Future Schlock

Utopia can be found in rejection of the utopian dreams of tech companies

Full-text audio version of this essay.

The “thought leaders” in Silicon Valley don’t talk much about techno-utopianism anymore. Once, ideologues like Ray Kurzweil would hold court by discoursing on the inevitable “singularity” that would bring forth an immortal race of posthumans who ascend to godhood through biotech, nanotech, and robotics. An entrepreneur like Byron Reese could extol the virtues of “infinite progress” and comfortably predict that “the internet and technology” would finally solve such intractable problems as “ignorance, disease, poverty, hunger, and war.” And of course, executives like Mark Zuckerberg could declare that their platforms would free all information and flatten all hierarchies while “connecting the world.”

These aspirations now seem like little more than protective cover for elites, if not delusions of grandeur. But they were once capable of attracting widespread belief. Many wanted to believe that utopia was knocking on the door of reality, and Silicon Valley was more than happy to sell this dream. At their core, many of these tech visions described utopian projects that could conceivably have set out to provide universal benefit and garner universal support. But in practice, their promises dissolved into ideology, alibis for more cynical aims.

Pseudo-utopian programs’ trick is to make us think that anything conceived as utopian invariably equates to some “smart” solution that must be imposed at scale

This tech company idea of utopia is now often presented as inevitable, even mundane, especially by those who wield it as a cudgel, producing a lived dystopia for many of those who must acquiesce to it. Jeff Bezos claimed that a key to Amazon’s success was its utopian project of “customer obsession” — a relentless drive to provide unmatched services to all consumers rather than focusing on what its competition is doing. In reality, this has manifested as a megalomaniacal compulsion to crush all competition and achieve monopoly power. Amazon’s recording-breaking pandemic profits are a stark indicator of its ability to thrive in a world that, for most other people and businesses, has reached new heights of living hell.

“Utopian” and “dystopian,” then, should not be understood as alternatives but co-existing perspectives: What is utopian for Amazon or DoorDash is highly dystopian for their workers. Whether its platforms like Uber pushing to pass a law in California that enshrines serfdom for gig workers or Amazon rolling out tools with the comically ominous names of Monitron and Panorama to automate control of factories, tech companies are progressing toward their utopia, the world they have been striving to create and dominate. Part of their utopia is foreclosing on our ability to imagine our own.

For decades, we have been largely trapped within the boundaries of techno-capitalist futurism, pseudo-utopias that have been largely purged of any radical content. Rather than offer visionary programs for universal human liberation, such programs reduce utopianism to a means for legitimating tech company hegemony. Their trick is to make us think that anything conceived as utopian invariably equates to some “smart” solution that must be imposed at scale on the otherwise helpless masses.

The now cancelled Sidewalk Labs project in Toronto offers a good example. The urban innovation arm of Google’s parent company Alphabet once had moonshot ambitions to transform a district in Toronto into a smart-city-showcase: It would not only be a test bed for experimental technology and technocratic administration but also a boon for citizens, with innovations ranging from robotic infrastructure to snow-melting pavement that would make urban life more convenient, responsive, and sustainable. When the project was announced in 2017, Alphabet chairman Eric Schmidt explained that Sidewalk Labs was the result of Google’s founders getting excited about “all the things you could do if someone would just give us a city and put us in charge.” A 2016 Wall Street Journal article explained that the company would plan to find cities it could ostensibly rescue — ones that were “likely economically struggling municipalities grappling with decay” — by taking over “large swathes of land” and making them “heavily integrated with technology.” These districts would become the proving grounds for Alphabet’s kind of utopia, a place where corporations could operate as autonomously as the vehicles.

But Sidewalk’s vision ignored the realities of the already existing built environment, proceeding as if a new city and its people would just be coded into existence. “Despite their detail, pages of technical specifications, and self-contained, self-reinforcing phantasmic nature, these are not planning documents,” Molly Sauter writes in this analysis of Sidewalk Labs’ pitch for Toronto. “These are utopian dreams, giving the feel of a city-within-a-city, one which abides by a distinct collection of ideals of urbanity.” To tame the messy complexity of cities, Sidewalk posited a top-to-bottom model of full-stack urbanism, programmed for total efficiency and rationality. But in practice this would mean not creating a city from scratch but claiming territory where people already lived. Building the dreamscape of the future required them to first colonize the cityscape of the present.

This made the Toronto project a continual matter of controversy during its 18-month lifespan. While Sidewalk Labs cited the pandemic as the reason for the project’s cancelation in May, its downfall was actually spurred by persistent criticism and public backlash. Where Sidewalk saw an opportunity to govern its version of urban utopia from ground zero, the citizens of Toronto saw a familiar strategy of corporations seizing sovereignty from democratic institutions. Civic leaders like Bianca Wylie carefully documented every aspect of Sidewalk Labs’ planning process, while also pushing for genuine democratic governance of digital technology. Academic experts like Blayne Haggart pored through Sidewalk Labs’ plans, providing incisive analysis of a document that seemed designed to be impenetrable and inaccessible to the public. Sidewalk Labs had a wealth of capital and influence at its disposal, but the public had something that proved to be more effective: care and attention.

If the unfettered ability to build a city from scratch was Sidewalk’s utopia, this was its dystopia: that people who are ordinarily only subjected to technology can organize to influence and even deny tech companies’ desires and objectives. Tech companies’ power relies on the proclaiming that resistance is futile; the organizers against Sidewalk Labs showed how that power can be neutralized.

To some, scuttling a smart-city project may seem defensive and reactionary — a rejection of the future. But it is only a rejection of one predetermined future. At the same time, it is a positive affirmation of a world in which decisions about governance and development are not already dictated by corporations.

Building the dreamscape of the future required Sidewalk Labs to first colonize the cityscape of the present

Companies like Sidewalk Labs try to promote the tech-determinist idea that they are simply conduits for the spirit of progress, an autonomous force of nature that acts on its own accord. They draw on the previous generation of techno-utopians, who saw technological development as a narrative of unstoppable progress. Wired co-founder Kevin Kelly drew a straight line from the discovery of fire to the invention of microchips. This is a view of progress that maps onto the release schedule of new devices and software, with each upgraded iPhone another step toward the materialization of a divine digital destiny. But the specter of inevitability means that eventually what were techno-utopian fantasies become inverted and are talked about as sober truths. Even the celestial dreams of going to Mars are framed by the likes of Elon Musk not in terms of open-ended possibility but escape from Earth’s impending destruction.

To unsettle narratives of inevitability — and to reject the binary choice between tech’s version of utopia or the dreary realism that makes all other utopias appear as impossible or dangerous — we can instead reframe resistance itself, the negation of dystopias, as a positive struggle to actualize alternatives. That is, we can flip our position in a system that seeks to subjugate the demands of the many to the desires of the few.

It’s crucial to acknowledge that just as utopias can take many forms, so too can resistance to crises, perceived or actual. It can be driven or warped by ressentiment and revanchism. It’s important not to fetishize (or forgive) resistance in any shape it takes, or interpret any anti-establishment collective action as intrinsically good. This reality was thrown into sharp relief by the right-wing putsch on January 6 where a group of MAGA diehards stormed the Capitol with the goal of stopping the transition of government and installing Trump as God-Emperor of the United States. Intentions matter in a movement. This so-called coup attempt may seemed to have proved the power of a species of utopian thinking at its most despicable, but it also strived to accelerate the existing brutal conditions of neoliberalism into its next phase of authoritarian fascism.

To be explicit: This is antithetical to the aspirations, values, and goals that motivate utopian resistance against capitalism, against fascism, and for socialism. Such resistance movements don’t seek to preserve and further entrench existing structures of oppression, as does the MAGA insurrection, but instead pursue the radical realization of liberation for all people.

By embedding its values and goals into concrete technologies, capital seeks to assert dominion over the future — constraining what type of social change is viable. This makes techno-politics a natural battleground for staging struggles over what utopias are imagined and whose utopia is materialized.

In his essay, “Transforming Capitalism Through Real Utopias,” Erik Olin Wright makes a case for “vibrant alternatives” to the failures of capitalism that are imminently achievable. Rather than dismissing socialism as either a form of “archaic utopian dreaming” or as an anachronistic idea that has lost credibility, “a real utopian,” Wright explains, “holds on to emancipatory ideals without embarrassment or cynicism but remains fully cognizant of the deep complexities and contradictions of realizing those ideals.” This means not dwelling in defeatism when setbacks occur and not overpromising on the success of single actions. Instead it requires unflinchingly reaffirming the reality of radical change when confronted by those across political divides who say it’s not possible.

But fighting for real utopias is not merely a matter of asserting our own teleological narratives. In practical terms it requires sabotaging the efforts of those who would erect barriers to alternatives. The seeds for real utopias already exist in the world. Wright’s intervention is that we have to take inspiration from and build upon the radical potential of movements, programs, and actions that are already contributing, in ways small and large, to anti-capitalist alternatives and socialist real utopias.

Where tech’s version of utopia wants to foreclose on the future, real utopias preserve its openness. When venture capitalists like Marc Andreessen declare “it’s time to build,” they really mean two things: First, only the systems and institutions that align with the interests of venture capitalists will be built, and second, anybody who disagrees will be dismissed as unserious and treated as enemies of the future — they will be accused of bitter pessimism or timid primitivism. But such an image of the future is fixed: constrained by profit and investors’ expectations of return. We cannot be afraid to turn their accusations back at them. Their “optimism” is based on a belief that they will come out on top. They restrict agency to themselves and the “founders” they fund, while pessimistically rejecting the public’s ability to organize itself politically, direct itself toward different ends, and exert social control over technological change.

When movements do present real alternatives that would make material improvements to people’s lives — like defunding police, cancelling debt, or enacting a Green New Deal — they are often dismissed as idealistic nonsense and empty slogans. The cynical pragmatists in power are again essentially saying, “It’s time to build, but only what I say we build.” But there is nothing more practical about such pragmatism; it’s only an insistence on their utopia for the few.

As David Graeber wrote in this set of reflections on utopia and revolution:

We are talking about the murdering of dreams, the imposition of an apparatus of hopelessness, designed to squelch any sense of an alternative future. Yet as a result of putting virtually all their efforts in one political basket, we are left in the bizarre situation of watching the capitalist system crumbling before our very eyes, at just the moment everyone had finally concluded no other system would be possible.

Capitalism itself is a failed utopian project. Its most ardent supporters claimed capitalists had brought us to the end of history, the apex of human civilization, where the comforts and conveniences of capitalist production would be enjoyed by all. Instead it has delivered a system that has abandoned all but an elite class to die. Amid a pandemic, in 2020, the wealth of America’s billionaires expanded by nearly a trillion dollars; the only thing that grew for everyone else was misery and desperation. The ideology of “technology,” as it is expressed by the tech industry and its thought leaders, is the necromancy that keeps this zombie capitalist system from staying in its grave.

But there is power in seeing that the world is dominated by grand (failed) utopian projects like capitalism, because it means utopias are possible. We live with the effects of capital’s totalizing schemes for how to organize society. They have become entrenched and normalized, “utopias” to the elite few who benefit from them even as they are dystopian to everyone else. In other words, utopia already exists; it’s just unevenly produced and distributed. Recognizing this opens imaginative space for trying to actualize different utopias that would benefit the disempowered and disenfranchised.

Capital’s totalizing schemes for how to organize society have become entrenched and normalized, “utopias” to the elite few who benefit. Utopia already exists; it’s just unevenly produced and distributed

Let’s return again to the MAGA riot, which provides a bizarro version of this vision. One could read the events of January 6 as the climax of a bunch of people who feel disaffected holding open imaginative space to defy the procedures of establishment power. But the extreme right has long already taken advantage of the power of pushing their utopian projects to the extreme, while also recognizing the necessity of suppressing the left’s horizon of possibility. The Republican party facilitates those far-right projects, while the Democratic party continually reins in the left’s aims. A too tepid push for alternatives has stagnated the left while the right marches on its targets. If this persists, the right will continue to claim utopia, while the left wallows in dystopia.

Capitalist systems are designed to pummel us into submission, preventing us from imagining life could be any other way, let alone allowing us to go on the offensive. But successful movements against tech elites’ further encroachment shows that the fight is not over. The resistance of the activists in Toronto is a recent example in a long tradition of Luddite action that smashed the technology that made their lives more miserable and targeted the capitalists who used it to hold power over them. Dismantling the machinery of capital is also an attempt to challenge the “form of society which utilizes those instruments,” Marx writes in the first volume of Capital. Their guerrilla tactics against one of the most powerful and richest corporations ever to exist demonstrates that even a behemoth can be stopped in its tracks and forced to re-evaluate its strategy.

I’m under no delusion that Sidewalk Labs or any number of other companies with similar aims won’t try again. There are, in nearly every way, major asymmetries that benefit capital. By many metrics, technology corporations, especially ones based around digital platforms, now rule over the global economy and everyday life. The largest of these rival not cities but countries in their size. “From its inception, the business corporation showed its potential, if not bounded, to metastasize into a world power,” writes political theorist David Cieply. These corporations are now struggling against the last remaining limits, both politically (what the government will permit) and socially (what the public will tolerate).

However, striving for real utopias means not succumbing to fatalism but instead looking for ways to tighten those binds on capital. The point of real utopias is not to fall into the trap of all or nothing but to celebrate wins and channel that energy into pushing any advantage. Real utopian projects are a process, not just an endpoint. They are found in the struggle of people on the streets and shop floors against an out-of-control engine of immiseration. It’s not enough to wait patiently for crisis to make capitalism self-destruct. We must actively intervene in the impositions of capital. As Walter Benjamin observed in his essay “On the Concept of History”:

Marx says that revolutions are the locomotive of world history. But perhaps it is quite otherwise. Perhaps revolutions are an attempt by the passengers on this train — namely, the human race — to activate the emergency brake.

Tech companies have had a monopoly on utopian thinking for their own benefit, defining them as large-scale top-down projects requiring submission to capital’s desires. But this means that resisting them can also become a large-scale project, a utopian project that touches us all and includes us all. Slowing down their real dystopias is itself a radical act. I’m rarely accused of being an optimist, but I’m coming around to Wright’s injunction that “in the practical world of struggling to create the social conditions for human flourishing it is important to be a pragmatic idealist.” This doesn’t mean settling for less; it requires demanding more.

Jathan Sadowski is a research fellow in the Emerging Technologies Research Lab in the Faculty of Information Technology at Monash University.