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The email came from the translators in Brazil: “We want you to write an introduction to the Portuguese version of Imaginary Futures – something special for the local readers.” What should I say? My immediate thought was that Suba, Marky and Patife were on the soundtrack during the all-night writing sessions which created this book. Their rhythms contributed to the construction of its sentences and the flow of its arguments. Maybe I should begin the introduction by explaining why these musicians were in the mix? It definitely was no accident. Thanks to my job at Westminster University, I’ve had the pleasure of teaching some very smart Brazilian students over the past decade. Through them and other contacts, I’ve made the long journey south three times to speak at conferences and festivals in Rio, São Paulo, Brasilia and Pipa. I’ve danced at a samba school, in hip nightclubs and under the stars on a beach. I’ve discussed the politics of the Workers’ Party, analysed the global justice movement and debated leftist theory long into the night. I’ve admired the creativity and dedication of Brazilian artists, hackers and activists. Despite the language barrier, I now have dear friends in this fascinating faraway country. Enthused by these visits, I returned the favour by helping in 2005 to organise an event in London where Gilberto Gil talked about the Brazilian Ministry of Culture’s innovative new media initiatives. But, you might ask, what have these reminiscences got to do with this book? Why talk about them in the introduction for the Portuguese translation of Imaginary Futures? It’s because I recall sitting outside the Telecentro cybercafe in Pipa in 2004 when I was asked the all-important question: “Has being in Brazil changed the way that you think about the Net?” My task in this introduction must be explaining why the answer is: “Yes!”

Imaginary Futures is a book about the political and cultural power of technological prophecies. During the Cold War, the American and Russian empires competed not only to control space, but also to own time. Computers and the Net have long been much more than useful tools. For over half a century, they have also embodied utopian dreams in the service of imperial ambition. The nation that is pioneering the future in the present can claim leadership over the whole of humanity. When I began the research for this book in 2002, my focus was exclusively on the North. I was fascinated by how the imaginary futures of the Cold War still dominated the contemporary world long after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The American empire might have prevailed over its Russian rival, but its boosters remained trapped within an ideological framework devised for this geopolitical conflict. Not surprisingly, this book reflects the times in which it was written: the aftermath of the dotcom bubble and the moment of the US-led invasion of Iraq. Across Europe, political leaders, academic experts and media commentators were convinced that America – the land of cutting-edge computing and the Net – was our tomorrow today. Where the US president led, our countries must follow – even if it meant sending troops into foreign lands where they weren’t welcome. As one of the two million people who marched against this folly in London on 15th February 2003, I wrote this book as a howl of protest. By painstakingly explaining the history of the imaginary futures of artificial intelligence and the information society, I wanted to equip its readers with the knowledge to refute these anachronistic prophecies. The next time that someone told them that the post-industrial utopia was just around the corner, they could reply that this prediction was nothing more than recycled McLuhanism. The Cold War was over – and its made-in-America imaginary futures were too.

As my questioner in Pipa was wondering, I didn’t need to visit Brazil or know anyone from the country to come to this conclusion. Few of the authors who fill the shelves of my study with their thoughts about computing and the Net are interested the impact of information technologies within the developing world. Like them, I could have said everything that I wanted to say in this book without making any mention of the majority of humanity. Computers and the Net are from the North, so why bother talking about the South? Fortunately, my Brazilian comrades have prevented me from succumbing to this lazy temptation. Their influence has added depth to the analysis of Imaginary Futures. First and foremost, I’ve realised how different the world looks from the South compared to the North. It’s not just the constellations in the sky that are upended, but also geopolitical memory. When I visited Brasilia in 2004, I saw with my own eyes the modernist edifices of a better society that was denied to their country. As the book emphasises, leading intellectuals of the American empire were cheerleaders of the 1964 military coup which overthrew the democratically elected government of João Goulart. The wonders of the US-style hi-tech future to come justified the horrors of the brutal dictatorship that was imposed on Brazil in this period. For those of us who live in Western Europe, it is always a shock to encounter the inequality and violence which resulted from this authoritarian path of development. Because our experience of American hegemony during the Cold War was relatively benign, we only truly understand the human costs of its imperial rule when we come to the South. The concluding chapters of Imaginary Futures reflect what I learnt from my Brazilian trips. When I was writing the book, I knew that the fiercest criticism of these utopian prophecies from the North was explaining how their advocates had tried to realise them in the South. Tellingly, I discovered that the American instigators of the 1964 coup in Brazil were also the architects of their nation’s disastrous invasion of Vietnam. With US-led forces occupying Iraq and Afghanistan, the parallels with the present had to be drawn. The desire to own time is intimately connected with the ambition to control space. When I looked at the world from the South, I could see how easily hi-tech dreams can turn into nightmares of barbarism and cruelty. Going to São Paulo was the precondition for understanding why – in Imaginary Futures – Saigon plays such a key role in the history of the global village.

When I first visited Brazil in 2002, the importance of envisaging the world from the South when writing this book wasn’t immediately obvious. At the conference at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, our hosts entertained their foreign guests with the sad story of the local version of Californian hi-tech hype. Mesmerised by the late-1990s dotcom bubble, Fernando Henrique Cardoso’s administration had fantasised about Brazil making a great leap forward from underdevelopment to the information society without having to pass through Fordism. With the inhabitants of the nearby favelas lacking the basic amenities and welfare services which are taken for granted in Europe, we were appalled at how the imaginary futures of the North had given a modernist gloss to the perpetuation of exploitation in the South. When the supporters of the newly elected Lula government told us that reaching Fordism would be a major achievement for the urban poor of Brazil, we couldn’t disagree. Focusing the country’s economic policy on computers, the Net and mobile phones seemed grotesque when so many people lacked water, sewage, electricity, healthcare and education. We’d read our Marx – we knew that the South couldn’t avoid following the North’s slow and painful path to modernity.

I then had a worrying thought. Ironically, our leftist sympathies for the inhabitants of the favelas might be disguising a dubious assumption of European superiority. With its huge gulf between rich and poor, travelling to Rio in the early-21st century does seem like going back in time to London in the late-19th century. It was certainly true that lots of tourists go to Brazil for a quick dose of exoticism and adventure before returning to their safe European homes. If our motivations for foreign travel were no purer, did this mean that the inhabitants of an underdeveloped country couldn’t tell us anything about computing and the Net that we didn’t know already? Here was another troubling conclusion. Cardoso had been a respected Marxist economist before he sacrificed principles for power. His perverse embrace of dotcom neo-liberalism might be founded upon a kernel of rationality: the South had faithfully to imitate the North in all its vices. With his ambition of jumping over Fordism to post-industrialism, maybe he was the true radical rather than the Lula government with its cautious programme of incremental reforms? Who wants to be Sweden when you could become Silicon Valley?

Six years later, as the global financial system is wracked in crisis, it seems absurd that Brazil would want to transform itself into California. On the contrary, it’s now widely recognized that many of the elements of the new paradigm of modernity are more likely to be found in this supposedly underdeveloped country than in its advanced neighbour to the north. By the time that Mídia Tática Brasil invited me back for their conference in 2003, Gilberto Gil was already arguing – as a government minister – in favour of an open source vision of the Net. For him, funding community cybercafes and media hotspots complimented the provision of other essential amenities to the underprivileged. Most wonderfully, it was the copyright fetishists of the North who would have to imitate the South’s relaxed attitude to intellectual property not the other way around. The ownership of computers and access to broadband might be much lower in Brazil than Europe and America, but it was here that could be found the precursor of the participatory culture of the Net. Carnival not the market was the Minister of Culture’s model for the emerging information society. True to his roots in Tropicália, Gil is a true cosmopolitan. Imitation isn’t subservience – it’s inspiration and cooperation. Remixing, sampling and quoting are the tools of collective labour in the hi-tech-gift economy.

In the conclusion of this book, I argue that we must invent new futures. Exorcising the Cold War ideologies of artificial intelligence and the global village is my contribution to mapping out a path through the multiple political, economic, social and environmental problems that now confront humanity. Crucially, as my interlocutor in Pipa guessed, you too have helped to create this text in a small way. Imaginary Futures would have been a different book in many subtle ways if I hadn’t visited Brazil and learnt from the people who I met there. The inhabitants of the North and South are in this venture of modernity together. So let’s continue our collaboration in the common endeavour of making a more equalitarian, sustainable and prosperous world. The drum ‘n’ bass is playing and this book is waiting to be read. Enjoy!

Richard Barbrook,
16th November 2008.

Within this MySpace version of the electronic agora, cybernetic communism was mainstream and unexceptional. What had once been a revolutionary dream was now an enjoyable part of everyday life.