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Richard Barbrook on Thu, 26 Aug 2004 20:24:38 +0200 (CEST)

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Mute, no. 28, 13/7/04 [see www.metamute.com]


The Future Is What It Used To Be

At the beginning of the 21st century, the dream
of artificial intelligence is deeply embedded
within the modern imagination. We have grown up
with images of loyal robot buddies like Data in
Star Trek TNG and of pitiless machine monsters
like the cyborg in The Terminator. These science
fiction fantasies are encouraged by confident
predictions from prominent computer scientists.
Continual improvements in hardware and software
must eventually lead to the Singularity: the
creation of artificial intelligences more
powerful than the human mind. Despite its
cultural prominence, the meme of sentient
machines is vulnerable to theoretical exorcism.
Far from being a free-floating signifier, the
dream of artificial intelligence is deeply rooted
in time and space. Analysing the history of this
prophecy is the precondition for understanding
its contemporary manifestations. With this
motivation in mind, let's go back to the second
decade of the Cold War when the world's biggest
computer company put on a show about the wonders
of thinking machines in the financial capital of
the most powerful and wealthiest country on the

A Millennium Of Progress

On the 22nd April 1964, the New York World's Fair
was opened to the general public. This exposition
was held to demonstrate that the USA was the
leader in everything: consumer goods, democratic
politics, show business, modernist architecture,
fine art, religious tolerance, domestic living
and, above all else, new technology. Writers and
film-makers had long fantasised about travelling
to other worlds. Now, in NASA's Space Park,
visitors could admire the huge rockets which had
taken the first Americans into earth orbit.
General Motors' Futurama looked forward to a
future where space ships would take tourists to
the moon. At its Progressland pavilion, General
Electric predicted that nuclear fusion would soon
make electricity 'too cheap to meter'. For many
exhibitors, there was only one technology which
could prove their modernity: a computer.

Almost all the mainframes at the World's Fair
were used as advertising gimmicks.  In contrast,
IBM's pavilion celebrated computing as a distinct
technology. For over a decade, this corporation
had been America's leading mainframe
manufacturer. Seizing the opportunity for
self-promotion offered by the exposition, IBM
commissioned a pavilion which would eclipse all
others. Eero Saarinen - the renowned Finnish
architect - constructed a white,
corporate-logo-embossed, egg-shaped theatre
suspended in the air by 45 metal trees.
Underneath this striking feature, interactive
exhibits celebrated IBM's contribution to the
computer industry. For the theatre itself,
Charles and Ray Eames - the couple who epitomised
American modernist design - created 'The
Information Machine': a multi-media show which
explained that how IBM's mainframes were
prototypes of the artificial intelligences of the

For over a decade, prominent computer scientists
in USA had been convinced that machines would
sooner or later become indistinguishable from
humans. Language was a set of rules which could
be codified as software. Learning from new
experiences could be programmed into computers.
At the 1964 World's Fair, IBM proudly announced
that the dream of artificial intelligence was
about to be realised. In the near future, every
American would own a devoted mechanical servant
just like Robby the Robot in Forbidden Planet.

'Duplicating the problem-solving and
information-handling capabilities of the [human]
brain is not far off [in 1960]; it would be
surprising if it were not accomplished within the
next decade.'

Within at the IBM pavilion, computers existed in
two time frames at once. On the one hand, the
current models on display were prototypes of the
sentient machines of the future. On the other
hand, the dream of artificial intelligence showed
the true potential of the mainframes exhibited in
the IBM pavilion. At the New York World's Fair,
new technology was the fulfilment of science
fiction fantasy: the imaginary future.

Exhibiting New Technology

At the New York World's Fair, the rulers of
America wanted to demonstrate that the USA not
only owned the future, but also the past. For
over a century, cities across the world had been
holding international expositions. What united
all of them was their common inspiration: the
1851 Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of
All Nations. Flush with the wealth and power
which flowed from owning the 'workshop of the
world', the British elite had decided to
celebrate the wonders of economic progress. The
Crystal Palace - a futuristic iron and glass
building - was erected in a central London park.
Once inside, visitors were treated to a dazzling
display of new products from the factories and
exotic imports from the colonies. For most
visitors, the stars of the show were the machines
which were powering the world's first industrial
revolution: cotton looms, telegraphy systems,
printing presses and, best of all, steam engines.
The message of these exhibits was clear. Britain
was the richest and most powerful nation on the
planet because the British invented the best

When wandering around the Crystal Palace,
visitors were supposed to learn about the
achievements of British industry. Yet, despite
this pedagogical intent, the displays at the
Great Exhibition systematically ignored the lives
of the people who had created the products on
show. For instance, the silk dresses betrayed no
traces of the horrors of the sweatshops where
they were made. With their labour hidden and
their price irrelevant, their symbolic role of
industrial products took centre stage. The
commodity was transformed into an artwork. Use
value and exchange value had been temporarily
superseded by a more esoteric social phenomenon:
exhibition value. Public display was -
paradoxically - the most effective method of
social concealment: 'World exhibitions were
places of pilgrimage to the fetish Commodity'.

Within the space of the Crystal Palace, new
technologies easily won the competition for
public attention. Yet, the organisers of the
Great Exhibition had originally envisaged a very
different focus for their event: the promotion of
high-quality British design. The prime location
in the middle of the main hall was allocated to
an exhibit of Gothic Revival furniture and
religious items. This faux-medieval style already
shaped the politics of Victorian England. The
ruling elite took delight in disguising their
hi-tech commercial republic as a romantic
medieval monarchy. In the most modern nation in
the world, the latest industrial innovation
masqueraded as an archaic feudal custom: the
invented tradition.

Like the railway stations of Victorian England,
new products in the Crystal Palace were supposed
to be disguised as ancient artefacts. Yet,
despite the best efforts of the organisers, it
was the machinery hall which became the most
popular section of the Crystal Palace. Gothic
Revival furniture couldn't match the emotional
impact of the noise and energy of working steam
engines. More importantly, the machinery hall
proudly celebrated the new technologies which had
turned England into an economic and military
superpower. Invented tradition had lost out to
the imaginary future.

Inside the Crystal Palace, new technology became
the icon of modernity. Separated twice from its
origins in human labour first through the market
and then through the exposition, machinery was
materialised ideology. Both bourgeois liberals
and working class socialists found confirmation
of their political beliefs in the steam engines
of the Great Exhibition. Despite their deep
differences about the ideological meaning of new
technologies, the two sides agreed on one thing:
defining the symbolism of machinery meant owning
the imaginary future.

This political imperative also provided the
impetus behind the world exposition movement.
After the triumph of the Great Exhibition, other
countries quickly organised their own industrial
festivals to break the British ideological
monopoly over the future. As in the Crystal
Palace, demonstrations of new technologies were a
big draw. The 1889 Paris Universal Exposition was
immortalised by the superb engineering
achievement of the Eiffel Tower. However, by the
time that this exhibition opened, the European
powers were already falling behind the rapid pace
of innovation taking place in the USA. Only a few
years after the Eiffel Tower was built, the
Palace of Electricity at the Chicago Columbian
Exposition provided spectacular proof of the
technological superiority of US industry over its
European rivals. America was taking ownership of
the future.

During the first half of the twentieth century,
the disparity between the two continents became
ever more obvious. Visitors to the 1937 Paris
International Exhibition were confronted with a
sombre image of the world: the two massive
pavilions of Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia.
The political and ideological divisions driving
Europe towards catastrophe were starkly
symbolised in brick and concrete. In complete
contrast, the icons of the 1939 New York World's
Fair were Democracity - the main attraction of
the organisers' Perisphere building - and
Futurama - a diorama inside the General Motors'
pavilion. Both exhibits promoted a utopian vision
of an affluent and hi-tech America of the 1960s.
In this imaginary future, the majority of
population lived in family homes in the suburbs
and commuted to work in their own motor cars.

Facing such strong competition for the attention
of visitors, other corporations resorted to
displaying sci-fi fantasy machines. The star
exhibit of the Westinghouse pavilion was Electro:
a robot which could walk, talk, and puff a
cigarette. This gimmick provided the inspiration
for the imaginary future of artificial
intelligence. Until the 1939 World's Fair, robots
in science fiction stories were usually portrayed
as emotionless monsters intent on destroying
their human masters. But, in 1941, Isaac Asimov
changed this negative image. Just like Electro in
the Westinghouse pavilion, his fictional robots
were safe and friendly products of a large
corporation. During the 1950s, this change of
image led to artificial intelligence becoming one
of the USA's most popular imaginary futures.

Cold War Computing

For most visitors to the 1939 New York World's
Fair, its imaginary future of consumer prosperity
must have seemed like a utopian dream. The
American economy was still recovering from the
worst recession in the nation's history and
Europe was on the brink of another devastating
war. Yet, by the time that the 1964 World's Fair
opened, the most famous prediction of the
Democracity and Futurama dioramas had been
realised. America was now a suburban-dwelling,
car-owning consumer society. Exhibition value had
become everyday reality.

Since the most famous prophecy of the 1939
exposition had largely come true, visitors to the
1964 New York World's Fair could have confidence
that its three main imaginary futures would also
be realised. Who could doubt that - by 1989 at
the latest - the majority of Americans would be
enjoying the delights of space tourism and
unmetered electricity? Best of all, they would be
living in a world where sentient machines were
their devoted servants. The American public's
confidence in these imaginary futures was founded
upon a mistaken sense of continuity. At the 1939
World's Fair, the public display of new products
had intensified the effects of commodity
fetishism. Exhibition value added another degree
of separation between creation and consumption.
Inside its 1939 pavilion, General Motors' latest
products played a supporting role to the Futurama
diorama which portrayed the corporation's
ambition to turn the majority of the US
population into suburban-dwelling, car-owning
consumers. But, despite its prioritisation of
exhibition value, this exposition couldn't
totally ignore the use value of new technology.
Almost everyone had at some point travelled in a
motor car. Although it might obscure the social
origins of products, the imaginary future
expressed the potential of a really-existing

The 1964 New York World's Fair needed a much
higher level of fetishisation. For the first
time, exhibition value had to deny the principle
use value of new technologies. Whatever their
drawbacks, motor cars provided many benefits for
the general public. In contrast, the primary
motivation for developing space rockets, atomic
reactors and mainframe computers was to create
weapons which were powerful enough to destroy
entire cities. Although the superpowers' imperial
hegemony depended upon nuclear weapons, the
threat of global annihilation made their
possession increasingly problematic. Two years
earlier, the USA and Russia had almost blundered
into a catastrophic war over Cuba. In the bizarre
logic of the Cold War, the prevention of an
all-out confrontation between the two blocs
depended upon the continual growth in the number
of nuclear weapons held by both sides. In a rare
moment of lucidity, American analysts invented an
ironic acronym for this high-risk strategy of
'mutually assured destruction': MAD.

Not surprisingly, the propagandists of both sides
justified the enormous waste of resources on the
arms race by promoting the peaceful applications
of the leading Cold War technologies. By the time
that the 1964 New York World's Fair opened, the
weaponry of genocide had been successfully
repackaged into people-friendly products. Nuclear
power would soon be providing unmetered energy
for everyone. Space rockets would shortly be
taking tourists for holidays on the moon. Almost
all traces of the military origins of these
technologies had disappeared. Exhibition value
completely covered up use value.

Like nuclear reactors and space rockets,
computers had also been developed as Cold War
weaponry. Using IBM mainframes, the US military
prepared for nuclear war, organised invasions of
'unfriendly' countries, directed the bombing of
enemy targets, paid the wages of its troops, ran
complex war games and managed its supply chain.
Thanks to American taxpayers, IBM became the
technological leader of the computer industry.
Despite the corporation's dependence upon
military contracts, its pavilion was dedicated to
promoting the sci-fi fantasy of thinking
machines. Like the predictions of unmetered
energy and space tourism, the imaginary future of
artificial intelligence distracted visitors at
the World's Fair from discovering the original
motivation for developing IBM's mainframes:
killing millions of people. The horrors of the
Cold War present had to be hidden by the marvels
of the imaginary futures.

Cybernetic Supremacy

At the 1964 World's Fair, imaginary futures
temporarily succeeded in concealing the primary
purpose of its three iconic technologies from the
American public. But, as the decades passed, none
of these predictions were realised. Energy
remained metered, tourists didn't visit the moon
and computers never became intelligent. Unlike
the prescient vision of motoring for the masses
at the 1939 World's Fair, the prophecies about
the star technologies of the 1964 exposition
seemed almost absurd twenty-five years later.
Hyper-reality had collided with reality - and

Like the displays of nuclear reactors and space
rockets, the computer exhibits at the 1964
World's Fair also misread the direction of
technological progress. Yet, there was one
crucial difference between the collapse of the
first two prophecies and that of the last one.
What eventually discredited the predictions of
unmetered electricity and holidays on the moon
was their failure to appear over time. In
contrast, scepticism about the imaginary future
of artificial intelligence was encouraged by
exactly the opposite phenomenon: the increased
likelihood of people having personal experience
of computers. After using these imperfect tools
for manipulating information, it was much more
difficult for them to believe that calculating
machines could evolve into sentient superbeings.

Despite the failure of its prophecy, IBM suffered
no damage. In stark contrast with nuclear power
and space travel, computing was the Cold War
technology which successfully escaped from the
Cold War. Right from the beginning, machines made
for the US military were also sold to commercial
clients. By the time that IBM built its pavilion
for the 1964 World's Fair, the imaginary future
of artificial intelligence had to hide more than
the unsavoury military applications of computing.
Exhibition value also performed its classic
function of concealing the role of human labour
within production. The invention of computers
came at an opportune moment for big business.
During the first half of the twentieth century,
large corporations had become the dominant
institutions of the American economy. Henry
Ford's giant car factory became the eponymous
symbol of the new social paradigm: Fordism.

Long before the invention of the computer,
corporations were running an information economy
with tabulators, typewriters and other types of
office equipment. However, by the beginning of
the 1950s, the mechanisation of clerical labour
had stalled. Increases in productivity in the
office were lagging well behind those in the
factory. When the first computers appeared on the
market, corporate managers quickly realised that
the new technology offered a solution to this
pressing problem. The work of large numbers of
tabulator operators could now be done by a much
smaller group of people using a mainframe. Even
better, much more information about many more
topics could now be collected and processed in
increasingly complex ways. Managers were masters
of all that they surveyed.

In Asimov's sci-fi stories, Mr and Mrs Average
were the owners of robot servants. Yet, when the
first computers arrived in America's factories
and offices, this new technology was controlled
by the bosses not the workers. In 1952, Kurt
Vonnegut published Player Piano: a sci-fi novel
which satirised the authoritarian ambitions of
corporate computing. In his dystopian future, the
ruling elite had delegated the management of
society to an omniscient artificial intelligence. 

For business executives, this nightmare was their
daydream. According to the prophets of artificial
intelligence, the computerisation of clerical
work was only the first step. When thinking
machines were developed, mainframes would
completely replace most forms of administrative
and technical labour within manufacturing. The
ultimate goal was the creation of the
fully-automated workplace. In the imaginary
future of artificial intelligence, the
corporation and the computer would be one and the
same thing. As the US military had already
fortuitously discovered, machinery could operate
much more efficiently without any human
intervention. By building predetermined responses
into the design, an inanimate weapon acted
according to 'feed-back' from its environment.
According to Norbert Wiener, the advent of
mainframe heralded the remoulding of the whole of
society in the image of a new technological
paradigm: cybernetics.

The corporate vision of cybernetic Fordism meant
forgetting the history of Fordism itself.
Ironically, since their exhibition value was more
closely connected to social reality, Democracity
and Futurama in 1939 provided a much more
accurate prediction of the development path of
computing than the IBM pavilion did in 1964. Just
like motor cars twenty-five years earlier, this
new technology was also slowly being transformed
from a rare, hand-made machine into a ubiquitous,
factory-produced commodity. Like Ford's motor
cars before them, IBM's mainframes were
manufactured on assembly-lines. These opening
moves towards the mass production of computers
anticipated what would be most important advance
in this sector twenty-five years later: the mass
consumption of computers. The imaginary future of
artificial intelligence was a way of avoiding
thinking about the likely social consequences of
this development. As Norbert Wiener himself had
pointed out, increasing ownership of computers
was likely to disrupt the existing social order.
The 'feedback' of information within human
institutions was most effective when it was

At the 1964 World's Fair, this possibility was
definitely not part of IBM's imaginary future.
Rather than aiming to produce large numbers of
ever smaller and cheaper machines, the
corporation was convinced that computers would
always be large and expensive mainframes. If this
path of technological progress was extrapolated,
artificial intelligence must surely result. This
conservative recuperation of cybernetics implied
that sentient machines would inevitably evolve
into lifeforms which were more advanced than mere
humans. The Fordist separation between conception
and execution would have achieved its
technological apotheosis.

Not surprisingly, IBM was determined to counter
this unsettling interpretation of its own
futurist propaganda. At the 1964 World's Fair,
the corporation's pavilion emphasised the utopian
possibilities of computing. Above all, IBM
promoted a single vision of the imaginary future
which combined two incompatible interpretations
of artificial intelligence. If only at the level
of ideology, the corporations had reconciled the
class divisions of 1960s America. In the
imaginary future, workers would no longer need to
work and employers would no longer need
employees. The sci-fi fantasy of artificial
intelligence had successfully distracted people
from questioning the impact of computing within
the workplace. After visiting IBM's pavilion at
the 1964 World's Far, it was all too easy to
believe that everyone would win when the machines
acquired consciousness.

Inventing New Futures

Forty years later, we're still waiting for the
imaginary future of artificial intelligence.
Despite continual advances in hardware and
software, machines are still incapable of
'thinking'. Instead of evolving into thinking
machines, computers have become consumer goods.
Room-sized mainframes have shrunk into desktops,
laptops and mobile phones. Computers are
everywhere in the modern world - and their users
are all too aware that they're dumb.

Repeated failure should have discredited the
imaginary future of artificial intelligence for
good. The persistence of this fantasy
demonstrates the continuing importance of
exhibition value within the computer industry. As
in the early-1960s, artificial intelligence still
provides a great cover story for the development
of new military technologies. Bringing on the
Singularity seems much more friendly than
collaborating with American imperialism. Even
more importantly, this imaginary future continues
to disguise the impact of computing within the
workplace. Both managers and workers are still
being promised technological fixes for
socio-economic problems. The dream of sentient
machines makes better media copy than the reality
of cybernetic Fordism.

Looking back at how earlier versions of the
prophecy were repeatedly discredited should
encourage deep scepticism about its contemporary
iterations. Forty years after the New York
World's Fair, artificial intelligence has become
an imaginary future from the distant past. What
is needed instead is a much more sophisticated
analysis of the potential of computing. The study
of history should inform the reinvention of the
future. Above all, this new image of the future
should celebrate computers as tools for
augmenting human intelligence and creativity.
Exhibition value must give way to use value.
Praise for top-down hierarchies of control must
be superseded by the advocacy of two-way sharing
of information. Let's be inspired and passionate
about imagining new visions of the better times
to come.


Richard Barbrook and Pit Schultz, 'The Digital
Artisans Manifesto',

James Bell, 'Exploring the 'Singularity'',

Urso Chappell, 'Expomuseum: World's Fair history,
architecture and memorabilia', <expomuseum.com>.

Marvin Minsky, 'Steps Towards Artificial

Jeffrey Stanton, 'Showcasing Technology at the
1964-1965 New York World's Fair',


Isaac Asimov, I, Robot.

Jeffrey Auerbach, The Great Exhibition of 1851: a nation on display.

James Beniger, The Control Revolution:
technological and economic origins of the
information society.

Walter Benjamin, 'Paris - the capital of the
nineteenth century' in Charles Baudelaire: a
lyric poet in the era of high capitalism.

Richard Thomas DeLamarter, Big Blue: IBM's use and abuse of power.

Editors of Time-Life Books, Official Guide New York World's Fair 1964/5.

Exposition Publications, Official Guide Book of the New York World's Fair 19=

Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger, The Invention of Tradition.

Jeremy Isaacs and Taylor Dowling, Cold War: for
45 years the world held its breath.

Karl Marx, Capital Volume 1: a critique of political economy.

Emerson Pugh, Building IBM: shaping an industry and its technology,.

Herbert Simon, The Shape of Automation for Men  and Management,.

Kurt Vonnegut, Player Piano.

Norbert Wiener, The Human Uses of Human Beings: cybernetics and society.


Stanley Kubrick, 2001: a space odyssey.

Fred Wilcox, Forbidden Planet.

Dr. Richard Barbrook,
School of Media, Arts & Design,
University of Westminster,
Watford Road,
Northwick Park,


landline: +44 (0)20 7911 5000 x 4590

mobile: 07879-441873

"The future is what it used to be."

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