Print this page

Imaginary Futures: From Thinking Machines to the Global Village

Cooperative creativity and participatory democracy should be extended from the virtual world into all areas of life. This time, the new stage of growth must be a new civilisation.

This spring, a new work of literature will force both intellectual thinkers and everyone who is cyber-connected to re-evaluate the political history of the Internet.

Dr. Richard Barbrook traces the early days of the Internet, beginning from a pivotal point at the 1964 World’s Fair, in what critics are saying is the most well-researched and original account of cybertechnology among contemporary works. He demonstrates how business and ideological leaders put forth a carefully orchestrated vision of an imaginary future, where robots would do the washing up, go to the office and think for us. With America at the forefront of these promises, Barbrook shows how ideological forces joined to develop new information technologies during the Cold War era and how what they created historically has shaped the modern Internet, with intended political consequences.

Crucially, he argues that had the past been different, our technological and political present would not be what it is today. Barbrook’s conclusions about the modern state of the Internet, puts forward a call for action in how the world’s most important tool of revolutionary politics should be approached.

WARNING: This is a book that many who control the Internet do not want you to read.

Available from Pluto Press in May 2007
Order copies at:
£16.99 GBP – $26.95 USD

Download a PDF introduction to Imaginary Futures

View a video introduction to Imaginary Futures

Imaginary Futures excerpts

The model of the future offered to me as an adult in late-2000s London is the same future promised to me as a child at the 1964 New York World’s Fair. What is even weirder is that – according to the prophecies made more than four decades ago – I should already be living in this wonderful future.

Computers were described as ‘thinking’ so the hard work involved in designing, building, programming and operating them could be discounted.

While some prioritised defending civil liberties at home, most of them were convinced that the first priority of the American Left was to prove its anti-Stalinist credentials in the Cold War confrontation. Since socialism – in all its interpretations – was a dangerous foreign concept, a more patriotic form of radical politics had to be developed. During the long period of conservative rule of 1950s, this aspiration became the rallying-call for a new movement of progressive intellectuals: the Cold War Left.

As the most liberal nation on earth, the United States must also be the furthest advanced along the path towards socialism. The Iraq War was not only a war for oil, but also, more importantly, a war for media. When the US military’s hi-tech victories were covered live and in fullcolour on the global TV news bulletins, the whole world would understand that the United States was the most advanced nation on the planet.

For pro-American politicians like Blair, adopting an independent foreign policy implied much more than the dangerous reordering of geopolitical space. Above all, this shift threatened their certainties about time. It was almost unthinkable that the future might not be American.

When the owner of the future controlled the present, geopolitical rivalries and class conflicts were focused upon the struggle between opposing definitions of the global village. At various times from the 1950s to the 2000s, the information society was identified as a state plan, a military machine, a mixed economy, a university campus, a hippie commune, a free market, a medieval community and a dotcom firm.

Contrary to the tenets of McLuhanism, the convergence of media, telecommunications and computing has not – and never will – liberate humanity. The Net is a useful tool not a redemptive technology. Cooperative creativity and participatory democracy should be extended from the virtual world into all areas of life. This time, the new stage of growth must be a new civilisation.

Just like producing cybernetics without Wiener, inventing Marxism without Marx had now become an idealogical priority.