Sunday, November 27, 2005

Dystopia, Utopia, Heterotopia, or E-topia?

Is it possible to build a more orderly and just society through participation in web-based communities? Will the proliferation of the internet bring about a transformation of thought which will help the inhabitants of our world move towards a more ideal society? Perhaps we first must understand the meaning of these "opias".

First we have dystopia, which is usually characterized by an authoritarian or totalitarian form government which exhibits certain traits. Although dystopia is basically an imaginary concept of what can be bad in a society, it is necessary to examine the concept for the purpose of debate and discussion of the probabilities of our future and the possibilities of avoiding the same. In a dystopia you will generally have an oppressor and the rebels who fight against the oppression.

Next we have the much acclaimed utopia, which actually can be broken down into a few different types. Utopia also is an imaginary concept of the perfect society, a heaven on earth so to speak. Just as in a dystopia, the utopian view is necessary in the debate between the worst and the best case-scenarios of society. The debate is an on-going study of the balance of justice within our world societies. The Society for Utopian Studies out of Toronto is a good site which maintains an extensive list of studies and programs dedicated to utopian thought and the entire text of Thomas More's Utopia can be read here.

Now we'll talk about the next "opia", heterotopia which is based on Michel Foucault's observations that people in advanced technological societies would move into indeterminate spaces or "other places". As we see today, these "other places" have become a reality, as our virtual communities advance in a world which is both real and imagined. In a lecture by Foucault back in 1967, he described these Other Places and listed six principles of heterotopia. Foucault stated back in 1966 that he and the generation who were under 20 during the war, very suddenly and apparently without reason noticed that they were very far from the preceding generation. He became the proponent of a new generation of thinkers.

How does all these ideas of "other places" fit within the framework of the internet? The internet is still in it's infancy and it's techniques and tools will remain in the development stage for...uh...maybe forever? The internet is very heterogeneous and also dynamic, or in other words, the web consists of many identical yet separated items and continues to evolve with no end in sight. Web architects and designers continually work to build what can be described as another form of "topia" e-topia. E-topia consists of a web, built link by link, whose architecture is quickly learned and easily navigated and is used in conjunction with our physical place in order to build the communities of the future.

Mitchell argues that we must extend the definitions of architecture and urban design to encompass virtual places as well as physical ones, and interconnection by means of telecommunication links as well as by pedestrian circulation and mechanized transportation systems. He proposes strategies for the creation of cities that not only will be sustainable but will also make economic, social, and cultural sense in an electronically interconnected world. The new settlement patterns of the twenty-first century, he argues, will be characterized by live/work dwellings, twenty-four-hour pedestrian-scale neighborhoods rich in social relationships, and vigorous local community life, complemented by far-flung configurations of electronic meeting places and decentralized production, marketing, and distribution systems. Neither digiphile nor digiphobe, Mitchell advocates the creation of e-topias - cities that work smarter, not harder.

I think many of us who believe in the possibilities of the internet would probably agree with John Perry Barlow in his Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace.

Cyberspace consists of transactions, relationships, and thought itself, arrayed like a standing wave in the web of our communications. Ours is a world that is both everywhere and nowhere, but it is not where bodies live. We are creating a world that all may enter without privilege or prejudice accorded by race, economic power, military force, or station of birth.

We are creating a world where anyone, anywhere may express his or her beliefs, no matter how singular, without fear of being coerced into silence or conformity. …We believe that from ethics, enlightened self-interest, and the commonweal, our governance will emerge.

So in answer to the questions I posed at the top of this piece, my answer is "yes" to both. I believe in our possibilities of building a better world and I know that in the sharing of thoughts, ideas, and hopes, we will get it done!


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