Libraries, Archives, Technology, Impending Doom
The start of a new year is the socially sanctioned moment when people are encouraged to engage in optimistic dreaming. People “resolve” that in this year they shall achieve some personal goal or another, whilst numerous companies hocking fitness products and creativity tools aim to profit off of our hopeful prophesies for the year. There is something rather charming , and somewhat irresistible, in the “this shall be a wonderful year” attitude that ripples through friends, co-workers, and families in the young days of a new year, but as winter turns into spring our best hopes for ourselves in the year ahead are all too starkly confronted by the realities of the larger world.
After all, it is easy to resolve to read a book a week, to watch less television, to eat more healthily, to spend more time outdoors, to volunteer in your community, to try to be nicer, and so forth. Resolutions may well be admirable, but it seems that the easiest resolutions to make (and keep) are the ones over which we have a great deal of personal control. The listed (possible) resolutions at the start of this paragraph are all undertakings that rely primarily on an individual’s will too succeed. Which is a convoluted way of arriving at the point: it is simpler to say that in 2014 you will read a book a week, than it is to say that in 2014 you will prevent the NSA from reading your e-mails, or even that in 2014 you will ensure that the budget at your local library (from whence you might borrow those books for the book a week) is not slashed by so much as a nickel.
In a world too often defined by alienation and disempowerment a resolution may allow a person to feel a measure of control within their daily life and this should not be scoffed at. After all, we often try to be “realistic” when thinking about resolutions – aiming at achievable goals instead of targets that we know we cannot hit alone (“halt climate change” is a rather unrealistic resolution). Yet it is perhaps exactly this aim at realistic goals that results in the original euphoria of the new year turning so quickly back into the ennui of the final months of the preceding year. Perhaps the goal of a resolution should be a recycling of the old activist adage: “be realistic, demand the impossible!” Or to put it better, in 2014, perhaps we need to set our gaze not on the horizon of the next year but upon the far more distant goal of the utopia to which you desire to be moving. For, as Lewis Mumford wrote:
“it is our utopias that make the world tolerable to us” (19)
“Towards utopia!? How naïve!” some may scoff, and not without reason, but without a notion of where we would like to end up, how can a person know if their resolution has placed them on the right path? A resolution might be seen as an attempt by a person to move towards a happier self-actualization, and yet these individual drives still occur within a larger societal context. Indeed, many of the things our resolutions focus on may be a result of societal pressures that we have subconsciously swallowed – but in keeping our eyes set on the distant utopia we are better able to consider whether we are resolving to move in that direction or if our resolution is a result of the world around us at present. Granted one should not trade the euphoria of the new year for the intoxication of dreaming, as Paul Goodman once wrote:
“Unless it is high poetry, utopian thinking is boring” (192)
One can well understand Goodman’s sentiment (and it is worth noting that his comment came nearly 50 years after Mumford’s [and those 50 years were dark ones for the world]), especially as we are living in an age in which our “utopian thinking” is proving to be – if not boring – than perhaps far worse: distinctly perilous. For 2013 was the year in the main utopia our society is focused upon was smashed beneath the boot heel of the classic images of dystopian literature.
In recent years a certain utopian gloss has been repeatedly applied to technology (particularly technologies related to the Internet) in our society. And some of this promise seemed fantastically made real: for the visions of devices that could put music, art, literature, and the world’s knowledge at our fingertips (all of which were invoked in various utopias dreamed up over time) have become very literal realities. The promise held out by the technological society has increasingly been one of utopian dimensions wherein all the worlds people could be connected, where all of human knowledge could be made digitally accessible, even as everything a person could (materially desire) could be found for sale online. Indeed, to every problem that faced society there seemed to be a technological solution, one that was often cloaked in the smiling ad speak of Google, Apple, Facebook and the like. While some voiced concerns about privacy, environmental degradation, and unalterable shifts in what it means to be human, the utopian dream of technology sought to quiet these voices or drown them out in the sighs of the majority at the unveiling of the capabilities of the latest technological toy. At one extreme the technological utopian ideas (such as “the singularity”) assumed almost comical proportions, but in a more grounded element tech executives and politicians seemed agreed that more technology was the solution.
Yet 2013 showed that the utopia promised by technology, the utopia upon which many had their hopes pinned, indeed a utopia that for many made “the world tolerable,” was a dangerous façade. While one of the years more avoidable political snafus came largely as a result of technological failure (the almost comical roll-out of the Affordable Care Act’s website); the true downfall of technological utopianism came as a result of the revelations about the NSA’s technologically enabled surveillance. The stories of the NSA’s systematic disregard of basic privacy (and the fourth amendment) served as a galling statement that the price of smart phones, tablets, and so forth might be a total loss of privacy. For all of the utopian promise of technology, by the end of 2013 it seemed less as though technology would pave the way to Sir Thomas More’s Utopia than to Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World or George Orwell’s 1984.
2013 was the year in which the utopia of technology (technopolis perhaps) failed. This is not to say that the utopian thinking about technology has ceased – far from it – and the indignation being voiced by various tech executives is a desperate attempt to reclaim the utopian glimmer that has become so tarnished. What has been revealed is not merely that it may be all too easy for utopian intentions to degrade into proto-dystopian reality, but that there are different types of utopian thinking. As Mumford put it:
“The genuine alternative for most of us is that between an aimless utopia of escape and a purposive utopia of reconstruction” (22)
The promise of unfettered bounty brought by technology has been revealed as such “an aimless utopia of escape” one in which we as individuals and society are encouraged to sit back, relax, and let all of our hopes and dreams be satisfied with the latest tap of our fingers upon a screen. This promise of escape, and its seeming freedom, has a genuine appeal to it insofar as it seems to promise a more pleasurable and care free life (at least for those fortunate [read: well-off] enough to enjoy the bounty). If technology will provide us with all of the escape we need, than we are encouraged to sit back and allow the wizards in Silicon Valley to do their work. The alternative, the “purposive utopia of reconstruction” on the other hand, may seem rather contrary to utopian thinking insofar as it does not see utopia in idleness but in the realization of ideals. In his later works, Mumford would often refer back to The Story of Utopias (the book from which the Mumford quotations in this piece are taken) as being about “the fundamental difference between the good life and the ‘goods life’” – and the technological utopia of escape of modern times is all too clearly one focused on the “goods life” as a convenient masquerade for the “good life.”
Thus we return to the matter of resolutions, and the question that we must furnish an answer to is whether we are aiming at the “goods life” or the “good life” and whether we are drawing our strength from a utopia that promises us “aimless…escape” or one that demands our action in “purposive…reconstruction.” It may well be that such thinking is “boring” (to return to Goodman); however, a spoonful of boring consideration is a useful counter to the sugary thrill promised by the latest method of escape. Our world is one filled with utopian promises of one sort or another from the technological dream to the myth of the heavenly-ordained-nation state, but it is up to us decide whether our actions make these escapist fantasies tolerable to us or whether our actions provide us with the resolve to break from the delusions and push towards different type of utopia. At the very least this requires an honest reckoning with our world and with the shortcomings of the utopias on offer (Mumford again):
“we must return to the real world, and face it, and survey it in its complicated totality. Our castles-in-air must have their foundations in solid ground.” (195)
It is worthwhile to make resolutions, and it is always good for a person to have goals for self improvement towards which they are committed, but we should be aware of where our utopian hopes and longings are pointed (and the belief that things can continue as they are now [environmental degradation, worsening inequality, resources growing scarcer] is certainly utopian thinking). The utopia of escape is an illusory trap that too easily draws us in and saps us of energy when we need it most to set ourselves free, while striving towards the utopia of reconstruction offers no solutions but only the promise of exhaustion and possible defeat, yet the aim of a utopia is not to make us tolerate the world as it is but to provide us a dream to strive towards, because without it this world would not be tolerable.
There will not be a simple resolution to the challenges that we face today. But a utopia of reconstruction does not offer an easy solution, nor is that the promise of such utopian thinking. In the depths of the Spanish Civil War, with fascist victory seeming ever more likely, the Spanish anarchist Buenaventura Durruti said:
“We carry a new world here, in our hearts. That world is growing in this minute.”
Perhaps, it is that type of faith and resolve for a utopia that we may never personally reach that can make this “world tolerable to us” as we strive in 2014 towards a better world.
Goodman, Paul. New Reformation: Notes of a Neolithic Conservative. PM Press, 2010. (first published in 1970)
Mumford, Lewis. The Story of Utopias. Bibliobazar, 2008. (first published in 1922)
The picture that leads into this story is a painting by F. Bate titled New Harmony which is meant as an illustration of the utopian community proposed by Robert Owen. The image is in the public domain and was slightly cropped.