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No. WP-96-02

Bits of Cities:
Utopian Visions and Social Power
in Placed-Based and Electronic Communities

Rob Kling
Center for Social Informatics
10th and Jordan, Library 012
Indiana University
Bloomington, IN 47405-1801
Roberta Lamb
Information Technology Management 
College of Business Administration
  University of Hawaii, Manoa 

Based upon:"Bits of Cities: How Utopian Visions Structure Social Power in Physical Space and Cyberspace" by Rob Kling & Roberta Lamb, in Urban Powers and Utopias in the World, Emmanuel Eveno (Ed).
Presses Universitaires du Mirail, in the series "Villes et territoires" (Towns & Territories). (1997).

Copyright 1996: Rob Kling

Part II | End


In the 19th century, when industrial cities spewed smoke and ash over cramped city dwellings, middle class visionaries dreamed of green country towns within easy commute to city businesses. Working class visionaries dreamed of a communal social order that would reward them fairly for their labor and shelter them in old age. In the 1960's, when suburburban life was widely (even if inaccurately) protrayed as dull sameness, middle class utopians dreamed of a place where they could discover their own identities, get back to nature and live in peace with like-minded others. In the late 20th century, when information-enhanced corporate competiveness in a globalized economy threatens to increase the gap between rich and poor and obliterate the middle class, and when place-based community life is eroding -- some visionaries advance utopian dreams of a new world - Cyberspace - where people can organize on-line systems to support democracy, empower work and enrich human relationships. This paper examines the social assumptions of these visions -- and the nature of social power that they embody. We draw upon a rich history of California utopian community experiments to provide an experiential base for better understanding the possibilities of social life in Cyberspace.

California is one place that has captured these dreams and, at the same time, embodies some rude awakenings. California has been a haven for small-scale utopian colonies in the 19th century and again in the 1960s-1970s. But it has also hosted imaginative late 20th century projects of large scale post- suburban development. Mainstream utopians with a clear vision and strong connections to state and financial institutions have carved entire new cities with populations of 25,000-150,000 people out its desert landscapes. But both the small scale communes and larger scale new cities have often been less idyllic places to live than their planners and pioneers imagined.


In the 19th century, California was the site of a few dozen diverse utopian political experiments. These "old utopian communities" were organized through diverse forms such as socialist and Fourierist (Hine, 1983). Life in these communities usually entailed hard work and simple living conditions. They were relatively frugal and isolated from the conveniences of late 19th century life. In sociological terms, most of these communities were "total institutions" because they encompassed most of the life-space of their members. Few of the communities lasted more than 10 years. While most of them disbanded by 1900, there were continuing experiments with cooperative utopian communities through the 20th century in California and other states. In the 1960's, California was again the site of a new wave of efforts to develop small cooperative communities communities.

In the middle 1960's California, especially Northern California's San Fransisco Bay area became a major center of North America's counterculture. The "Summer of Love" in 1967 brought thousands of young people to San Fransisco. Soon, Haight-Ashbury hippie subculture and associated venues, such as the Fillmore Auditorium, became cultural icons that were sometimes cherished and often despised elsewhere in North America.

In this period, Northern California residents and immigrants established many small intentional communities. Kohzeny (n.d.) chaacterizes an intentional commuity in these terms:

     An "intentional community" is a group of people who
     have chosen to live together with a common purpose,
     working cooperatively to create a lifestyle that reflects
     their shared core values. The people may live together on
     a piece of rural land, in a suburban home, or in an urban
     neighborhood, and they may share a single residence or
     live in a cluster of dwellings.
He goes on to note that:
     This definition spans a wide variety of groups, including
     (but not limited to) communes, student cooperatives, land
     co-ops, cohousing groups, monasteries and ashrams, and
     farming collectives. Although quite diverse in philosophy
     and lifestyle, each of these groups places a high priority
     on fostering a sense of community--a feeling of belonging
     and mutual support that is increasingly hard to find in
     mainstream Western society.
California's counter-culture communities were socio-political experiments that paralleled the diversity of the 19th century colonies -- they emphasized personal liberation or religiosity or simplicity -- freedoms from the routines and structures of bourgeois society. While the rural communes tried to encompass economic and social life, the urban communes were primarily socio-political institutions with limited scope. Only a small fraction of the intentional communities lasted more than 10 years. (Advocates of intentional communities, such as Geoph Kozeny, focus on the hundrerds of intentional communities that thrive in the US in the 1990s, rather than the thousands that have fallen apart).

In the early and middle 1960's a few commercial land development firms were planning "bourgeois utopias" in Orange County, within Southern California -- about 450 miles south of San Franscisco. The first of these new towns, Irvine and Laguna Niguel, opened their doors in the mid-1960s. Mission Viejo followed in the 1970's and Aliso Viejo in the 1980's (Kling et al., 1991). These new towns emphasized an orderly life with well designed homes, clean streets, good schools, stable jobs in nearby industrial parks, and convenient shopping in nearby shopping malls.

Political life in these bourgeois economic utopias seems to be more controlled than in the small scale 19th century communities and 1960's countercultual communes. They have neighborhood governments ("community associations") that are designed to enforce fine grained rules about home design (including the colors that houses can be painted), and lifestyles( such as how long homeowners can leave their garage doors open). Local shopping is organized in malls that are managed by the development companies so as to advantage regional or national chain stores over locally owned businesses.

These planned communities are relatively large, with tens of thousands of residents. (Irvine has 140,000 residents and may grow to a city of 250,000). They are incorporated as cities, with state empowered mayors, city councils, and significant city staffs (which include police forces, courts, and jails). They are legal entities as well as social entities.

Most seriously, these new communities are by design integrated into the state political system and economic systems from the regional to international levels. It is implausible for these cities to disband, and become "ghost towns." They will not fail by disappearing in the same sense that the 19th century or 1960's communes disolved. Even so, life in these new planned cities is not exactly "utopian." In the 1990s, they are also sites of high divorce rates, latch-key children, and rising (but still low) crime rates.

Grassroots utopian communes are unlikely to gain much of a foothold within the new communities--at least not the kind which was common in the 1960's. But a new kind of utopia might be envisioned here--one that does not vie for power within the traditional socio-political space, but instead seeks to establish a perfect community in Cyberspace[1]. For the technologically adept of the 1990's, online communities have inspired "new world" utopian dreams. Some networked visionaries seek traditionally communal interaction online -- something like the early 19th century and 1960's intentional communities (Rheingold, 1993). Others envision an "electro-Irvine" or an "online-Disneyland"--a technologically enhanced version of the planned communities and theme parks that dominate Orange County, California (Mitchell, 1995; Negroponte, 1995). Among them, they variously describe Cyberspace as a place where democracy can prevail, where individuals can achieve full expression; or as a place where streamlined distribution efficiencies can be achieved, middlemen can be eliminated and direct communication can take place. The motivating themes of these discussions echo the sentiments of earlier utopian quests. And like those earlier visions, they spring from and strongly depend upon social and commercial contexts in the physical world.

Our analysis of California's utopian experience examines visions of 19th, 20th and 21st century place-based communities. We discuss the power relationships that have organized the utopian vsions of convivial or streamlined communities, and how social life plays out in practice. We are specially interested in using these community experiences of power-in-practice to help interpret utopian visions of communal and streamlined Cybersocieties.


Throughout the 19th century, the American West, and California in particular, beckoned adventurers and visionaries, entrepreneurs and missionaries, the wealthy and the persecuted. Even if they didn't have an idealized vision of the perfect world, these people generally hoped to make a better life for themselves in a new land of abundant resources and individual freedom. Isolated from a hostile or oppressive society, or unchained from its restrictive laws and conventions, they hoped to achieve their potential. Many became disillusioned or were defeated by the harsh realities of frontier life. Others, survived and prospered- -or got lucky and struck it rich. As late as the 1930's, California still offered unparalled opportunities within North America. For poor midwesterners, it was a place where one could "start out with nothing and end up with something." After World War II, the economic expansion of southern California defense contractors lured yet another generation to the West Coast.

But among the millions of people who flocked to California, were some who had taken the time to clearly envision the lives they would live and the communities they would create- -perfect communities--Utopias. From 1850 to 1940, more utopian colonies were established in California than in any other state in North America[2]. These colonies were communal, argricultural, and, theoretically, self-sufficient. But the longest surviving colonies were the least democratic; religious communities with a strong authoritarian figurehead, like Thomas Lake Harris of Fountain Grove, fared best.

In 1875, Thomas Lake Harris and a group of about thirty followers established a their utopian colony of Fountain Grove on 700 acres of land, just north of Santa Rosa California. (Santa Rosa is about 40 miles North of San Francisco). Harris was a charismatic mystic, social reformer and preacher (more or less) of Swedengorgian christianity. His community was a refuge where he and his small band could come closer to God by practicing the "good life". The "good life" consisted of an eclectic collection of beliefs and practices. The followers practiced communal sharing of work and wealth. They believed that devotion to task imbued the fruits of their labor with a special quality. And they believed that man came closest to God through sex, in its purely spiritual aspects.

The Fountain Grove colonists worked hard, and they developed a successful vineyard under Harris's watchful eye and detailed direction. Many, though not all, donated every worldly possession to the venture. In addition, they surrendered the control of important aspects of their lives directly to Harris. Workers rarely left the colony. Harris distributed their work assignments and determined their communal occupations. He led them spiritually, and he also freely interfered in their family life to ensure the proper excercise of sex, in its purely spiritual aspects.

The outside community tolerated Fountain Grove for much of its early existence, characterizing Harris as nothing more than an English squire presiding over his country estate. But, as Hine (1983) observes, "[i]nevitably in an alien culture and increasingly as the years progressed, misunderstandings of the community's theology and communism developed." By 1891, "[the] story of a pretended celebate monk luring innocent maidens to his den in the mountains flamed in all the Santa Rosa and San Francisco newspapers" (Hine, 1983:30- 31). Shortly after a barrage of scandalous publicity, Harris abandoned Fountain Grove, never to return. The vineyard operation continued, but the colony did not. "Fountain Grove became, after Harris' departure, progressively less a communitarian experiment and more a commercial venture...Without the personality of Harris to hold them, the members gradually drifted away" (Hine, 1983:32).

The 19th century colonies succumbed to "utopian breakdowns". Sometimes the loss of a strong leader and subsequent changes in the vision led to the disillusionment of the colonists. At other times, "corrupting influences" from the outside community eroded core communal values, and the faithful faltered[3]. Longevity, paradoxically, contributed to the demise of some utopian colonies. Second generation utopians did not always choose to endure the hardships of communal frontier life that first generation colonists willingly adopted. Many of the communal solutions for sharing the wealth simply did not scale up in size. The bookkeeping system used to keep track of work credits and purchase debits at the Llano community, for example, became excessively complicated as the colony's membership grew (Hine, 1983).

An additional point deserves emphasis. These 19th century colonies exaggerated their disconnectedness with the rest of society. The colonists sought empowerment within their communities in various religious and economic ways, and protection from the outside world. They were philosophically isolationist and escapist, but remained dependent on the larger society for resources, new recruits, and markets. However, even if they acknowledged these dependencies, few tried to cultivate sustainable connections to the larger community. When these communities had used up their financial reserves or lost their spiritual cohesiveness, they disbanded. Some members found refuge in other colonies, while others re-entered mainstream society.


Virtually all of the Californian communes established in the 1960's and 1970's met similar fates (Kanter, 1972; Kanter, 1973). Some followed earlier utopian communal models of organization, and attempted to distance themselves, if not geographically at least spiritually, from the rest of society. Despite claims of self-sufficiency, these utopian communities depended on outside recruits, resources and markets. And like their 19th century predecessors, they also failed to legitimize themselves by forming a symbiotic relationship with their host society.

A recent statement by The Federation of Egalitarian Communities, a special network of communal groups spread across North America underlines some of the distinctive ideals of some of the late 1960's Calfiornian communes:

Few of the 1960's California communes shared all of these values, such as land held in common. Most of them emphasized strongly participatory government and egalitarianism, except for the religious communes where religious leaders and their hierarchies organized local power.

Morning Star Ranch characterizes, in some interesting ways, the rural California convivial commune of the late 1960s. It was founded in 1966, just a few miles from the Fountain Grove site, by Lou Gottlieb, a well-educated musicologist and successful folk-singer (in the Limeliters) -- a 1960's version of a charismatic mystic like Harris. Gottlieb and his ranchers valued a relatively anarchic way of life and lived "alternative lifestyles" that included group Yoga sessions, macrobiotic dining, marijuana smoking, classical music rehearsal and public nudity. Unlike Harris, Gottlieb didn't try to control the work ethic or sexual practices of commune residents. On the contrary, everybody was free to "do their own thing," to come and go as they pleased, to visit for the day or camp for the summer. Morning Star Ranch in 1967 did not enjoy the same degree of remoteness from the surrounding community as Forest Grove had in 1875. Local police deputies made routine visits, and neighbors complained emotionally about the "nudity visible from the highway." The larger community intruded on peace- seeking ranchers in other significant, and eventually fatal, ways. In fact, a shooting incident instigated by social tensions at the ranch between blacks and whites alarmed 396 local citizens who signed a petition and obtained an injunction against Gottlieb. He had to pay enormous fines, or else disband his commune. And he had to disband it by following a script written by social pressure and law enforcement for the theatre of the absurd. "Gottlieb asked his friends to leave. His friends declined. Gottlieb asked the deputies to remove his friends. The deputies declined. Gottlieb asked what he should do. The deputies suggested that he make a citizen's arrest. Reluctantly, Gottlieb went from one person to the next, asking each one to leave and, when he wouldn't, arresting him for trespass. Then the deputies put the hippies in their cars and carted them off to jail" (Lamott, 1973). Whereas Harris' colony had disbanded voluntarily, Gottlieb's was coercively disbanded.

Other secular urban and rural Calfiornia communes lasted into the early 1970s. Some, such as The Farm, moved to another state (Sachs, 1988) and continue to survive. All but a handful of California's hundreds of egalitarian communal experiments disbanded, even when they did not face the extreme hostility that faced the Morningstar communards. A larger fraction of the religious communities that were lead by a relatively strong religious figure, such as the Ananda community that is devoted to the Kriya Yoga teachings of Paramhansa Yogananda, still thrive.

Overall, the intentional community movement has had little influence in North American life. The 1995 Communities Directory lists 540 North American intentional communities. Most of the are small -- formed of under 25 people, although a few have over 200 residents (including children). Between 30,000 to 60,000 people may be living in intentional communities in North America. While there are hundreds of intentional communties, their total population is less than that of Bloomington, Indiana!

Intentional communities are a fragile social form. They have been organized with high social ideals and usually require that their members make significant personal changes in order for a community to survive. Members must be more community- oriented and less self-oriented or family-oriented than people develop in mainstream North-American life. The communities are relatively small and bring people together in ways that various interpersonal conflicts are more likely than in a social order in which people can retreat into their families and avoid social contact with those with whom they differ. The religious communities can mute some of the conflicts by allowing a spiritual leader to resolve some conflicts, to preach harmony, and to reinforce a belief that interpersonal conflicts arise from personal limitations. In contrast, the members of secular communities must rest on their own resources and beliefs when they conflict.

At their best, intentional communities offer members a much stronger sense of community than does mainstream America. Relationships of economic and social power between a community and its host society are also important. We have discussed examples where the disapproval of people outside of an intentional community lead to their dissolution. In addition, few intentional communities are self-sustaining; the extent to which their members must work in a larger world or sell goods and services outside the community brings values and tensions of the outside world into community life.

While we see intentional communities as an important social form, they have been dwarfed by another kind of utopian urban social formation. Southern California was an important site for the development of "the streamlined utopian community" in the 1960s and 1970s. Land developers and suburban planners envisioned community life that contrasted sharply with the lifestyles that Harris, Gottlieb and other communal California utopians had promoted. These new communities visually resembled the bourgeois utopias and garden cities of mainstream suburban architecture, but the scale was massive. These utopian cities would occupy strategic areas along major transportation corridors. They would support significant populations of hundreds of thousands of citizens. They would be strongly connected to local governments and become a vital part of the international economy. They would become communities like Irvine, California.


Irvine is a planned city with a current population of about 150,000 people. It lies at the heart of Orange County, about 45 miles south of Los Angeles and 5 miles inland from the Pacific Ocean. It was deigned and built on a huge ranch of flatlands and low rolling hills, hat itself was constrcuted from a group of Spanish land grants that date back to the 18th century. Martin J. Schiesl (1991) refers to Irvine as the "model community" of postsuburban California. Percival and Paul Goodman (1960) describe three community paradigms commonly adopted by utopian planners: Irvine is a postsuburban version of the "city of efficient consumption."
     "The fundamentally decentralized spatial
     arrangement of postsuburban regions -- in which a
     variety of commercial, recreational, shopping, arts,
     residential, and religious activities are conducted in
     different places and are linked primarily by private
     automobile transportation--makes them complex,
     seemingly incoherent and disorienting, and yet 
     dynamic and lively.  Precisely because they are a new
     kind of settlement space, such regions cannot easily
     be  understood in terms of traditional conceptual
     categories, such as 'rural,' 'urban,' and 'suburban'"
     (Kling, Olin, and Poster, 1995:p.viii).  

     "How can one tell that a region is postsuburban? 
     One clue is that many activities are conducted in
     centers, but, importantly, these centers are
     functionally specialized and separated by travel times
     of from fifteen-to-thirty minutes. People are likely to
     travel by automobile across city boundaries for
     work, socializing, and shopping as much as within
     them" (Kling, Olin, and Poster, 1995:p. ix)
Broad boulevards allow shoppers speedy access to local shopping centers, and Irvine residents can conveniently reach 12-lane highways (called freeways) for their workday commutes. Isolated self-sufficiency is not a value. On the contrary, Irvine politicians and business leaders continually seek new ways to make Irvine an integral part of the international trading community.

This new market-driven model community vision is very different from the communal vision of 19th century utopians. Early California utopian colonies come closer to the Goodman's "city of planned security with minimal regulation". Those traditional communal arrangements, like the Forest Grove colony, set goals of self-sufficiency and sought to empower individuals in some important ways, although they strictly regulated many personal activities. The 1960's communal experiments, like Morning Star Ranch, with their relaxed or non-existent regulations, also fall into this category. Irvine contrasts sharply with these communal utopian models. Planned security, in terms of social guarantees for Irvine citizens or sharing of the community wealth, is certainly not part of the plan. And very few, if any, areas of Irvine community life are unregulated.

As Irvine is a city of efficient consumption, because its developers and planners conscientiously control how Irvine citizens can exercise their economic power as consumers. Although Irviners often have more discretionary income than citizens of neighboring cities, their discretion is locally limited to a relatively small number of choices among restaurants, movie theatres, sporting facilities and retail outlets. The number, location and type of consumer services has been planned by the community developers to maximize financial returns on their investment. The Irvine Company, as the original developer of the area[4], still owns most of Irvine's retail commercial property. It rents these properties to retail shops that agree to pay a monthly rental fee plus a percentage of their gross monthly revenues. This arrangement favorably predisposes The Irvine Company toward high-revenue producing renters, or low-risk renters whose gross revenues can be reasonably estimated beforehand. Therefore, national and regional chainstores, which already have wide name recognition, rent most of the available shopping mall space. Of course, residents can always travel elsewhere in Orange County, or to Los Angeles or San Diego to excercise their economic power as consumers, and they often do.

Irvine has inspired other planned communities in Orange County, such as Mission Viejo and Santa Margarita. But it isn't just the developers who are attracted to postsuburban utopias. Wealthy middle class families want to live there. The residential areas of these new communities are attractively arranged in villages, like a Disneyland theme park, with names such as Woodbridge Village, University Park and Turtle Rock. The villages are mainly residential, with 2000 to 4000(?) homes, condominiums and apartments, several parks, one or two primary schools and perhaps a place of worship. Access into and out of the villages is limited. Non-residents do not drive through the villages, or come there to shop. There are few places for gang members, the homeless or illegal immigrants to hang out. The homes are somewhat expensive and the property is well-protected. Irvine is safe. Its easy for local police to identify who belongs there and who does not.

The upper middle class, multi-car family belongs in Irvine. For city services, markets, banks, businesses and other activities, residents must leave their villages, often driving several miles to reach medical office clusters, shopping centers and municipal complexes. Most Irvine residents own cars, but those who don't or who can't drive, such as teenagers and the elderly, are distinctly disadvantaged. Mass transit service is infrequent and restricted to the main city arteries. Usually, mass transit riders are out-of-towners who come into Irvine to work at local retail stores, or they are domestic workers who provide childcare and cleaning services for the local residents, or they are students who attend the University of California at Irvine. The mass transit riders cannot afford to live in Irvine, they're lucky if they can afford to live in Orange County[5].

Irvine residents have limited contact with the economically disadvantaged. They have achieved the "bourgeois utopian" goal of social segregation by limiting their interaction with lower class individuals (Fishman, 1987). Rich and poor certainly don't reside cheek by jowl, as they did in 18th century cities. Usually, Irviners only see very poor people from a distance. They may see Mexican immigrants working in the strawberry fields outside their Turtle Rock village as they drive to work in the morning, but they don't stop to chat with them about the weather or the growing season. They may occasionally see a homeless person wandering down Irvine Center Drive, looking very out of place, but, as rumor has it, they can be certain that that individual will be escorted to nearby Santa Ana if he is spotted by police. Residents may even call the police on their car phones to report the sighting.

Even when Irvine residents verbally interact with non- residents who work in Irvine retail outlets, there is little chance that the interaction will blossom into an ongoing relationship. The types of efficient, high-volume transactions favored by the national and regional chain stores which dominate Irvine shopping malls allow only for a brief encounter between a customer and a service provider. And since these types of service provider jobs are not well- paid, there is usually a high personnel turnover, further lessening the probability of an ongoing relationship. As Gutek (1995) has observed, the prevalence of encounter-based services is not unique to new cities. It is a growing phenomenon in many service industries, including retail sales, social services, education and medical care. Social scientists worry that this phenomenon contributes to the deterioration of a sense of community. The human interaction seems so disconnected. What's the difference between this type of an encounter and a fully automated electronic encounter, complete with computer-controlled voice synthesis? For the most part, Irvine residents seem comfortable with the encounter-based service format. Its often convenient, but its not their only option. If they want more personalized service, they can afford to go elsewhere and pay more for it.

They can travel to Laguna Beach, just 10 miles away and on the Pacific coast. Laguna Beach's professionals and restauranteurs pride themselves on providing highly personalized services and maintaining the city's unique artistic and casual "small town" informal atmosphere. Chain stores and fast food restaurants are the exception rather than the rule. Locally based establishments predominate. And, business owners tend to live and work within the community. Laguna is a convivial city. Its an example of the Goodmans' third community paradigm--the "city that integrates production and consumption." Many Irvine residents like to visit Laguna; why didn't the Irvine Company design another Laguna Beach instead of an Irvine?

As Fishman (1987) points out, even when the suburbs first began to expand in the 19th century, the driving momentum for suburban development projects did not come exclusively from the intense desire of upper middle class families to distance themselves from the city center squalor. Entrepreneurs who initiated speculative building practices and who organized capital markets of the 1820's and 30's conspired to ensure a good supply of houses in suburbia and a shortage in the city core. The character of suburban development, and postsuburban development continues to be influenced by the market-driven efficiencies that developers seek. In other words, The Irvine Company built an Irvine instead of a Laguna because it was more profitable to do so, and because this type of development retains high land values in the area for future investment and development.

One of the ways that Irvine developers have maintained property values is by requiring homeowners to join neighborhood associations which force adherence to certain Codes, Covenants and Regulations (CC&Rs). These CC&Rs specify what a homeowner may do with his or her property. They may define guidelines for house colors and landscaping styles. They may also identify what is acceptable in terms of day-to-day appearances, such as how long a garage door may be left open or how long children's toys may lie about on the front lawn. Of course, these rules change with the times to reflect good taste. Knowing that everyone in Irvine follows these CC&Rs assures homeowners that their property investment is protected from the dangers of deteriorating neighborhoods. And because the entire city is planned, Irvine residents know the property nextdoor cannot be rezoned to allow the construction of a liquor store or a high rise office building. The zoning and the CC&Rs are there to protect homeowners in certain ways, but they can victimize them in others--or so it can seem. One Turtle Rock homeowner recently sent a letter to his fellow Association members which began like this:

     "Dear friends and neighbors,    

        I am sorry to tell you that you are suing me.  Well,   
     not actually you, but your representatives, the   
     Association.  They served me with papers saying that
     I must appear to defend myself on March 1, 1996
     at 1:30p.m. at the Santa Ana Superior Court,
     department 61, at 909 N. Main St. on charges that
     they won't allow me to paint my house the colors
     that they specified.  Nope, that was not a typo, it is
     the matter of the case--one of the matters anyway. 
     I think it is; I can't be sure because they never
     really got specific about what is causing them to
     harass me." (Puma, 1996)
Irvine's strong professional planning regime with its rigid property regulations is not organized to empower individualistic homeowners or consumers. It doesn't attract many people or support those who want to create structural changes. Irvine's streamlined lifeworlds are enforced by policing and community autority at many levels -- from the traditional police agencies to the neighborhood level community associations. Life in Irvine is detached, efficient, clean, and safe. But it is embedded within a larger geographic area where life in other communities is more lively and less well ordered.

The utopian visions of intentional communities such as Forest Grove, Morning Star Ranch and bourgeois utopias such as Irvine each deal only with a part of life. But the lives of these communities are extensions of lives within a larger environment. Each has been dependent upon outside recruits, resources and markets. Being strongly connected to local and regional governments ensures the continuation of a community like Irvine, but continuation or survival of the utopian community does not mean that the utopian vision is complete or self-sufficient.

This is an important point because utopian visionaries typically emphasize on a few critical life issues, such as ecological soundness or a crime-free "clean city" and then characterize a totalizing lifestyle or experience around that component. Although they seek to empower community members in highly particular ways, utopian schemes are often vague on issues about other types of empowerment because they assume self- containment of the community. But the larger social, economic and political environment cannot be ignored by utopian community members nor by those who seek to understand the relationship between visions of empowerment and utopian community power-in-practice. Even though Irvine was planned to optimize consumption and to preserve the economic power of its upper middle class onstituents, the plan was vague about social interaction, and didn't consider how to politically empower its citizens. As a result, Irvine residents live in a rather sterile social environment, and they are politically disadvantaged when vying with development companies, financial institutions and other powerful organizations in the area.

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Part II

Bits of Cities:
Utopian Visions and Social Power in Placed-Based and Electronic Communities


Most of the utopian literature written during the 20th century has been pulp science fiction (Kumar, 1991). In these fantasies, advanced technologies enable visionary earthlings to establish new societies on new worlds. Except for some notable feminist utopian visions (Hayden, 1984), much of the earth-bound 20th century English-language literature has been anti-utopian, such as George Orwell's "1984" or Aldous Huxley's "Brave New World" --a reaction to the implementation of socialist utopias in Russia and Eastern Europe. (There are some exceptions, such as Huxley's less well-know novel about a psychedelic utopia, "Island.")

Now that the Soviet-model utopian societies have reorganzied along market lines, Kumar expects a new utopian vision to coalesce. "As we approach the end to the second millenium--and not just because of the millenial sentiments this may arouse--we must expect the new strivings and the new strains of industrial society to require new pictures of the future" (Kumar, 1991:106). And we can expect these visionaries to carry on the common utopian heritage. Their utopias will control or satiate human desire for economic well-being, social fulfillment or political empowerment. How will they do this? What new utopia will we envision?


We use the term cyberutopia to refer to utopian visions of communities whose members interact primarily on-line -- in cyberspace. California is home to Silicon Valley and the birth of the micrcomputer industry. Some firms, such as the Apple Computer Company, were seen as extensions of the 1960s counterculture until they began to develop alliances with major industrial firms such as IBM in the late 1980s. It should be no surprise that California has been a major incubator of cyberutopianism.

Visionaries, like Howard Rheingold (1993), Nicholas Negroponte (1995) and William Mitchell (1995), identify cyberspace as the new social frontier. Their depictions of cyberlife, while differing in some fundamental ways, share the core premises of technological utopianism:

     "... technological utopianism...  places the use of some
     specific technology -- computers, nuclear energy, or
     low-energy low-impact technologies -- as the central
     enabling element of a utopian vision.  Sometimes
     people will casually refer to exotic technologies --
     like pocket computers that understand spoken lan-
     guage -- as "utopian gadgets". Technological
     utopianism does not refer to a set of technologies. It
     refers to analyses in which the use of specific
     technologies plays a key role in shaping a utopian
     social vision  in which their use easily makes life
     enchanting and liberating for nearly everyone (Kling,1996x:).
The widespread prootion of a utopian visions can actually facilitate those changes. As Kumar notes,
     "It can serve as 'an imaginative reminder of the
     nature of historical change,' by insisting, 'as a matter
     of general principle, that temporarily and locally
     incredible changes can and do happen'.  And it can
     contribute to that change by 'the education of
     desire'.  It can open the way to aspiration because
     utopia can 'teach desire to desire, to desire better,
     to desire more and above all to desire in a different
     way'" (Kumar, 1991:98).
Nicholas Negroponte is an MIT Professor who founded the MIT's Media Lab. He also helped to create Wired magazine, whose editorial staff are based in San Fransisco. His 1995 book, Being Digital, is a technological utopian tract that portrays a good social life as one in which we strongly embrace digital technologies as everyday media for all aspects of personal life. Unlike Mitchell and Rheingold, Negroponte doesn't offer an explicit vision of community life. But his book has been relatively influential and promotes a strong version of the position that social life on-line is better than that of placed-based relationships, a work or at home.

Negroponte insists that digital technology will inevitably change forever--and for the better--the way we live our lives. He understands that this prospect may be a bit scary for the digitally uninitiated, but is convinced that once he describes the wonders that high-tech information services can offer, everyone will embrace them as a new way of life. He is teaching his audience to desire hi-tech, digital--not analog--consumer products and to imagine new forms of utopian information consumption. His enthusiastic rendition of the digital breakfast is captivating:

     "If your refrigerator notices that you are out of milk,  
     it can 'ask' your car to remind you to pick some up
     on your way home.  Appliances today have all too
     little computing.  A toaster should not be able to
     burn toast.  It should be able to talk to other
     appliances.  It would really be quite simple to
     brand your toast in the morning with the closing
     price of your favorite stock.  But first, the toaster
     needs to be connected to the news" (Negroponte, 1995).
This type of technological optimization appeals to 'electronic cottage' enthusiasts who value efficient consumption. Appliances talk to each other so people don't have to. You don't have to call your broker to find out if you're making money in the stock market, your toaster can make the call to your broker's computer and digitally imprint your toast with the response! It's playful imagry, but Negroponte wants it to be taken seriously rather than as satire. He hopes that people come to prefer this kind of quick, impersonal information gathering encounter over face-to-face interaction with personal information providers. As comfort levels increase with the impersonal interaction of encouter-based services in retail stores, fast food restaurants and even medical clinics, people may actually develop a preference for the artificial encounter over the less familiar face-to-face relationship.

But who would benefit from arrangements like these? Negroponte positions his readers to experience themselves as more powerful social actors who can work where they want when they want. The digital worker isn't forced to commute downtown, she can work at home half-dressed and listening to the music of her choice. He portrays a world in which computerization liberates people from the hassles of face interaction, of human limitations, of place, and time. But he doesn't examine how electronic organizations will insure insure accountability from their employees.

Negroponte doesn't identify the growing social power of the large-scale organizations whose servcies would make such a world possible, including large telecommunications firms and encounter-based service providers. He doesn't examine how people who have made the digital turn might feel less empowered in his digital world. He vividly envisions the advanced technological component and efficient consumer interaction with digital technologies, but sketches only vaguely a digital political or social life. For Negroponte, cyberspace is a corncopic collection of technologies and servcies in which every convenience is a basis for new human freedom.

In contrast, other utopians see cyberspace as offering some of the important elements of an intentional community. Howard Rheingold (1993) describes his online experiences at the WELL, a computer conferencing system in Sausalito California (near San Fransisco), as a socially rich--almost spiritual-- communion. The WELL--the Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link--wasn't established until 1985 (see http://www.well.com/). Its communal character is derived from the egaliatarian and participatory countercultural intentional comunity models of the 1960's. Its founder was once a member of the Farm, a relatively successful commune that originated in San Fransisco[6]. Rheingold characterizes this group who first turned to their personal computers as a way to find themselves and connect with others as "[t]he Whole Earth crowd -- the granola-eating utopians, the solar-power enthusiasts, the space-station crowd, immoralists, futurists, gadgeteers, commune graduates, environmentalists, social activists...personal computer revolutionaries" and "the DeadHeads ... the subculture that has grown up around the band The Grateful Dead" (Rheingold, 1993:48-49).

Unlike Negroponte, Rheingold doesn't try to stimulate desire for digital information technology. However, ironically, the value of his "virtual communities" lies in their ability to fulfill a desire for community that lead tens of thousands of people to value intentional communities. He describes the electronic conferencing and e-mail interactions of members of the WELL as caring, sharing and committed:

     "Reciprocity is a key element of any market- based
     culture, but the arrangement I'm describing feels to
     me more like a gift of economy in which people do
     things for one another out of a spirit of building
     something between  them, rather than a
     spreadsheet-calculated quid pro quo"  (Rheingold,
At the WELL, people don't just use digital information technology efficiently, they develop caring relationships. Participants were held responsible for what they said ("you own your words"). They lived in a complex social matrix in which social norms were worked out consensually in WELL- wide discussions, and enforced and changed by participants rather than by an external policing agency.

Why do people need to go home and sit alone in front of their computers for hours to get in touch with other people? How could this activity constitute a utopian community experience?

     "I suspect that one of the explanations for  this
     phenomenon is the hunger for community that grows
     in  the breasts of people around the world as more
     and more  informal public spaces disappear from our
     real lives"  (Rheingold, 1993:6).
Rheingold's observation takes on special meaning in urban areas, such as Irvine, that are not organized to support viable face to face community life. In this view, cybercommunities like the WELL may offer a kind of politically empowering medium for people who are feeling isolated and powerless in their neighborhoods.

We need to recognize how a larger social context shapes the visions of 'virtual community.' If life in the middle class suburbs of the 1960's inspired disenchanted youth to seek communion in new intentional communities, it is plausible that postsuburban life may inspire the technologically adept youth of the 1990's to seek meaningful social interaction online. The WELL managed to maintain its communal character as it grew from a few hundred people in 1985 to over 8000 in 1993. But this on-line community is still only about the size of the village of Turtle Rock in Irvine. Can egalitarian and convivial virtual communities scale up to include thousands or even millions of particpants?

Mitchell (1995) suggests that they might. His City of Bits is an adventuresome manifesto that tries to translate organzing concepts for cities into their electronic analogs: real estate is cyberspace, the wild west become the electronic frontier, face- to-face becomes the interface, street networks become the world wide web, neighborhoods become MUDs, community customes become network norms, and so on. he write:

     "... the Oxford (dictionary) definition of a community
     as a "body of people living in one place, district, or
     country"-is eroding; a community may now find its
     place in cyberspace. The new sort of site is not some
     suitable patch of earth but a computer to which
     members may connect from wherever they happen to
     be. The foundation ritual is not one of marking
     boundaries and making obeisance to the gods, but of
     allocating disk space and going online. And the new
     urban design task is not one of configuring buildings,
     streets, and public spaces to meet the needs and
     aspirations of the civitas, but one of writing computer
     code and deploying software objects to create virtual
     places and electronic interconnections between them.
     Within these places, social contacts will be made,
     economic transactions will be carried out, cultural
     life will unfold, surveillance will be enacted, and
     power will be exerted.
Mitchell holds the WELL up as a model cyberspace community, but acknowledges that as information infrastructures expand, fundamental questions about how the model is extended and transformed will be hotly debated. He urges us to pay attention to this scale up, as online communities grow from small groups meeting socially at the WELL, to hundreds of thousands of cybercitizens commuting daily to a City of Bits. "It matters because the emerging civic structures and spatial arrangements of the digital era will profoundly affect our access to economic opportunities and public services, the character and content of public discourse, the forms of cultural activity, the enaction of power, and the experiences that give shape and texture to our daily routines" (Mitchell, 1995:5). Like Negroponte, Mitchell predicts that digital technologies will transform the way we do everything. But rather than merely speculating on how 'smart' appliances might enhance mundane routines, like breakfast, he suggests that, because information infrastructures constitute the very essence of our institutions and the architectures that house them, truly profound social, economic and political changes are underway. Mitchell sees production and consumption efficiencies being realized in every domain: education, medicine, work, entertainment, finance, real estate and, of course, communication. And he describes how each of the institutions that support these activities will be reconstituted in cyberspace--with certain efficiency enhancements. For example, he expects "[s]chool and university libraries [to] become less like document warehouses and dispensaries and more like online information- brokering services" (Mitchell, 1995:69).

Michell's City of Bits illustrates a market-driven vision of a networked utopia -- an electro-Irvine -- competitive, detached, efficient, clean, safe, and somewhat hostile to the disadvantaged.

     "The bandwidth-disadvantaged are the new have-nots.  
     It's simple; if you cannot get bits on and off in 
     sufficient quantity, you cannot directly benefit
     from the Net .... No network connection at all--zero
     bandwidth--makes you a digital hermit, an outcast
     from cyberspace.  The Net creates new opportunities,
     but exclusion from it becomes a new form of
     marginalization." (Mitchell, 1995:17-18).
Mitchell is sensitive to the plight of the information poor, but he is decidedly unsympathetic toward 'materiality chauvinists' who denounce his cyberutopia as a world "going to hell in a handheld device."

These authors portray Cyberspace as a new social frontier. They may adopt the thematic constructs of space-age hyperbole, they may compare its wealth of opportunities to a "wild west territory" waiting to be exploited by wily entrepreneurs and courageous pioneers, or they may find there an idyllic Eden where humanity can return to its natural, cooperative, communal social form (Amiran et al., 1992). But they generally ignore the ways that scholars and other investigators are finding that democratic participation on-line is difficult and fragile (Herring, 1993, Kling, 1996c; Mantovani, 1994; Phillips, 1995).

How authors and planners think about the possibilities in cyberspace depends upon the technological frames that guide their social lives and professional disciplines (Bijker, 1995). Nicholas Negroponte is professor of Media Technology at MIT, a founder of the Media Lab, and a co-owner of Wired magazine. William Mitchell is Dean of the School of Architecture and Planning at MIT. In contrast, Howard Rheingold is a professional author, and editor of the Whole Earth Review who works primarily from home. Each of their utopian visions is clearly grounded in their respective areas of expertise and lifeworlds. By combining their descriptions, we get a more complex portrait of what our digitally enhanced future might hold. Their descriptions of cyberdemocracy may serve to illustrate this point.

None of them is a political scientist, and yet each is convinced that democratic forums in cyberspace can fundamentally enrich the political process. Based on his experiences at MIT, Mitchell expresses enthusiasm about the efficiencies of electronic politics:

     "As telecommunications networks have developed,
     there has been growing flirtation with the idea of
     replacing old-fashioned voting booths and ballot
     boxes with electronic polling.  In a cyberspace
     election, you might find the policies of candidates
     posted online, you might use your personal
     computer to go to a virtual polling place to cast
     your vote, and the votes might be tallied
     automatically in real time.  Because all students
     have access to the on-campus Athena network, for
     example, MIT can conduct its student government   
     elections in this way.  There are, of course, potential  
     problems with electronic stuffing of ballot boxes, but 
     these can be handled through password control of
     access to the virtual ballot box or (better) through
     use of encryption technology to verify a voter's
     identity"    (Mitchell, 1995:151).
Negroponte and Rheingold are also enthusiastic, although Rheingold stands apart by seeing the possibilites for abuses that might not be easily handled through clever password encryption schemes:
     "Virtual communities could help citizens revitalize 
     democracy, or they could be luring us into an
     attractively packaged substitute for democratic
     discourse" (Rheingold, 1993:276).
Some advocates believe that universal access to civic networks can prevent powerful groups from sidelining the online democratic process (Schuler, 1994). As Kling (1996) has noted, their market-driven utopian models predict that "market forces" will naturally foster electronic forums that are prosocial. They measure social community, democracy and power as an accumulation of individual units of electronic participation. If everyone has access, the network can promote political community and democratic empowerment.

Santa Monica has actually implemented a public electronic network (PEN) specifically designed to promote community- oriented participatory democracy. City officials report mixed results and express guarded optimism about PEN's potential for politically empowering Santa Monica citizens. Unrestricted electronic debate has, thus far, has not been effective in resolving city political issues. Now, Santa Monica's officials are considering adopting rules of order, similar to those used in public meetings, to render the discourse more manageable (Dutton, forthcoming). Some cities, like Cleveland, have followed Santa Monica's lead, and have implemented community networks of their own. Other cities, have opted for less interactive modes of citizen participation. Irvine, for example, was offered the PEN configuration, but decided, instead, to implement a telephone-based information kiosk where the invitation to "Press 1 for more options" defined the upper limits of one's political expression.


California has been a region of the mind and social imaginations as well as a real political entity with concrete people, settlements and daily lifeworlds. We have sketched some of the utopian developments in California in the late 19th and 20th centuries. Unfortunately, the more egalitarian communities have been fragile and have usually been short lived.

In California, the utopian social frontier that stimulates the imaginations of millions of poeple has shifted to cyberspace. Like their physical world counterparts, cyberutopians typically zero-in on one critical component of life, like 'smart' appliances, and then define a totalizing lifestyle or experience around that component. Mitchell and Negroponte, like the Irvine planners, envision a world of optimized consumption in which civility is enforced by policing at many levels. But they are vague about social interaction, and they don't seem to understand how to politically empower online citizens. It is easy to imagine how, like Irvine residents, electronic community members could find themselves in a rather sterile social environment and where they are politically disadvantaged when vying with telecommunications companies, financial institutions and other powerful organizations on the Net.

Online forums should be viewed as an extension of lives within physical cities -- they don't provide food, housing, and other physical needs. The big questions of this period may be how to develop interesting synergies between on-line servcies and enriched community life. We need to continue to discuss this larger social, political and economic context to understand the interplay between physical and virtual communities -- between traditional utopian visions and cyberutopias.

Some themes carry over. The community paradigms commonly adopted by utopian planners have been ported to cyberspace. Virtual cities of efficient consumption, such as those described by Mitchell, may reproduce comumption- oriented lifestyles such as those that are amplified witin Irvine. Online communities, like the WELL, may provide an important form of human contact when physical gathering places have disappeared from many cities. But even if these activities and communities become relocated and reformulated in cyberspace, they remain simultaneously embedded in and dependent upon a larger physical world.

Citizens may have the right to participate freely in online political debates within their city or across the nation, but they will probably rely on powerful telecommunications providers for access. Shoppers may find electronic malls to be convenient and efficient, but their consumer choices may be constrained to products that can be delivered online or by DHL.

As utopians like Rheingold, Negroponte and Mitchell describe fascinating online experiences that teach us to desire digitally enhanced lifestyles, those with connections to mainstream institutions, like infrastructure architects and city planners, telecommunications providers and computer software developers, have begun to implement their online visions as extensions of the postsuburbia or as bits of the cities where we live and work. Our analysis of utopian colonies in California suggests that their social and economic embeddedness will strongly shape the character of cyberutopian social forms.


1. Cyberspace "is the name some people use for the conceptual space where words, human relationships, data, wealth, and power are manifested by people using CMC [computer-mediated communication] technology." (Rheingold, 1993, p.5)

2. California hosted seventeen utopian colonies "in the period between 1850 and about 1940, New York, Wisconsin, and Washington had a number nearest to that in California, each with three colonies." (Hine, 1983, p.6-7)

3. In the Western state of Utah, Mormon religious settlements seem to have been continually plagued by ideas and practices from the larger society, such as materialsim, that undercut communitarian values. Belk (1994) reports the ways that some Mormon leaders preached that their followers should make clothes and other goods at home, while they prefrred to purchase fancier clothing, jewelry and furnishings for their families from commercial merchants. While the Mormon religious group thrived in Utah, Mormon intentional communities fell apart.

4. See Martin Schiesl's (1991) brief history of the development Irvine by The Irvine Company.

5. "Orange County has the most severe shortage of low-income housing in the nation, according to a 1995 study by the Washington-based Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. The study, which analyzed housing data from the nation's 44 largest metropolitan areas, found one affordably priced apartment for every five low-income renters" (Richardson, 1996:B4).

6. The Farm started in 1971 with the caravan of busses that followed the charismatic Stephen Gaskin on a speaking tour across the country. The group settled in Summertown TN and subsisted on agricultural production, outside employment, and cottage industries until the commune began to pay for itself. It was almost driven to bankruptcy by the 1980s farm crisis. The Farm restructured and is prospering again through small business enterprises. Many of these businesses are run with computers including The Birth Gazette, a quarterly midwifery magazine, and the One World Trading Co (Sachs, 1988). For more information about the Farm, see their website at http://www.well.com/user/cmty/farm/.


We owe much to friends and colleagues who have helped us better understand utopian visions and community life in California, especially Professors Spencer Olin and Mark Poster of UC Irvine. Frank Hodgkiss and other members of the Orange County American Institute of Architects' Urban Design Committee have also subtly influenced our appreciation of community development in Southern California's new cities. Howard Rheingold and Sanjoy Mazudomar provided helpful comments on early drafts.


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Professor Rob Kling
The Information Society (journal) 
Center for Social Informatics
10th & Jordan, Library 012
Indiana University
Bloomington, IN 47405-1801 

812-855-9763 -- Fax: 855-6166

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