Dissecting the utopias of the 21st century

Libero Zuppiroli’s 2018 published book, “Utopias of the 21st century”

While staying at my parents’ house during the Summer break, I happened to pick up Libero Zuppiroli’s recently published book “Utopias of the 21st century”[1] from my father’s side table (original title in French: “Les utopies du XXIe siècle”). In this relatively short, easy to read essay, Zuppiroli presents, puts in context and reflects upon several of the main “utopias” of our time.

Utopias are defined in the book as futuristic projections depicting improved societal life thanks to new ways of organizing society. As it happens, this century’s utopias – robots, smart cities and perfect health, among others – all build on foreseen technological progress (and more specifically, as the author humorously points out, the concept of big data). Another common trait among the utopias presented in the book is the inherent (in my opinion) depreciative perspective on human beings. Indeed, these futuristic depictions of life all revolve around error-prone humans either being replaced by machines (such as the physician being replaced by an ATM-like computer in the “perfect health” vision) or having their day-to-day life supervised by machine (as in the “smart city” model, in which human action is restricted through computer monitoring). According to these utopias, it thus seems that our aim in using technology should be in making it unnecessary for people to think for themselves – since they are really bad at it (at least in contrast to computers). As Zuppiroli puts it, “when a city becomes smart, its inhabitants do not need to be” (my translation).

Although we are still far from the full realization of these utopias (assuming they are, in fact, realizable), we have already started developing in their direction. Instead of creating systems that support human action and enhance its meaning, we are reducing workers to machine-serving automats. The amount of data workers from all categories are expected to enter into computers is growing, and so is the feeling of one’s work time being eaten away by “irrelevant” (or, as some researchers put it, “illegitimate”[2]) tasks. However, Zuppiroli stresses in his book that this issue is not built into the technology itself; rather, it comes from what we are doing with the technology we have.

As it is, it feels like we have taken a wrong turn somewhere along the road of progress. Is the hyper connected, sensor-dependent, data-centered world depicted in utopias such as the “smart city” and “perfect health” really what we want to strive for? Do we really want to end up in a world where we are not expected to think, where our behavior patterns have to follow the same pre-programmed schemes over and over again, and where our interactions with others, the environment and even with ourselves are mediated, collected and analyzed by computers?

More importantly, such utopias also raise questions around the distribution of power among different members of society. Do we really want to give policy-makers, managers and developers the power to structure our life as they see it fit? Computer programs do not write themselves – they are written by people, who build them according to their needs and (mis-)conceptions. Those programs then determine how things can be done – restricting their users’ freedom of movement, depriving them of the ability to shape their own work practice. The digitalization of work means that workers are made to comply with often unintuitive, ill-conceived work procedures, tailored to the needs of the managers instead of those of the workers. How does such a development fit into a democratic society?

As I feel that we do not talk enough about this “darker” side of today’s technological discourse, I found Zuppiroli’s “Utopias of the 21st century” particularly relevant and to the point. We have to be careful what we wish for, and remember that there is no outcome that is pre-written in history: it is in our power to influence the way technology is being used and the discourse(s) around it. Let us make the best out of technology – let us use technology to make the best out of us, rather than to make us its brainless servants.

[1] Zuppiroli, Libero (2018): Les utopies du XXIe siècle. Editions d’en bas. ISBN: 978-2-8290-0555-8.

[2] A good overview over the concept of illegitimate tasks is given by Nicola Jacobshagen in her doctoral thesis “Illegitimate tasks, illegitimate stressors: testing a new stressor-strain concept”. The full text can be downloaded here.