While utopia was once an abstract concept, something to be referenced but never realized, it is now everywhere. The relentless technological developments since the dot-come bubble have made utopia easier than ever to access; it can be created not at the click of a button, but at the swipe of a thumb. And few of us are immune to the urge to immerse ourselves in these online utopias, which we now carry around in our pockets, check in with on the bus and visit on our lunch breaks.
The ease with which we can follow, add and like people from across the globe who think and act like us has been irresistible to many. After-all our chimp brains just want to be near those similar to us. A recent study in Science revealed, to little surprise, that we engage most with information online that flatters our ideological preconceptions. Despite our best efforts we are homogeneous creatures, interacting more, both on and offline, with those who support our own beliefs.
However, the danger of surrounding ourselves solely with the like-minded in online spaces is that it becomes difficult for little else to seep in. In creating these utopian feeds on Twitter and its cousins, we inadvertently- or perhaps advertently- block out any noise which doesn’t echo our own thoughts. In turn, we become less aware of the other side to our conversations; something essential to making progress. Social scientist, Arthur Brooks, advised that, in order to improve, society doesn’t need ‘less disagreement, just better disagreement’. However, our online utopias are making this better disagreement more difficult than ever to achieve.
Long before the birth of social networks, some were already predicting the danger of the utopian communities that a newly connected world could spawn. It was in 1996 that MIT researchers Marshall Van Alstyne and Erik Brynjolfsson warned that “individuals empowered to screen out material that does not conform to their existing preferences may form virtual cliques, insulate themselves from opposing points of view, and reinforce their biases”.
Van Alstyne and Brynjolfsson were right. And today the ease with which we can ‘screen out’ material which doesn’t compliment our own ideas has made these utopias divisive in their nature, further polarising the already polarised. In 2015, as online utopian illusions were becoming rife, a study in PNAS confirmed the diverging power of these spaces. The study explained that internet users “aggregate in communities of interest, which causes reinforcement and fosters confirmation bias, segregation, and polarisation”.
It is no coincidence then that the golden age for social media, the birth place of these apparent utopias, has also been a decade of increasing division. A decade in which Piers Morgan’s voice has been amplified, New Nationalism has flourished and which was recently described by historian, Andrew Bacevich, as an era of “venomous division”.
The resurgence of nationalism of the 2010s is of course a highly complex, multi-faceted phenomenon, but to say that these quasi-utopian communities online have played no role in its rise is reductive of the power of the internet. It is easy, particularly for those of analogue generations, to dismiss the online world as separate to reality, but with an estimated 61% of Millennials consuming news primarily through social media it is clear that in fact it is our reality.
Part of the problematic nature of these online spaces is the limitless number of utopias that they allow us to create. Even before the internet, political scientist, Lyman Tower Sargent, suggested that the idea of utopia is “inherently contradictory” due to the conflicting desires of the population which can never “simultaneously be satisfied.” Yet technology has provided us all with the illusion that each of our own personal utopias is possible. And the more utopian-style communities that emerge online, the more ways in which society is becoming divided. The days in which we were separated simply between Left and Right are now a fond memory confined to the same corner of our brain as that family trip to Corfu in 2003.
No online space is sacred from being turned into a breeding ground for divisive utopian thought. Even Mumsnet, a site created back in 2001 to provide advice to parents, is now a place for visceral opinions and exclusion of those who don’t conform. Posie Parker, a self described ‘feminist activist’ who opposes trans rights, explained in a 2019 interview that it was on this site that she was exposed to the anti-trans rhetoric which convinced her to adopt her transphobic stance.
The transphobia of Mumsnet exemplifies how, even initiatives that are good natured in their beginnings, can quickly become soured when framed in the context of an online utopian-style community. Online, the zero waste movement’s endeavour for the ideal sustainable citizen becomes intensified to the point of violence. Meanwhile, their time spent attacking people for drinking oat milk flat whites from disposable cups only distracts attention from the multi-national conglomerates who really need to be held accountable.
Ultimately, our online utopias provide us with a form of instant gratification, satisfying our need to be surrounded by those like us, yet they confine us to perpetual tribalism which hinders the progress we want to see.
However, we shouldn’t write off the idea of utopia entirely; just because our online echo chambers aren’t the answer doesn’t mean some kind of utopia isn’t possible. Many sociologists have argued that utopianism is in fact essential for the improvement of the human condition. So, instead of giving up on utopia, perhaps we just need to change our definition of it, and remind ourselves that there’s more to achieving something which resembles utopia than simply following people like us. We need to re-learn how to engage with those who don’t agree with us and collaborate offline with those who do. But, don’t worry, there’s still no need to follow Piers Morgan on Twitter.