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The Logic of Digital Utopianism

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Abstract

With the Internet’s integration into mainstream society, online technologies have become a significant economic factor and a central aspect of everyday life. Thus, it is not surprising that news providers and social scientists regularly offer media-induced visions of a nearby future and that these horizons of expectation are continually expanding. This is true not only for the Web as a traditional media technology but also for 3D printing, which has freed modern media utopianism from its stigma of immateriality. Our article explores the fundamental semantic structures and simplification patterns of popular media utopias and unfolds the thesis that their resounding success is based on their instantaneous connectivity and compatibility to societal discourses in a broad variety of cultural, political, or economic contexts. Further, it addresses the social functions of utopian concepts in the digital realm.
ORIGINAL PAPER
The Logic of Digital Utopianism
Sascha Dickel &Jan-Felix Schrape
Received: 26 April 2016 /Accepted: 20 January 2017
#Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2017
Abstract With the Internets integration into main-
stream society, online technologies have become a sig-
nificant economic factor and a central aspect of every-
day life. Thus, it is not surprising that news providers
and social scientists regularly offer media-induced vi-
sions of a nearby future and that these horizons of
expectation are continually expanding. This is true not
only for the Web as a traditional media technology but
also for 3D printing, which has freed modern media
utopianism from its stigma of immateriality. Our article
explores the fundamental semantic structures and sim-
plification patterns of popular media utopias and unfolds
the thesis that their resounding success is based on their
instantaneous connectivity and compatibility to societal
discourses in a broad variety of cultural, political, or
economic contexts. Further, it addresses the social func-
tions of utopian concepts in the digital realm.
Keywords 3D printing .Digitalization .Media utopias .
Prosumer .Technology foresight .Web. 2.0
Introduction
In the course of digitalization, technological utopias are
having a new heyday, somewhat comparable to the era
of the 1960s and 1970s, in which self-assured optimistic
planning converged with futuristic imaginaries, a union
that ended with a growing awareness of technological
risks and contingency following the nuclear disaster at
Chernobyl. Hence, newer technological utopias refrain
from fixed notions of the future or ambitions of control-
ling society as a whole and pursue a rhetoric of poten-
tialitya potentiality already present in current techno-
logical designs, possibly to be released in a yet to be
arranged future. Such expectations find their genuine
expression in visions that treat new technologies as
enablers or vehicles for an improvement of human life
(e.g., human enhancement, nanobiotechnology). They
focus on the transformation of the material environment
of human existence or human nature itself. Contrary to
traditional social utopias, which wed social criticism and
alternative conceptions of society, in the scheme of
technological utopianism society exists merely as back-
ground noise.
However, the utopian discourse of today can no longer
be reduced to a polarity of technologically oblivious
social utopias versus socially oblivious technological
utopias.Intheinternetage,exceedinglypopularmedia
utopias combineat first sight free of any ideology
expectations of technological potential and far-reaching
ideas of social transformation overlaid with a shimmering
revolutionary vocabulary in a novel and particular way.
And given the seemingly ever more rapid cycles of
information technology innovations in the field of digital
Nanoethics
DOI 10.1007/s11569-017-0285-6
S. Dickel
Friedrich Schiedel Endowed Chair of Sociology of Science,
Technical University of Munich, Marsstr. 2022, 80335 Munich,
Germany
e-mail: sascha.dickel@tum.de
J.<F. Schrape (*)
Institute for Social Sciences, Department of Organizational
Sociology and Innovation Studies, University of Stuttgart,
Seidenstr. 36, 70174 Stuttgart, Germany
e-mail: felix.schrape@sowi.uni-stuttgart.de
media since the late 1990s, the need for evangelists and
prophets appears to be inexhaustible. The media technol-
ogies thereby addressed are changing, yet, the visionary
semantics remain remarkably stable.
In this article, we reframe popular visions associated
with new media technologies as typical forms of utopian
communication: Based on two case studies, we discuss
widespread expectations focusing on the dissolution of
producer and consumer roles and demonstrate that with
the case of 3D printing, already existing anticipations
surrounding the Web 2.0as well as prior novel media
technologies such as videotex systems, cable television
or small-format film camerasare being updated. Sub-
sequently, we identify the shared semantical logics of
these expectations and suggest that the continued suc-
cess of media-utopian ideas is closely linked to their
complexity-reducing architecture, to their ease of inte-
gration into a number of area-specific and fundamental
societal discourses, and to their instantaneous connec-
tivity and compatibility with a broad variety of social
references. In conclusion, we discuss the social func-
tions of utopian conceptsin the digital realm and assume
that media utopias should not be read as predictions for
future developments, but viewed as narratives that offer
orientation on uncertainties and conflicts shaping cur-
rent societal communication.
1
Web 2.0 and 3D Printing: Two Case Studies
Acentralpointofreferenceforrecentutopiannarratives
in digital modernity is the social figure of the Bprosumer^
[2]: As Bprosumers^,mediaandtechnologyusersare
expected to override the established boundaries of the
production and consumption sphere as well as associated
role descriptions and serve as a counterweight to the
increasing centralization of production and the domi-
nance of a few companies in many sectors of the global
economy. And as widely reflected in socio-scientific
literature (e.g., [3], [4]), the utopias built up around Web
2.0 and 3D printing likewise strive to convince their
audience that new technologies will transform us into a
Bprosumer society,^([5], p. 17) characterized by a de-
mocratization of political decision-making processes, a
decentralization of production and distribution of mate-
rial and immaterial goods, as well as an emancipation of
consumers, media users and citizens.
By holding out the prospect of a dedifferentiated era
of the prosumer, they orient themselves directly on
Bsocial reality^and thus become something more than
mere media utopias: As long as the Breality^being
addressed only existed in the world of media itself, media
utopias were presumed to change only superficial aspects
of societythe contents of our displays and video
screensbut not the Breal world^in all its materiality.
In the case of the World Wide Web, this interpretation
was promoted by early Internet utopians themselves,
who defined the Bcyberspace^as a separate realm, de-
tached from any capitalistic constraints and political
power structures [6]. Media utopias today, however, no
longer focus on the idea of a cyber-space as a progressive
niche, but instead foresee a technology-induced transfor-
mation of society as a whole. Indeed, the Web has
become not only a significant economic factor but also
acentralaspectofeverydaylifeortheBlifeworld^of
average citizens in the sense of Edmund Husserl [7p.
127] and Alfred Schütz [8]. Thus, it is not surprising that
news providers, as well as social scientists, regularly
offer media-induced visions of a nearby future and that
these horizons of expectation are constantly expanding.
This is true for the Web 2.0 as a traditional media tech-
nology, but also for 3D printing,whichhasfreedmodern
media utopianism from its stigma of immateriality (e.g.,
[9], [10]). Accordingly, in the eyes of current media
visionaries, the digital future of the Bprosumer society^
is to be materialized by 3D printers and their socio-
technological ecosystems [11].
Web 2.0
By the mid-2000s, the term BWeb 2 .0^[12]quickly
became a synonym for a second wave of Internet opti-
mism (after the initial Bdot-com hype^of the 1990s).
Without the least amount of consideration being give n to
empirical evidence, ever newer slogans were called out
as shorthand points of reference: Dan Gillmor, for in-
stance, proclaimed that BGrassroots journalists are dis-
mantling Big Medias monopoly on the news,
transforming it from a lecture to a conversation^[13];
other expectations ranged from an ubiquitous
Bempowerment^of media users ([5], p. 25) or a Bwisdom
of the crowd^[14]toanovelformofBcommons-based
peer production^as voluntary Bcollaboration among
1
This article partly resumes, expands, and elaborates our lines of
arguments on digital media utopianism initially introduced in [1]. We
wish to thank the reviewers for their very helpful comments and
suggestions, which led to significant improvements in the final
outcome.
Nanoethics
large groups of individuals [...] without relying on either
market pricing or managerial hierarchies to coordinate
their common enterprise^presumably being superior
to established forms of economic coordination in the
long term ([15], p. 394).
The underlying notion of the Bprosumer,^initially
proposed by Marshall McLuhan in the 1960s and then
refined by Alvin Toffler in the early 1980s ([16], p. 349;
[2]), was first applied to the Web 2.0 by Kevin Kelly,
founder of the Wired Magazine.Kellycharacterizedthe
Web 2 .0 a s t h e Bmost surprising event on the planet^and
accused the experts of his time of underestimating the
disruptive force of online technologies. He predicted that
the typical consumer by 2015 would be a relic of the
past: B[...] in the near future, everyone alive will (on
average) write a song, author a book, make a video, craft
a weblog, and code a program. [...] What happens when
everyone is uploading far more than they download? [...]
Who will be a consumer? No one. [...] The producers are
the audience, the act of making is the act of watching,
and every link is both a point of departure and a
destination^([17], p. 4). By the end of the 2000s, Kellys
prediction was part of the standard repertoire of socio-
logical discourse [11].
After a few years, however, it became apparent that
societysadoptionoftheWebisproceedinginaless
distinct manner and that the sheer technical possibilities,
with the exception of well-considered ideal cases such as
Wikip ediaalthough the free encyclopedia, too, tends to
re-enact established hierarchies by drawing on expert
knowledge [18]have yet to lead to fundamental shifts
in societal roles. Instead, the basic infrastructures of the
Web a r e s h a p e d to a much lesse r e x t e n t t han expec t e d b y
the users than by a small number of multinational tech-
nology corporations which supply the central communi-
cation platforms and services on the Internet. These
corporations have the financial means necessary to invest
in research and development continuously, regularly pro-
vide novel services to users, and thus significantly influ-
ence their online experience ([19], p. 7; [20]). Even so,
KellysarticleBWe a r e t h e We b^was a significant point
of reference in sociological debates that at times have
even culminated in proclamations of an entirely new age:
Bthe age of the prosumer^([5], p. 19, 31).
Associated with these beliefs are notions of a declin-
ing influence of the mass media in cross-societal com-
munication, an idea already expressed in the early days
of the Internet by authors such as Clay Shirky [21]. And
although the potentials and risks of participative forms of
journalism had initially been discussed already in the
1970s, the further hype surrounding the Web 2.0 has
again boosted the belief, that the dominance of the mass
media in news distribution would soon be a hallmark of
the pastabeliefwhichintermittentlybecameadown-
right social science truism (see e.g., [22]; [23]): BThe
network allows all citizens to change their relationship to
the public sphere. They no longer need be consumers and
passive spectators. They can become creators and prima-
ry subjects^([24], p. 272). And, in fact, the technological
and economic barriers for content production and dis-
semination have never been this low in media history,
user-generated content is increasingly finding its way
into mass media coverage as well as an increasing num-
ber of semi-professional news platforms have emerged
that aim to complement mass media reporting. In addi-
tion, several waves of emotionally charged outrage on
the Web were shown to have had significant influence on
political or business decisions ([25], [26]).
At the same time, however, empirical studies show
that the number of Internet users seeking to participate in
the Web from a deeper political or cultural angle is small;
that social networking services are used primarily for
entertainment and distraction purposes; that only a few
user-generated offers can maintain a wider audience over
alongerperiodoftime;andthatthecontentof
established media brands plays a key role in the social
web as well ([27], [28]). Yet, these conflicting empirical
findings and research results as well as critical observers
such as Jürgen Habermas, noting the uncertain conse-
quences of fragmented audiences for the political public
sphere, and Otfried Jarren, who pointed out the pivotal
role of professional mass media as intermediate systems
in societal communication [29], were widely ignored in
the initial discourse on the BWeb 2.0^or else understood
as backward-looking [30].
The basic premise behind these narrativesthe dis-
solution of well-established social rolesultimately led
to an acceptance of the idea of a technologically driven
democratization of the production and distribution of
media goods: The theory of the Blong tail,^first advo-
cated by Wired editor-in-chief Chris Anderson in 2004
[31], which postulates a loss of relevance for traditional
mass markets, has experienced a widespread populariza-
tion in recent years; but even with respect to the young
mobile app store phenomenon, growing evidence sug-
gests that the talk of a new Bpower of the niche^is hardly
justified: In recent years, roughly half of the revenue in
ApplesUSappstorewasearnedbytwodozenfirms,
Nanoethics
while two-thirds of the developers were earning, on
average, less than 500 US-Dollars per app and month.
In the end, very few of the suppliers profit from the
mobile Bgold rush for developers^and these are large-
ly the platform providers themselves: BWhether it is gold
in the Yukon, websites in the 1990s, or app developers
today, larger amounts of revenue will go to those who
enable development than to those who are doing the
development.^[32]However,thereflextoreproachthe
dominant Internet corporations for their infrastructural
hegemony points in the wrong direction. This is because
the operation of mostly free of charge usable services is
costly as well; the survival in the rapidly changing mar-
ket for information technologies requires continual in-
vestments in research and development and, last but not
least, Google and Apple, or Facebook and Twitter, are
for-profit companies that must, for reasons of self-pres-
ervation, remain true to that mandate ([33]; [34]).
2
Altogether, the visions presented led to a flood of
journalistic articles and sociological papers holding out
the prospect of a technology-driven decentralization, de-
mocratization, and equalization of society. These future
horizons correspond to a fundamental utopia that has
long been a fixture of social sciences and associated with
almost every new medium of communication since
Bertolt BrechtsBradio theory^in 1932 [37]: the hope
for a technologically mediated implementation of the
ideals of enlightenment as inscribed by Immanuel Kant
into the canon of western culture. Thus, the electronic
media of the late 1960s (e.g., tape recorders, Super 8
cameras) were already supposed to promote a decentral-
ization of content production and a democratization of
society; in the 1980s, videocassette systems, interactive
videotex, and cable television were believed to initiate an
increasing independence from mass media broadcasters
and to become the keystones of a future communications
system that would challenge or dissolve a hierarchically
structured society ([38]; [39]); and the early World Wide
Web , t o o , w a s viewed as a sub v e r s ive partic i p a t ory mass
communication system on which a novel Bcollective
intelligence^was understood to be emerging ([40]; [41]).
3D Printing
Even so, in the eyes of their critics, the visions surround-
ing the BWeb 2 .0^remain concepts that only scratch the
Bsurface^of society. The products that Kevin Kelly
wrote about (videos, weblogs, songs, software) remain
digital and thus seemingly immaterial media goods. The
branding of the digital as an expression of immaterial
superficiality, however, appears increasingly anachronis-
tic in a society being pervaded through ever-increasing
digitization [42]. The current gradual transformation of
the Web into an omnipresent Internet of things and
services is flanked by visions that bestow the utopian
hopes of Web 2.0 upon the production of material goods.
In this regard, the utopias surrounding 3D printing as
Bdesktop manufacturing^personalized fabrication by
users at home or the officehold a particularly trenchant
position. These expectations and hopes are not merely
visions of a future in which the prosumers of the infor-
mation age seize for themselves the reigns of digital value
creation, but rather visions of a future in which the
dissemination of affordable and easy-to-use 3D printers
leads to a decentralization and democratization of the
entire realm of industrial manufacturing and a Bre-nego-
tiation of established producer and consumer roles^as
consumers become increasingly integrated in the value
creation process and the entire supply chain [43,p.11].
B3D printing^is the colloquial term for a special type
of computer-aided manufacturing. Functionally, 3D
printing consists in the production of an object on the
basis of a three-dimensional digital model by means of
built-up layers and without the use of additional machine
tools. These technologies exist since several decades, so
as such, there is nothing new about additive production.
Nevertheless, the novel term B3D printing^places addi-
tive production in the same genealogical line as
Gutenbergs printing press. Thus, along with its part in
the narrative of social emancipation brought about by the
letterpress, the term evokes the image of an inexpensive
machine that not only transforms the home into an office
but also turns its users into potential manufacturers.
In 2004, the British engineer Adrian Boyer initiated
the open-source development project RepRap
(Replicating Rapid-Prototyper) with the goal of produc-
ing 3D printers assembled mostly from parts that could
2
From a historical perspective, the situation that basic communication
infrastructures are operated and driven by private sector providers is
not an exclusive phenomenon of our time. The invention of the metal
movable-type printing press, for instance, was driven by Johannes
Gutenberg and his investor due to tangible economic interests; and
from the mid-fifteenth century on, it was able to spread rapidly primar-
ily in light of its high sales potential along the European trade routes
[35]. However, the novelty of digital modernity is the hegemony of a
very few multinational companies as the operators of the key infra-
structures of communication and information retrieval on a globalscale
that can hardly be counteracted by means of national government
regulations. Indeed, such a level of power concentration was never
reached in previous phases of media consolidation [36].
Nanoethics
be generated by 3D printers itself. His manifest BWealth
without Money^[44]characterizessuchtechnologiesas
the next stage in the greater process of decentralized
industrialization, which will again transfer the means of
production to the people: If each of us had a 3D printer
on his desktop by which we could produce many objects
of everyday life by ourselves, the need to purchase
industrial products would lessen. With this vision, Boyer
set in motion a thoroughly impressive development pro-
cess that contributed to the dissemination of 3D printers
for private use. A further source of the 3D printing hype
can be found at the Massachusetts Institute of Technolo-
gy.Therearose,in2005,theideaofso-calledFabLabs,
which as Bshared machine shops^[45]wouldofferany-
one, regardless of age, gender, origin, or status, the
possibility of actively participating in innovation and
production processes by means of 3D printing and other
technologies of digital fabrication [46].
The foremost popularizer of the idea of decentralized
production regime certainly was once again Chris Ander-
son. He refers to 3D printers as elements of a Bnext
industrial revolution^([47]; see [48]): In the course of
this Brevolution^,theelevatedpositionofprofessional
organizations and large-scale factories as traditional sites
of innovation and production is to be diminished and
replaced by an economy of Bmakers,^who collaborative-
ly generate new product ideas that can be materialized
anywhere.
Sociological authors such as Jeremy Rifkin [4], as well
as leading news journals such as The Economist [10],
have picked up on this idea of a new industrial revolution.
The material-saving production approach of 3D printing
and the reduction in transport costs associated with a
decentralization of production and diffusion mean that
this technological transformation should at the same time
lead to an ecological transformation: BIf we were to put
all the disparate pieces of the 3D printing culture together
what we begin to see is a powerful new narrative arising
that could change the way civilization is organizing the
twenty-first century.^([4], p. 98) In these revolutionary
futures, which played a decisive role in the development
and popularization of 3D printing as Bdesktop
manufacturing^,thetechnologyisenvisionedasameans
to transform bits into atoms and to connect the digital
media sphere with material production. The 3D printer is
characterized as a technology thatlike the 2D printer
will soon become an object of everyday use.
Much as with the visions surrounding Web 2.0, future
concepts of 3D printing can be seen as the renaissance of
utopian beliefs and ideas that were first articulated de-
cades ago but lacked a technological foundation that
provided them with sufficient plausibility. Visions of a
collaborative economybased on the interplay of local
production and global networks exchanging knowl-
edgecarry a flow of convergent concepts initially
shaped the California counterculture of the 1960s and
1970s. The Whole Earth Catalog,publishedfrom1968
until 1972, rapidly becoming Banexusofradicalenvi-
ronmentalism, appropriate technology research, alterna-
tive lifestyle information, andcommunitariananarchism^
([49], p. 383) and, consisting of an almost endless assort-
ment of products with do-it-yourself (DIY) orientation
(from tools and supplies to books and instructional
courses), readily expresses the appropriate interpretive
pattern: From the earliest days of the DIY movement,
the amateur was firmly established as a social figure
standing in sharp contrast to the world of formal organi-
zations and market-economic forces [50]. But even as the
popularity of DIY as a cultural pattern has continued to
grow since the 1970s (not least due to the marketing
efforts of the manufacturers of the tools and hardware
stores), the breakthrough impulse that its early propo-
nents hoped for has not yet occurred [51].
Tod ay, the 3 D p rint e r and th e I nter net are b roug h t into
play as being the technological tools that could elevate
the amateur to a new, socially transformative level. To-
gether, they are meant to exploit possibilities that had
indeed been conceived but were not yet viable main-
stream. Today, a 3D printer can be picked up in an
electronics market for a few hundred euros or US dollars.
Printable 3D models can be produced on the computer,
with a scanner or via app and smartphone cameraand
informed users are able to download hundreds of thou-
sands of print-ready digital blueprints. It is in their digital
interconnectivity that 3D printers appear to be the utopian
machines that could materially pave the way to the
Bprosumer society.^This case, however, also shows that
empirically observable innovation dynamics cannot be
understood straightly as stages in the realization of vi-
sionary ideas.
Boyer has by no means anticipated the actual devel-
opmental path followed by 3D printers. Open-source 3D
printers continue to play a pioneering role in the dissem-
ination of additive-digital production technologies, but
commercial companies such as MakerBot Industries have
meanwhile outgrown their open-source origins and are
producing Bclosed-source^3D printers as a fully assem-
bled products [45]. Moreover, in 2013, MakerBot was
Nanoethics
purchased by Stratasys Ltd.,acommercialmanufacturer
serving the professional additive production business,
thus allowing them to tap into the DIY market commer-
cially. The hopes for decentralization are in turn now
giving way to fears of a future centralization and com-
modification. Accordingly, AndersonsBnext industrial
revolution,^in which an emancipation of the prosumer
in the area of production is set to merge the utopias of
Web 2 . 0 w i th the mat e r i al world, has not yet happened.
Fablabs have established themselves in several countries,
and transnational networks are being developed, but they
are still a long way away from replacing established
production models. Instead, digital production technolo-
gies are being integrated into the existing industrial re-
gime: Manufacturers are embedding digital technologies
in their factories and production lines, including additive
production technologies way beyond the molten plastic
process of inexpensive desktop 3D printers. Now that the
hype of 3D printing has reached its peak, the realization
of a Bprosumer society^once more seems to be no more
than a distant prospect: BDespite the marketing clangor of
the maker movement,shared machine shops are cur-
rently fringe phenomenasince they play a minor role in
the production of wealth, knowledge, political consensus,
and the social organization of life.^([52], p. 1)
The Logic of Digital Media Utopias
Without any doubt, new media technologies have a sig-
nificant impact on social life as they transform the ways
we interact and communicate as well as the ways the
society is organized. However, albeit current transforma-
tions are characterized less by substitution and resolution
than by differentiation and complementarity, the widely
acclaimed books and articles on the Bnew media^of an
era (e.g., the early World Wide Web [2], the so-called
BWeb 2 . 0 ^[5,13], or presently 3D printing [1,48])
literally never focus on incremental or gradual change,
but promise fundamental media revolutions that suppos-
edly will shake the very foundations of society. The fact
that prior expectations, in their radicalism, were not em-
pirically fulfilled scarcely matters to the prevailing revo-
lutionary rhetoric of the day. Thus, it is safe to assume that
the BWeb 2 . 0 ^and 3D printing will not be the last media
technologies which will be linked to far-reaching hopes
for decentralization, democratization, and emancipation.
In this respect, the utopias associated with new media
technologies can be recast as typical forms of utopian
communication.
3
These visions are not primarily techno-
logical roadmaps awaiting realization, but rather an expres-
sion of a form of public communication that perpetuates
the fundamental semantic structures of modern utopianism
regarding new media technologies. Furthermore, the uni-
versal compatibility of media utopias derives from com-
prehensive patterns of complexity reduction that parallel
the general selection criteria of the mass media (e.g.,
topicality, magnitude, conflict, relevance to daily life
[55]) and accordingly offer an ideal foundation for jour-
nalistic exploitation. The fundamental semantic structures
of media utopias combined with these simplification pat-
terns increase their compatibility with many already
existing discourses in various socioeconomic and socio-
cultural fields. Drawing on the dimensions of meaning in
social communication identified by the sociologist Niklas
Luhmann ([56], p. 335345), these structures can be char-
acterized as follows.
Factual Dimension
Utopias consider a given situation in the light of possible
alternatives; as a result, observed reality first is subjected to
an explicit or implicit critique and secondly depicted as
contingent and modifiable. Each respective reality is com-
pared to an envisioned alternative viewed as being an
improvement on the status quo.
4
In this construction pro-
cess of an alternate future, radical transformation potentials
of a new media technology are derived from ideal cases
and thereafter instantaneously carried over to a number of
adjacent contexts. Thus, they are becoming isolated from
their frame of reference and conventionalized into a uni-
versal alternative. In the case of the BWeb 2.0^,theopen
encyclopedia Wikiped ia,forinstance,mayhaveproven
itself to be (a more or less) perfect field of application for
3
Our concept of media utopias as forms of utopian communication is
related to other concepts in technology assessment and science and
technology studies, first and foremost Armin Grunwalds concept of
visionary Btechno-futures.^These futures are Bdecades away, and
exhibit revolutionary features in terms of technology and of culture,
human behavior, and individual and social issues^([53], p. 285). At
least all far-ranging techno-utopias are visionary techno-futures. It is,
however, an empirical question, if all techno-futures share the narrative
patterns that we reconstructed in our research. This can also be said
regarding the concept of Bsocio-technical imaginaries^[54], which is
primarily used to make sense of national innovation politics.
4
This definition is in alignment with the semantic origin of the utopian
conceptthe BUtopia^of the humanist Thomas More [57]: His book
(first published in 1516) combines a radical critique of the current
social order with the construction of a radical alternative of social
interaction.
Nanoethics
user-centered knowledge production; however, its concept
cannot be straightforwardly transferred to other areas such
as the production of daily news (e.g., recall the downfall of
WikiNe ws). In the case of desktop 3D printing,machines
with currently very limited technological capabilities be-
come prototypes of a next industrial revolution and a
decentralized and personalized regime of production, serv-
ing as starting point for far-reaching utopian visions criti-
cizing the status quo of industrial mass production.
Temporal Dimension
The distinction between criticized present and a visionary
alternative is then transferred to the temporal difference
between past and future, with the present being represented
as a transitional turning point in which existing structures
can be overcome in order to realize the alternative possi-
bilities of the future. Contemporary visions are thereby
decoupled from past experiences with and expectations
on legacy technologies. The empirical disenchantment of
previous media utopias is simply forgotten, or (by asserting
atemporaldifference)tracedbacktodifficultiesinthepast
that have since been overcome. Thus, in the early years of
the BWeb 2.0^discourse, one finds very few references to
similar predictions in the initial days of the World Wide
Web or their failure is blamed on the technical limitations
of the BWeb 1 . 0 ^(see e.g., [24]; [5]). And in a similar
manner, 3D printers combined with digital platforms
which enable the global sharing of blueprints were format-
ted into revolutionary instruments that might unlock the
possibilities of an era of Bpersonal fabrication^[46], while
previous utopian discourses on do-it-yourself technologies
were either ignored or conceived as predecessors which
placed their hopes in immature technologies [58].
Social Dimension
In their appeal for the realization of future possibilities,
utopians and visionary proponents of an emerging media
technology position themselves as public intellectuals,
which claim to possess valuable insights for the future.
Society is divided into agents of socio-technical change on
the one hand, and the rest of society on the otherexplicitly
or implicitly (through its practices) legitimizing the status
quo. The behavior and preferences of the early users of new
media technologies are regularly extended to entire social
milieus, or even the population at large, without any regard
for the unique social backgrounds of these Bearly adopters^
[59]. In the debate on the so-called BWeb 2 . 0 ^,broad
distinctions between older Bdigital immigrants^and youn-
ger Bdigital natives,^with presumably greatly expanded
media expertise, and the self-characterizations of some
bloggers as the vanguard of a future majority both run along
this line. In the case of 3D printing,technologyjournalists
and public academics popularized the technology and posi-
tioned themselves as visionary speakers of a new participa-
tory age of production and innovationif only society is
ready to embrace the novel technological options. In the
staging of a Bmaker culture^of 3D printing enthusiasts,
every citizen is equally addressed as a potential maker [60].
As a result, the fundamental semantic structures and
simplification patterns inherent in popular media utopias
(Tab. 1)giverisetohighlydistinctive(andthus,forthe
involved corporations: ideally marketable) narratives of a
nearby future whose origins are already inherent in our
present. Though, in contrast to purely social utopias, media
utopias assume that behavioral changes or a new political
order are not sufficient to bring about social change. In-
stead, new media technologies are viewed as instruments
for bringing about the presumed transition, and in this
respect, the online technologies are apparently well-suited
to meet the expectations of the society as a whole as well as
in all its parts. The respectivetechnologiesintendedforthe
changes, each characterized as a catalyst, often serve mere-
ly as a stepping stone to universal future hopes arising in
the course of criticism of current conditions. And obvious-
ly, media utopias vice versa can also be turned upside down
and converted into dystopias, e.g. regarding an increased
medialization, automatization, and informatization of soci-
ety, which highlights the inherent ambivalence of technol-
ogies and their societal repercussions: In the case of 3D
printing, fears of blueprint piracy and do-it-yourself
weapons are accompanying visions of distributed produc-
tion and emancipation [61]; in the debates on the BWeb
2.0^,thenarrativesofdemocratization and decentralization
were countered by warnings of mass surveillance, infor-
mation overload and Bdigital Maoism^([62]).
The utopias surrounding the Web 2.0 and 3D printing,
which regularly derive from professional Bvisioneers^,
5
5
Dedicated visioneers are often directly based in the San Francisco
Bay area or other centers of technological innovation: BVis io nee ri ng
means developing a broad and comprehensive vision for how the
future might be radically changed by technology, doing research and
engineering to advance this vision, and promoting onesideastothe
public and policy makers in the hopes of generating attention and
perhaps even realization.^[63 p. 13.] In this context, Martin Sand
stresses the importance Bto study the intentions of visioneers, their
alternatives, and the effects of their actions thoroughly to find out
whether they are responsible.^[64, p. 84]
Nanoethics
share the same fundamental semantic logics and simpli-
fication patterns and thus excel in an instant connectivity
and compatibility to a broad variety of societal dis-
courses. In this spirit, media utopias are the heirs to classic
social utopias. As streamlined and easily graspable ref-
erence points among early users, they facilitate differen-
tiation from other social groups, contribute to the moti-
vation and coordination of the mostly young and well-
educated early users and participants, moderate commu-
nication with their accompanying need for approval or
disapproval and supply a readily utilized basis for legiti-
mization in decision-making processes (e.g., in political
or economic contexts, see [65], [66]). Social sciences, in
many cases, also gratefully make use of media-utopian
ideas, as references to popular visions and narratives
evidently not only lead to an easier acquisition of research
funds; they also offer the opportunity of revitalizing long-
cherished normative idealsfor example, the hope for a
cross-societal democratization or the dissolution of social
power asymmetries.
In this process of mutually reinforced expectations
in the cases of BWeb 2 . 0 ^and 3D printing based on a
combination of journalistic and scholarly assessments,
the fascination of individual early adaptors, and the de-
liberately far-reaching visions of technology evange-
listsany empirical facts that might speak against the
widespread adoption of new technologies or for the
retention of established modes of media usage recede
into the background. Opposing the dissolution of the
allocation of roles between consumers and producers,
is, for instance, the principle scarcity of cognitive and
temporal resources: Laypersons have neither the exper-
tise nor the time necessary to deliver the same quality of
work as professionals are able to on a continual basis, not
least because their resources are limited by demands from
other areas of life (e.g., work, family) and their legitimate
need for leisure time. The belief that social change might
be induced solely by means of new technological possi-
bilities is thus still a (at best well-concealed) fallacy that is
founded on technological determinism.
Functions of Digital Media Utopias
That said, it is precisely this generalization and
decontextualization, on the other hand, that yields the
discourse-shaping force of popular media utopias and
might reveal new socio-technological lines of develop-
ment. Media utopias thus can be regarded as productive
types of communication:Theyservetoguideinnovation,
to direct a particular technology into a new context or to
start an unconventional path of development. They gen-
erate attention for technological potentials, provoke the
need for follow-up communication, channel the discourse
in a particular directionand for this reason, they are
constantly being reformulated. The suggestion of a differ-
ence, i.e., a technologically induced expansion of future
horizons, and its initial validation on the basis of ideal
cases seems to be sufficient Bto proceed without overall
analysis and [...] to focus on what is new (or what is
considered to be so) as substitute for the essential^([56],
p. 314). In this manner, media utopias substantially con-
tribute to our daily coping with contingencies and uncer-
tainties. In these utopias (or dystopias), business corpora-
tions may see a confirmation of their current course or
derive from them an urgent need for reorganization; early
adopters can align their preferences on them and thus flag
themselves as Benlightened^or Binnovative^;sciencecan
claim the need for further research; politicians can call for
societal reorientation; and mass media providers, after
every reverberation of a radical future expectation, can
mount a series of successive coverage.
In the media visionsoutlined,technologyisassigneda
prominent role as it promises control over space and
matter. Through technology, society conceives itself as
the creator of its own future. In this context, Gilbert
Simondonspositioningofatechnologicalartifactorsys-
tem as an Bopenobject^[67]isinstructive:Theconceptof
the open object refers to network-like technological de-
vices designed for perpetual connectivity, extension, and
modification. The openness of such objects is expedited
by the separation of hardware and softwarea
Tabl e 1 Semantics of (digital) media utopianism
Dimension of meaning Utopian semantics Simplification patterns
Factual Reality/alternative Decontextualization
Temporal Past/future Decoupling and forgetting
Social Public/utopians Overgeneralization (early user general public)
Nanoethics
characteristic of the personal computer, the smartphone,
and other mobile devices as well as increasingly finding
application in industrial production. In the course of dig-
italization, we are being inundated with open technical
objects and their interfaces. They are the material force for
technological utopias becoming media utopias: Rather
than a single innovation being positioned as a lever for
world change, we find entire socio-technological ensem-
bles. Thus, the heart of media utopias is the conception of
new interfaces between technology and society.
The media utopias surrounding the Web 2.0 and 3D
printing apparently hold out the prospect of a techno-
logically mediated decentralization and democratization
of societal relations and an emancipation of previously
passive media users and consumers. In their radicalism,
they are distinguished by a semantic architecture that is
oriented on the expectation logic of the general utopian
discourse of modernity; in contrast to classic social
utopias, however, their point of departure for hoped-
for transitions is not the social order itself. Rather, new
communication and information technologies are
regarded as Bmedia^(in a literal sense) for a presumed
turning point. With this in mind, much can be learned
from these interfaces between technology and society.
Appealing future constructions with a potential to ex-
ceed their particular contexts are characterized by an
architecture that allows for connections to diverse soci-
etal expectations. The supposed Bneutrality^of technol-
ogy supports the conformability of techno-centric vi-
sions to already existing social narratives. Thus, the
utopias outlined here are able to tap into preexisting
hopes for (political) democratization, (individual) eman-
cipation, (socioeconomic) decentralization, and
(environmental) transformation.
Through their radical yet open-ended technologically
mediated expectations, which typically imply a dissolu-
tion of producer and consumer roles in journalistic,
cultural, political, and economic contexts, media utopias
immediately provoke a sense of dismay that requires a
prompt response in almost all areas of society. They
create an impression of a further media revolution that
supposedly will lead to a disruptive overriding of
existing socio-technological configurations. In the
intended user milieus and functional contexts, these
narratives offer in turn highly simplified points of refer-
ence that can serve as a basis of legitimization in indi-
vidual, collective and corporative decision-making pro-
cesses as well as they enhance the internal cohesiveness
of the respective fields. Media utopian visions function
as drivers in (always open-ended) innovation processes,
but they also provide orientationless about the future,
but rather about the uncertainties, problems, and con-
flicts shaping current communication.
In light of this, the plain comparison of utopia versus
reality appears foreshortened. Utopian narratives can
undoubtedly shape communication processesand
thus the Brealities^of our society. They are a key ele-
ment of digital modernity and serve as core media of
societal self-understanding as Bthe future does not let
itself be de-futurized^([68], p. 181). In other words:
That the (digital) society of the future will be different
from present-day is self-evidentthus the increased
need for guidance and orientation. But how this being
different will specifically look, naturally remains un-
clear in its present. Therefore, open-minded speculation
about societal disruptions or utopian narratives directed
toward specific media technologies might be illuminat-
ing, even when popular media utopias drawcontin-
gent on the respective interests of their creators (e.g.,
self-marketing, business acumen, political justifica-
tion)one-sided forms of representation. To go beyond
the analytic capacities of genuine utopian discourses,
however, a socio-structural contextualization and an
understanding of long-term social transformation pro-
cesses become indispensable.
The Bprosumers^in media utopias, for instance,
can be sociologically described as holders of
Bsecondary performance roles^in functional con-
texts, selectively rendering contributions and ser-
vices that were previously reserved for specific pro-
fessions or members of professional organizations
[69]. Active users of the social web differ clearly
from passive consumers as they selectively perform
journalistic research, curation, and structuring tasks.
At the same time, they also differ from professional
journalists as holders of primary performance roles
since they do not necessarily follow established
journalistic conventions, for example concerning
the universality of topics or periodicity. Very often,
they also work without being embedded into any
organizational framework and are motivated primar-
ily by short-term incentives and personal interests.
However, it is thanks to these same characteristics
that amateur journalists are at times able to draw the
public attention to subjects that otherwise would not
have been covered by mass media reporting. For
functional systems such as the mass media, this
informalization yields significant enhancement
Nanoethics
options [70], e.g., through the inclusion of user-
generated content in professional news services.
Thus, new technologies contribute to a considerable
differentiation of the spectrum between recipient and
producer roles, but they do not fundamentally re-
solve the dichotomy of professional providers and
consumers [19].
In turn, utopian narratives on 3D printing (as well as
on crowdsourcing) shift responsibility for innovation
and production from industrial producers to consumers
since the rhetoric of individual emancipation through
ownership ofthe novel meansof production also implies
an integration of citizens and media users into an ex-
panded innovation regime. As technologically equipped
Bmakers^, citizens are expected to contribute to innova-
tive products and sustainable solutions by their collabo-
rative use of 3D printingand this core expectation,
which shapes accompanying sociocultural, socioeco-
nomic, and sociopolitical processes, ultimately results
in an increasing responsibilization of individual citizens
and users for (co-) production, invention, and innova-
tion [69]. In that vein, media utopias also contribute to a
discursive redistribution of societal responsibilities
that is to say: who is made accountable for the invention
and application of novel technologies as well as their
consequences, and who may claim responsibility to
speak and act in the Bname^of the future.
Concluding Remarks
We defined technological utopias as alternative con-
structions of reality that are projected into the future,
addressing a public alleged to be trapped in a mindset
that views the status quo as being without alternative.
They decontextualize and overgeneralize context-
specific experiences with new technologies and discon-
nect them from complex and often disappointing inno-
vation processes of the past. At least implicitly, utopias
are alwayssimilar to dystopiasaformofcritiqueof
contemporary society. Utopias are thus Bpresent
futures^[71] and insofar like a rainbow, which some-
times seems to be just around the next corner but is
impossibleto reach. Their power does not depend on the
realization of an imagined prospective alternative to the
status quo, but on their performativity in the present.
With respect to digital media utopias, it is, therefore,
less the mediated image of the future that is instructive,
but rather the area of social reality being emphasized as
in need for change. The media utopias outlined here
(BWeb 2 .0^and 3D printing) suggest that the present
differentiation of producer and consumer roles is not
based on a law of nature; rather, it is a particular struc-
ture of the modern, functionally differentiated society.
They reveal points of departure for alternative lines of
development already being tested by fringe actors in
niches uncoupled from stable societal regimes or main-
stream markets, presumably waiting for a window of
opportunity for cross-societal diffusion and adoption
[72]. The utopian exuberance of mass media-
compatible visions can lead to models of socio-
technological innovation that translate revolutionary fu-
tures into pragmatic realities.
The demand for such real-world experiments clearly
exists: Utopias are invariably, as Ruth Levitas puts it, a
Bsocially constructed response to an equally constructed
gap between the needs and wants generated by a partic-
ular society and the satisfactions available to and dis-
tributed by it^[73 p. 182]. With this in mind, digital
media utopias, which excel in an instantaneous connec-
tivity and compatibility to a broad variety of discourses,
point to a mismatch or contradiction between the em-
pirically experienced passivity of media recipients, con-
sumers as well as technology users and an ubiquitous
notion of modern times: the ideal conception, that indi-
viduals can, should, and wish to be active participants in
the shaping of their own society. However, even partly
achieving this core utopia of digital modernity depends
not merely on technological possibilities but on genuine
and therefore very complex and versatile social negoti-
ation processes and institutional dynamics.
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Nanoethics
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Wie verändern sich gesellschaftliche Praktiken und die Chancen demokratischer Technikgestaltung, wenn neben Bürger*innen und Öffentlichkeit auch Roboter, Algorithmen, Simulationen oder selbstlernende Systeme einbezogen und als Beteiligte ernstgenommen werden? Die Beiträger*innen des Bandes untersuchen die Neukonfiguration von Verantwortung und Kontrolle, Wissen, Beteiligungsansprüchen und Kooperationsmöglichkeiten im Umgang mit intelligenten Systemen wie smart grids, Servicerobotern, Routenplanern, Finanzmarktalgorithmen und anderen soziodigitalen Arrangements. Aufgezeigt wird, wie die digitalen »Neulinge« dazu beitragen, die Gestaltungsmöglichkeiten für Demokratie, Inklusion und Nachhaltigkeit zu verändern und Macht- und Kraftverhältnisse zu verschieben.
... Utopian ideas or utopian visions, in contrast, are "not primarily technological roadmaps awaiting realization, but rather an expression of a form of public communication [that] derives from comprehensive patterns of complexity reduction that parallel the general selection criteria of the mass media.". While accelerating change is fueling the demand for guidance, resurging decades-old utopian beliefs (still lacking a plausible technological foundation) and contemporary immature ideas (decoupled from past experiences and feasibility concerns) just offer orientation without "socio-structural contextualization and an understanding of long-term social transformation processes" [31]. ...
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Wie verändern sich gesellschaftliche Praktiken und die Chancen demokratischer Technikgestaltung, wenn neben Bürger*innen und Öffentlichkeit auch Roboter, Algorithmen, Simulationen oder selbstlernende Systeme einbezogen und als Beteiligte ernstgenommen werden? Die Beiträger*innen des Bandes untersuchen die Neukonfiguration von Verantwortung und Kontrolle, Wissen, Beteiligungsansprüchen und Kooperationsmöglichkeiten im Umgang mit intelligenten Systemen wie smart grids, Servicerobotern, Routenplanern, Finanzmarktalgorithmen und anderen soziodigitalen Arrangements. Aufgezeigt wird, wie die digitalen »Neulinge« dazu beitragen, die Gestaltungsmöglichkeiten für Demokratie, Inklusion und Nachhaltigkeit zu verändern und Macht- und Kraftverhältnisse zu verschieben.
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Full-text available
Wie verändern sich gesellschaftliche Praktiken und die Chancen demokratischer Technikgestaltung, wenn neben Bürger*innen und Öffentlichkeit auch Roboter, Algorithmen, Simulationen oder selbstlernende Systeme einbezogen und als Beteiligte ernstgenommen werden? Die Beiträger*innen des Bandes untersuchen die Neukonfiguration von Verantwortung und Kontrolle, Wissen, Beteiligungsansprüchen und Kooperationsmöglichkeiten im Umgang mit intelligenten Systemen wie smart grids, Servicerobotern, Routenplanern, Finanzmarktalgorithmen und anderen soziodigitalen Arrangements. Aufgezeigt wird, wie die digitalen »Neulinge« dazu beitragen, die Gestaltungsmöglichkeiten für Demokratie, Inklusion und Nachhaltigkeit zu verändern und Macht- und Kraftverhältnisse zu verschieben.
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Based on two paradigmatic case studies—Web 2.0 and 3D printing—this chapter explores the semantic patterns of popular media utopias and unfolds the thesis that their continuing success is based on their multireferencial connectability and compatibility to a broad variety of sociocultural and socioeconomical discurses. Further, we discuss the ambivalences and social functions of utopian concepts in the digital realm.
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