Review of Imaginary futures — from thinking machines to the global village by Richard Barbrook, Pluto Press, 2007.
This book is a history of the future, the history of an ideology, which, over the last 60 years, has sought to colonise our conceptions of the way the world is going.
The book starts in 2005 with Richard Barbrook returning to the scene of the New York World’s Fair, which he had first visited as a seven year old in 1964. Some of the original exhibition remains and he is struck that “for decades, the shape of things to come has remained the same. The hi-tech utopia is just around the corner but we never get there... the future is what it used to be.”
While some parts of the techno-political ideology of the 50s and 60s have disappeared (nuclear energy too cheap to meter, space travel for the masses), some have remained remarkably persistent. Barbrook asks how belief in the advent of thinking machines and artificial intelligence and analyses of how capitalism is morphing into the post-industrial or information society, could remain important up to today. Where did these ideas come from and how have they remained so influential?
The Cold War and the growth of post-war consumerism in the US provided fertile ground for their emergence. The Cold War posed the challenge of both moderating the ravages of unrestrained free market capitalism that had culminated in the Depression and of showing that the “American way” could provide a superior path of historical development to that mapped out by Stalinism. Plus the state spent vast amounts on defence-related scientific and technical research. The post-war boom made it plausible that the majority of Americans could share the benefits of technological development (such as the diffusion of TV) and that other nations could follow by creating the conditions that had enabled the USA to develop.
Barbrook traces three strands that came together to create a distinctive set of ideas of thinking machines and the information society: cybernetics; the media theory of Marshall McLuhan; and the work of a group of social scientists he chooses to call the “Cold War Left”.
Cybernetics was the work of scientists and technologists who had worked on computing and ballistics during World War Two. It aimed to provide a unified theory of natural, social and machine behaviour based around concepts such as control and feedback. Cybernetic theorists were not politically homogeneous. The founder of cybernetics, Norbert Wiener, saw the idea of artificial intelligence as the epitome of technological domination, publishing a book on The Human Use of Human Beings. Wiener was marginalised by Cold War cyberneticists led by John von Neumann and by the mid-50s, a research programme leading to “thinking machines” had been codified.
Subsequent developments led to the quip that “Artificial intelligence is what hasn’t been done yet”, referring both to the fact that achievement of the goal was consistently pushed into the future as computer technology developed, and that once one knows how to write a computer program to perform a task it is no longer seen as necessarily requiring intelligence. Accordingly, as Barbrook points out, as computers have become more easily available, it has become more difficult to sustain the idea of AI as more than a set of computing techniques that give the appearance of intelligence to a public more familiar with using computer software.
The second strand came from the Canadian media theorist Marshall McLuhan, whose writings became very popular in the 1960s. McLuhan added a robust technological determinism to the mix, arguing that “human history was a succession of cybernetic systems created by feedback from different kinds of media... every leap in social evolution was identified with the advent of a new type of media.” By the 60s, the print media which had superseded the spoken word were themselves giving way to electronic media such as TV, satellite communication and computers. These in turn would cause social change, resulting in the creation of a “global village” where everyone could talk to everyone else, thus overcoming national barriers and “bringing all social and political functions together in a sudden implosion has heightened human awareness and responsibility to an intense degree.” Barbrook comments that its analysis “could be reinterpreted as an enthusiastic celebration of the imaginary future of the information society. Best of all, [it] identified America as the prototype of the emerging global village.”
The third influence, for Barbrook the most important, is what he misleadingly calls the “Cold War Left”, a group of ex-Marxist social scientists, who came to see the USA as the lesser evil to be supported in the Cold War. Their training enabled them to fulfil a particular ideological function in the US of the 50s and 60s: namely to create a “Marxism without Marx”, a historical materialist account of economic and social development that would show why the future lay with the “American way” rather than Stalinism. They did so by suggesting that society was of its own accord developing towards something different from what existed but which was still fundamentally capitalist.
The book focuses on three thinkers: James Burnham, whose 1940 writing on The Managerial Revolution predicted the convergence of Stalinism, fascism and liberal capitalism towards a distinct mangerial society; Walt Rostow, an economist whose Stages of Economic Growth showed a “non-ideological” path whereby underdeveloped countries could reach “take off” by following the path laid down historically by the US; and the sociologist Daniel Bell, who brought together economics and politics in a vision of a post-industrial liberal Keynesian capitalism in which both the class struggle and ideological conflict had been superceded.
While some ex-Marxists who did contribute to this ideology using their training, Barbrook goes overboard both by making statements like “the Trotskyist left had grown up and become the Cold War Left” and in tying the views of these ideologues to some Leninist original sin.
Firstly, the Trotskyist left did not just give up and disappear, so repelled by Stalinism that it ran into the arms of the US state. The by then conservative Burnham faced his erstwhile comrade Shachtman across a McCarthyite courtroom, testifying that Shachtman’s organisation should go on a list of subversive groups. (Interestingly, Daniel Bell also defended the Socialist Party against the state).
Of Barbrook’s three theorists, only Burnham had ever been a Trotskyist and he had broken with Marxism in 1940. Bell, by his own account, had identified with the right wing of the Socialist Party in the 30s: “Knowledge [of Kronstadt], combined with my temperament had made me a lifelong Menshevik, the chooser, almost always of the lesser evil”, which, ironically brings him closer to Barbrook’s own position than to Trotskyism. It can also be questioned whether an attachment to Keynesian state intervention serves to define anyone as “left”, particularly in this period.
In attempting to explain why the “Cold War Left” took on a particular American form, Barbrook identifies with a Kautskyan social democratic position, which he calls “orthodox Marxism” (defending parliamentary democracy!) He counterposes it to Lenin and the tradition of Bolshevism, which is in turn identified with Stalinism. The argument between the Kautskyan and the Leninist positions have often been rehearsed in other contexts and are largely irrelevant to Barbrook’s main theme so I won’t cover that ground here, except to say Kautsky’s evolutionism and the Menshevik idea of rigid historical stages corresponding to different levels of social development are rather closer to Bell and Rostow than were Lenin and Trotsky.
By the early 60s the “Cold War Left” had become an important influence over the policies of the Kennedy administration in the US. “Cybernetics without Wiener had been successfully combined with Marxism without Marx.” At the same time the reformers of Stalinism under Khrushchev focused on technological competition with the US and both sides saw the potential of computers in a cybernetic model of development within their respective economic systems.
In the USSR this ended with the ousting of Khrushchev in 1964, while, in the US, the first glimmerings of “The Net” began to emerge from the military-scientific complex with the development of computer systems that could multi-task and packet switching communications. Barbrook argues that the motivation for packet switching was less the military one of being able to create networks that would survive a nuclear war but rather to facilitate communication between scientists working on defence research. This then formed the model of the free interchange of information in an open academic community that was embodied in their computer network ARPANET, which eventually morphed into the Internet.
Accordingly, despite their own intentions, the US military gave birth to what Barbrook calls “cybernetic communism”. “The builders of the Net were allowed to hard-wire the academic gift economy into its social mores and technical architecture… the university became the prototype of the post-capitalist information society.”
The development of the net was both shaped by and in its turn boosted the ideology of the information society and the global village. Though the dominance of the technocrats of the Kennedy-Johnson years — Chomsky’s “New Mandarins” — waned with their failure to win the Vietnam war against a vastly technologically inferior enemy, their ideas persisted in the 70s, though in a modified form. In this they were aided by elements of the New Left and late 60s counter culture, who expressed an enthusiasm for the democratic possibilities of new media, creating what Barbrook calls “Marxism-McLuhanism”. This in turn was subverted by the right — some members of the “Cold War Left” having become neo-cons by the 80s — so that the freedom of the Net became identified with the free market.
Unfortunately, Barbrook squeezes the whole of the last 30 years into the last chapter, presumably for reasons of space. Since 1990 the ideology and predictions of Information Society theorists has come up against the reality of the Net as a mass social phenomenon. The results have been mixed. As Barbrook points out, while many of the technological predictions of the 60s have been realised, the social utopias supposed to accompany them have failed to materialise. But his own response is also somewhat contradictory. He writes:
“Within the Net, cybernetic communism is here and now. Yet, at the same time, the arrival of the information society hasn’t precipitated a wider social transformation. Cybernetic communism is quite compatible with dotcom capitalism…”
Yet, despite this realism, Barbrook still holds that net-based activities, the “gift economy”, are prefigurations of future emancipation. It is true, for example, that open source software is produced in a voluntary and cooperative manner. However over the last few years, it has also been commodified — in part, in order to convince business that it is safe to use it. Perhaps then cybernetic communism is a mirage — not fundamentally different from McLuhan’s utopia. Barbrook ends by saying that: “Our utopias provide the direction for the path of human progress.” Perhaps that’s all that’s left for a self-confessed social democrat these days?
Where I have taken issue with Imaginary Futures, it has largely been with the underlying political positions it puts across. Yet it is possible to accept and value much of the main narrative without accepting them. The book tells an important story well. The left should neither forget the history and ideology of the Net in a blaze of techno-enthusiasm, nor simply retreat into “neo-Luddism”. Telling the story of the past of the future is a useful aid to orienting ourselves in the “Information Age”.