Imaginary Futures

Dr Richard Barbrook1, senior lecturer in the Department of Politics and IR at the University of Westminster, recently visited Warwick to talk at Virtual Futures 2.0’11. Chris Baraniuk, recent graduate of English Language and Literature, attended the event. Here he reflects on Dr Barbrook’s talk and discusses some of the key ideas.

One of the most potent thoughts I took away from Virtual Futures was that, just like the plural title noun suggests, a multiplicity of potential fates seems to hang over mankind while the responsibility for activating one future over another lies in the present.

All of the speakers could be said to have touched upon this idea, but it was Dr Richard Barbrook who provided the most energetic deconstruction of the 20th century ‘futures’ which materialised only, he posited, as a frustrating continuum of political status quo.

Of all the people I met at Virtual Futures 2.0’11, Barbrook was one of the most engaging and openly well read. Everyone was well read, but Barbrook seemed to have read everyone. “I wonder if she’s read Lefebvre!” he chuckled to me about one speaker with whose argument he marginally disagreed.

As expected, then, his 50-slide monster of a talk was full of myriad references to landmark cybernetic, political and philosophical works of the 20th century. Where possible, Barbrook gestured to biographical details of men such as Daniel Bell, John von Neumann and Norbert Wiener – men whose ideas about America and human society at large were to be directly targeted in this address.

“The history of computing,” Barbrook announced at one of the characteristically pivotal moments in his talk, “is completely intertwined with the history of the military.” American pro-military capitalism had fuelled the development of networks and systems which were designed as platforms for surveillance and methods of challenging communist ideology. These systems were therefore politically loaded weapons.

Barbrook challenged his audience to be aware of “being re-sold the same futures again and again.” It was by encouraging us to identify the ulterior and ideological motives behind technological development, Barbrook argued, that he could help us “inoculate” ourselves against disastrous repetition.

The history of computing is completely intertwined with the history of the military.

The inertia of the post-modern era had obviously begun to ruffle Barbrook as he constantly suggested that our failure to adapt to a post-Cold War world was rooted in the politico-economic deceptions with which the “American Empire” had carried out its brash ascendancy to domination over the last 70 years of human history. There was plenty of anti-capitalist ire in Barbook’s annotation of United States military failures in Vietnam and elsewhere, and all of this continued to hammer home Barbrook’s central thesis: that the great strides towards the democratic freedom conceived of by American politicians in the 20th century were in fact fantasies dependent upon their faith in computer systems, their ability to beat the Russians in a technological arms race, and their promises to citizens that access to the all-American internet was the true portal to the future.

Not so, roared Barbook. “The future is now,” he said, the allotted time for his talk having long passed. Our potential was coded within the possibility that we might make a truly decisive break from the pattern of futures handed down to us in recent decades. “We must,” he closed, “invent new futures,” and the audience seemed to agree.

  1. Richard Barbrook is a senior lecturer in the Department of Politics & IR at the University of Westminster. In the early 1980s, Richard was involved with pirate and community radio broadcasting, including helping to set up the multi-lingual Spectrum Radio station in London. Having worked on media regulation within the EU at a research institute at the University of Westminster, much of his material was published in his 1995 Media Freedom book. In the same year, Richard became the coordinator of the Hypermedia Research Centre at Westminster’s Media School and was the first course leader of its MA in Hypermedia Studies. Working with Andy Cameron, he wrote The Californian Ideology which was a pioneering critique of the neo-liberal politics of Wired magazine. His other important writings about the Net include The Hi-Tech Gift Economy, Cyber-communism, The Regulation of Liberty and The Class of the New.
Details

Chris Baraniuk is a writer living in London. His virtual home is at www.themachinestarts.com, where he blogs about the social impact of information technology. He is a recent graduate of English Language and Literature and currently works for an international media company.

Acknowledgements

Reproduced with the permission of the Knowledge Centre, University of Warwick

Photography by Andy Miah



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