Saturday, 23 February 2008

Digital Dystopia

As a follow up to the seminar I’d be really interested to hear you opinions on the possibly hugely dystopian implications of the digital utopia, which seem to be lost beneath the religious fervour that the internet and its innovations always seem to provoke.

To me it seems that innovation, efficiency and wealth-creation – which the internet definitely spurs on – are increasingly seen as ends and not means. You talked about the Benkler book and how he foresees everything being broken down into tiny tasks on which anyone can collaborate. Whilst this drives all of the three things above, it does so by creating ferocious competition which erodes things such as job security, pay etc. which leads to huge vulnerability and instability for the working population. This continual unease over where the money for a mortgage, school fees, medical insurance etc. surely must undermine general well-being, even if the population is richer and has increasingly breathtaking gadgets to play with. It surely also demands a level of flexibility in terms of hours and movement that totally undermines social institutions like the family, such is the continual disruption of movement and the blur between work and home.

I completely benefit from the internet; I think it’s an awesome place to find out information. I’m a huge devotee of things like Firefox etc and I believe the internet can drive creativity and greater political engagement. But the belief that anything innovative and new is automatically good, and the sort of technological determinism that seems to underpin the technology industry and its commentators, means that we are not questioning what is good and what is bad, which could lead to some ptentially hugely dystopian implications.


Olly Fayers said...

Hey Toby. I agree thoroughly with what you have written in your first and third paragraphs, but I couldn't quite get to the point you're making in the second paragraph. I think I could do with some clarification if you don't mind. Clarification, on these fronts:

1) By innovation, efficiency and wealth-creation being 'ends and not means', do you mean that innovation is done for innovation's sake, efficiency for efficiency's sake etc.?
2) How exactly do you think that breaking things down into small tasks erodes job security and causes vulnerability?
3) Thus, how will it create a 'continual unease' which undermines 'general well-being'?
4) Do you perhaps see an argument that blurring work and home is good for the family - i.e. working at home on the internet as opposed to somewhere else in a workplace - holds some merit?

I'm not seeking to challenge your interesting theory. I just want a bit of clarification so I can engage with it and discuss it more, if that's ok?

Toby said...

Cheers for the reply Olly.

1) Yes.

2) I don't think it universally does by any means. But breaking things down into small tasks in a global digital marketplace means a huge and unprecedented number of people can compete to undertake them. That means to differentiate themselves from the competition they will have to promise to do things with almost zero personal profit and incredibly rapidly. And even after that the customers are unlikely to come back again, such is the range of other servcie providers available. Now this does drive down prices and speeds up innovation. But the flipside is that this new breed of employee is completely at the mercy of either the consumer or employer and has no guaranteed source of income.

The other side to it is that people - like the computer worker described in the Turner article - may have to continually move from place to place to seek work, with the huge disruption this would cause to them and their family. I'm by no means anti-capitalist, but whether this is all a good thing is pretty debatable.

3) The continuual unease I refer to is that of financial insecurity (no fixed source of income) and the disruption of moving from place to place - because of the above (with the ramifications I described in the blog - paying a mortgage, school and medical fees etc.)

4) I'm somewhat split on this. I see definite advantages to working from home in terms of losing what for many people is a hellish commute and thus having more time with their family etc. Some people might perhaps work better in a home environoment too.

However, at the same time it makes it very difficult to switch off. You're workplace is now a click rather than a commute away meaning for people who hold high standards - or high standards are expected of -it becomes very easy to never leave the workplace. Checking their blackberry at the dinner table etc.


Hope the second ramble clarifys the first a little :p. Let me know what you think.

(Just to stress - I am not arguing for the existence of a digital dytopia. It's just that in most of the utopias we have looked at so far, the writers have decided on what they consider to be favourable society and then sought to create a suitable technological framework. Here the technology comes first and the implications for society seem to often just be seen as inherently positive, which seems a dangerous way of doing things.)

Olly Fayers said...

Thanks for clearing that up. To begin with I wasn't sure about that middle paragraph at all, but I do see where you're coming from.

I like the point you made in brackets at the end of your last comment. Well summarised I think. I imagine there are a lot of other groups out there who would agree with your idea. Luddite-like-types for instance, amongst others.

Toby said...

Luddite! But you see that’s exactly what I’m talking about. I feel it’s ridiculous to divide people into two classes of pro-technology and anti-technology as opposed to questioning what are the benefits of the new digital age and what are the potential negatives.

The Internet has incredible potential; but as with all such powerful forces it has as much potential for bad as it does for good, if people don’t question its purpose and direction. I am incredibly pro-internet and pro-technology in general, but I refuse to say that anything new is inevitably good, which is pretty much the implication of your comment above.

Why precisely do you consider those comments to be Luddite? Purely because they highlight a negative impact of a new technology?

Olly Fayers said...

Hehe. Easy Toby, easy. Just winding you up. I don't consider your comment to be Luddite. Nonetheless, I imagine that such people offer good examples for negative effects of technology.

And incidentally, and as you ought to know by now, I'm the last person to embrace something just because it's new. I think Facebook is overwhelmingly dystopian for instance. Hence my non-participation which probably puts me in a minority of less than five percent at this uni.

At any rate, let's see what everyone else thinks...

Becca said...

I totally understand where Toby is coming from, and agree that the Internet brings drawbacks to society. It seems that creating a utopian 'mind' space on the internet comes at the expense of forcing a dystopian lifestyle in the physical world (real life).

I think this is potentially where the internet could become dangerous. When people take on virtual selves (in games like HABITAT and Second Life, and in chatrooms, the Well) they are chasing a way of life which they see as positive, and one that they can't imagine happening in real life - for example, meeting new people, entering, in the words of Barlow, a world 'without privilege or prejudice' and without tyrranies. But this is all created in a virtual world, somehow apart from the physical world and real life.

My question is this : does pursuing utopias on cyberspace take away our capacity to imagine improvements in the real world / the physical world? It seems that utopian ambition that might once have sought to change the physical world (e.g. architectural utopias, Intentional community plans) no longer exist. They have moved to the realm of the 'virtual'.

Does this mean that the physical world is no longer seen as a place that can be improved? Does it mean that people are becoming more and more disconnected with the physical world because they are disillusioned with the idea that real change can happen there?

As Toby has been talking about, the internet is creating some seriously dystopian lifestyles - disruption to family life, constant moving around, no job security. Is this all being accepted at the expense of having a 'utopia of the mind' where people can escape to?

These are just some thoughts I had...sorry if I have taken the conversation off in a different direction!

tomg said...

I will respond not by answering the question directly but by suggesting more questions

1. Instability inherent in an industry structure that was premised on industrial assumptions seems likely. That said, once everyone has built institutions after considering the opportunities and challenges of a networked economy could it be expected that a new and different type of stability will emerge? I've often wondered if guilds will emerge again in a somewhat heterarchical world Drupal Guild and curiously the unions in Hollywood, a world of temporary jobs for many, are also called guilds.)

2. I'm not persuaded that everything the internet has wrought is all good but it is interesting that very few countries have resisted the allure of it and mobile phones. Why is this? (Anyone want to go live in North Korea?)

3. Regarding Becca's comments on real vs. virtual worlds are interesting and I suggest reading Dana Boyd's blog Zephoria that discusses the intersection, mostly from the perspective of the individual but still may still provide some answers. is an interesting link.