The Utopian Imagination Revisited

By Mute Editor, 10 May 2001


Including: Martin Conrads and Ulrich Gutmair's interview to Bruce Sterling, Hari Kunzru on futurecasting and scenario-planning, Benedict Seymour on the modern metropolis' regeneration game, Mike Holderness on Microwave crowd-control weapons, Corinna Snyder on the ghost of dot com fever and corporate attempts to reanimate it. Includes Ceci n'est pas un magazine, a kind of Mute & Metamute manifesto.

Since last autumn Mute has taken a break. The magazine needed a breather to assess some basic operational realities – the time we took out has been worth it (but more about that inside and below...).

Returning to editorial writing, nothing seems more pressing than the changes this half-year has wrought on the economy. The dot com and technology shares crash and – spreading outward from it – the deepening economic ‘downturn’ is the hot topic on everyone’s lips, not merely a few Internet obsessives. All around, former enthusiasts are showing due remorse and bowing down before the (mysteriously recalled) dictats of monetary prudence and back-to-basics realism. In the background, meanwhile, jobs and paper millions are scythed down like there’s no tomorrow.

But this ‘tomorrow’ was always the more interesting topic. (Which is also why it’s a shame that so few of the mile-high columns of ‘told-you-so’ comment and outraged finger-wagging analyse why everyone believed so ‘irrationally’ in the New Economy’s promises in the first place). As ‘The Tomorrow People’, Hari Kunzru’s article on the history and adherents of futurecasting suggests, such business visioning tools are basically fictions about the future. During the heyday of the 90s digital revolution, the lion’s share of those in use were overtly utopian to boot. Hardwired into company objectives or output and market growth targets, as they were from Silicon Valley to London and Frankfurt, they took on an authority they might otherwise have lacked but, well, fictions they remain.

Looking at its impact over the last decade, it seems global capitalism has left ‘the utopian imagination’ both unevenly distributed and underdeveloped. While utopian imaginings about the behaviour of stock markets, property prices and the flow of global capital are part of our daily routine, those disconnected from business plans and company objectives – beyond some simplistic stereotyping and hysteria – are barely given the time of day. All the proof one needs for this is the advance treatment given to Britain’s May Day protest by its ‘objective’ press. Or, perhaps more symptomatically, Anita ‘Body Shop’ Roddick’s statement in London’s Evening Standard that the measure of trustworthiness for any organisation, including those training peaceful protestors, is the possession of “offices and full-time staff”. Movements with a decentralised modus operandi, emergent political philosophy and ragbag of hiccuping economic theorems just do not fit the bill, no matter how legitimate their criticisms of the status quo and dreams for the future.

And things don’t change when the State makes communal and economic utopias its business. Benedict Seymour’s article on regeneration in Britain’s cities provides a case in point: could there be a better illustration of the clash between UK plc’s capital and community-based utopias than what is happening in London? Even the government has been forced to realise it is impossible for most ‘normal’ people to live comfortably – notwithstanding the existence of community housing and urban development programmes.

The global explosion of counter-summits, anti-globalisation protests and consumer boycotting is leading inexorably to a focus on economics. Theories of ‘participatory economics’, psychologised economics (see ‘Cyberhype’) and ‘open’ and ‘closed’ economic systems (which factor in everything from the happiness of citizens to the state of the oceans) all point to a dissatisfaction with our current business manuals. The question is: is this economisation of life merely another step in the utopian fiction of global capitalism? If it is, Bruce Sterling (interviewed in this issue) doesn’t think it’s necessarily bad: his Viridian movement is founded on the belief that our desire to acquire nice, functional things may yet lead us out of eco-disaster. For those who are interested, our website Metamute (now online at is to be our own location for editorial, technological and financial experimentation. If you want to see a basic outline of what we’re hoping to do, click here.

Over and out!

Pauline van Mourik Broekman <>