From Techno-Optimism to Aspirational Criticism

Remarks on Brenda Laurel's Utopian Entrepreneur

Utopian Entrepreneur is the first text published in Peter Lunenfeld’s pamphlet series Mediawork, a challenging essay by Brenda Laurel, author of Computer as Theatre and female pioneer of the computer games industry. Supported by a few grants Lunenfeld kick started this ambitious series (“zines for grown-ups”), aimed to bring together experimental design and groundbreaking essays. Denise Gonzales Crisp, who translated her pixel aesthetics to paper, designed Laurel’s pamphlet in a McLuhan-style, giving Mediawork’s intention to melt criticism and design an interesting start.

Brenda Laurel has written an important, strategic document. Utopian Entrepreneur is an honest and accessible account of what went wrong with her own startup Purple Moon, a website and CD-ROM games company targeted at teenage girls. The booklet is a must read for those working in design, new media and the IT-business world.

I admire Brenda Laurel’s work, but her analysis in Utopian Entrepreneur doesn’t cut very deep and this is troublesome. After having gone through the collapse of computer (games) company Atari, the prestigious Silicon Valley Interval research lab and most recently Purple Moon ( one gets the sense that Brenda Laurel, and with many similar good hearted “cultural workers”, rushes to get ready for the next faulty business scheme. As long as there is the promise of politically correct (“humanist”) popular computer culture, anything seems allowed. This drive is all the more strange because I don’t think of Laurel is all that hasty. Nervous how-to PowerPointism prevails over firm analysis. What is needed, in my view, after so many recent technology disasters is not well-meant advice but inappropriate questions.

Laurel declares herself as a “cultural worker”, a designer and new media producer, experienced to communicate to large and diverse audiences. However, this does not make her a utopian entrepreneur (or a good business writer, for that matter). She only hints at her disgust for the investors who pulled the plug so soon. She hides her anger at those who willingly destroyed her promising venture. It has to be said here that Purple Moon’s business model predated the dotcom schemes. Revenues came from CD-ROM sales. Despite solid figures, high click rates and a large online community, investors pulled the plug. The magic revenue projections may not have been enough glamorous.

The problem of Utopian Entrepreneur is Laurel’s ambivalent attitude towards the existing business culture. Laurel, and with her countless others, keep on running into very real borders of   ‘hyper capitalism’ but she categorically refuses to analyze the workings of ‘Empire’ as Michael Hardt and Toni Negri coined the System. Brenda is afraid of her ‘inner-Marxist’, the suppressed part of so many celebrities in the tough ‘creative industries. This difficulty to develop a (self) critical analysis is becoming apparent throughout the “cultural” arm of the new media industry. The moral references to America as a culture obsessed with making more money and spend it are very insightful. “In today’s business climate, the story is not about producing value but about producing money.” All right.

Utopian Entrepreneur describes how chauvinist the “new economy” gurus were but then abruptly stops. The economic knowledge Laurel calls for is not really practiced in her own writing. What Utopian Entrepreneur unearths is the need for a well informed compassionate ‘network materialism’, a digital aesthetics developed by a yet to be formed Imperial Network of New Media Scholars. The lack of such an ambitious and engaged field of research—and debate—is greatly felt and becomes all the more apparent now that that the dotcom (auto) biographies are starting to appear.

I am saying this with a certain hesitation because Brenda Laurel is actually one of the few (yet) who has written down her experience and is willing to share her, not always fortunate, experiences.

One of the fundamental problems could be Brenda Laurel’s equation of critical analysis with “negativism”.   Her passion to do “positive work” backfires on the poor level of analysis in which is not possible to investigate deeper power structures behind the ever crashing companies Laurel is involved in. Theory can be a passionate conceptual toolkit and is not necessarily ‘friendly fire’. Criticism is the highest form of culture, not ‘collateral damage.’ It indicates that cultural work is an integral part of society and is taken serious, not just by fellow professionals.

The outcome of a thorough investigation of the Purple Moon-case as a boom and bust scheme might be “negative”. In such instances it might not be enough to say that people should learn from their mistakes. Without a critical analysis they may as run into the same troubles next time. It is out of the fear for her own ‘negativism’ that Laurel’s account has to remain cautious, superficial and at times even moralistic. Her optimist armor blocks rather then frees up. One wonders which repetitive mechanisms have played a role in bringing down the various companies Laurel was involved in. “Socially positive creators” should know these underlying workings in order not to repeat the mistakes of the eighties and nineties. In that sense Utopian Entrepreneur could become a key document because it opens up, no matter how careful, a dialogue about the strategic lesions of the first decades of new media research and the problematic ways it has been turned into a business. Critique is not a poison but a vital tool for change. Knowledge, which doesn’t stop questioning, is sharpening ones ability to look through the conservative phrases and sales talk, which are so dominant in the IT-industry.

Laurel’s style suffers from this curious fear to be criticized by radicals (notably feminists such as Rebecca Eisenberg – a dotcommer herself), thereby creating an unnecessary form of defensive writing. She writes: “A utopian entrepreneur will likely encounter unexpected criticism—even denunciations—from those whom she might have assumed to be on her side.” What Laurel can’t distinguish here is tough assessment from insiders’ perspective and positive public relations blurb talk. I would turn Laurel’s argument upside down and say that the biggest honor friends can do is to radically deconstruct one’s own premises. What Purple Moon should have deserved is not some PC condemnation or New Age reverence but massive involvement of design critics. How do coolness and usability relate? Not everyone like Purple Moon’s style. The fact is, Purple Moon was tremendously successful amongst young girls–and got killed for no reason. Contrary to the dotcom philosophy I think such ‘failures’ should not happen again. There should be other, less volatile business models which are more hype-resistant, providing projects such as Purple Moon with enough resources to grow in its own pace. There is no reason anymore to comply with unreasonable expectations.

Utopian Entrepreneur is an interesting document for those in the “creative industries” working on social change. It brings into debate definitions of ‘inside’ and ‘outside’. Laurel is desperate to position herself as an insider. Her despair not to get marginalized is remarkable. Laurel: “It took me many years to discover that I couldn’t effectively influence the construction of pop culture until I stopped describing myself as a. an artist, and b. a political activist. Both of these self-definitions resulted in what I now see as my own self-marginalization. I couldn’t label myself as a subversive or a member of the elite. I had to mentally place myself and my values at the center, not at the margin. I had to understand that what I was about was not critiquing but manifesting.”

These remarks are all the more curious as all the businesses Laurel was involved in all failed. I would therefor question that “utopian entrepreneurialism” is mainstream and artists and activists are stuck in the margins. In short: AOL, Disney and Microsoft rule, not Purple Moon. The Seattle movement against corporate globalization ( has been very successful lately and continues to intervene in the agendas of CEOs and politicians at the highest possible level. Is movement is anything but marginal and expresses concerns of millions worldwide. Environmental activists may have been marginal at some stage. They are not now. Quite the opposite, there is a growing problem of NGOs becoming large bureaucratic institutions. As political philosophy lately has trying to prove, the distinction between center and periphery, as Laurel still uses, has become obsolete (this is one of the key ideas in Hardt & Negri’s Empire – downloadable ASCII version: And so has the cultural distinction between mainstream and margin. Instead there are constant ‘tactical’ negotiations, and Brenda Laurel’s pioneer work in this respect is a prime example of such critical interventions. The critique here is not that Laurel “is not doing enough.”

The price of the desire to be seen as being part of the male-dominated capitalist corporate IT industry is no doubt a high one. I am tempted to say the cost is too high, but this issue is one that should be debated.

Laurel is afraid of sophisticated theory, which she associates with academism, cultural studies, art and activism, thereby replicating the high-low divide. For Laurel theory is elitist while out of touch with the reality of the every life of ordinary people. That might be the case. But what can be done to end the isolationist campus-ghetto life of theory?
Instead of calling for massive education programs (in line with her humanist enlightenment approach) to lift the general participation in contemporary critical discourse Laurel blames the theorists. This attitude, widespread inside the IT-industry, puts those with a background in the humanities in a difficult, defensive position.

It might be true that, for instance, Derrida is in need of mediation. On the other hand, why there is no self-educated working class, reading Deleuze? Why has the ‘educated proletarian’ become such an unlikely, even funny figure? I know this is a weird, untimely consideration. Whereas the world of complicated research in science and technology is overpopulated with eager translators, contemporary theory lacks even basic forms of intermediate journalism. We hear it so often: why do you theorists use such difficult terms? Why can’t you talk like us, normal people? No one dares to say this to geeks or bio-technologists. They are the Gods. Everyone has to decipher their oracles. Psychoanalytic and dialectical jargons have been replaced by programming languages and complex biotech procedures.

Intellectuals are the fallen Gods. I am not nostalgic here. This is not the world of Paris 1968 anymore. Who cares about Nietzsche, Heidegger, Marx or Hegel? Their once mighty constructs have rapidly become historical information, fading away behind the infotainment event-horizon, interesting for those specialized in hermeneutics and the archeology of knowledge. Theory has withdrawn from society and can only explain us where we come from. Today’s theory has the tendency to denunciate the new and stress the eternal return of human imperfection. Techno consensus on the other hand will tell us that we should deduct the future, not dig into some dark Euro-centric past. Why miss out? Unless you’re not handicapped by some loser mentality there is no ‘selfish’ reason to not be part of the corporate global world.

As soon as you start to reflect on the inner dynamics of the Silicon Valley, you seem to be out. Instead of calling for the development of a rich set of conceptual tools for those working ‘inside’ Laurel reproduces the classic dichotomy: either you’re in (and play the capitalist game), or you’re out (become an academic/artist/activist, complain and criticize as much as you can). There is no sense here of a possible support line of an ‘organic’ virtual intelligentsia (in the Gramscian sense) which could cross borders between in and outside. The implicit anti-intellectualism is widespread amongst Californian New Age- infected fifty somethings. The mutual resentment between those involved in technology and business and the ivory tower humanities on the other hand seems higher then ever.

On the other hand, let’s face it. Postmodern theory and cultural criticism haven’t been very helpful either for Laurel & Company. Doesn’t matter if you take Jameson, Zizek, Butler, Habermas, they all lack basic economic and technological knowledge. As long as they confuse Internet with some offline cybersex art installation there is not much reason to consult these thinkers. They add little to Laurel’s conceptual challenges in the field of user interface design or the criticism of the male adolescent geek culture. Cult stud armies will occupy the field only if the IT-products have become part of mass culture. This means a ‘delay’ of at least five to ten years.

Theory is running behind the facts. The Gutenbergsche baby boom generation, now in charge of publishing houses, mainstream media, in leading university positions, share a secret dream that all these new media disappear in the same pace as they arrived. Lacking substance, neither real nor a commodity, new media failed to produce its Rembrandts, Shakespeares and Hitchcocks. The economic recession followed by the NASDAQ ‘tech wreck’ only further deepens the gap between the forced ‘freshness’ of the techno pop workers and the dark skepticism of the high art establishment.

Brenda Laurel is an expert in human computer interface design and computer games and a great advocate of research. ‘The Utopian Researcher’ could have been a better, more precise title. She has some pretty insightful things to say about the decline of corporate research. The speed religion, pushed by venture capitalists and IPO-obsessed CEOs, has all but destroyed long-term fundamental research. “Market research, as it is usually practiced, is problematic for a couple of reasons. Asking people to choose their favorites amongst all the things that already exist doesn’t necessarily support innovation; it maps the territory but may not help you plot a new trajectory.” Laurel’s method, like many of her usability colleagues, is to sit down and talk to people, “learning about people with your eyes and mind and heart wide open. Such research does not necessarily require massive resources but it does require a good deal of work and a concerted effort to keep one’s assumptions in check.”

Brenda Laurel is on a mission to change the nature of the computer games industry, away from its exclusive focus on the shoot-‘m-up male adolescent market. She outs herself as a Barbie hater. Fair enough. She wants to get rid of the “great machine of consumerism,” a strategic cause many share. However, this goal hasn’t made much progress over the last twenty odd years—and Laurel will be the first to admit this. Laurel says: read my advice and keep on trying. I would counter this “will to action” and instead call for a break. It is time to stop and take time to go through some fundamental questions. For instance, I would like to call into question the implicit equation between utopian entrepreneurism and the very specific techno-libertarian agenda of the venture capital class.

Although Brenda Laurel sums up all the problematic aspects of short-term profit driven technology research, she does not propose alternative forms of research, collaboration and ownership out of a fear to “activate the immune system.” Her fear to be excluded from the higher ranks is a real dilemma, which I don’t want to demise easily. Laurel tactically avoids a critique of the George Gilders, Wired, the Bionomics suits and others, which Europeans, for better or worse, labeled as the ‘Californian ideology.’ The pillars of the techno-libertarian business agenda don’t seem to exist. Laurel may never have been a true believer, but she’s not saying anything about this once so dominant agenda. And this is where the trouble starts.

Compared to other dotcom crash titles, which appeared at the same time, Laurel remains a secretive one. In Dot.Bomb (Little, Brown and Company, 2001) David Kuo is giving an extensive internal analysis of rise and fall of the e-tailer Value America. Kuo is fairly honest about his own excitement–and blindness–for the roller coaster ride of America’s once most promising e-commerce portal. Laurel’s report remains distanced, general and, at times, terribly moral (“live healthy, work healthy”). It is as if the reader is only allowed to get a glimpse inside. It seems that Laurel is on the defensive, reluctant to name her protagonists. Unlike Kuo, who keeps on rapping about all the ups and downs inside Value America, we never quite understand Laurel’s underlying business strategies. Her motivations are crystal clear. Her implicit approach towards the powerful (male) IT moguls and VC Uebermenschen has to be read like a Soviet novel. There is no reason to describe those who destroyed a corporation as “aliens.” These suits have name cards and agendas. We should warn them at forehand not to fool around anymore with honest and innovative researchers such as Brenda Laurel.

Brenda Laurel comes up with an important phrase: “The revolution may not be televised, but it will be economic.” She then mentions request marketing, peer-to-peer marketing, subscriptions and micro-payments as possible alternative economic models. I would add free software and beyond pragmatics, include some big ideas, such as the “GPL society” (see A utopian, post totalitarian techno Marxism is already in the making, shaped by active social forces, not just intellectuals with grand ideas. Says Brenda Laurel: “We can manifest a different future, and we must.”

Brenda Laurel, Utopian Entrepreneur, The MIT Press, 2001. Laurel’s homepage: . A recent interview on Purple Moon matters by Thom Gillespie: . One of Laurel’s essays on Purple Moon and girls games: . URL of the Mediawork series: . There you can find Scott McCloud’s online comix, his WebTake response to Laurel. .