The internet started off as a free uncontrollable space, a place for global knowledge and communication that would transcend class, gender and origin. What is left of these utopian ideas? Right before the 10th edition of re:publica, the Digitaler Salon opened its doors to discuss utopian ideas with Andreas Gebhard, founder of re:publica and Jeanette Hofmann, political scientist and academic director at HIIG among others. Theresa Züger interviewed Jeanette Hofmann, who has been observing the evolution of the internet.
Theresa Züger: You have witnessed many phases of the internet: did you have utopian hopes for it at the beginning and what has become of them?
Jeanette Hofmann: First of all, the users of the 1990s did not regard their expectations as utopian. For a short time, it seemed conceivable that the internet would be powerful enough to offer an alternative space beyond the reach of territorial nation states; an alternative whose rules would effectively work independent of national governments. The background to these hopes was a sort of culture war between different concepts of data networks. Computer scientists advocated a decentralised network architecture that allocated control over data, services and applications at the endpoint, while the established telecommunication industry promoted a centralised architecture modelled after the telephone networks. The latter model would have established one operator per country with control over applications and services. Culturally, the small internet universe back then was viewed in black and white terms: support of the free and open internet sort of implied a rejection of state authority over digital resources and the belief in grassroot self-organisation. The internet seemed to offer another chance to self-organise and get things right.
Are web-based utopias a dangerous instance of wishful thinking or a motivating ideal?
Today, I would say they offer a great chance to learn from one’s own shortsightedness. I am still pretty aware today of all the implicit assumptions that guided my thinking and that, at some point in time, turned out to be simply wrong. Now I can detect the same kinds of hopes and passionate attitudes in others. For some time, utopias can be great drivers but it seems important to tune one’s mind towards their shortcomings and learn lessons from the discrepancy between expectations and actual experiences.
Are there issues where you suspect that we are pursuing utopias that society cannot fulfill? What topics do you sometimes find yourself entertaining utopian thoughts or hopes about?
I would say that the concept of democracy and its promise of societal self-determination has a great utopian dimension. And it might be the discrepancy between the democratic promise and the actual democratic practices that many people find so frustrating that they either stop watching and voting or vote for right-wing parties. I had strong hopes in the early days of the Internet Governance Forum but also during the NetMundial conference in 2013. At that time, I very much believed in the merits of the multi-stakeholder process in the transnational field of internet governance. Later I reflected on my observations in an article about the fictional dimension of the multi-stakeholder discourse. I shouldn’t forget the HIIG. Starting an interdisciplinary research institute on internet and digitalisation is itself driven by dreams :-).
Do you think utopias should be taken into account when it comes to regulating the digital world?
Personally, today I am glad when regulation appears to be done in a competent and unbiased manner; when new laws or policies do not sacrifice the openness and other aspects of the internet we have come to cherish. I like to regard utopias as drivers of political oppositions, of inventors, technology developers and perhaps also of start-ups. I lack the imagination to see them as a resource for public administrations.
What role do you think research can play in terms of network utopias?
This is a good question. I think utopias can be studied as an important aspect of the zeitgeist that may indicate what people at a given time associate with the good life. It may also be a good idea to historicise utopias and investigate how they change over time and how this change relates to other social transformations. We know that there are links between technology development and utopian thinking. Examples with direct relevance for the internet are Vannevar Bush’s Memex or Doug Engelbart’s ideas about augmenting the human intellect. To some extent, both anticipated the digital means of organising information and the impact they would have on our life.