Eulogy for the Utopian Dream of the Net

For the Walker Art Center, Gallery 9 (1999)
Eulogy for the Utopian Dream of the Net


“The Dream is over.”

The Universal Page has, finally, put to rest the Utopian Dream of a collectively-engaged, harmonious world united by the invisible impulses of the Net. I am delivering my Eulogy to praise this noble effort, as well as honor the past, that has brought to an end once and for all an age of naive aspirations and fatal ideologies.

Natalie Bookchin and Alexei Shulgin, the co-creators behind the Universal Page, devised the precise and deadly Lethal Algorithm that dealt a quick death to the Utopian Dream of the Net. Driven by overwhelming cynicism, a yearning for hope and renewal, and a cool, detached need to topple teetering Theories, their Special Script “scrawls and searches the entire Web,” gathering in its path the endless torrent of on-line rants, musings, pleas, and declarations–thrashing and churning a once hopeful and misguided idealism into a heap of meaningless ASCII. “Brx gbtfl rjŒsff gcmw hf p7xc¯ oGgurnc qæypw6 jé,” the Universal Page reads, is all we have left of the Dream.

Where once we dreamed of a world of One, a Global Village, a democratized Art, radical new participatory forms and the destruction of rigid hierarchies, we can now only look back with a sigh of nostalgia and a sad tear. It was a beautiful Dream–a grand one at that–since the earliest days of the telegraph. Wasn’t it Samuel Morse, ushering in the era of the Victorian Internet in 1846 when he sent the first telegraph message from Washington, DC to Baltimore, who declared, “What Hath God Wrought.”

Such words are now so poignant. One fondly remembers the touching proclamations that followed the laying of the first trans-Atlantic cable in the 1850s. The Atlantic Telegraph became “that instantaneous highway of thought between the Old and New Worlds.” “We are one!” they cried, as Nations clasped hands in belief of the new Age of Information.

It was a heady time, intoxicating, filled with commemorations, speeches, and excessive hope for a new bright future in which man could extend his reach into the unknown territory of the Electronic Frontier. “The greatest event in the present century,” they claimed, “now [that] the great work is complete, the whole earth will be belted with electric current, palpitating with human thoughts and emotions.” One has to hold back intense feelings while recalling these now distant memories.

Yes, those brave Victorians believed the electronic media would heal the world of its problems, in which old prejudices and hostilities should no longer exist. The terrible and inevitable forces of human nature would yield to man’s great Invention. Of course we laugh at such naiveté, now that the veil of illusion has been stripped clean by the Universal Page, but at the time, they believed that world peace would be achieved by the “constant and complete intercourse between all nations and individuals in the world.” Steam power may have been “the first olive branch offered to us by science,” they proclaimed, but the electric telegraph “enables any man who happens to be within reach of a wire to communicate instantaneously with his fellow men all over the world.”

Remembering these profound aspirations is overwhelming. Devastating. It is painful to continue, but I must.

As communications technology evolved, the telegraph would come to join the hemispheres, unite distant nations, making them feel they are members of one great family. Information would flow freely and globally. By the early 20th Century, HG Wells envisioned a World Brain that gathered together all of mankind’s knowledge into a vast library. Vannevar Bush, America’s Scientist during the Second World War, believed that we would build memory machines so that we could “find delight in the task of establishing useful trails through the enormous mass of the common record.” Science would bring us all together! Uniting our Knowledge, our Culture, our Dreams, our Fantasies!

There were many hopeful scientists and cultural theorists who emerged during the social transformation that took place in the 1960s, who believed passionately in the Dream. We must not forget their committed and touching dedication to the creative possibilities of the new technologies. J.C.R. Licklider believed in the Symbiosis, the merging as One, of man and machine; Douglas Engelbart’s idea was to use the network to “Boost the Collective IQ” to “solve the world’s complex problems”; Ted Nelson, believed that “Everything is Deeply Intertwingled,” and someday, we would all live united in the Hypertext; and of course the great media sociologist Marshall McLuhan, whose proclamations touched the hearts and minds of artists and thinkers of his time, declared emphatically: “Today after more than a century of electric technology, we have extended our central nervous system itself in a Global Embrace, abolishing both space and time as far as our planet is concerned.”

The Global Embrace would come to be called the Telematic Embrace, as artists such as Roy Ascott saw in the potential of telecommunications “the harmonization and creative development of the whole planet.” Like their Victorian predecessors, it seemed anything was possible. And yet, the final cornerstone of the Utopian Promise was about to be laid. It is very difficult to speak of this moment in history without deep sorrow. But when the World Wide Web was born in 1989, Tim Berners-Lee, and such a humble man he was, announced that the Net would allow us, as he mused philosophically, to “Enquire Within Upon Everything.”

The World flocked to the Web. The Dream had become a reality. How could anyone resist and not pluck the fruit? And so too the artists came, in droves, emancipated by this new found power to reach anyone and everyone with their message. And there was more! For not only could the artist bypass the now archaic bastion of cultural distribution, the Museum, they could join with the Masses, interact with them joyously in the bliss of the Collaborative Artwork. Ubiquitous computing and networking has led to democratization, they rallied!! Every citizen of the Net could be part of the process of the creation of Art!

But ultimately it was this great potential of the Net to include everyone that proved to be its fatal flaw. It was their duty, those two, to put an end to the Utopian Dream with their Universal Page, “the Last Web Page. The Ultimate Web Page!” That Lethal Algorithm has delivered the death blow to rampant Idealism by revealing to us the profoundly meaningless nature of the homogenized, democratizing synthesis of Web chatter, as culled by the Universal Page from every single Web page on the face of the Earth. Yes, the brownification of Information.

The Universal Page. This is what it took to put an end to the Dream and we must now take this moment to remember, to reflect, and to remorse. A moment of silence, please…

At this sad moment, looking back, it is heartbreaking to realize it is over. But it was the conviction of Alexei and Natalie that the Dream must be shattered, and we must have absolute faith in their decision. The greater danger, they felt, of making grandiose and “Universal Statements” via the Net would have been destructive to our Art and so too, our Human Condition. That they have protected us from the Hype, the Generalizations, the Grand Proposals, the Flowery Rhetoric–the menacing forces that poisoned the Dream–we should be forever grateful.

I understand you feel empty now. But things are not hopeless. We can only wonder what will replace the Utopian Dream of the Net which has nourished us for more than a century. Perhaps this poem by the Great American HyperNovelist Mark Amerika will provide us with new Hope, new Inspiration Ð taken from a message he posted on one of the now defunct projects of the past era, the Telematic Manifesto:

Hello Fellow Listmember Selves
Telepistmologically-Enabled Kin
Curatorially-Linked Writer-Mediums
Net -Conditioned Lurkers
Those of Us Swimming in American – produced Autopoiesis
Infomatic Sha(wo)men Filtering the White Noise
Computer-Mediated Consciousnesses
Virtual Subjectivities Splayed in a Network Environment
Gardeners of Edenic Robotry
Principled Language Disseminators Intertwingling
Rhizomatic Nomads, Monads, Gonads, and Phonads
Galactic Singularities Enmeshed in Hypermediated Context
Your Exchange Continues To Stimulate
Neurons Pumping
Intelli-Blood Rush

Thank you fellow Artists, Theorists, Thinkers, Dreamers. Ever-Hopeful, let us together seek renewal in a world no longer encumbered by the Dream. The Dream is now Dead. Gone. Over. Finished. “We won’t get fooled again…”

The Universal Page