Utopia: New and Improved

The most legendary public clash between the Cold War’s competing sides did not delve into philosophical or economic theory; it was about color televisions and kitchen appliances. In what came to be known as the “kitchen debate,” the garrulous and pugnacious Nikita Khrushchev verbally sparred with a careful Vice President Nixon before the American exhibits at a 1959 trade fair in Moscow. It was not a division between materialism and asceticism. It was a duel between ideological combatants united in their belief that technological prowess would usher in the good life, but divided in their judgement of the way to facilitate it.

On both sides of the so-called Iron Curtain, the post-war world was constructed on promises of material well-being. These promises only worked as symbols of an ideological contest because of the assumption that the material was symbiotically connected with moral well-being. Today, as the Cold War disappears into the past, materialism and consumerism are increasingly regarded as distinctly capitalist phenomena. Yet the European communist regimes of the 20th century also partially justified their rule on the vision of a modern, technologically advanced, and materially replete society providing individuals with all the latest desirables. The trope of a grey, shabby, crumbling Soviet bloc became the symbol of this promise’s objective failure in the disillusioned 1980s. But in the 1950s, the leaders of the Soviet Union and their satellites insisted that their people could expect greater technologically-produced wealth than the West. “When we catch you up,” Khrushchev mischievously told Nixon before the American-made color television camera, “we will wave to you.”

Just as the ambitious consumerism of communism is rarely grasped in the West, neither is the fact that the liberal democratic version of technological utopianism is as empty and pervasive as its former communist counterpart. This oversight is not surprising, given the triumphalism that accompanied the implosion of communist Europe beneath the weight of its own dysfunctional audacity. But, as Howard Segal in Technological Utopianism in American Culture has observed, the “numerous technological advances” in the United States since the 1930s have not been accompanied by “equivalent social advances.” It is undeniable that “many of them have made the lives of Americans less burdensome and more comfortable,” Segal continues, “but they have not made people’s lives qualitatively happier, as had been predicted by the technological utopians and many non-utopian prophets alike.”

Happiness, contentment, and societal harmony have never been disposable features for the technological prophets—these are the ultimate goals they trumpet. And yet, what do we find in technologically advanced and affluent countries in which material results have often even exceeded the dreams of last century’s techno-utopians? Few would be surprised by a recent multi-national survey published in the BMC Medicine journal, which found depression to be most prevalent in the richest countries. In his 2000 study, The Loss of Happiness in Market Democracies, John E. Lane identifies “a spirit of unhappiness and depression” that has certainly not dissipated in the subsequent years of the new millennium. There is “a rising tide in all advanced societies of clinical depression and dysphoria (especially among the young), increasing distrust of each other…[and] a tragic erosion of family solidarity and community integration.”

That does not mean that technological affluence causes unhappiness, although it certainly can. But it does mean that when today’s techno-utopians claim that equity or peace or contentment will inevitably parallel today’s upward arc of, for example, Internet connectivity, we ought to be skeptical. After all, those who insist that rapid technologically-produced change should be unencumbered by critical thought and dissenting opinions are keen to emphasize the history of those who doubted developments we now regard as essential and self-evident. But the predictive failures of those who questioned the feasibility or felicity of new products are more than matched by years of discredited justifications for the same developments on the basis of social and ethical benefits that never arrived. By the time a new technology has failed to deliver moral results to match its technical proficiencies, however, its speed and/or convenience has been embraced, the promises have been forgotten, and the cycle is ready to start all over again.

Take, for example, the elusive goal of peace. Way back in 1872, the great Hungarian novelist Mór Jókai turned his attention from historical themes to the horizon. In the utopian future that he depicted in The Novel of the Century to Come, the invention of a flying machine (by a Hungarian) had brought an end to international conflict. That’s just a literary vision, we might think, and yet, when the science-fiction of flight became a reality, none other than Orville Wright came to the same conclusion: “The aeroplane will help peace in more ways than one,” he said in 1917. “In particular I think it will have a tendency to make war impossible.” A few years earlier, in the last decade of the nineteenth century, the chief engineer of AT&T predicted that “someday we will build a world telephone system…which will join all the people of the earth into one brotherhood.” Similarly, in 1925, the chairman of the board of RCA prophesied that “the coming of the wireless era will make war impossible…. Radio will serve to make the concept of peace on earth, good will toward men a reality.” Seventy years later, in 1997, the head of MIT’s Media Laboratory, Nicholas Negroponte, blundered in where the techno-optimists had gone before, insisting that the Internet would inevitably bring world peace in just twenty years because those who grow up using it to learn about other cultures “are not going to know what nationalism is.”

In one sense, we should regard it as unsurprising that these predictions have been exposed as the groundless pabulum that they are—there is no reason why inventors and innovators should be able to omnisciently foresee the future. And yet, in our day, we continue to genuflect before the self-appointed cyber panjandrums when they serve up their equivalent, self-serving, faux prophecies. In their book The New Digital Age, Google executives Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen stand on the same false assumptions of their predecessors—that a lack of connection and knowledge was the only thing standing between the world and a universal state of Western-oriented liberal egalitarianism. “The best thing anyone can do to improve the quality of life around the world,” they state, “is to drive connectivity and technological opportunity.” If this was not bold enough, Schmidt and Cohen suggest that, thanks to Internet access, “young people in Yemen might confront their tribal elders over the traditional practice of child brides if they determine that the broad consensus of online voices is against it,” while also claiming that “reaching disaffected youth through their mobile phones is the best possible goal we can have.”


Painting image courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington.

But the digital age does not turn people into drones ready to be re-programmed according to Western fantasies any more than the telephone or wireless radio did. In his scathing review of The New Digital Age, Evgeny Morozov concludes that Schmidt, as techno-utopians have been doing with little accountability for decades, “consistently substitutes unempirical speculation for a thorough engagement with what is already known.” As British technology writer Tom Chatfield rightly reminds us, “while technological and scientific progress is indeed an astonishing thing—its relationship with human progress is more aspiration than established fact.”

In order to counteract the vapid authoritativeness of self-styled prophets like Schmidt, we need the analysis of those who have been weaned off it by hard experience. Take the example of Geek Heresy author Kentaro Toyama, sent to India by Microsoft to expand technological opportunity, presumably as a driver of social change. While Schmidt could ask us to “imagine the implications of these burgeoning mobile or tablet-based learning platforms for a country like Afghanistan,” Toyama actually led projects to realize similar ambitions. And as he explains in his book, the reality is that “technology—even when it’s equally distributed—isn’t a bridge, but a jack. It widens existing disparities.” Similarly, it also does not make those who have access to it magically disposed to Western liberal assumptions and dogmas.

The fact that, in the West, politicians and the media are still enraptured by predictions that this time technology really will usher in the global good life is evidence that, for us, the fever of techno-utopianism has never been fully broken. It takes the epistemological shock of a complete system change to dispel the mythology, which is why we can learn a lot from thinkers who emerged from the wreckage of twentieth century communist states with a sharp antennae for delusional diktats of all varieties. They have experienced the promise and the failure of both communist and liberal democratic utopianism alike because, in the words of Polish sociologist Jerzy Szacki in 1990, “liberalism appear[ed] to Eastern Europe as a utopia, as a vision of the good society most glaringly opposed to the realities of the communist system.” As Henri Vogt found in his book on post-communist transition, Between Utopia and Disillusionment, trading in one form of technocratic material utopianism for another carried a fresh psychological cost. “The only thing that surprised me was this growth of existential emptiness,” commented one of Vogt’s Czech interviewees in 1993, “Total spiritual and mental vacuum.”

There were those underneath the cloak of communist states who saw this coming because they understood that the fallacies that rendered men so fatally self-confident were common across all of Europe and America. In 1984, Václav Havel wrote to a French audience that “the totalitarian systems warn of something far more serious than Western rationalism is willing to admit.” The European totalitarian states, he counseled them, were “a convex mirror of the inevitable consequences of rationalism, a grotesquely magnified image of its own deep tendencies, an extreme offshoot of its own development and an ominous product of its own expansion. They are a deeply informative reflection of its own crisis.” There was, in other words, a shared civilizational crisis across societies centered on an abstracted obsession with technological and material growth. An emptiness for which world leaders arguing over who supplied the most modern conveniences and gadgets was an appropriate caricature.

This continued to be a key theme of Havel’s thinking after the Soviet empire suddenly and surprisingly imploded. “The end of communism [in Europe] is, first and foremost, a message…we have not yet fully deciphered and comprehended,” he told the assembled bigwigs at Davos in 1992. Just as he had in 1984, Havel perceived a Western audience unaware of an unreformed utopianism lingering like a bug in their own assumptions. “We treat the fatal consequences of technology as though they were a technical defect that could be remedied by technology alone,” he observed. “We are looking for an objective way out of the crisis of objectivism.” The problems are not also the solution, he insisted, and treating them as such merely deepens the crisis. “We cannot discover a law or theory whose technical application will eliminate all the disastrous consequences of the technical application of earlier laws and technologies.”

And yet this is precisely the manner in which the siren calls of today’s Google-topians are fashioned. Even though the moral and ethical consequences of our modern civilization pile up to our ears—from the degradation of ancient oceans and forests to the gloomy affluence of socially-networked alienation—they present universal solutions that imply, against centuries’ of experience, that when technology spreads and improves, so too does kindness, fairness, and fellow-feeling. “The economic advances of Euro-American civilization, based as they are on advances in scientific and technical knowledge, have gradually altered man’s very value systems,” Havel wrote perceptively in 1993. “Respect for the metaphysical horizons of his being is, to an increasing extent, pushed aside to make room for a new deity: the ideal of the perpetual growth of production and consumption.” Peace and happiness will be engineered through bandwidth no more than they were through radio-waves and airplanes, televisions and kitchens.