Twitter is providing a stark example of what can happen when an individual unbalances a community platform, especially when that individual is an unabashed techno-utopian.
Techno-utopianism remains a problem across the media space, including our zone. While not new in the historical sense, the way the Internet introduced it into media is something we have to grapple with, as the deleterious effects — outsized influence from individuals or fringe groups, outrage as currency, and general distrust of claims and positions — hurt society and stymie progress.
Observers continue to see its effects. Max Fisher, an international reporter and columnist for the New York Times, recently wrote about Musk and friends as representing:
. . . a [Silicon] Valley utopianism that has said since the 90s that all legacy institutions are ultimately barriers to progress, but that the enlightened minds of the tech world, guided by the pure science of engineering, will one day liberate us by smashing the old ways. The idea of rejecting institutions to build a purer society on the internet, in vogue in tech in the ’90s, by the 2010s had become a mandate to abolish and remake those institutions in big tech’s image.
He may as well be talking about the techno-utopianism that has informed many of the ideas currently in fashion among scholarly publishing lobbyists and influencers who want to destroy the institution of the independent publisher using third-party review to check claims for quality, relevance, and novelty.
Techno-utopianism has its roots in the Victoria era, as outlined in an article in the New Statesman. It’s less justifiable puffery — like that around OA, preprints, post-publication review, and so forth — is also time-honored:
A naïve utopian streak ran through scientific speculation. Technological innovation was hailed as the solution to social and political conflict. In the last decade of the century, Nikola Tesla, the celebrity electrical engineer, proclaimed that “war would be abolished” if his own projects (wireless telegraphy) were widely adopted. Such bombast was not unusual.
As a community, our role is not technological, nor does it change much with technological innovations. We should retain our equipoise in the face of change. The fact that we’ve ceded this state of balancing various forces by catering explicitly to authors and funders while shedding our responsibilities relative to readers and society — all under the auspices of techno-utopianism — will not look flattering to those writing the history of this era of scientific and scholarly publishing.