The Technological: Visions of Utopia and Dystopia

This paper will explore the presentation of emerging technology or the “technological” throughout history in popular visual culture. Specially this paper will examine the tendency for technology to be portrayed in one of two ways: as an agent of dystopia or an agent of utopia.  Although contemporary uses of the word “technology” tend to refer almost exclusively to digital or computer technologies, throughout this paper the term will be used to describe any development, inventions or advances created by humans that were considered culturally significant at the time of their development. For example, while tools such as pencils or pens would not typically come to mind of an person in today’s world upon hearing the word “technology”, it would have if one were to ask someone from the mid-1500s, when pencils were first invented. The term “utopia” will be used to refer to a perfect or near-perfect reality, while the term “dystopia” will be use as a antonym to refer to the world where everything is unpleasant or flat-out horrible. “Utopian” and “Dystopian” will also be used along side the terms “technophilic”, referring to positive enthusiasms about technology and the possibilities it offers, and “technophobic”, referring to the fear of new technologies and the changes they bring. This paper will look at technologies throughout history and into the present day and how those technologies have been presented in the popular visual culture of their time.

Technology’s binary reception can be seen in artwork produced during the Industrial Revolution. The Industrial Revolution was a period from 1750 to 1850 where changes in technology were rapid and had a huge effect on socioeconomic and cultural conditions. It began in Great Britain and spread throughout the rest of the world. It brought about a plethora of important inventions as well as the modern factory system (Mantoux 25). This rapid period of change invoked mixed feelings in the populous. People of the time were both “excited and frightened by what they saw (Berlanstein xi).” One the one hand the industrialization was creating wealth on an unprecedented scale, and many of the new inventions created opportunities that had once been impossible. On the other hand, the “concentration of impoverished workers in pestilent cities shocked Englishmen (Berlanstein xi)”. The Industrial Revolution also resulted in “soaring mortality rates, declining literacy rates, vicious work accidents (Berlanstein xi)” as well as the lost of skilled jobs. While many people saw the benefits of continuing to push forward with Industrialization, others did not. The Industrial Revolution is, after all, where the term “luddite” comes from. In contemporary usage “luddite” means “a person opposed to increased industrialization or new technology” (“Luddite” def. 2). When the term was first coined, however, it specifically referred to 19th-century textile works who protested their displacement by less-skilled, low-wage laborers by destroying the machinery that allowed for said replacement (“Luddite” def. 1). Clearly not all were pleased with the increasing industrialization.

This binary response to industrialization is reflected in the artwork produced at the time. Many artists and crafts people found inspiration in depicting the new inventions that were emerging. Developments in the graphic arts allowed for the mass creation, and therefore dissemination, of illustrations. Early woodcuts illustrating mines and mining were not uncommon (Klingender 66). As printing techniques advanced the subject matter of said prints covered traditional subjects like portraits and historical paintings as well as technical illustrations (Klingender 71)”. Engineering drawings displayed their subjects as grand and dramatic. These drawings also often portrayed workers, engineers and admiring visitors along side them with “exaggerated muscles and heroic poses of the saints and heroes in contemporary paintings (Klingender 72)”. These artist portrayed the machines and their creators as heroes and saints, things to be celebrated for ushering in a new era of greatness.

But not all artist found inspiration in these inventions, and instead rebelled against their presence in everyday life. This is best illustrated in images of the “picturesque” or the time. Factories, mining, transportation and the modern cities all had huge impacts not only on the people of the Industrial Revolution, but also on the landscape itself. Many artists responded to urbanization and the mass migration to cities by idealizing the country side. Artists painted landscapes and picturesque scenes which, according to one artist of the time, should exclude “in general the works of man” (Klingender 85). Technology was seen to “evoke a menacing sense of power (Klingender 83)” and some artists “turned their backs on the contemporary scene altogether and looked for comfort to an arcadian past or went into a kinds of melancholy retreat” (Klingender 83). When picturesque artwork of the countryside did include modern, man-made inventions they were not celebrated, but instead of seen as desolate ruins. By painting steam engines, mills or railroads as ruins they could “escape the more baleful aspects of industry by pretending it was already worn out” (Klingender 85). They made technological giants appear old and abandoned, thus rendering them harmless and creating a vision of the future where this technology had been seen for the disaster it was and thus abandoned. Further down the dystopian path were the artists who portrayed the dangers of technology. Caricature artists of the time created cartoons illustrating the dangers of the railroad. These caricatures were “composed to denigrate the age of steam and many of them design deliberately to shake confidence by introducing the public to a feast of explosions and sudden death” (Klingender 144).

Fig 1. Henry Hughes The Pleasures of the Rail-Road (1831).

Fig 1. Henry Hughes The Pleasures of the Rail-Road (1831).

Clearly there were many individuals who felt that this new technology was dangerous and something to be distrustful of. In response however, there were those who felt that the new advances in technology should be celebrated and that the luddites and their kind were backwards-thinking fools. Satirical images of luddites at the time clearly illustrated how ridiculous some caricature artists felt their stance was. One such artwork showcases the ‘leader of the luddites’ looking disgruntled and absurd in women’s clothing. Not exactly the picture of someone who inspired confidence in a cause.

Fig 2.  Artist Unknown The Leader of the Luddites (1812).

Fig 2. Artist Unknown The Leader of the Luddites (1812).

Other artists like, John Cooke Bourne, rejected the notion that picturesque landscapes should be devoid of what they considered “masterpieces of engineering and architecture” (Klingender 155) and thought that they were now an integral part of England’s landscape. However, Bourne’s work did not have much market value, as “the art patrons of the day wished for anything rather than to be reminded of the social and technological revolution going on all round them” (Klingender 156). This was the struggle of artists and the population in general throughout the Industrial Revolution: fascination with the marvels of technology and the opportunities they presented, as well as fear that the changes they brought about would destroy life as people knew it.

This dichotomy of views continues to live on and resurface whenever new technology emerges. When computers entered the public consciousness in the 1950s they caused equal amounts of fear and excitement. This can be seen in the media of the time, specifically in the movies. One such movie is 1957’s Desk Set. The movie focuses on the tension between Bunny Watson, the head research librarian for a television network, and Richard Sumner, a consultant from the movie’s IBM stand-in who is brought in to computerize the Watson’s department. The comedic elements of the film arise from Watson’s fear that the computerization of her office will result in unemployment for her and her colleagues (Friedman 47). At the time when the film was made the term “computer” was still not uniformly accepted for these huge machines. Throughout Desk Set the device we would now refer to as a computer, officially known as EMERAC, is called an “electronic brain”. When Watson and the rest of the librarians discover that EMERAC is to be installed in their work place they are deeply concerned. They all know that an electronic brain was recently installed in the payroll department, resulting in half the staff losing their jobs. They are understandably concerned that the same will happen to them. The librarians’ in-movie fear reflected the very real fears about the automation of the workplace of the time. Although businesses owners found computers useful, other people were vocally critical of the possible consequences of labor automatization: the deskilling and loss of jobs (Friedman 50). This fear is reinforced throughout the film visually: EMERAC is a hulking monstrosity, taking up the majority of the workplace. Where the librarians were once comfortably arranged, they are all now pushed out of the way to make room of the room’s new occupant. When the electronic brain is first installed it comes with foreboding signs such as “Keep Door Closed” and “Warning: Do Not Touch” (Friedman 54). Overall the portrayal of EMERAC, and therefore computers, seem to be very technophobic throughout the majority of the film.

Fig 3.  A scene from Desk Set (1957). The unwelcoming computer EMERAC takes up the majority of the librarians’ once comfortable office.

Fig 3. A scene from Desk Set (1957). The unwelcoming computer EMERAC takes up the majority of the librarians’ once comfortable office.

However, as the film closes our message reverses itself. We learn that the librarians are in fact not losing their jobs, that EMERAC could never truly replace humans and is viewed as a blessing rather than a curse for the librarians. The computer is there to handle the “most ‘ ‘mindless’ of labor, liberating them to concentrate on more intellectually challenging and fulfilling parts of their work (Friedman 55)”. The conclusion of the film reassures the librarians, and the audience, that the computer was “never intended to replace [the workers]. It’s here merely to free [the librarians’] time for research (Friedman 55)”.

On the surface Desk Set is a very utopian and technophilic film, where computers make life better for everyone. However, all is not as neat as the film would like us to believe. Throughout the film Watson and the rest of the librarians’ fears about the atomization of their workplace seem totally justifies, and much of the film’s humor comes from the puncturing of the “better living through computers” rhetoric that was common in corporations of the time. The conclusion of the film seems to discredit all their worries retroactively and render them groundless, yet a observant viewer will remember that half the payroll department was in fact laid off when an electronic brain was installed in their department, making the promise that computers would never result in ill consequences for works ring false (Friedman 55). Even the happy ending contains additional layers, especially to a modern viewer. When EMERAC is asked for the weight of the world, it asks one question before calculating the answer: ‘with or without people?’. Our film’s protagonists are ecstatic, they view this as a sign that EMERAC is very sophisticated. Yet one must wonder in what reality the computer would think that world would exist where the weight of people would not count. In his analysis of the film Ted Friedman nots that “it’s hard for a contemporary viewer not to hear an echo of 2001’s HAL in EMERAC’s ominous query (Friedman 55)”. Even in a technophilic film it is difficult to escape technophobic fears.

Which brings us to another film example of computers: 2001: A Space Odyssey. Desk Set is a unique example when it comes to movies about computers, as it cannot by any stretch of the imagination be classified as science-fiction. Science-Fiction films, such as 2001, are much more likely to address hopes and fears about technology, often through “imagining the utopian and/or dystopian future consequence of new machines (Friedman 48)”. 2001 was released in 1968, about a decade after Desk Set. Between the two films IBM grew its market substantially: in 1951 there were 10 computers in all of the U.S., in 1970 there were about 75,000. In addition to the growing number of computers, the Vietnam War made Americans wary of computers’ role in the military-industrial complex (Friedman 68). The fears and hopes of computers had shifted. The plot of the movie is as follows: a spaceship, Discovery, is sent to investigate a mysterious monolith that has appeared on the moon. The ship’s crew is made up of two conscious crew members, three crew members in suspended animation, and the ship’s artificially intelligent computer, HAL. Over the course of the film, HAL begins to act strangely, resulting in the deaths of 4 of the astronauts. The final astronaut, Dave, manages to disconnect HAL, saving his own life.

On the surface, 2001 is deeply technophobic. HAL is a computer gone bad, becoming a murderous villain, a “warning to those who would attempt to replicate human intelligence in silicon (Friedman 70)”. With his unblinking red lens, HAL is a technological Big Brother on whom the humans depend on to survive. When HAL turns against them, they are all but doomed. HAL reflects the growing concern about reliance on computers and artificial intelligence and what horrors can become of that reliance. 2001: A Space Odyssey’s overall message is a technophobic warning about a dystopian future in which computers turn against us.

Fig 4.  2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). HAL’s ominous and all-seeing “eye”.

Fig 4. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). HAL’s ominous and all-seeing “eye”.

Despite HAL’s villainy,  artificial intelligence researchers and enthusiasts love him. By many commentators’ standards, HAL is “the most sympathetic character (Friedman 70)” in 2001.  “HAL’s reception demonstrates the promise lurking beneath the film’s pessimism, (Friedman 70)” Friedman writes, “Despite HAL’s villainy […] he remains an inspiration for generations of AI researchers who choose to focus on the inspiring technical accomplishment of HAL’s creation, rather than his subsequent meltdown (Friedman 48)”. Despite the overt technophobic narrative of 2001, the film still manages to capture some of the hopes surrounding computers and AIs along with the fears.

Both Desk Set and 2001: A Space Odyssey try, with varying degrees of success, to leave us with a specific message: computers are good or computers are bad. In 1984, Apple famously introduced its Macintosh computer in a commercial that set good computers against bad computers. The1984 commercial (a reference to Orwell’s dystopian book 1984) never shows an actual Macintosh computer, instead choosing to humanize the Apple product by having a woman act as a stand in for the computer. The commercial features a futuristic dystopia in which a frightening man shouts authoritarian rhetoric to a brainwashed crowd of homogenous people through a giant screen. Meanwhile, our heroine – the Macintosh stand-in, an athletic, attractive young woman and the only real spot of color in the entire video – rushes into the assembly hall chased by guards. She tosses a hammer at the screen, destroying it and freeing the trapped crowd in a blast of light. The commercial ends with the voice over “On January 24th, Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh. And you’ll see why 1984 won’t be like [Orwell’s] ‘1984’”.

Fig 5.  Apple’s 1984 commercial (1984) showcasing the “good computer” (e.i. the Macintosh) as represented by a young woman fighting against the “evil computers” (e.i. every other computer company).

Fig 5. Apple’s 1984 commercial (1984) showcasing the “good computer” (e.i. the Macintosh) as represented by a young woman fighting against the “evil computers” (e.i. every other computer company).

Apple’s 1984 utilizes both technophilic hopes as well as technophobic fears about computers. It turned “the confusing complexity of the Information Age […] into a Manichean battle of good versus evil. There’s the bad technology – centralized, authoritarian – which crushes the human spirit and controls people’s minds. Read, IBM. But we can be liberated from that bad technology by the good technology – independent, individualized – of the Mac” (Friedman 111). Apple used an attractive human woman to represent it’s technology, distancing it from the fear of inhuman AIs and unfeeling computers. It genders the Mac itself as female, associating it with feminine qualities and making the make seem more user-friendly (Friedman 112). Compare that to the world the Mac-woman lives in: all harsh lines, sharp edges and dull colors. Apple’s contrasting of good-vs-evil allows them to take advantage of the public’s fascination with the visual aspects of a high-tech future “while dissociating itself from its dystopic underside (Friedman 112)”. Apple successfully assigns all the fears about computers – that they will be controlling, cold, authoritarian and lead to the downfall of humanity – to their competitor, while leaving all the hopes about computers – that they will be liberating, leading to progress and independence – strictly in their realm. Thus they manage to utilize both the utopian and dystopian lures of the technological in one place.

Today, computers and the “World Wide Web” go hand-in-hand. The web, along with its various offshoot technologies cover a range of abilities and as such span a range of anxieties and hopes. This paper will focus the separation of “real world” identity and “online” identity, and how self-identification and anonymity are discussed in terms of the web. Today more and more people are drawing connections between the physical and online world through mediums like Facebook, there is still the idea that one can take on new identities and be whomever one wishes to be online.  As one famous The New Yorker cartoon puts it: on the internet, nobody knows your a dog. This cartoon showcases the understanding that internet users can remain relatively anonymous and can choose how they self represent. However, as with any new technology, there are mixed feelings about whether internet anonymity and self-representation is good or bad.

Fig 6.  Peter Steiner’s cartoon from The New Yorker, published on July 5th, 1993. Two dogs discuss anonymity and identity on the internet.

Fig 6. Peter Steiner’s cartoon from The New Yorker, published on July 5th, 1993. Two dogs discuss anonymity and identity on the internet.

For some who like how the web allows for fluid identity, the web is hailed as a virtual paradise. Avid fans of the web argued that cyberspace is the realization of what some religions, specifically Christianity, thought of as Heaven, “a realm in which their ‘souls’ would be freed from the frailties and failings of the flesh […] a place where we will be freed from the limitations and embarrassments of physical embodiment” (Wertheim 19). They argue that cyberspace is open to everyone, of all identities (Wertheim 24). Because cyberspace, like Heaven, frees us from our physical bodies and therefore the inequalities of said bodies, all people are equal on the internet. One representation of this idea is MCI’s Anthem commercial. MCI is an internet provider who’s commercial argues that the web is a utopia. The commercial features a diverse group of people, stating that there is no race, gender or infirmaries on the web, just minds and that this is what makes the web a utopia.

Fig 7.  MCI’s Anthem commercial (1997). Various people of diverse races, appearances and presumably background flash on screen alongside typed text about the bodiless paradise of the internet.

Fig 7. MCI’s Anthem commercial (1997). Various people of diverse races, appearances and presumably background flash on screen alongside typed text about the bodiless paradise of the internet.

MCI’s commercial illustrates a common argument about the web. That because there are no clear visible signs of your identity, the net knocks down “barriers of race and gender [etc], elevating everybody equally to a disembodied digital stream” (Wertheim 24). Because nobody has a these visible identity qualifiers that result in prejudice in the “real world” when they are online, that discrimination disappears and all internet users are judged solely on their mind.

Yet not all people are fans of this anonymity. Some argue that MCI’s claim about the Internet as a place of equality and non-discrimination is completely false. “Despite claims by digital utopians that the Internet is an ideally democratic, discrimination free space – without gender, race, age, or disability – an analysis of both textual and graphic chat spaces […] reveal that these identity positions are still very much in evidence (Nakamura 34)”. People don’t suddenly stop being a certain race or gender or sexuality or any other various identities as soon as they login online, nor do people who are bigoted stop being so outside of the physical realm. In addition, there are those that feel that the ability to “identity cross-dress” online shouldn’t be celebrated, and is in fact a negative, perhaps even dangerous aspect of this technology. On the more benign side of the spectrum, there’s the common trope in popular culture of how people lie on dating sites. We can see this trope in a commercial from State Farm in which a naive woman who believes everything on the internet believes that her date, whom she met online, is actually the French model that he claims he is.

Fig 8. State Farms’ State of Disbelief commercial (2012). Her date is most likely not a French model like his profile claims.

Fig 8. State Farms’ State of Disbelief commercial (2012). Her date is most likely not a French model like his profile claims.

The false dating profile trend has been seen in other sources as well. An entire MTV show called Catfish is devoted to the perils of online dating (King). The show looks at relationships that have been conducted completely online, and then follows those couples as they meet for the first time. As you can imagine, there is sometimes disappointment. On the more malicious side of this anxiety is the worry that the anonymous nature of online spaces makes them ideal sanctuaries of predators. On any crime show in the U.S. you can find at least one episode highlighting the dangerous of the internet, whether it be identity theft, online scams, or child pornography. Shows like To Catch a Predator use the anonymity of the internet against online predators by having investigators impersonate minors and draw out pedophiles. There is ample evidence that the internet can be dangerous and many people may believe that the negatives outweigh the positives when it comes to this new technology.

Technology has always invoked a variety of responses. Whenever a new technology emerges there will be both technophilic and technophobic feelings about it. There will be people who think that the new technology will usher in a new utopian age, and people who think the technology will destroy the foundations of society as we know it. This dichotomy of responses repeats itself throughout history. In the end however, we see that more often that as technologies lose their shine, they often fall somewhere in the middle: not agents of utopia or dystopia, but merely a part of our lives and they will do good or evil based on what humans make of them.


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