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Of Utopianism, Dystopianism, and Technorealism: Electronic Culture at the Millennium
San Diego, CA, March/April 1999

Electronic Communication and Culture Area

Popular Culture Association National Convention
March 31 - April 3, 1999
San Diego, CA

"Of Utopianism, Dystopianism, and Technorealism: Electronic Culture at the

The past decade has seen the emergence of a mind-numbing array of new
technological possibilities, with communications iterations such as the
Internet carving out the largest places for themselves in the national

First came the technotopians, with communitarians like John Perry Barlow
and Howard Rheingold dazzling us with visions of technologies which would
enable new forms of meaningful human interaction, drawing people closer
together and uniting them in shared stewardship of their world. Vice
President Al Gore and his henchman, Mitch Kapor, went even further,
predicting the onset of a "new Athenian age of democracy," a society where
ubiquitous and instantaneous communication could finally engender true
participatory democracy in a way even Jefferson could hardly have dreamed
of. All of the above excepting Gore have moderated their giddiness, but
others have been more than willing to take up the banner in their places. 

Predictably, the dystopians weren't far behind, with naysayers like
Clifford Stoll and Mark Slouka suggesting that the online world was
probably more about smoke than fire, and a horde of others - many of them
university academics - asserting that the LAST thing these new electronic
media were likely to do was change anything.  On the contrary, issuing as
they did from observable political, cultural and economic contexts, they
were far more likely to reinforce existing modes of inequity in society. 

Now, just in time for the Millennium, we see the arrival of the
"technorealists," many of whom formerly held card-carrying status in one
(or more) of the above groups.  To summarize, the technorealists might be
seen as believing that technology is neither inherently messianic nor
demonic, but instead is likely to produce results which emerge from its
development and management. From the group's online manifesto: "As
technorealists, we seek to expand the fertile middle ground between
techno-utopianism and neo-Luddism....We can be passionately optimistic
about some technologies, skeptical and disdainful of others. Still, our
goal is neither to champion nor dismiss technology, but rather to
understand it and apply it in a manner more consistent with basic human

Technorealism is perhaps most interesting because its whole charter goes
the core of most of the discussions we hear about technoculture - the
recurring theme of "reality": what is real, what isn't real, how can we
make it real? 

Papers and panels addressing all areas of electronic communication and
culture are invited to next year's meeting of the Popular Culture
Association, but it is hoped that these comments can provide a context
within which we can consider our research and presentations.  For better
or worse, the early days of the next millennium will be shaped by these
technologies and their cultural and administrative dimensions, and the ECC
area is therefore interested in cultivating as much understanding as
possible about the hard realities of electronic technology in our
personal, professional, and spiritual lives. 

Following is a brief list of possible topic areas the Chair would like to
see addressed by panels or individual papers.  The list is by no means
comprehensive, and submissions which raise other issues are
enthusiastically encouraged. 

* the political economy of technology and culture - the technologies under
discussion do not exist in a vacuum, but instead comprise significant and
often powerful socio-economic contexts.  As Deep Throat said, "follow the
money."  Discussions at last year's meetings made clear the degree to
which many of the topics we are researching ultimately boil down to
questions of funding and policy, and discrepancies between the policies in
the U.S. and Canada, for example, go a long way toward illuminating the
challenges faced by a society devoted to a market model of Net

* the culture of technology (tech as culture, tech WITHIN established and
emerging cultures, and culture within technologically defined "spaces") -
now, perhaps more than ever in our history, technology itself has become
not merely a participant in or a conduit for culture, but has become the
raison d'etre for a vast range of (sub)cultural practice.  Does this in
fact represent something new in human history, and if so, what is
signified by this cybernetic shift? 

* electronic technology and race - some cultural theorists have posited
that certain emerging technologies, either inherently or as socially
constructed, favor some racial-demographic groups and discriminate against
others.  To what degree are these technologies implicated in the
perpetuation of racial inequity, and to what degree do they have the
capacity to help us overcome these inequities? 

* electronic technology and class - ditto tech and race.  Class boundaries
are often less obvious than racial ones (especially since the two overlay
each other in significant ways), but it is argued that these subtle and
often unacknowledged boundaries are perhaps almost as powerful as those
between socially-constructed racial groups. 

* technology and gender - this question has spawned as rich a body of
research as any electronic communication-related area of study, and the
work of theorists like Donna Haraway and Evelyn Fox Keller has provided
the basis for a dramatic consideration of the ways in which gender
conceptions have framed the development of technology, especially in the
U.S.  These scholars provide as strong an argument as perhaps can be made
against the idea that science - basic or applied - is in any way
value-neutral.  The ECC area would love to hear the latest perspectives
issuing from this body of analysis. 

* technology and education - the ECC area has heard over the past couple
of years research on various applications of technology in a teaching
environment (Web research, Net-based class discussion, virtual teaching
environments, distance and service learning, electronic theses and
dissertations, etc.) Have we learned enough to begin envisioning the
schools of the future in any realistic and plausible way?  And what about
the economic implications of things like distance learning - do the
benefits to students on satellite campuses outweigh the disadvantages of
the fact that they have no real personal engagement with their
instructors?  And what about the fact that such programs displace teaching

* technology, research, and the archive function - libraries, museums,
galleries and publishing houses face hard choices in the coming of
electronic archival technologies, and what happens to traditional
understandings of peer review in research institutions as scholars realize
that they can publish their papers to the Net and probably reach a larger
audience than they could through more established means?  When this
happens, how can we police the correspondingly enlarged threats to
academic integrity issues? Can we develop productive mechanisms to
preserve traditional values in a new age of informational ubiquity?
Regarding the exponentially increased ease with which rogue individuals
can disseminate unedited messages and create an air of
authority/credibility, what is being done/can be done to prevent abuse of
this power? 

* electronics and religion - new media have fueled the proliferation of
new religious and spiritual practices and have simultaneously created new
opportunities and burdens (depending on your perspective) for traditional
religious institutions.  As fascinating as new movements are (Zippies,
techno-pagans, etc.), no less compelling are the strategies employed by
established groups as they seek to resolve their messages and assumptions
with the often alien character of new technologies. 

* emerging media and the humanities - last year's conference saw the
unveiling of a framework for the consideration of the "Posthumanities," a
project that is equally devoted to the preservation of traditional
artistic aesthetics and open to the growth and evolution of new art media.
The posthumanities are depicted as a triangle, with humanity on one point,
the pursuit of the sublime on the second, and technology on the third. The
field of study between the resulting legs - the humanities, cybernetics,
and machine actualization - comprises a fertile ground for ECC study. 

* technology and the arts - digital technologies have exerted significant
pressures on traditional forms and have enabled the emergence of new forms
in the visual arts, performance arts, and music. Laurie Anderson,
Emergency Broadcast Network, Survival Research Laboratories, Haymarket
Riot, the various contributors to the Beyond the Mind's Eye series,
Switched on Bach, THX1138, Death in Vegas: these artists and projects
integrate not only new technologies, but in many cases carefully
considered philosophies of technology into their work. In what ways do
these new forms challenge traditional assumptions of art and culture, and
in what ways do they reinforce them? 

Most importantly, we want to foster as much cross-disciplinary
conversation as possible - the technologies we are considering have no
conception of academic disciplinary boundaries, and it is unlikely that
rigid disciplinarianism will produce the sort of broad understanding we
need to inform our practices and policies in the next century. 

Individual papers and pre-constructed panels are welcomed.  Submissions
should be between 400-700 words in length, and should be sent to Sam Smith
at  The deadline for submission is August 15, 1998. 

I look forward to seeing everybody in San Diego. 

Sam Smith
Chair, Electronic Communications & Culture, PCA
Center for Mass Media Research
University of Colorado


ECC-L (Electronic Communication and Culture) is for the discussion of
the ways in which emerging electronic technologies are affecting the
social, economic, and political dimensions of Western culture. ECC-L
is affiliated with the Electronic Communication and Culture area of
the Popular Culture Association.

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