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<nettime> UP FOR GRABS by John Barker

UP FOR GRABS: Richard Barbrook's Imaginary Futures, From Thinking
Machines to the Global Village

John Barker

The imaginary future is invariably a claim to the present by its
dominant political and economic class. In the case of Cold War
America, there was an urgency to its creation, because although it was
outdoing the USSR in all conventional economic and productive indices,
the distorted Marxist veneer maintained in Moscow had a stronger
rhetorical vision of the future which, in the end, it claimed, would
win out: history was on its side. The creation of such an American
version 'imaginary future', spurred on also by short lived moments
when the Soviets were ahead, or appeared to be ahead in certain
modernist technologies - the first satellite in space, and then the
possibility of a communist cybernetics - is what Richard Barbrook
describes in this book. It is an account which exhaustively pulls out
the ideological and fetishistic dynamics from under the flim-flam of
its promoters, but also describes how the development of the internet
and its world wide web has ironically emerged as a tool with
liberatory possibilities.

His starting point is the 1964 World's Fair in New York that took
place during an intense period of the Cold War, its planning no doubt
underway during the time of the Cuban missile crisis. With its
futurist IBM Pavilion the Fair acted as Trojan-Horse type propaganda.
"Instruments of genocide," Barbrook writes "were successfully
disguised as benefactors of humanity." Nuclear weapons, militarized
computing, and militarized space use were presented as the utopian
future being made real in the present.

To make the particular nature of this futurism clear, he contrasts the
Fair with London's Great Exhibition of 1851, which instead disguised
Britain's modern hi-tech world in the medieval fantasies of the Gothic
Revival; and with the American exhibition of 1939 whose promise of a
suburban America built around the motor car was realized, and had a
New Deal rhetoric of a cohesive and peaceful society. On the other
hand, the 1964 promises of unmetered energy (nuclear fusion), tourism
to the moon, and intelligent computers, have been unfulfilled and,
since Chernobyl and an Apollo crash at take-off, have been
discredited. Only the Holy Grail of Artificial Intelligence is still
on the table, pursued with a fanaticism borne of some deep and
perverse psychic need, and enabled by the non-stop levels of its
research budget, forthcoming during the period described here, because
of an equally deep ideological need to disguise the grotesque military
'game-playing' it allowed for.

Barbrook himself was at the 1964 Fair as a boy with his mother,
sister, and an academic father who he comes to realize was part of
what he calls the cold-war left, one which willingly made
accommodation with the technological fantasies on display there, and
the 'military definition of reality' as described by C. Wright Mills.
This, given that he hates this view of the world and what it lead to,
gives the book its drive and its edge. It ends with a rousing cry for
the equality of an intelligent citizenry, allied to use of the world
wide web as a liberatory tool, but it is also an angry lament, that a
generation of self-styled progressives should have destroyed social
democracy both as a possible, perhaps likely, governmental mode, and
as an ideal.

What destroys it is the Vietnam War, though he is scrupulous enough to
avoid his anger becoming yet another version of this being 'an
American Tragedy'. He is forthright in saying that this was a
Vietnamese tragedy, and is horrified that here were nominal
progressives who became obsessed with how many Vietnamese peasants
could be killed. This callousness began with an ideological notion of
what was modernity - a Cold War version - but also from a faith in
technology itself. This faith - in line with the top-down history of
social democracy - involved a denial of human agency. Describing the
IBM Pavilion at the 1964 Fair, he argues that it wasn't just military
use being disguised, but that the imaginary future of electronic
brains concealed the human labour involved. Computers were described
as 'thinking' so that the hard work, the surplus-value producing
labour of designing, building and operating of them, could be


In the course of World War II, various intellectuals, including
Marxists, and ex-Marxists, found a place in positions of
responsibility and power in a militarized government. This wartime
government was the genesis of what C. Wright Mills came to call the
Power Elite, and as it morphed into Cold War governments, the
'military definition of reality' became a crucial cohesive force for
it. In this transition the newcomer intellectuals who remained in this
elite included ex-Marxists, and especially ex-Trotskyists whose
hostility to the USSR as it existed, made the switch to a wholly
militarized American view of the world not so difficult. (1)

Barbrook sees them as playing an important role in the creation of
this 'counter futurism.' We have seen something depressingly similar
among the 'Blairites' of New Labour, and the presence of ex-Marxists
among today's American neo-cons has also been noted. He quotes from
Ignazio Silone that "the final struggle (for global hegemony) ... will be
between the Communists and the ex-Communists." But with both the
neo-cons of today, and the real villains of this book, their influence
is rather over played for polemical effect. In this book those real
villains are intellectuals, social democrat Keynesians if pushed, but
with a penchant for American military superiority, and a role in the
Power Elite, who had read some Marx, understood the idea of historical
materialism, and wanted to create a class-free version of it.

Early in the book he introduces the ex-Trotskyist leader James
Burnham, who had made such a switch, to describe a revolution in which
a managerial class was the deservedly new elite, one most developed in
the USA. To give this notion force, Burnham wanted to give it the
Shock and Awe touch, inevitability. It is true that managerialism was
new in its ideological and practical importance for the Power Elite,
and that computer development would only strengthen this development.
Equally, the imagined future was dependent on managerial capacity, but
of itself, managerialism provided none of the required appeal.


Instead, Barbrook presents the advent of cybernetics, and soon after
the 'global village' notions of converging communication technologies
pioneered in new style by Marshall McLuhan. Both were, and are,
capable of varying interpretation and so become, though he is hesitant
to say it, sites of 'struggle'. He traces the history of cybernetics
back to 'the Macy Conferences', and from this there emerge hero and
villain. The hero, and this is the big rescue job of the book, is
Norbert Wiener. True, Wiener's theory of a continual feedback between
information and action which could be used to describe the behaviour
of living organisms and technological systems would seem to make
misuse possible, even likely, but he also challenged the 'patriotic
consensus' of the Cold War which allowed scientists to rationalize
their military-funded research; and asserted the need for humans to
control their machines.

Later he became an inspiration to a short-lived reformist faction of
the USSR elite and their utopian idea of computerized and interactive
planning, a "new cybernetic model of communism: the 'unified
information network'." It did not survive the return to centralized
control under Brezhnev, but in turn, spurred the American cybernetic
world to make something more inspiring than one dominated by military
use and Artificial Intelligence fanaticism. This is how Barbrook
characterizes the turn cybernetics had taken when it became dominated
by John von Neumann, mathematician and Cold War enthusiast, who had
been involved in developing the atomic bomb and then in building a
prototype mainframe computer for the US Navy. The inherent danger of
metaphor and analogy in scientific work, allowed him to argue that
'feedback' meant that computers operated like humans. He is the first
of Barbrook's villains whose propagandizing of AI, allowed the
development of war games with a clean conscience for those doing the

But this, no more than Burnham's managerial elite, created much of an
attractive version of the future. Enter Marshall McLuhan, an obscure
literature professor in Canada with a suitably modern mish-mash of
snappy perceptions based on the ideas of Harold Innis. that 'the
movement of information' played the primary role in shaping human
societies. In Understanding Media and the more snappier titled The
Gutenberg Galaxy, he postulated a convergence of a communication
technologies, and neutral gloablisation. For him "print consciousness
- the indifference of rationalism - would be superseded by electronic
media consciousness - the empathy of intuition," as Barbrook puts it.
One might object to the domineering arrogance of some of its
proponents, but the superseding of rationalism, can only make one
nervous. The intellectuals of the Power Elite on the other hand, were
all to happy keep their monopoly on rationalism, while taking up
McLuhan's ideas. What appealed to them in his work was not just the
heralding of the information age, but in particular the converging and
'unification' of computing, media and telecommunications, and how this
provided a vision of the future in which the USA already had an
unassailable lead. The technical determinism implied in his argument
- a changed technological mode of communication making for a new mode
of consciousness - also meant that, in the right hands, the ideas
could be rendered ideologically safe.


The intellectuals, the ones Barbrook calls 'the cold war left', were
of the type who tell you what you were really saying the moment you've
finished saying it. In this instance there was not even
acknowledgement of what McLuhan had said.. He had to be interpreted
and unacknowledged because he himself was too off-the-wall to provide
a Cold War imaginary future, or to be useful to academic careerists.
Without acknowledgement, interpretation becomes appropriation, and
what was constructed was McLuhanism without McLuhan. This when McLuhan
himself had shown his 'flakiness' when, at a 1969 meeting of the
Bilderberg Group he asked, "What are we fighting Communism for? We are
the most Communist people in world history."

The appropriation of the ideas and breakthroughs of inventers,
innovators, and mavericks by those with institutional and financial
power is hardly new. In the case of McLuhan, his appropriators were
real operators, Daniel Bell and the geopolitical cold warrior Zbigniew
Brzezinski, a member of Bell's multi-disciplinary Commission which had
come out of the American Cybernetics Conference of 1964 and was
financed by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Bell had
already provided an early version of the 'Third Way' with his The End
of Ideology, ("The end of ideology is not - and should not - be the
end of utopia as well") having already proved himself a reliable
hatchet man for the Power Elite with a critique of Wright Mills' book,
that depended on nod-and-wink put-downs and the distortions that arise
from simply ignoring the phenomena it highlighted.(2) As well as
professional academics, the Commission also involved think-tankers
like Herman Kahn who, in the 1950s, had claimed a nuclear war against
the USSR was winnable on the basis of simulated war games. It was he
and a colleague from the Hudson Institute who came up with a list of
100 imminent inventions for the Commission. Much was predicated on the
power of 'thinking machines'. Meanwhile Brzezinski in a 1968 article
and a 1970 book, reproduced McLuhanism as academic sociology with
technology as the driving form of human history, no class conflict
involved. And this time it was new technology which was effecting a
new economy, and a view of the world to go with it, the information
society replacing the industrial with the USA in the lead.

Barbrook argues that Bell found this insufficient, that it didn't
offer their own vision of "the emancipated society", their vision of
utopia, and that this was his self-appointed job. His point of view
was essentially similar however: "As in earlier stages of growth,
people were spectators of an evolutionary movement outside of their
control," Barbrook writes. Certain ironies also arise. For one thing,
there is a distinct whiff of 'the end of history' in Bell's
conclusions, and the end of history itself sounds all too like the
thousand year Reich, an absurd claim, inviting hubris. Already there
has been a new version of the end of history, American also, but from
a rather different viewpoint. Then there is the date of Bell's final
'canonical text' (a phrase Barbrook is overly fond of) The Coming of
Post-Industrial Society. It finally appeared in 1973, but by then the
political-ideological base it had been built on, had gone. Not that
the technological developments towards the information society as
network (net) came to a stop, far from it, but that his 'third way
version' had been discredited by the Vietnam War, a triple whammy.


First of all information technology was used not just in a callous
manner in this war, it also created delusions of victory. It is also
the Vietnamese - and this irony Barbrook does emphasize - who used
television to greater effect, making it integral to the Tet Offensive
which had such an impact on American opinion. Then a youth
counter-culture which had already smelled something rotten, a
technological determinism which was intrinsically anti-democratic in
this notion of a post-industrial society, saw that the War brought it
out into the open. This counter-culture included students who, for
Bell, were to be integral to, leaders of the information society, with
bases in the universities. They were integral to his society. Instead
many students became militant opponents of the War and all that went
with it.

Longer term, the costs of the war was a catalyst for a radical shift
in general capitalist policy. The Keynesianism which had been taken
for granted by the cold war left was in any case becoming unacceptable
to capital and its representative power elite, blamed for its failure
to deliver social discipline. The costs of the war and those of the
Great Society, and then the oil price shock in the same year that Bell
finally published, made this shift in capitalist strategy both
necessary and possible. It was a switch aimed at making people work
harder for the same, or less money. Computerized technology, developed
as it was within the capitalist relations of production that Bell
airbrushed out of the picture, was an important means of making this
happen. Instead of the greater free time for creativity inherent in
the cold war left's imaginary future, people have come to work harder
and for longer hours.

Barbrook describes the political ironies, but remains ambivalent
about them because of the longevity he ascribes to the conception of
the information society as both imaginary future and fetish, that was
developed by this group with Bell as its synthesiser and promoter. But
before he gets there, and what this means and has meant for the
present, the real villain of this cold war left, W.W. Rostow steps out
of his role as a key intellectual contributor to cold war leftist
ideology, to become the most enthusiastic of the Washington desk
bombers of Vietnam; and the one who could not give up on its supposed
efficacy. The saddest off-stage individuals in the book are his
parents who had optimistically christened him Walt Whitman. For
Rostow, the global village required the destruction of real villages
that did not, and had no chance of following his stages of growth,


The ideological contribution was his stages of economic growth theory
which had the merit of providing a historical materialist alternative
to Marxism as against the dominant bourgeois theories of the market
and equilibrium. He understood, as Barbrook puts it, that "market
competition was a historical creation rather than an immutable law of
nature." But that was as far as it went, 'progressive' only in
relation to the pre-New Deal economics of laisser-faire, and in its
promise of everyone a consumer of the goods technology had made
available. It is a theory which eradicates class and class conflict as
a motor of economic growth; and leaves out the crucial importance of
the military budget for both research and armaments to the US economic
growth of the time, something at least recognized by ex-President
Eisenhower in his military-industrial complex' warning speech of
1961. Most of all the theory itself is also ahistorical, believing
that the American model was the only 'modern' one in town, and that it
was universally available, its prescriptive stages ultimately
unrecognizing of all the advantages and violence of the USA's economic
history. For development to take place for Rostow, a change in
attitudes to technology was required, along with a "willingness to

However, its claim as a model for modernity and the future for the
"Third World" in a period when a proxy Cold War was being fought in
this world, fell down when even "communist economics" seemed more
modern and realistic, given the USA's support for the most regressive
forms of the elites of that world. That this was the case was
intolerable not just to Rostow and the Cold War left, but to American
ultra-nationalists wholly imbued with a 'military definition of
reality' like Samuel Huntington who, at this time, was railing - with
racist overtones - about a surfeit of democracy within the USA,
itself, and who hated the very idea of the Great Society. (3) With
some consistency, his solution to the 'Maoist threat' was to destroy
the Vietnamese peasantry as a class, the non-modern peasant class.
This coalition of forces, the cold war left and authoritarian
nationalists, has recently returned to cause more misery to other
people, and exhibited the same characteristics:

-the same arrogant ignorance. In the earlier case they could not even
be bothered to know Vietnam's history of fierce independence towards
China, when China was presumed to be the instigator of 'dominos'
   -the same gruesome wishful thinking
   -the same absolute belief in the abstract violence of its military

Noting the importance of games theory, and then war gaming, Barbrook
says "When processed through a computer, the irrational could be made
to appear rational" - and according to ARPA (Advanced Research Projects
Agency, an agency with financial backing from the military) computer
simulations - "the success of their B52 air offensive was guaranteed.
When their losses in people and property reached the critical breaking
point, the Communists would be forced to admit defeat and abandon the
struggle against South Vietnam."

For Rostow, the war criminal, the people whose losses were to reach
breaking point were abstractions, and whose deaths were required to
prove a point. At the same time, he never questioned the reliability
of the data provided by the US military (with its own interests), and
placed his trust in "the mediated interpretation of the war provided
by information technologies." That the people killed in wars are
abstract figures for those who perpetuate them was not new, but the
fetishizing of information technology took it to new levels, while all
the time, this same technology was being proclaimed for making a
liberatory society possible.


Imaginary Futures is a history lesson. Its purpose to show how the Net
both as shorthand for, and realization of the Information Society, was
theorized by the cold war left he describes. He argues that this
theorizing made in the circumstances of the Cold War, has somehow
survived the limits of its time and, one way or another, established
the parameters within which it is imagined. The blind faith in
American superiority in information age warfare, re-packed as Shock
and Awe, has played a great part in the devastation heaped on the
people of Iraq. The notion that any model other than the American
information society is of the dinosaur variety (a handy and clichéd
symbol implying what is heavy, slow-moving, and awaiting distinction)
has had great resonance, as well as minimizing the political impact of
a decline in US manufacturing and its balance of trade.

This is true, but as a history of the intellectuals in this process,
questions remain. An alternative view of these cold war leftists might
be that those who ally themselves with the power elite, are its
'useful idiots', useful only at certain times. In this case, that it
was not just the Vietnam War, but a shift in the elite's requirements
that meant that any 'progressive' elements that existed in their
imaginary future could be ditched, and just the rhetoric maintained.
This is not a single case. Monetarism for example, economic theory
from the 1920s, was dusted down to be used in the capitalist offensive
of the 1970s. Lip service to Milton Friedman was still to be paid
until his recent death, but voodoo economics and militarized
Keynesianism have been the order of the day ever since.

Barbrook cannot bring himself to give this alternative view. It is a
history of intellectuals, but he has a problem with them. With a nasty
piece of work like von Neumann, the 'fanatical Cold War warrior',
there is a psycho-political history attached; he was "traumatized by
the nationalization of his family's bank during the Hungarian
revolution of 1919". What we don't get is any real history of more
'progressive figures' in the story. Or rather, a question posed by
Armin Medosch, is whether the psycho-political histories of the
technologists who helped make some of the building blocks of the Net
as a reality, played a part in the nature of the technical
developments they worked on. Barbrook makes the practical suggestion
that as with reading Marx himself, rather than the Bolshevik version,
we should read Norbert Wiener and McLuhan in their own words. Wiener
the pacifist socialist he implies is the person who theorized
cybernetics as a non-hierarchical form of interaction. But what of
J.C.R. Licklider and his ARPA group. Of these he says that some of the
cybernetic radicals who had been 'persuaded' to serve the US military
were able to "hardwire the academic gift economy into its social mores
and technical architecture." This begs the question as to whether
certain technical achievements were the product of some 'socialist'
consciousness. Paul Baran for example, and Licklider himself, was such
consciousness at work in the development of packet-switching?

Technological and scientific leaps have been made, or managed by,
people committed to such advances being public property. There is the
well-known case of Tim Beners-Lee and the world wide web. Sir John
Sulston has been very clear about the moral basis of the long battle
to keep the Human Genome Project as public property against Craig
Venter's push for profitable patenting. In this instance, motivation
did not change the nature of the human genome, but given that it is in
this field we are likely to see a new wave of technological determinism,
that it is public knowledge is likely to be crucial. Neither Berners-Lee nor
Sulston were financed by the military however, so that motivations are  
In the case of packet-switching, Barbrook is not helpful with his  
'persuaded' and
'hardwired', a word that seems to substitute itself for explanation.
Is the net as gift economy an accidental, ironic outcome of ARPA, or
is he suggesting that Licklider and Baran consciously mad a 'deal with
the devil' knowing the ultimate public good that could come from
packet-switching. (4)

If this question, now perhaps being resolved in the world of the
computer itself by the 'hactivists' of Open Source Culture, is not
answered in the book, it is much clearer in the case of the maverick
McLuhan. He has been as Barbrook shows, open to interpretation from
all sides (5), but it is the "we are the most communist people in
history," that he says to the Bilderberg Conference, which should
stand out to us.. It is this possibility, this possible view of the
present, which has stood out in Barbrook's own writing from the famous
The Californian Ideology onwards.(6) This is, in a sense, the miracle;
an internet which regardless of the motives of those making its
constituent parts has real elements of the gift economy and the public
ownership of knowledge so important to Sulston, This is what Barbrook
aims to celebrate. It is accompanied by his consistent attack on
technological determinism, and an insistence on people-made decisions
as to how technology can and should be developed. It follows up his
previous attacks on capitalist versions of the Net. By giving us the
history of intellectuals thriving on an ahistorical view of the world,
and what this view leads to, he has given depth to the critique that
began with The Californian Ideology, and provided the tools to see
through new versions of the same, however attractively packaged.

The imaginary future is an area of contestation. Harlan K. Ullman,
co-author of Shock and Awe, a man with his own military consultancy
business sits on the Advisory Board of the Roosevelt Group, a
characteristically Power Elite organization, a mega-consultancy for
CEOs and their senior corporate executives who are "charged with
leading, indeed inventing the future." Given how much technological
research is financially controlled by military and corporate
interests, a grim future is what they have in mind. Imaginary Futures
gives us some tools to recognize and contest the flim-flam with which
it will be presented as it was in the New York World's Fair of 1964.


(1) This was not a wholly new phenomena however. In Mimesis, Eric
Auerbach describes a frequent trajectory in Europe between the World
Wars, of ultra-leftists to the extreme right.

(2) The American Journal of Sociology, November 1958. Reprinted in
C.Wright Mills and the Power Elite, Beacon Press 1969. Essays
collected by G.William Domhoff and Hoyt B. Ballard.

(3) In his essay in The Crisis of Democracy, Huntington aghast at an
excess of democracy makes a plea for cultivating "discouragement and
apathy." He goes on to say "Democracy is only one way of constituting
authority, and is not necessarily a universally applicable one. In
many situations the claims of expertise, seniority, experience and
special talents may override the claims of democracy as a way of
constituting authority." And with the brazen cheek for which he is
well known goes on to say - this when the budget for waging war on
Vietnam was almost limitless - that "a government which lacks
authority and which is committed to substantial domestic programmes
will have little ability, short of a cataclysmic crisis, to impose on
its people the sacrifices which may be necessary to deal with foreign
policy problems and defense."

(4) Don de Lillo has a fine passage in the Epilogue section of
Underground on consciousness and technological outcome financed by the
military. The protagonist is watching a weapons demonstration in free
enterprise Russia. "Viktor asks me if I've ever witnessed a nuclear
explosion. No. It is interesting, he says how weapons reflect the soul
of the maker. The Soviets always wanted bigger yield, bigger
stockpiles. They had to convince themselves they were a superpower.
Throw-weight. What is throw-weight? We don't know exactly but we agree
it sounds like hurled bulk, the hurled will of the collective. Soviet
long-range missiles had greater throw-weight?
   And the USA, I say?
   It was the US, Viktor says, that designed the neutron bomb. Many
buzzing neutrons, very little blast. The perfect capitalist tool. Kill
people, spare property."

(5) It could be argued that what McLuhan really provides is a
vocabulary-led weltanschaung for what was emerging somewhat in the
manner of William Gibson's Neuromancer trilogy, fiction that is also
open to various interpretations.

(6) Co-written with Andy Cameron.


This review was published in Science as Culture, Number 4, Volume 16,
2007, pages 481-488.

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