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The Internet and the End of Dystopia

Andrew Feenberg
p. 77-84
Traduction(s) :
Internet et la fin de la dystopie


Discussion of the wider implications of the Internet often situate it in relation to utopian aspirations or dystopian fears. In this paper I will attempt to break out of this by now hackneyed dilemma. The Internet does have broad implications for modern life, but neither utopia nor dystopia adequately describes it. Instead, elements of both show up as the Internet gradually matures. This is particular clear in the impact of the Internet on the public sphere. It is in this domain that something really new is happening. Exactly what is the subject of this paper.

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1Discussion of the wider implications of the Internet often situate it in relation to utopian aspirations or dystopian fears. In this paper I will attempt to break out of this by now hackneyed dilemma. The Internet does have broad implications for modern life, but neither utopia nor dystopia adequately describes it. Instead, elements of both show up as the Internet gradually matures. This is particular clear in the impact of the Internet on the public sphere. It is in this domain that something really new is happening. Exactly what is the subject of this paper.

Dystopian Philosophy and Politics

2Heidegger was the most powerful influence on dystopian thinking in the 20th century. His philosophy of technology is a puzzling combination of romantic nostalgia for an idealized image of antiquity and deep insight into modernity. His originality lies in treating technique not merely as a functional means but as a mode of “revealing” through which a “world” is shaped. “World” in Heidegger refers not to the sum of existent things but to an ordered and meaningful structure of experience. Such structures depend on basic practices characterizing societies and whole historical eras. These constitute an “opening” in which “Being” is “revealed” to human “Dasein,” that is to say, in which experience takes place.

3Modernity is characterized by what Heidegger calls “enframing.” This concept describes a revealing in which everything without exception has become an object of technique. Things and people are now defined by their place in a methodically planned and controlled action system. For modern man everything is raw materials in technical processes and nothing stands before being as the place of awareness. As human beings are absorbed into the technological system, technology becomes a self-generating force beyond control. Complete meaninglessness threatens where the unique status of the human is so completely denied (Belu & Feenberg, 2010; Heidegger, 1977).

4Heidegger’s critical sense of modern life was rooted in the large scale technical systems such as electric power and railroad transportation that transformed the world into which he was born toward the end of the 19th century. Communication technology relayed these systems with the development of television broadcasting after World War II.

5Television was surely an influence on the spread of dystopian attitudes in the 1960s and 1970s. Dystopian themes showed up not only in politics but in films and other popular media, discrediting technocratic liberalism. Contemporary politics is still strongly influenced by such vulgarized versions of the dystopian sensibility as distrust of “big government.” These changes were accompanied by a dramatic shift in attitudes toward technology. By the end of the 1960s technophobia had largely replaced post-war enthusiasm for nuclear energy and the space program. No doubt the arrogance of the technocracy and especially the War in Vietnam played a major role in this change.

6Dystopian consciousness was transformed as it spread. No longer a theoretical critique of modernity from the standpoint of a cultural elite, it inspired a populist movement. The question of technology was now a political question. The new left reformulated socialist ideology in a tense synthesis between traditional Marxism and dystopianism. It challenged the idea of progress and opened a space for both the reactionary populism manifested in current electoral politics and the technical politics of recent decades, engaged in concrete struggles in domains such as computers, medicine, and the environment.

The Impact of the Internet

7The movements of the ‘60s and ‘70s undermined technological determinism and restored a sense of human agency. But they continued to employ a dystopian rhetoric in response to the technocratic threat. However, as the 20th Century came to a close dystopianism lost much of its authority and utopia returned in a new guise. Contemporary utopias are presented as breathless frontline reports on the latest R and D. These new utopias are inhabited by bioengineered superhumans networked in a universal mind or downloaded to more durable hardware than the human body. Big data will soon predict when we will catch a cold and finally make possible a true science of society. Networked artificial intelligences will serve all our needs and eliminate work. Old fashioned technological determinism returns as social consequences are deduced from future technology and a new “Internet Age” announced.

8Serious thinkers perplexed by this upsurge of wild speculation raised flimsy ethical barriers to “progress.” Anti-dystopian humanism struggles to salvage spirit from the Satanic mills of advancing technology. But now the whole contest seems routine and not very credible.

9There is much exaggeration in the new utopian visions. The Internet certainly has an impact on society, but it does not inaugurate a new era in human history. It is ludicrous to compare it with the industrial revolution, which pulled nearly everyone off the farm and landed them in a radically different urban environment. Worrisome though it may be, the “digital divide” is far more easily bridged than the gap between city and country in a society without telephones, televisions, and automobiles. But if the predictions are implausible, the humanist defense is unneeded.

10Meanwhile, new and more interesting trends have emerged among researchers who eschew both utopian speculation and dystopian critique and study technology as a social phenomenon. These researchers view the dystopian critique of modernity as nostalgia for a past that is forever lost and that was not so great in any case. According to this view, we belong wholly and completely to the technological network and do not represent nor should we await a suppressed alternative in which “man” or “Dasein” would achieve recognition independent of his tools.

11Non-modern or posthumanist thinkers such as Bruno Latour and Donna Haraway have put forward this approach with singular energy in books and essays with titles such as We Have Never Been Modern, and “The Cyborg Manifesto.” The very tone of these titles announces an agenda for the new millennium. According to the authors, we have passed through the experience of dystopia and come out on the other side. Our involvement with technology is now the unsurpassable horizon of our being. No longer opposed to technology, we join together with it in a more or less undifferentiated “cyborg” self. It is time to cease rearguard resistance and, embracing technology once and for all, give its further development a benign direction.

12The Internet supplies the essential social background to the wide interest in this posthumanist view. Of course the authors did not have to go online to develop their ideas, but the popular credibility of their innovative vision depends on the emergence of computer networking and the new function of subjectivity it institutes. Without the widespread experience of computer interaction, it is unlikely that their influence would have spread beyond a narrow circle of researchers in science studies. But given that experience, they articulate a fundamental shift from antagonism to collaboration in the relation of human beings to machines.

13What is it about networking that assuages dystopian consciousness? The fear of dystopia arises from the experience of large scale social organization which, under modern conditions, possesses an alienating appearance of rationality. Technocratic domination was exemplified in the mass media audiences of the 20th century until computer networking broke the pattern. Instead of the passivity associated with broadcasting, the online subject is constantly solicited to “interact” either by making choices or responding to communications. This interactive relationship to the medium, and through it to other users, appears non-hierarchical and liberating. Like the automobile, that fetish of modernity, the Internet opens rather than closes vistas. But unlike the automobile, the Internet does not merely transport individuals from one location to another; rather, it constitutes a “virtual” world in which the logic of action is participative and individual initiative supported rather than suppressed by technology.

14It is noteworthy that this evolution owes more to users than to the original designers of the network who intended only to streamline time sharing and the distribution of information. Refuting technological determinism in practice, users “interacted” with the network to enhance its communicative potential. This was the real “revolution” of the “Information Age” which transformed the Internet into a medium for personal communication (Abbate, 1999). As such it resembles the telephone network in which the corporate giants who manage the communication have little or no control over what is communicated. Such systems, called “common carriers,” extend freedom of assembly and so are inherently liberating.

15What is more, because computer networking supports group communication the Internet can host a wide variety of social activities, from work to education to exchanges about hobbies and the pursuit of dating partners. These social activities take place in virtual worlds built with words. The “written world” of the Internet is indeed a place where humans and machines appear to be reconciled.

16Are we witnessing the end of dystopia as the defining technology of our time shifts from great centralized systems such as the electric power industry to the more loosely structured world of the computer network? At this point, a note of caution is in order. Exaggerated expectations of the Internet awaken instant and to some extent justified scepticism. The dystopian critic finds here merely a more refined and disguised incorporation of the individual into the system. The tracking and profiling of users by a few giant Internet companies and extensive government surveillance renew the fear of totalitarian technology. Nevertheless, I believe there is progress of a sort that comes into focus in a larger context.

Democratic Interventions

17According to Langdon Winner technology is a kind of constitution. It shapes social relations and thus lays out the framework of human life and politics (Winner, 1995). Technical regimes are more or less democratic, like political regimes, depending on how inclusive they are. But this very fact indicates the limitation of Winner’s comparison. Technology enters into so many social arrangements that it more nearly resembles the legal code as a whole than a constitution. Like legislation, technology represents the interests of the citizenry, some more than others. We can trace these relations of representation between technical codes and users’ interests.

18But politics and technology differ. Traditionally representation is geographic and binds together individuals whose spatial proximity gives rise to common interests and possibilities of dialogue. In a more technologically developed society, spatial proximity is less central to the shaping of interests and communication. Social life is now characterized by technical networks joining individuals together through their relation to technical systems. These systems define every aspect of social life, careers, education, leisure, medical care, communication, and transportation. Experts and managers administer the networks without regard for democratic principles. Geographical communities are less important in the lives of citizens. I call the shared concerns that arise in the context of network belonging “participant interests.”

19The representation of these interests is problematic. Most technically networked groups could achieve no control over their fate in the days before the Internet. However, a few groups that were politically organized were able to have an impact. The labor movement imposed health and safety regulation on industry and the movement for Gay rights obtained access to experimental AIDS drugs. But for the most part, participant interests have not been articulated and defended by the citizens of technologically advanced societies in which a technocratic elite has gained ever more power.

20John Dewey worried about this evolution as early as the 1920s. Traditional local community was losing its ability to shape the social world in a technologically developed modern society. Community was increasingly displaced by technically mediated social groups. But the connections between the members of these groups was largely invisible to them and they were unable to articulate their participant interests. Dewey described the resulting dilemma: technical networks as the form of modern society, and local community as the site of democratic deliberation.

21Habermas describes this dual structure in his system/lifeworld distinction, introduced in his Theory of Communicative Action (Habermas, 1984, 1987). Habermas treats markets and administrations as “systems.” They make possible large scale action coordination without reference to democratic consent. The goals of the individuals harmonize, not through agreement but through the rational framework and procedural rules of the systems. Buyers and sellers, for example, achieve their goals without prior agreement. To cooperate they need only understand how to engage in an exchange of money for goods.

22The lifeworld could not be more different. It coordinates the actions of the members of community through agreement and mutual understanding of the many social codes and meanings that make up the everyday communicative environment.

23Production is a system function, social reproduction a function of the lifeworld. Habermas reformulates something like the dystopian critique of modernity in terms of the predominance of system over lifeworld. He foresees a consequent weakening of social cohesion and individuality.

24Habermas’s framework is suggestive but problematic. He ignores technology even though it coordinates action like the other systems. Furthermore, he sometimes treats the system as an analytic category, cutting across all institutions and activities, and sometimes identifies it with specific institutions. He thus loses a sense of the complexity of the system/lifeworld interactions in practice (Feenberg, 1999, chap. 7).

25Here is an example from the realm of communication technology. The telephone network is a system in Habermas’s sense, managed in accordance with administrative rationality and distributed on a market. As such it has tremendous political and economic power. Yet the activities the telephone network supports are essentially communicative. In the lifeworld the telephone takes on, accordingly, a meaning and connotations having to do with intimacy, human contact, security, and so on. The telephone is not merely instrumental to these lifeworldly ends, it belongs to the lifeworld itself as a richly signified artifact. This is more than a matter of subjective associations since it affects the evolution and design of the network and the handset, which cannot be understood in terms of an abstract idea of efficiency. This has become clear with mobile telephony if it was not already with the introduction of the Princess Phone in 1959. The intertwining of function and meaning exemplified by the telephone is general in modern societies.

26Increasingly, social protests and user innovations express the initiative of system participants. They are managed to be sure, but their pressures and demands have an effect. The distinction of system and lifeworld is blurred but still valid in a more limited sense than Habermas intended. “Systems thinking” reflects the conditions of organizational management and control. It is not simply an analytic category. Similarly, the concept of the lifeworld includes a perspective on systems by those occupying subordinate positions within them.

27The Internet exhibits aspects of both system and lifeworld. While Facebook and Google apply a system logic to the exploitation of the flows of information they manage on the Internet, users express themselves through communicative interactions. The co-existence of both modalities is obscured where the focus is on only one to the exclusion of the other. Then the Internet gives rise to the familiar alternatives—dystopia or utopia—neither of which captures the ambiguity of the whole.

28I turn to Michel de Certeau for an account of this ambiguity (Certeau, 1980). He introduced an original approach that takes into account the co-existence and interaction of what Habermas calls system and lifeworld. De Certeau distinguishes between the characteristic types of actions available to those supported by an institutional base and those subordinated within the institutions. The former can engage in what he calls “strategies,” actions based on planning and oriented toward the continuous furtherance of objectives and consolidation of institutional power. Subordinates lack a power base but are not without resources and agency. They engage in what de Certeau calls “tactics,” manoeuvring within the framework of the institutions for goals that may have no institutional relevance but which respond to their needs and concerns. From a strategic standpoint control and efficiency are important, while the tactical standpoint privileges meaning. In Habermas’s terminology, the lifeworld is the place of tactical action which works at cross purposes to the strategic plans of institutions. Improvisations and innovations in daily life ultimately feed back into the institutional framework and alter its logic.

29This approach to the relation of system and lifeworld goes beyond both dystopian condemnation and the uncritical posthumanist acceptance of technology. Dystopianism adopts the strategic standpoint on technology while condemning it. Technology is conceived exclusively as a system of control and its role in the lifeworld is overlooked. The introduction of a distinction between system and lifeworld corrects posthumanism’s overly optimistic picture of the effects of networking. The contradiction between the technological system and the lifeworld of its users and victims explains the rise of struggles on the Internet in the emerging technical public sphere.

New Forms of Agency

30Communities organized by technical systems have been able to use the Internet to coordinate their demands for a fuller representation of their interests. The new online politics has extended the public sphere to embrace issues formerly considered neutral and given over to experts to decide without consultation. This has had the effect of creating a social and technical environment in which agency in the traditional domain of politics has begun to recover despite the increasingly centralized organization of the Internet.

31Many examples of online political activism show this. By now these are familiar: the use of the Internet by the Zapatista movement in Mexico, protests against the WTO and the IMF, opposition to the War in Iraq, the Occupy Movement and recent political campaigns. The business and government dominated official press and television networks have lost their monopoly on public discourse to the Internet and the activists who use it to reach a vast popular base.

32But agency online is not confined to politics and this is important for evaluating its significance. After all, these political examples might be odd exceptions and the Internet principally defined as an electronic mall as its critics charge. I believe on the contrary that political usages of the Internet are instances of a much broader phenomenon, the emergence of new forms of agency in online communities of all sorts.

33The earliest movements of this sort formed before the public had access to the Internet, although its coming has greatly amplified their activism. Software users form an invisible community that has until recently been helpless before gigantic firms such as Microsoft which are notoriously indifferent to users’ demands. But the software business is young. In the early days of the IBM mainframe, users rather than commercial suppliers developed software. Habits of free exchange acquired then gradually merged with an ideological movement for free and open source software initiated by Richard Stallman in 1985. The rapid development of the field thereafter has had a huge impact on the Internet. Each open source project gathers an online community that tests the programs and suggests or actually codes improvements. Software users and producers are no longer separated by the barrier of commercial enterprise but like readers and writers in other types of online forums, can exchange places and engage reciprocally with each other.

34Medicine is another domain of what Maria Bakardjieva calls “sub-activism” (2012). Patients gather online to support each other, share advice, and to make demands on the medical community. In 1995 I studied an early example, a discussion forum for patients with the rare neurologic disease ALS (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s Disease). The patients exchanged social support, lore about living with the disease, and information about medical experimentation. This new type of patient organization defied standard assumptions about the sick role. Instead of waiting in isolation for individual help from the medical profession, the patients worked together to further their interests. They eventually brought pressure to bear on the ALS Society of America to demand larger budgets and changed policies from the National Institutes of Health (Feenberg et al., 1996). Today similar patient forums proliferate on the Internet and create a very different social environment for medicine.

35Video games offer a surprising example of user initiative. Millions participate in video games online, generating more revenue for the video game industry than Hollywood. The players organize themselves in online communities the industry does not control. These online forums are venues for various unexpected appropriations of the game environment. For example, players auction game items for real money. Hackers have modified games and the modified versions have occasionally become popular. Legal issues arise in such cases since players usually agree to extremely restrictive policies when they subscribe. So far companies have generally responded angrily to violations at first, but in most cases they soon ignore the violators or modify their policies to accommodate them. The online game world thus supports a certain degree of interaction between customers and suppliers, different from what we have come to expect from television and film (Grimes & Feenberg, 2012).

36The academic world is also active. For example, libraries have struggled to redefine their role as information providers in the face of competition from the Internet. They have begun to cross the line between stocking and publishing information. Many now support the creation of open access online journals in an effort to fulfil their traditional functions as non-commercial brokers of academic information. Scholarly communities that formerly depended on the costly services of publishers can now organize themselves on their own with the help of libraries.

37It would be easy to multiply examples. These and many similar instances of agency on the Internet situate online political activism in the wider context of the return of agency.


38The Internet supports a vision of harmonious coexistence between humans and their machines. But these theoretical considerations pinpoint something rather different that was well understood by dystopian thinkers. They argued that technology is a source of power over human beings and not merely an instrument for the satisfaction of human needs. Because that power is essentially impersonal, governed by technically rational procedures rather than whims or even interests in the usual sense of the term, it appears to lie beyond good and evil. This is its dystopian aspect, what Marcuse called “one-dimensionality” (Marcuse, 1964).

39Marcuse argued that one-dimensionality results from the disappearance of revolutionary agents of change and their transcending critique But the exercise of technical power evokes resistances immanent to one-dimensional society. Technological advance unleashes social tensions whenever it slights human and natural needs. Because the system is not a self-contained expression of pure technical rationality but emerged from two centuries of capitalist deskilling of work and abuse of the environment, such slights occur often. Vocal technical publics arise around the resulting problems. Demands for change reflect aspects of human and natural being denied by the technical code of the system. The Internet provides a scene on which dystopia is overcome in a democratizing movement the full extent of which we cannot yet measure.

40The utopian and dystopian visions of the late 19th and 20th centuries were attempts to understand the fate of humanity in a radically new kind of society in which most social relations are mediated by technology. The hope that such mediation would enrich society while sparing human beings from technical control was disappointed. The utopians expected society to control modern technology just as individuals controlled traditional tools, but we have long since reached the point beyond which technology overtakes the controllers. But the dystopians did not anticipate that once inside the machine, human beings would gain new powers they would use to change the system that dominates them. We can observe the faint beginnings of such a politics of technology today. How far it will be able to develop is less a matter for prediction than for practice.

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Andrew Feenberg, « The Internet and the End of Dystopia », Communiquer, 20 | 2017, 77-84.

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Andrew Feenberg, « The Internet and the End of Dystopia », Communiquer [En ligne], 20 | 2017, mis en ligne le 30 septembre 2017, consulté le 17 décembre 2018. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/communiquer.2267

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Andrew Feenberg

Professor, School of Communication
Simon Fraser University, Canada

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