteem, seeing much good come of their efforts. “In August 2012,” Norton cites as an example, “anon activists hacked Ugandan government websites to protest against the extreme homophobia of bills going through parliament.” It is also important to note that in 2006, in the midst of criticisms for its racist stunt on Habbo Hotel, Anonymous helped take Hal Turner, a white supremacist radio host, off the air (Love). The group has also been doing much good in its aforementioned efforts in Ferguson, Missouri, pushing for more stringent federal regulation of police conduct. Nonetheless, for all the good that may be done by the so-called “moralfags,” the fact remains that Anonymous is in many instances doing more harm than good, as was the case when a member misidentified the officer who shot Michael Brown (Rogers). The implications of Anonymous’ involvement are often treacherous for those impacted by their actions. While the “moralfags” engage in serious political demonstrations, other Anonymous trolls simply post comments online in the vein of: “just got done talking with some monstrous homogay named Andy” (Chen). Anonymous not only has racist contingents in its ranks, but also has a disastrous record on other issues, not the least of which is LGBTQ issues, with a pivotal discrepancy between what the organizers of serious movements say and what lesser members and “lulzfags” post online. Though the horizontal nature of the organization doubtless is at fault for much of the divide, a unifying thread does indeed become evident through the vast majority of Anonymous members: cyberutopianism.
Indeed, Anonymous is akin to the twenty-first century counterculture, advocating for a free and open Internet and trusting in the purportedly emancipatory potential of cyberspace. It serves perhaps as the world’s most recognizable cyberlibertarian organization that, ironically enough, gave rise to Occupy Wall Street, which was anything but libertarian and treated laissez-faire economics as the problem rather than the solution, even in the digital realm (Siegel). Occupy is a pivotal case study for understanding the new cyberutopianism—or at least the extra-political strain—because without a solidified platform on which to base its actions, it attacked both the left and the right. So, too, does Anonymous, and ultimately the persistent attacks on both sides of the aisle have led to a point at which Anonymous’ indubitably anarchic proclivities are most evident. The group does not leave its ideology up to interpretation, however; it should have come as no surprise considering the group’s past and its political activities that the organization recently released a YouTube video endorsing the efforts of Black Bloc, an anarchist riot tactic, quoting Emma Goldman, who called “[d]irect action… the logical consistent method of Anarchism” (Kleinman). Anonymous thereby reveals itself as a group so cyberutopian in nature, so trusting of the democratizing power of the Internet, that it advocates the abolishment of governments altogether. Theirs is an extremist brand of cyberlibertarianism, and anyone wishing to fall in line as an alternative to the two-party political order is making a most egregious mistake with a litany of potentially catastrophic consequences.
Surely, philosophers like Norbert Wiener could not have expected that their idealistic visions of cyberspace would end up leading the world into such a dangerous position, but ultimately such an outcome seems as though it had been nearly inevitable all along. Jaron Lanier, a former pioneer of virtual reality technologies, has turned against the Web and the technologies he helped create, precisely because of the dangers of the Internet, especially when labeled a democratic beacon. He speaks to the impact of digital utopianism in a political sense, seeing “[a]n enabling and foreshadowing of mob rule, not a growth of democracy, but an accretion of tribalism” (Rosenbaum). Lanier is correct. For organizations like Anonymous, the promises of the Internet as a free, deregulated space have raised hopes of a new order, in which democracy is ensured not by governments, but by the Web itself. The romanticized, Americanized version of democracy would be eschewed, superseded by its purest form, in essence an equivalent of the mob rule of which Lanier speaks; and though the cyberutopian daydreams of early thinkers like Wiener may have envisioned digital-age anarchy as something to which to aspire, the implications now seem far too dangerous to accept.
To comprehend the future towards which Anonymous and other extra-political cyberutopian organizations currently work, one need not look further than the organization’s aforementioned launch of Operation KKK. A government-free digital utopia, Anonymous would have followers believe, can serve as a beacon of hope for the oppressed masses. Without government intervention, the death of Michael Brown and police brutality against African Americans can be avenged by concerned citizens. The organization actively neglects earlier incidents such as the Habbo raid or the lamentable “Pool Closed” stunt (Croteau). Without any central control, Anonymous is the organizational embodiment of the global order it seeks to create, so hindered by its commitment to horizontalism and cyberlibertarianism that it fails to consistently produce serious change and offer a uniform message. Cyberutopianism as a political ideal should never be positioned as an alternative to the existence of governments. The New Communalists were wrong, and indeed, so is Anonymous.
If digital utopianism in mainstream politics has served merely as a means of perpetuating corporatism, and if it has served in extra-political organizations like Anonymous as a means of creating a new anarchic order, voters are left in a difficult position. Surely the actions taken by Republicans and Democrats cannot be justified, and surely the visions of groups like Anonymous are not only excessively idealistic, but also extraordinarily dangerous, so are citizens to work within the system or outside? Third parties may well constitute the most hopeful prospect within the political system, and though the majority of contemporary thought would have third-party candidates as perpetual long-shots, statistician Nate Silver’s findings indicate otherwise. Though many academics suggest “the chances [of a third-party victory in a Presidential election] are 1-in-16,” such a statistic ignores (of an extensive listing of factors provided) the increasing number of Americans who refuse to register with either party and the potential of the Internet to help a supposed “fringe” candidate put up more competitive numbers (Silver). Certainly, suggesting support for an independent candidate sounds idealistic, but disillusioned voters can look to Kansas, where third-party candidate Greg Orman received nearly 43% of the vote. Though his loss reflects the power of corporate-backed incumbents, Orman offers a reminder that independent candidates can serve as a force to be reckoned with if voters mobilize and use the power of social media to promote candidates who are more empowered than ever before to put up impressive results and challenge the corporatized two-party structure (“Kansas Senate — Roberts vs. Orman”). Beyond simply voting for a third-party candidates, those who believe in the overarching platforms of the two major parties must engage actively to protest corporate influence and to encourage policy decisions that promote the common good as opposed to oligarchic interests.
Change is also imperative outside of Washington. Groups like Anonymous must be supplanted by new organizations that prudently balance cyberlibertarianism and necessary government oversight. Again, such a suggestion seems vague and excessively idealistic, but organizations are within reach that should be considered as possible outlets of active engagement. One could, for instance, support an organization like Free Press, an independent organization that relies only on individual donations and pledges not to accept any funding from corporate or political interests (“Donate to the Free Press Action Fund”). Such a statement is one of which any logical individual could be skeptical, but nonetheless is surprisingly truthful. According to information from opensecrets.org, Free Press keeps its promise to rely on independent donations and refrains from endorsing any candidates, instead only lobbying for legislation like the Television Consumer Freedom Act of 2013, which granted networks the right to offer programming a la carte instead of being tied to large cable corporations like Comcast (“Free Press Action Fund”). Indeed, a group like Free Press is cyberutopian in nature, but not so much that it confuses the Internet as an alternative to governments or a substitute for regulation. It may advocate heavily for Net Neutrality, but it does not betray the contradictory laissez-faire anarchy of a radical organization like Anonymous, instead reflecting a centrism that should be actively endorsed (“Save the Internet”). These solutions are not nearly as vague or naïve as they may seem, and real answers are within reach.
It must also be acknowledged that the organization needed to combat corporatism and anarchic cyberutopianism may not yet exist, and in that case, it becomes contingent on the users of the Internet to organize and to pave a path forward. In so doing, citizens must ask once and for all whether cyberutopianism even belongs in politics and whether there is truly any validity to its inherent technological determinism. If digitization could not produce a more democratic economy, how can it be expected to democratize at all? Ultimately, it would seem that while digital utopianism was a beautiful dream for the counterculturists, it is now an impediment to constructive political change, and that while the concept of a free Internet is in many respects worth upholding, it should not come at the expense of policies that hold great promise for the country’s future. Any action within and outside of the system must challenge normative conceptions of cyberutopianism if its appropriate role in politics—if it should play any role at all—is to be determined.
Whereas digital utopianism’s role in politics had once been embodied by the romantic visions of transcendence in cyberspace, its role in the twenty-first century has instead become steeped in corporatism and Machiavellian political opportunism, as well as in the anarchic proclivities of grassroots organizations like Anonymous. The idealistic daydreams of earlier thinkers have served a substantially more destructive purpose, leading the nation to a precarious point, at which citizens must decide whether to silently endorse the actions of political parties spewing self-serving rhetoric of a “free and open Internet” or to actively engage in protestation with groups that would have all bureaucracies, every last vestige of order, dissolved. Certainly, the future does not have to be bleak. Just as the Internet is not inherently democratic, neither is the two-party political order inherently corporatized; neither is the private sector inherently deregulated and uncontrollable; neither are organizations defending oppressed peoples inherently anarchic or fraught with contradictions. The many questions posed herein are only a very few of those with which the country—and the world—is left, and over time they will be answered; over time solutions will be found, but the first step, as always, is becoming informed.
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Chen, Adrian. “The Truth About Anonymous’s Activism.” The Nation. N.p., 11 Nov. 2014. Web. 22 Nov. 2014.
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“Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission.” SCOTUSblog. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 Nov. 2014.
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“Donate to the Free Press Action Fund.” Free Press. N.p., 2014. Web. 3 Dec. 2014.
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* While the development of cyberutopian thought is discussed herein, the origins of the term itself are unclear. Many attribute it to The Californian Ideology, by Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron, but the piece does not even use the term; it only perpetuates the ideology.
** “Horizontal” and its use herein refers to organizations that lack central leadership.
*** A systems-oriented vision for societal structure and organization
A more thorough look at how digital technology found utopianism, from Fred Turner
Smithsonian Magazine’s interview with Jaron Lanier
Net Neutrality explained by John Oliver
Damian Hondares is an American Studies major at UR. An editorialist and movie critic for his local newspaper, he enjoys going on lengthy, acerbic diatribes that elicit humorously vehement responses from passionate readers. He considers himself an aficionado of all things Batman, absolutely loves Bill Murray, and according to his girlfriend is much too dramatic for his own good. He also doesn’t care how lame you think any of this sounds. After graduation, he hopes to earn a Ph.D. and teach as a professor.