Wired Words: Utopia, revolution, and the history of electronic highways

“Wired Words” explores our recurrent tendency to view emerging communications technologies as the ticket to a new era of democracy, activism, economic equality, and human-scale media. In particular, it compares the utopian visions of the “cable revolution” (1968–1974) with the excitement around the “information highway” (1992-1995). It also explores the possibility that the Internet is a wrench in this historical loop of technological utopianism. Finally, the paper outlines some of the ways in which history can point toward hard questions that might lead to real social change.

Here is a piece of advice — beware of self-styled, wired revolutionaries bearing gifts. You probably know who I’m talking about. If you don’t, you’ll know them when you see them. They’ll be carrying all sorts of shiny parcels with words like democracy, plenitude, equity, and knowledge emblazoned across the wrapping in big, fluorescent orange letters. They’ll hand you the gifts of Christmas future while promising a return to the idyllic, utopian days of centuries past. They’ll promptly inform you that all these gifts can be yours, free for the asking. All you have to do is believe that the “information highway” can magically cure the social ills that have plagued humanity for millennia. All you have to do is have faith!

Faith, revolution, and the wired world — this is a combination that rules our popular mind in the mid-1990s. From Wired to Ladies Home Journal to The New York Times, there is a sense of consensus about the revolutionality of our technological times. Although we can’t quite agree on what it is, many of us seem to be convinced that “the information highway” will somehow transform our society into a better place. Some think it will fix health care and education. Others argue that — with enough wires, computers, and interactive television sets — we can revive our ailing democracies. Still others propose an end to crime, a new age of entrepreneurism, or a revitalization of community life. But whatever we’re saying, we’re all talking about the same thing — revolution. And talking about revolution feels real good.

Why is it that the idea of revolution feels so good? Well, utopia is just around the corner, for one thing. By employing all these computers, we’ll be able to solve humanity’s problems once and for all.

The idea of revolution also feels good because it gives us a sense of specialness, a sense that we’re living through a unique moment in history. Grand technological revolutions don’t come along every day, you know. If you look around at the information highway (or watch some of the corporate videos that explain what it’s supposed to look like), you’ll realize that we’re living in the most special revolutionary moment since the age of Gutenberg. At least, that’s how the story goes. Unfortunately, this warm, fuzzy special-moment-in-history feeling is in many ways the tip of a big pile of collective self-delusion.

You see, our information highway isn’t really that revolutionary at all. It’s just part of a historical loop that’s been going on for at least 100 years. Every time a new electric communications technology comes along, we convince ourselves that we are in the middle of a communications revolution that is going to transport us to nirvana. In each new technology, we figure that we have found a magic wand that will save us all.

With every swell of the techno-revolutionary wave, there are at least three specific ideas that pop up: 1) that massive and positive social change will emerge from the introduction of a new communications technology; 2) that these changes will be caused by the inherent technical properties of the hardware; and 3) that the social revolution occurring as a result of the new technology is of a scale not seen for hundreds, or even thousands, of years.

The people who latch onto these three ideas — let’s call them utopian techno-revolutionaries — figure they have found a way to turn water into wine, and cesspools into paradises. Whenever people like this find an instant route to utopia, they’ve just got to tell the world about it. They tell the media. They tell their families. They tell their colleagues. They tell their politicians. And so it is that the visions which have helped to define our thinking about electric technology — the visions which fill our popular culture — have been spellbound by the magic wand of technological revolution.

Of course electric communication technologies have transformed society. But the changes that have taken place over the years are neither isolated from each other nor driven solely by the nature of the hardware. Electricity, the light bulb, the telephone, radio, television, satellites, cable, computers, and computer networks all relate — none is a revolution on its own. And the social changes that have taken place as these technologies have seeped into our lives have at least as much to do with how we’ve envisioned them, organized them, and reacted to them as they do with the machines themselves. There is an electric communications revolution. But it is a long revolution — a revolution that started more than 100 years ago and that is not nearly over.

This is a revolution made up of people — their visions, decisions, hopes, and fears. It is a revolution of openings and cracks where people can insert their own visions of communications and society. With this in mind, electric technology is a hotbed of opportunities. But to turn these opportunities into sustainable and equitable tools, we have to imagine them, work on them, and build them ourselves. Of course this is not the route that the utopian techno-revolutionaries would have you take. For them there is the obvious and almost predetermined flow of history that technology dictates. For them there is only hardware and paradise.

This paper is an exploration of one small section of the hardware and paradise loop which has defined our technological thinking throughout the electric age. It chronicles the words, images, and visions of utopia that emerged from the “cable revolution” of the 1970s and the “info highway” hype of the mid-1990s. Both eras demonstrate all the standard techno-revolutionary traits — utopianism, a deep belief in the power of a new technology, and a lack of historical context. Both eras also use strikingly similar language and frame the issues in astonishingly similar ways.

Of course there are also differences between the two eras, the most significant being the emergence of the Internet. In many ways, the Internet exists as the arch enemy of the “information highway.” It offers a real, working alternative to the top-down visions of a networked world offered by the cable and telephone companies. Those who saw hope in cable and other technologies did not have a parallel technological model as powerful and dug in as the Internet. Given this, the Internet may be a wrench in the historical loop of technological utopianism. We should take this possibility and run with it. On the other hand, we should be sure to keep our guard up and we should avoid repeating the mistakes of history.

Which is why this paper compares our current situation to the cable revolution of 25 years ago. It does this primarily by exploring the “keywords” that have appeared in both time periods. Each section looks at the repetition of words like highway, wired, revolution, bandwidth, flow, shopping, democracy, and politics in both eras. The paper pulls the words together by exploring both the political meaning of utopian technological revolutions and the imaginative tools which are necessary if we are to move beyond the politics of the electronic magic wand.

In looking at the popular culture of cable and the information highway, we see the utopian techno-revolutionaries in all their glory. We see that giving power over to the technology is the same as giving power over to the people who control the technology. We may even see that there is a little bit of the techno-revolutionary in all of us. Seeing this is one step toward smashing the magic wand of the digital revolution into billions of divisible, mutable pieces.

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