// issue 20 2012: Networked Utopias and Speculative Futures


Issue Edited by Su Ballard, Zita Joyce and Lizzie Muller

The future began somewhere. The impulse behind this issue of The Fibreculture Journal was a crisis of imagination with regards to how the future might look and behave. Our starting point was the notion of post-millennial tension – the idea that in the decades following the year 2000 we find ourselves living in an era that was meant to be the future, but where many of our futuristic hopes and fantasies remain unfulfilled. Worse, our historical visions of hyper-technological futures seem to have propelled us into a perilous position where humankind may not have any kind of future at all. In the space between ever-hopeful techno-futurism and the realities of a world forever changed by the pursuit of the resources required to fuel it, we asked if the age-old concept of utopia still has the strength to generate galvanising visions of the future.

Utopia, we contended, was well-worn territory, explored from one magnificent boundary to the other. Traditionally, utopian societies have been portrayed as bordered and isolated in some way from other social structures. Such separation is the pre-condition for a perfect state – a hermetically sealed system existing out of time and place, that cannot be destabilised through encounter or exchange. But the tools of networked cultures and digital media have opened up a different kind of utopian sensibility – less bounded by the notion of a physical territory. The oxymoronic concept of a networked utopia proposes an imaginative space that is interconnected, fluid and dispersed: a space that inhabits the contradiction between two terms, and which can perhaps embrace crisis and withstand, or even thrive on change. Because it holds the potential for connectivities across time, a networked utopia also creates spaces for multiple nonlinear speculative futures.

Of course, utopian thinking accompanies the emergence of all new knowledge and communication technologies – from the printing press to the telegraph – and it has been a powerful feature of the communities and discourses that have formed around the emergence of the world wide web since the 1990s. The very phrase “networked utopias” risks conjuring a naïve faith in the myth that a new technology will enable another (better) way of being. So much post millennial disappointment comes from the failure of the internet to be a different kind of space, and the replication within networked media of existing, imperfect social, economic and political structures. Contemporary commentary on the internet focuses on its increasing monopolisation by corporations and the restriction and censorship of networked information (both enforced and voluntary), symbolised most effectively by the great firewall of China and the emergence of the “walled garden” of Facebook that codifies the social communication of nearly half the world’s internet users.

Recognising this, our call for papers sought to discover a new range of ways in which the hopes and speculations of networks could be configured. The network, we suggested, could be both technical and interpersonal, a mesh of servers and routers formed from connectivity, participation, creation, and support. It may exist in the physical location of its infrastructure, or in a shared no-place of communication. It could be as much a body as an event. We sought to interrogate the relationship between an idealistic transcendent no-place, and the embodied realities and contingencies of the changing world in which our selves and our technologies are actually located.

Nevertheless, re-reading our call for papers, written in 2010, the utopianism of our own impulse now seems simplistic. Our invitation to other researchers, which we acknowledged as “romantic”, radiates faith in the resilience and flexibility of network technologies, and their value in generating new and compelling ways of envisioning the future. However the large and diverse response to our call opened up a dialogue between the utopian impulse at the heart of the project and the powerfully skeptical and politically engaged thought that surrounds contemporary scholarship at the intersection of new media and the future. We received over fifty submissions from which the current issue of ten essays was formed. The papers that we have published together offer not only an exploration but also a thorough critique of many of the assumptions that were embedded in our original call.

An academic journal is a network, and that network contains the lived experience of all involved. Our utopian thinking has also been challenged by own lived experience during this time. The shifting ground (both literal and metaphorical) of shared and personal perspectives has provided a background to the speculative future of this issue. Of all these experiences the most public is the earthquake sequence that has rocked Christchurch New Zealand, since September 4 2010, revealing just how tenuous speculations on the future can be. The first earthquake woke me (Zita – this is not a story that can be told in the abstract) four hours after a midnight return home from the Utopia, Dystopia and Catastrophe conference in Melbourne, Australia. At magnitude 7.1, in the countryside to the west, it was a significant quake, but the lack of serious injuries or deaths, and relatively modest damage, imbued the city with a mild euphoria, a sense that we had survived a serious event and emerged stronger, more resilient. It seemed that houses would be fixed, land remediated, and a new and more interesting city could emerge from the disaster. An aftershock directly under the central city on Boxing Day rattled our confidence in the future, but by February the revived city was being discussed with some enthusiasm.

It is hard to overstate the shock of a major earthquake. The one that struck at lunchtime on February 22 2011 was only a 6.3 but very close to the central city and incredibly violent. While September made aspects of the city’s future suddenly speculative, February destroyed almost everything we knew, expected, and planned for. Everyone has lost something to the quake and the consequent demolitions and relocations: family, friends, homes, jobs, businesses, belongings, ways of life, certainty. Over a year later entire suburbs have been declared unliveable, and the central city is still cordoned off, inaccessible to residents while nearly every building is demolished. We have rerouted our lives around the edges of ‘red zones’, while the built environment we knew, lived, worked and grew up in is dismantled piece by piece.

In this increasingly blank slate of a city, everything about the future in Christchurch is speculative. Out of our catastrophe come two concurrent paths: the dystopian empty wasteland, the ‘rebuild’ held back by insurance companies and funding, by inadequacy, incompetence, weariness, and waiting; and the utopian sense of possibility, the joyful Gap Filler projects that have placed films, painted pianos, a public dancefloor, a book exchange in a fridge, and more, on the concrete pads left by demolished buildings (https://www.gapfiller.org.nz/), old businesses revived in new and wonderful ways, and the collective dreams and hopes for a new kind of future.

Towards this new future we use networked tools to speculate together on the shape of our new collective space. The biggest of these is the City Council’s ‘Share an Idea’ process. In the winter of 2011 a series of public events invited residents to develop and share visions for the future of the city, on post it notes, in workshops, and on a website posing weekly questions. The suggestions were incorporated directly into a draft plan for the reinvention of the central city, although the final version is yet to be set out in detail by new government-appointed bodies. The Council’s draft plan is indeed utopic, at least in the current imaginings of urban utopias: a sustainable city, with new parks and greenspaces, community vegetable gardens, cycle ways, better public transport, green roofs, new facilities for arts, sports, and remembering.

Other kinds of networked collective speculation are taking place around community events, online forums, and on Facebook. Groups coalesce around support for hopeful ventures, for planning, reminiscing, and organising. ‘The Student Volunteer Army’ has become the paradigmatic example of Facebook as community organising tool, along with creative projects like Gap Filler and Greening the Rubble (https://greeningtherubble.org.nz/wp/). ‘New Christchurch’ leads discussion on building plans, ‘Christchurch Resilience Reading Resources’ prompts us to consider and compare our experiences, ‘You know you’re from Christchurch When…’ eased the months after February with jokes about aftershocks and broken roads. Within the bounds of Facebook and other owned infrastructure, these are not networked utopias in themselves, but they are networked spaces of participation, collaboration and support. With so much of the central and eastern city inaccessible, broken, and empty, these are the spaces where people are able to come together to speculate on a future that has to be more utopian than the present.

As Zita’s experiences in Christchurch demonstrate, utopia and speculation can not so easily be separated from the way lives are lived, and in particular from the manner in which network technologies are embedded in these lives. In the moments after the September and February quakes Christchurch was held together and extended into the world by a dense social network of texts and tweets connecting people with news, support and reassurance. The same events, of course demonstrated the vulnerability of the technical networks underpinning the social – overloaded cellular phone systems, broken electricity cables, water pipes, and roads. Networks become more visible as their weaknesses become more apparent, revealing the interdependence of the social and infrastructural, the interface and the substrate layer. This issue of The Fibreculture Journal was put together amidst the reverberations of Christchurch and the mesh of networked engagements that emerged, and it is this that continues to remind us that while we have to hold onto critical realities, the network enables a sense of hope and possibility, particularly in times of crisis.

The essays in this issue move between human and technical networks, examining content and what we do with it, and the structures that support activity. Significantly, in a number of essays the network is not treated as a singular preformed structure. Networks are teased open, and shown to be modalities through which dominant power structures are replicated and imposed. Across the uses and structures of the network plays a fundamental tension between the connection that people seem to wish for, and the iterations of power that shape and exploit the interpersonal.

We begin with Rachel O’Dwyer and Linda Doyle’s essay “This is not a bit-pipe: A political economy of the substrate network”, where they examine the economic relationships shaping the networks on which this issue reflects. O’Dwyer and Doyle draw attention to the infrastructure that supports the production and circulation of content, contextualising the social web resources casually framed as utopian. As this essay demonstrates, the network economic model based on renting out access to a ‘dumb pipe’ is shifting to a mode of ‘cognitive capitalism’ in which value is parasitically extracted at multiple levels from the activities of web 2.0 users. For the utopian hopes of the digital commons and open networks, the implications of this moment of transition and network fluidity are yet to be realised. O’Dwyer and Doyle highlight the importance of understanding the mechanisms of the network economy in order to develop a new conceptual framework towards free culture.

Ethnographer of the mobile telecoms future, Laura Watts begins from a confrontation with 5000-year-old technologies that cannot yet imagine their own futures. Her essay, “Sand14: Reconstructing the Future of the Mobile Telecoms Industry”, embraces an experimental material-semiotic approach, drawn from Donna Haraway and based in empirical research. Watts takes us on a journey inside a design studio where a new mobile technology is being constructed that will enable users to re-experience and capture memory. This generative ethnography powerfully materialises a speculative future where an apparatus is formed between a cameraphone and the Orkney Islands, and where we are given a glimpse of not only what this future might look like, but also how it will feel.

The electromagnetic thread of the previous two essays is picked up by Nicholas Knouf, in “Radio Feeds, Satellite Feeds, Network Feeds: Subjectivity Across the Straits of Gibraltar”. Knouf documents the project faiadat, which connected Tarifa, Spain, and Tangier, Morocco via a dedicated WiFi data link and specially developed open source streaming tools. Wresting control over telematic representation on behalf of the people, faiadat enabled rich realtime interaction across the border of “Fortress Europe”, claiming space between the continents and also between the proprietary electromagnetic infrastructures analysed by O’Dwyer and Doyle. Knouf contextualises the faiadat network feed in Guattari’s interpretation of Italian free radio, and the slippages of satellite transmission feeds caught by Brian Springer’s 1995 documentary Spin. Like these, Knouf argues, faiadat represents a point of resistance to the corporatisation of network infrastructure.

Throughout the 20th century (and arguably throughout history) we have turned to artists and designers to find new ways of imagining the future. We have included two essays in this issue that investigate the role of art and design practice in creating speculative and alternative images. These two counter each other interestingly: Dan Frodsham offers an optimistic (and in his own words “speculative” and “rhetorical”) bid to “rehabilitate utopianism” through the “Utopic Spatial Practice” of artists working with locative media, whilst Carl DiSalvo offers a more critical and skeptical study of the limits of speculative design in creating genuine opportunities for reflection, or actual possibility of change.

In “Spaces for Play – Architectures of Wisdom: Towards a Utopic Spatial Practice”, Dan Frodsham examines utopia as a specifically spatial phenomenon. He argues that artists, designers and architects can use locative technologies to construct alternative spaces (“space as it might be”) within “space as it is”. Rather than creating a seamless integration of real and virtual – as is often the assumed ambition of “hybrid” realities – Frodsham suggests that the projects of a utopic spatial practice would intentionally create, and emphasise, a confrontation between different realities. In this way they would realise Louis Marin’s reading of the radical potential of utopia: to produce a critical discourse that ‘wedges itself in between reality and its other’.

In his essay “Spectacles and Tropes: Speculative Design and Contemporary Food Cultures” Carl DiSalvo investigates the power of two designerly strategies – spectacles and tropes – to surprise audiences and provoke reaction. Whilst acknowledging the potential of these spectacular forms of image making, he traces their limits in supporting deep reflection, or converting reaction into action. DiSalvo emphasises the way in which design – even speculative design – reproduces as well as invents culture, and asks the question: ‘If design reproduces culture, what politics are being reproduced in speculative design?’

The theme of grounded practice returns in a very different way in Nathalie Casemajor Loustau and Heather Davis’ discussion of their project – “Ouvert/ Open: Common Utopias”. Expanding out from a particular and local phenomenon of urban life in Montréal, where desire lines record collective disobedience and where train tracks hinder rather than enable movement, they show how the everyday activities of citizens can transform environments. They also raise a crucial question for this issue. Where are the limits of the commons? And at what point do the commons intersect with a utopian demand for alternative organisational activities? By folding together online and offline community networks Casemajor Loustau and Davis ran the risk of making illegal (or at the least clandestine) activities visible. This enacted politics is played out in the fields of Facebook and on the ground itself. Casemajor Loustau and Davis explore the different ways through which community might adhere – social, communal, local, and spatial. They show how a network might be a railway line, but also the individuals attempting to negotiate the crossing of that line.
Designers and artists are not unique in speculating on new ways of life and being, of course.

In “Healthymagination: Anticipating Health of our Future Selves”, Marina Levina explores the utopian speculations of “Health 2.0”, and the harnessing of participatory discourse for tracking, reporting and sharing health data. A healthy, happy, self is produced by rigorous attention to our own “numbers”, and exchanging our health stories online. Levina argues that the future subject is produced by today’s “risk subject”, doing work in the present to limit the risk of an unhealthy future, collaborating, participating, and sharing with other good network citizens. It is enabled by General Electric’s Healthymagination initiative, and companies with names like CureTogether, HealthTap, and Quantified Self. Health 2.0 is the perfect beginning point for a speculative disease-free future, a utopia dependent on network infrastructure and benevolent corporate data management.

Alongside the production and speculation surrounding possible futures needs to be a critical engagement with the assumptions of time and space historically embedded in both utopia and the network. In “Temporal Utopianism and Global Information Networks”, Andrew White provokes with a series of questions that ask ‘why bother with utopianism as a political project?’ White demonstrates that there may still be some worth in speculation, particularly when connected to the potentially effective capacity of networks to galvanise communities. In suggesting that there remains validity in thinking outside of the here and now, White carefully reviews the history of utopian thought demonstrating the conflation of spatial and temporal metaphors. In particular he critiques the equation of networks with space and openness, and suggests that we need to recognise first the elite position accorded those who inhabit networks, and secondly the abilities of these very same networks to promote reform.

Since we released the call for this issue our understanding of the relationship between networked technologies and political action has been refocused by the upheavals of the Arab Spring. We have selected two essays for publication that deal with these very recent (still unfolding) events. Both essays rigorously unpick the utopian rhetoric that surrounds social media and its revolutionary capacity. In “Mannheim’s Paradox: Ideology, Utopia, Media Technologies, and the Arab Spring”, Rowan Wilken offers a close investigation of the relationship between utopia and ideology, and in particular the vexed question of utopian “realisiblity”, or the power of utopian thinking to bring about change. Focusing on the role of media technologies on the uprising in Egypt, Wilken contextualises recent events within the broader historical Egyptian media landscape. He argues that media technologies were ‘mobilised simultaneously in support for the will for stasis (ideology) and the will for change (the utopian urge)’. His analysis reveals the way in which utopia can be mobilised as a powerful tool for critiquing societal structures and the technologies and technological discourses that shape them.

Ulises Mejias presents a critique of the western liberal discourse of “liberation technologies”. In his essay “Liberation Technology and the Arab Spring: From Utopia to Atopia and Beyond”, Mejias argues that its utopianism prevents discussion of the inequalities of the market structure of digital information and communication technologies. Mejias’ concept of “nodocentrism” offers a term for the way in which the pervasive, privatized and market driven logic of the network renders invisible anything that is not a “node”. He argues that the technologies of search engines, social networking and media sharing facilities create inequality at the same time as they increase participation – through the commodification of social labour, the privatisation of social spaces and the surveillance of dissenters. His skeptical view calls for us to ‘question our investment in corporate technologies as the agents of liberation’. Together Wilken and Mejias offer a compelling corrective to the utopian tendency that characterises much wishful thinking about networked technologies. Their essays bring to the fore the difference between abstracted dreams of networked collaboration and the realities of political action or practice on the ground.

This issue of The Fibreculture Journal has brought together studies in networked communities with novel, historical and creative approaches to utopia in order to examine the productivity of future-thinking from our present location. Reading through the essays collected here it becomes clear that framing utopia in the future, endlessly deferring it until a ‘perfect’ world emerges, is a perfect way of never doing anything at all. More immediately, the events of the Arab Spring, the rebuilding of Christchurch, and other examples of activism and community work documented here reframe the future through the present, reminding us that the actions we take today open up new possible futures. Indeed this is the message of the ‘risk subject’ described by Levina, in which the future perfect self is created by the choices of the present. Many of the essays published in this issue interrogate the relationships between hopeful imagining and action. In looking for utopia they acknowledge the value of hope, but recognise that ‘networks’ need to be active sites of engagement, critique, and risk, not simply an abstract idea, or ideal. The network alone will not get us there. As a whole this issue exposes and critiques the casually utopian use of the network as a synonym for open, free, egalitarian and participatory. In retaining the paradox at the heart of the term “networked utopias” we have opened up a dynamic, messy, imperfect arena of hopeful action and collective speculation.

Biographical Note

Dr. Susan (Su) Ballard is a writer and curator from New Zealand. Su’s research covers a divergent cluster of thought including systems aesthetics, noise, machines, accidents, error, and the encounter between art history, new media and the art gallery. She is currently working on a curatorial project for the Dunedin Public Art Gallery that examines Erewhon and the antipodes as elsewhere spaces. Recent book chapters include a discussion of New Zealand artists collective et al. in Error: Glitch, Noise and Jam in New Media Cultures (Nunes, Continuum, 2010), and a reflection on contemporary understandings of frequency and the sublime in Far Field: Digital Culture, Climate Change, and the Poles (Polli and Marsching, Intellect Books, 2011). Su is a director of The Aotearoa Digital Arts Network, and co-edited The Aotearoa Digital Arts Reader published by Clouds in 2008. (https://www.ada.net.nz). Su is a Senior Lecturer in Art History at the University of Wollongong, Australia.

Dr. Zita Joyce is a Lecturer in Media and Communication at the University of Canterbury, Christchurch, New Zealand. Zita’s research revolves around broadcast radio and other media technologies. She is currently preoccupied with the media and networked implications of the ongoing Christchurch earthquakes: the effects of the earthquakes on the infrastructure and audiences of independent radio stations; the post-quake role of social networking tools; and, with a view towards the eventual new city, the role of media art in urban space. Recent book chapters include an overview of broadcast radio in New Zealand for the textbook Media Studies in Aotearoa New Zealand 2 * (Goode and Zuberi, Pearson, 2010), and a reimagining of the career of New Zealand artist Sean Kerr as a videogame walkthrough in *Sean Kerr: Bruce is in the garden; so someone is in the garden (Kerr, Clouds, 2010). City Loops in the forthcoming book Erewhon Calling: Experimental Sound in New Zealand (Russell, 2012) documents ‘Trambience’, a series of sound art events Zita organised with Adam Willetts on the historic tourist tram that used to travel around central Christchurch. Zita is chair of the Aotearoa Digital Arts Network, and a member of the Audio Foundation trust board.

Dr. Lizzie Muller is a curator and writer specialising in media art, interaction, audience experience and interdisciplinary collaboration. Her research interests include experiential curating, curatorial practice based research, the role of experience in the documentation of media art, speculation in art and design and the relationship between art, technology and change. She is Head of Interdisciplinary Design in the Design School at the University of Technology, Sydney. Recent curatorial projects include Awfully Wonderful: Science Fiction in Contemporary Art (https://www.performancespace.com.au/2011/awfully-wonderful-science-fiction-in-contemporary-art/) curated with Bec Dean at Sydney’s Performance Space (April/May 2011), The Art of Participatory Design (https://www.pdc2010.org/art-of-pd/) with Lian Loke, a programme of creative research projects that accompanied the 2010 International Conference of Participatory Design for which she was Art Chair. In 2008 she co-curated Mirror States (https://www.mirrorstates.com/) a major exhibition of interactive installations, with Kathy Cleland (Campbelltown Art Gallery, Sydney and MIC Toi Rerehiko, Auckland). Recent book chapters include “Learning From Experience: A Reflective Curatorial Practice” in Interacting: Art, Research and the Creative Practitioner (Candy and Edmonds, Libri Publishing, 2011).

Image Credit: Cover and banner for this issue are adapted from an image archived at https://www.reanimationlibrary.org/ under a CC BY-SA License. The original image (https://www.reanimationlibrary.org/catalog/digital_assets/4336) was published in Jonson D. R & Holbrow, Space Settlements: A Design Study, 1977, published by the Scientific and Technical Information Office, NASA; Washington, DC.