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<nettime> Lost Dreams of the American Future
Richard Barbrook on Sun, 11 Jan 2015 23:47:41 +0100 (CET)


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<nettime> Lost Dreams of the American Future


English: http://www.cybersalon.org/lost-dreams-of-the-american-future
German: http://www.zeit.de/2015/01/weltausstellung-new-york-internet

Welcome to what was once the greatest show on earth! This year marks the
50th anniversary of the first season of the 1964/5 New York World's
Fair. I know because I was there as a 7-year-old boy and I can still
recall my excitement at seeing the giant rockets in its Space Park.
Having just arrived from England, the Barbrook family's day out at the
World's Fair was one of my earliest encounters with the weird and
wonderful culture of what would be my temporary home for the next 12
months. My father Alec was on his way to begin a research sabbatical at
MIT's Political Science department which - as I later discovered to my
amusement - was surreptitiously funded by the CIA. Since these spooks'
goal was to persuade Europeans to embrace the American cause, spending
some of their grant money on our family excursion to the 1964/5 New York
World's Fair was most appropriate. Symbolising its organisers'
ambitions, the centre piece of this exposition was a 43 metre stainless
steel sculpture of planet earth: the Unisphere. Laid out around this
impressive icon was a complex of pavilions sponsored by US government
institutions, private corporations, friendly countries and faith
communities. Wandering around these exhibits, the Barbrook family and
other visitors to the World's Fair could - among its many spectacular
attractions - watch a musical about the marvels of chemistry, take a
Disney ride explaining the evolution of life on earth, lunch in an
imitation Belgian village, go on a Pop Art ferris wheel, gaze at a domed
roof shaped like the moon and stand underneath 9 life-size replicas of
dinosaurs. The best of everything from all corners of the globe was on
display for us to savour.

Above all, the crowds at this exposition were expected to admire the
unsurpassed technological prowess of the American empire. In both its
state and corporate pavilions, what had already been achieved was
proudly displayed as the promise of the shape of things to come. The
Mercury and Gemini rockets which so impressed me as a small boy were
precursors of the space liners which would one day be taking
holiday-makers to the moon. General Electric showcased a demonstration
of atomic fusion which would soon be providing almost free energy for
every business and household. Launching its new System/360 mainframe,
IBM boasted that this computer was the prototype of machines that would
be able to reason like human beings: artificial intelligence. The
patriotic message of these fabulous exhibits was unambiguous. The USA
was the hi-tech future of humanity in the present. Inspired by this
utopian prophecy, the peoples of the world were now adopting the
American way of life with enthusiasm. Within a couple of decades at
most, we would all be able to travel into space, use electricity without
worrying about its cost and buy robot slaves to serve our every need.
Science fiction was on the verge of becoming everyday reality.

Ever since the stunning success of Victorian Britain's 1851 Great
Exhibition, ambitious elites have been hosting international expositions
to promote their own country's scientific advances, cultural
accomplishments, geopolitical influence and economic achievements. For
instance, like Beijing Olympics two years earlier, the recent Expo 2010
in Shanghai was conceived as a public celebration of China's reemergence
as a great power. East Asia was once again at the centre of the global
system. Five decades earlier, when the 1964/5 New York World's Fair
opened, its organisers were similarly confident about the USA's
exceptional status. In the year that the Barbrook family visited this
show, there could be no doubt that America was Number 1 in every key
indicator of national importance: political freedom, living standards,
financial hegemony, industrial output, artistic creativity, military
might and, as its corporate and state pavilions kept emphasising,
technological progress. Crucially, on all of these measures, its Russian
rival was a poor second in the Cold War confrontation between East and
West. Not surprisingly, like so many Europeans of his generation, my
father took pride in his enthusiasm for the American empire. Being
awarded a grant to study at MIT merely confirmed his long-held loyalty
to the most advanced civilisation in human history. In 1964, as our
family visit to the New York World's Fair confirmed, the West was the
best.

Nowhere better conveyed this geopolitical message than the exposition's
Mercury and Gemini rockets. Like most small boys at that time, I was
obsessed with the heroic adventures of the astronauts and cosmonauts who
were competing against each other in the space race between the USA and
the USSR. I too fantasised about flying to the stars with John Glenn -
and embracing Valentina Tereshkova in zero gravity! As my mother fondly
recalls, my top priority for our family visit to the World's Fair was
going to the Space Park. Although the Russians had taken an early lead,
its Mercury and Gemini rockets proved that the Americans were now
surging ahead in this superpower contest for technological supremacy.
Before the decade was over, the USA would win the space race when its
astronauts made the first landing on the moon. Yet, despite this
impressive triumph, the predictions of interplanetary tourism made at
the 1964/5 World's Fair have yet to be fulfilled. If the 7-year-old
Richard had been able to look forward to now, the fact that it's
impossible buy a ticket to the moon in 2014 would have been most
puzzling. Unfortunately, like almost everyone else at the exposition,
I'd been misled about the true purpose of the huge rockets in the Space
Park. Far from being Version 1.0 of starships, they'd been developed for
a much more diabolical purpose: the mass murder of millions of
civilians. Guided by computers, these missiles were capable of
delivering a nuclear bomb which could wipe out an entire Russian city
and its unfortunate inhabitants. Not surprisingly, the management of the
World's Fair had no wish to terrify its visitors with the imminent
threat of atomic armageddon, especially as the Cold War enemy was also
equipped with these horrific weapons. Instead, concealing their military
origins, intercontinental missiles, nuclear reactors and mainframe
computers were rebranded as the precursors of space tourism, free energy
and thinking machines. Except for the perceptive few, the happy crowds
enjoying the Pop Art architecture, Broadway shows and Disney rides of
the New York World's Fair were unaware that all around them on public
display were the mechanisms of genocide. In the West as in the East,
optimistic propaganda had replaced critical understanding.

Five decades later, the Cold War prophecies of extraterrestrial tourism
and fusion power are still being plugged by the promoters of Virgin
Galactic's space planes and the EU's experimental HiPER reactor. For
them, the techno-utopian future is what it used to be. More
surprisingly, there are even some scientists who also believe in the
imminent arrival of artificial intelligence. Yet, the history of
computing since the 1964/5 New York World's Fair has taken a very
different path from that predicted by its IBM pavilion. Instead of
enabling expensive room-sized machines to mimic human brains, continual
improvements in hardware and software during this intervening period
have shrunk the expensive System/360 mainframe into today's affordable
laptops, mobiles and tablets. Above all, over the past fifty years,
computing has converged with telecommunications and the media to create
the iconic technology of our own times: the Net. At the New York World's
Fair, IBM's computer which could read hand-writing, Bell's prototype
videophones and the model of the Telstar satellite circling the
Unisphere were premonitions of this ubiquitous necessity of modern
living. Capturing the emancipatory possibilities of these scientific
advances, its organisers declared that their exposition was dedicated to
construction of global harmony: 'Peace through Understanding'.

Unfortunately, just like the Mercury and Gemini rockets in the Space
Park, network computing is also a Cold War technology which was invented
for malign purposes. In America as in Russia, it was military money that
funded the pioneering scientific research into digital hardware and
software. During the two decades before the 1964/5 New York World's
Fair, IBM's success in securing defence contracts had transformed the
corporation into the dominant player within this cutting-edge sector of
the economy. Every machine from its first commercially available
mainframe series - the aptly-named 701 Defense Calculator - was sold to
either the US military or weapons manufacturers. IBM developed both the
graphic user interface and remote computer terminals for the SAGE
command-and-control system of the American bomber fleet. Crucially, it
was while working at the US airforce's RAND think-tank that Paul Baran
published his seminal 1960 paper on packet-switching data networks. One
carefully-aimed Russian atomic bomb could disable America's imperial
power by destroying the central node of its military's top-down
hierarchy. In his RAND report, Baran argued that IBM's SAGE provided the
prototype of a digital solution to this mortal danger. By enabling the
flow of orders to route around any damaged links within computerised
communications, his packet-switching software would ensure that the
USA's armed forces could keep on fighting against the Russian opposition
even if its General Staff headquarters was knocked out of action. In
this first iteration, the Net was a command-and-control system for
waging nuclear warfare.

While the crowds were still flocking to admire the technological marvels
of the New York World's Fair, America's political and military leaders
were seduced by their own futurist propaganda into making one of the
most disastrous decisions in this nation's history: the invasion of
Vietnam. Back in the mid-1950s, when the French empire was evicted from
its South-East Asia colony by a Maoist peasant insurgency, the USA had
intervened to secure the southern half of the country for its local
supporters. But, by the time that the World's Fair opened a decade
later, this corrupt and brutal pro-American client state was in deep
trouble. With organisational and logistical help from the independent
north, Maoist guerrillas had taken over most of the countryside in the
south and were on verge of seizing control of its major cities. Refusing
to concede defeat in this Cold War confrontation, the rulers of the
American empire in 1965 decided to send out a massive expeditionary
force to subdue this rebellious frontier province. In contrast with the
defeated French colonialists, the US military now possessed advanced
digital technologies which could secure victory on the South-East Asian
battlefield. Using IBM System/360 mainframes, its staff officers planned
the bombing campaigns and 'search-and-destroy' missions that were
launched against the Vietnamese partisans. By measuring the losses of
American troops and their local collaborators against those of the
resistance fighters and their civilian supporters with accountancy
software, US generals had statistical proof that the West was winning
its war against the East: the 'body count'. Named in honour of the
politician who managed this colonial campaign, the McNamara Line was
built as an impenetrable electronic barrier between the two halves of
Vietnam. When its vast array of networked sensors detected
reinforcements from the liberated north crossing into the occupied
south, they alerted the computers monitoring this Asian equivalent of
the Berlin Wall which then directed American aircraft and
helicopter-born troops to intercept and eliminate these Maoist
subversives. In this second iteration, the Net was a top-down
surveillance technology for imposing the empire's domination over the
restless natives of its border regions.

As they toured the marvellous exhibits of the New York World's Fair, the
overwhelming majority of visitors didn't realise that its corporate
sponsors were already making huge profits by providing the machinery of
death and destruction for the US military's assault on Vietnam. Inside
the IBM, Bell and General Electric pavilions, the hi-tech promise of
global peace was hiding the barbaric reality of imperialist butchery.
Fortunately for humanity, over the next decade, the bravery and
ingenuity of the Vietnamese partisans slowly but surely overcame the
massive superiority in material and manpower of the American army of
occupation. In the end, like the Berlin Wall, the McNamara Line couldn't
prevent the unification of a country whose people were determined to be
united. Yet, as the recent revelations by Wikileaks and Edward Snowden
have reminded everyone, the 1975 victory of the Vietnamese national
liberation struggle only intensified the US military's enthusiasm for
network computerised warfare. Next time, its upgraded hardware and
software must be able to beat the bad guys. By the time that Bush
administration decided to invade Afghanistan and Iraq in 2001, American
generals were convinced that their soldiers were now invincible on the
electronic battlefield. Hi-tech weaponry was their substitute for
intelligent geopolitics. But, having failed to learn the lessons of
Vietnam, the US elite has once again suffered humiliation in these 21st
century imperialist adventures. As the foot soldiers are slowly
withdrawn from the badlands of the Middle East and Central Asia, the
National Security Agency (NSA) has now emerged from the shadows to take
a frontline role in the defence of the American empire. By intercepting
phone calls, emails and social media postings, its spies are already
able to provide the terrain coordinates for many of the US military's
deadly strikes against suspected Islamist terrorists. When the NSA has
the whole of humanity under constant observation and American drones are
continually patrolling the world's skies, all overt resistance to
imperial domination will become suicidal. In this 21st century reboot of
the McNamara Line, the global hegemon punishes evil thoughts with sudden
death from above.

Still traumatised by Al Qaeda's murderous 2001 attacks on New York and
Washington DC, the overwhelming majority of the American population
strongly supports their government's repressive measures against
terrorists in distant countries who threaten the safety of mainland USA.
Even Snowden's exposure of the NSA's phone tapping of leading European
politicians has aroused little protest. When American lives are in
danger, the human rights of foreigners are irrelevant. However, as the
inhabitants of earlier empires also discovered to their cost, despotism
abroad almost inevitably inspires authoritarianism at home. According to
the 1791 Bill of Rights, every US citizen is protected from the worst
abuses of state tyranny, including the interception of their personal
communications except in exceptional circumstances which require
judicial authorisation. Already much eroded during the Cold War, this
constitutional guarantee was negated by the mass panic unleashed by Al
Qaeda's 2001 terrorist atrocities. Having obtained the approval of both
the legislature and the courts, the US government ordered the NSA to
monitor the personal communications of anyone who might pose a threat to
the American empire. Flush with taxpayers' money, its spooks have spent
the last decade and a half constructing the technical infrastructure for
the ubiquitous surveillance of the entire global population. More than
anything else, the realisation of this totalitarian ambition has
depended upon the dominance of corporate America over the Net. Whether
for targeted advertising, market research or customer relations, these
dotcom companies have become adept at gathering and analysing data about
how people are using their products and services. For the spooks,
gaining access to this confidential information which can reveal an
individual's political opinions, moral beliefs and cultural tastes is a
top priority. Like the corporate sponsors of the New York World's Fair
that profited from the American invasion of Vietnam, some dotcom
companies such as Microsoft have voluntarily included back doors in
software to facilitate NSA spying upon the purchasers of their products.
Others with more scruples like Google have instead had the traffic to
their servers surreptitiously copied by the American secret police.
Crucially, this mission to accumulate intimate digital data is no longer
confined to the brown-skinned inhabitants of the troubled frontiers of
the imperial realm. With the 1791 Bill of Rights eviscerated, the NSA
can now also intercept the personal communications of all-white American
citizens with impunity. Since anyone could be an enemy of the empire,
everybody must be a potential target of surveillance. Invented as a
military technology, the Net promises to provide the US elite with a
decisive technological advantage in the perpetual war against its real
and imagined opponents at home and abroad: total information awareness.
The organised few will always prevail over the disorganised multitude.

On both sides of the Atlantic, much of the anger directed at the NSA's
illegal spying is fuelled by the shocked realisation that the
libertarian prophecies of the Net boosters have been disappointed. Back
in the mid-1990s, the writers of 'Wired' promised that the convergence
of computing, telecommunications and the media would soon sweep away the
state and corporate hierarchies which curtailed personal creativity,
individual freedom and entrepreneurial initiative. In their Californian
vision of the digital future, anyone with a good idea and a bit of luck
has the opportunity to become a dotcom millionaire. Echoing this
neoliberal prediction, many leftists over the past two decades have also
embraced the emancipatory possibilities of the information society.
Bypassing the ideological conformity of the mainstream media, radicals
can now utilise social media to proselytise and organise against the
exploiters of humanity and the plunderers of the planet. As proved by
the 2010-1 Arab Spring and the 2011-2 Occupy movements, the Net is
creating the technological infrastructure for mass participation in
democratic decision-making. Unfortunately, like the crowds at the 1964/5
New York World's Fair, the believers in these two variants of digital
libertarianism have been mesmerised by the wonderful civilian spin-offs
of a dubious military project. As Snowden's leaks remind us, the Net
wasn't invented to open up new markets or foster political diversity.
Like the rockets which so impressed the 7-year-old Richard in the Space
Park, it is first and foremost a Cold War weapons system. Far from
perverting its true purpose, the NSA's grandiose scheme of ubiquitous
global surveillance is the fulfilment of the Net's founding mission:
defending American imperial hegemony over a chaotic world.

According to some clever hackers and resourceful entrepreneurs, the
menace of digital totalitarianism can be countered by developing strong
forms of encryption for the masses. However, as the recent arrests of
the sellers of recreational drugs on Silk Road 2 demonstrated, this
technological fix is unlikely to provide a long-term solution for
protecting personal privacy. This growing realisation of the inherent
weaknesses in Tor and other encryption programs has encouraged the
rediscovery of more traditional countermeasures to state tyranny. Tim
Berners-Lee - the revered creator of the first web browser - is now
calling for the formulation of a new Bill of Rights for the Net. Even if
the NSA could be made to respect the US constitution, Americans would
carry on spontaneously flouting its legal protections of their own
privacy. Thanks to the Net, sharing personal information with strangers
is now a prerequisite of everyday existence. From finding directions on
a map to buying next week's groceries, people are continually revealing
the most intimate details of their personal lives to all and sundry. As
Berners-Lee has understood, the liberal concept of the self-sufficient
individual which inspired the 1791 US Bill of Rights is now obsolete.
What is required instead is a new political settlement which nurtures
today's collective forms of digital citizenship. Personal freedom on the
Net is threatened by the intrusive attentions of both state and
corporate hierarchies. If the emancipatory promise of the information
society is to be fulfilled, people must be confident that their informed
consent is required to access and utilise their private data. The fear
of secret police surveillance and corporate monitoring is already
inhibiting the expression of dissident views on social media. By
ensuring that freedom and democracy aren't sacrificed for security and
profits, the Net Bill of Rights can provide the mutually agreed rules
for regulating the 21st century's network society in the common
interest. In cyberspace as in real life, politics is always better
organised bottom-up than top-down. Thankfully, fifty years after the
opening of the 1964/5 New York's World Fair, the USA's elite is no
longer the exclusive owner of the hi-tech future. The empire's networked
computers have become the tools of its rebellious subjects' collective
emancipation. As the heroic Vietnamese partisans so emphatically proved
four decades ago when they successfully breached the McNamara Line, the
NSA's totalitarian technologies may be able to slow down historical
progress, but these spooks can't reverse its direction. Empowered by the
Net, the peoples of this planet are engaged in collaboratively building
a truly human civilisation. The virtual future is here and now.


=========================

Richard Barbrook is Senior Lecturer in Politics at the University of
Westminster in London, England. He is the author of 'Class Wargames:
ludic subversion against spectacular capitalism'; 'Imaginary Futures:
from thinking machines to the global village'; 'The Class of the New';
and 'Media Freedom: the contradictions of communications in the age of
modernity'. For more information, check out his websites:
http://www.imaginaryfutures.net 
http://classwargames.net


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