IBM Deep Blue beats Garry Kasparov / Peter Morgan / Reuters.com

FUTURE IS WHAT IT USED TO BE

An interview with Dr. Richard Barbrook on the actuality of past future scenarios by Olena Kovaleva

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An interview with Dr. Richard Barbrook

An interview by Olena Kovaleva

The future is a very speculative topic. Speculating about the future of urbanism, I must say that it really depends on the development of technologies and its outcomes. And among the most renowned masters of speculations on this subject we find science fiction writers. In some cases their predictions come true.

Nevertheless, the executives of either fiction or non-fiction predictions are scientists, engineers and national governments who lead and sponsor secret military development. And the main word in the latter is ‘military’. The future of the last 50–60 years – like the Internet, computers, nuclear power, and so on, which is the present of our cities, – was deliberately developed for military aims1. Moreover, in the book “Imaginary Futures” written by Dr. Richard Barbrook, he claims the paradox is that ‘future is what it used to be’.

So, obviously, what Dr. Barbrook means is that the vision of the future in 2007, when he published the book, was the same as 50–60 years ago. Thus, the only reasonable questions that we can raise about future urbanism is to find out why is it so, does it still stay topical at the beginning of 2014 and is there any chance to change it?


Dr. Richard Barbrook (UK, London) – a sociologist and a Senior Lecturer of Politics at the University of Westminster. Studied for a BA in Social & Political Science at Downing College, University of Cambridge, a MA in Political Behaviour at University of Essex and a doctorate in Politics & Government at University of Kent. The book 'Imaginary Futures' was selected by The Media Ecology Association as the winner of the 2008 Marshall McLuhan Award for Outstanding Book of the Year in the Field of Media Ecology. 
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Dr. Barbrook, in 2007, you wrote the book “Imaginary Futures” in which you described the paradox that the model of the future offered in the mid-​2000s is the same future promised at the 1964 New York World Fair and that, actually, ‘the future is what it used to be’. Could you elaborate on what the main arguments behind this are?

Well, I was interested in looking at the origins of the Internet. So, there are two stories [in the book] told about the origins. And first it was to create a communication system to fight a nuclear war against Russia. And this always struck me as a very unlikely reason as to why they made the Internet, because they wouldn’t replace cheap reliable switches with expensive, unreliable mainframe computers.

And the other reason that they give is time sharing, using the same computer between different departments, different universities. And if you ever worked with computer people, they hate sharing their computers with people in the same department, lest alone with other university departments. So I was again a bit skeptical about this.

it was not a technology that then became a utopian fantasy. Instead, the Net was a utopian fantasy that later became a technology

And when I went back and started looking at the origins of the Internet I realised that it was not a technology that then became a utopian fantasy, it was a utopian fantasy that became a technology. Which quite surprised me. So it was only when I started doing the research that I realised that, actually, the fact that it was developed by ARPA, the Advanced Research Projects Agency, was not an accident, because it is all to do with the Cold War: in 1957 the Soviet Union embarrassed the Americans by putting the first satellite into space, and then they compounded it by putting the first human into space, and then the first woman into space.

So, then I realised it was to do with that, to do with this technological race between East and West, and that actually what they were doing was responding to the Russians.

IBM Deep Blue beats Garry Kasparov (Lego) / Pilar F.G. / flickr.com

You mention in “Imaginary Futures” that it was the beauty of the Russian communist utopia that forced the Americans to elaborate on the concept of a post-​industrial society: “The Americans were desperately in need of the future – they had a decent present, but the future of the Russians was better, that’s the thing!”

In our present day, who now plays the role of Russia, who has the most attractive future?

Well, I think that is a good question, isn’t it? As I think, if we are now heading towards the society of ubiquitous interactive communication, which it seems that we are, that future is exhausted. I mean, in a way, what people need to do is to invent new futures, because the problem is that no one has the future that they really believe in.

I’ve met Chinese intellectuals. China has a fifty-​year plan to get to communism by the capitalism road: in ten years we will have civil rights, in twenty years we will decommunise the economy, in thirty years we will have political democracy, in forty years – social democracy, and then bingo! – utopia. And I see them every decade – they postpone it by another decade. So, if you went back to them in twenty years time it would still be a fifty years plan. But at least they have a direction in which they go in. It might be the wrong direction, but at least they know they are going in a direction.

The problem is certainly in the West. My friends who work in the City of London sometimes don’t even think more then a few hours ahead, and at most three months ahead. So, that’s the problem. In a way, it’s slightly like the film “Matrix”, when they have this [catechism] inspired by Jean Baudrillard. They live in a perpetual present. You know, in the Matrix, it’s always 1999.

In a way, we are in that position: the moment where what’s been sold to a certain extent in the West is the perpetual present, nothing ever changes. It doesn’t get better, it doesn’t get worse. It’s essentially a perpetual present. And the nearest that we’ve got is some sort of neo-​liberal dystopia, where they’re going to reach the welfare state to create some wacky free market dystopia.

In 1999 you wrote the Cybercommunist manifesto…

You have to understand that it was a joke. It is ironic. A friend of mine works at Fordham University in New York, he was organising a conference in 1998, so it was 50th anniversary of Marshall McLuhan comming to speak at Fordham University for the first time. And he asked [me] to talk about Dotcom bubbles. He said that all these American academics they are just going to do rather nice papers, not very ‘mcluhan’, because McLuhan liked provoking people and saying mad wacky things, which actually illuminate amazingly what he called ‘thought probes’. And I thought ‘oh, this would be funny: to get up and say that US military invented the only working model of communism in history – it is called the Internet’. So I made this speech and an article out of this speech. And what was funny is that one of the guys, I knew he knows much more about McLuhan, he said ‘as you realise, Marshall McLuhan already said that, because in 1968 he went to some Cold War conference and he wrote in his letter ‘Thank you’ to the organisers and said ‘I don’t understand what we are complaining about communism for. America is the most communist country in history.’ So, McLuhan already got the joke.

So, that’s partly what it is about. It was like the first draft of ‘Imaginary Futures’. And it was partly ironic.

New York World's Fair 1964 / Brian Murphy / flickr.com

And what is cybercommunism itself? Does it have any relation to the Soviet ideology?

There was a Russian movement in the late 1950s and 1960s, until the overthrow of Khruschev, basically. In the Khruschev era, led by Aksel Berg [fn. director of the Radioelectronics Institute 1947 – 57 and a Deputy Minister of Defence 1953 – 57], they thought that cybernetics now is the computer network. The technology was not there yet, but they foresaw that you could use computer networks to basically run the economy and to replace not just the market, but also the plan. So, they had a vision of running economy more efficiently than by a market world plan, through a computer network. And in some sense we’re already there, actually. This fantasy is coming true.

But then it was something further off, and now it’s a real thing. They all sort of saw it as a vision of a new society. And so they saw the computer network as a way for us to move into the computer network age. At the XXI Communist Party Congress, or CPSU Congress, Khrushchev said ‘we will be there by the 1970s’. And in a way it would also then lead to further developments, it’s not just that it would make the economy more efficient, but open up its arms. Because cybernetics can be top-​down, a bit like Google, and Amazon, and Apple, but h said that cybernetics is only really powerful when it is bottom-​up. And that means that workers and peasants would have to feedback to the bureaucracy and be able to express themselves.

If Lenin thought that Communism was about electrification, Aksel Berg thought of the computer network as leading to the restoration of Soviet democracy, which in turn would create cybernetic communism. And now the computer was a kind of ‘bring-​back-​democracy’, but in this high-​tech form. It’s sort of an attempt to save the Soviet Union from itself by reforms within the system.

the cybernetic communists were the last generation of Russians who really did believe that the Soviet system could be rescued

And I know when I talked to Russians about this they didn’t quite believe this was true, until I went back and read these things. And this was the last generation in Russia who really did believe that the system could be rescued. You know, they didn’t have this sort of double thinking between the official ideology and what they privately believed. And that I think is interesting, because in a sense that’s what the Americans were terrified of… In a sense, the Americans believed that as well, they did think that Russia potentially could create a new civilisation.

New York World's Fair 1964 / PLCjr / flickr.com

“Marshal McLuhan believed that sooner or later, choosing between candidates in infrequent elections would be replaced by on-​line voting in daily referendums” – the quote from your book “Imaginary Futures”. How far we are from this?

You have to understand that he was responding to Aksel Berg. Aksel Berg wants to restore Soviet democracy in Russia, that’s his aim actually. So, in a way, the West had to respond to that, so they also started to talk about participation democracy.

In the same book “Imaginary Futures”, you write that the dream of artificial intelligence was born in the 1940s. So it will soon reach it’s 75th anniversary. How long do you estimate the belief in machines having consciousness will continue to persist?

artificial intelligence is a great metaphor for our alienated existence within modern society

As long as science fiction films are known. It is a great metaphor. I think that Karel Čapek [fn. in 1920 a Czech writer gave the world the idea of​artificial people, entering the term “robot”] was using robots as an analogy of the workers. And most of these fantasies are that the robot is us. Simple, isn’t it? That’s art, basically. But there is a deeper side of this: there is the tendency under capitalism, something Marx’s school called ‘commodity fetishism’, giving human powers to things.

So, that in a way, is what machine intelligence is. It’s a classic example of that, when you endow the machine with the power of the human. So they say Deep Blue beat Gary Kasparov at chess, as if the machine had beaten Kasparov. It’s actually the programmers who beat Kasparov and all the grandmaster games that they programmed into the machine. What’s most interesting, Kasparov still managed to win some of the games.

My view is that it will never happen. I have a friend who calls it not artificial intelligence, but simulating intelligence. And I think that is actually what we are talking about here. That’s just simple algorithms, that’s not intelligence. I have a child, I’m buying things online for the baby, so they just give more baby ads. There is nothing intelligent in that.

Demonstration of colour television, Soviet Union pavilion, Expo 58 World Fair, Brussels, 1958 / allhails / flickr.com

More and more theorists and philosophers say that the postmodernist age has ended and that we are facing post-​postmodernism, or some name it metamodernism…

Hypermodernism, I love it. It’s around this thing with a Hyper Media Research Centre [fn. based in the University of Westminster, where Dr. Barbrook teaches], with the hyper media study.

What we have now is this revival of early-​19th century speculative philosophy dressed up in the fashionable language of semiotics and pop science

All these thinkers like Deleuze, Foucault, Guattari, and all these present people like Žižek, Agamben, Badiou, they all come out with this idea that society is basically the sciences. And that’s my worry with that. The theory itself, which appeared to be this sort of new flashy theory, in many ways returned to very traditional 19th century thinking. It’s actually that same sort of thinking that Marx and Engels critiqued in The German Ideology. They famously said that ‘the people drowned because of the idea of gravity, not because the water is wet’. So, in a way they’ve returned to this sort of early 19th century thought, but dressed up in all this cybernetic language and semiotics and all the rest of it.

Foucault famously wrote: lots of books about prison, but a book about books about prison, or whatever is very low. It’s actually not about the real; it’s not like the analysing what is really going on, it is analysing the discourses about what is really going on. And the discourses become the subject of history in the same way that the computer and artificial intelligence becomes the subject.

So, I think that part of problem is a sort of theoretical crisis going on, where they now just proclaim themselves new materialists. Well, no! You are all speculative philosophers actually. And that’s a sort of crisis about the linguistic term in philosophy or social sciences. And nobody, certainly not the young generation, can say anything about the financial crisis. Whereas if you go and look at Volume 3 “The Capital” it tells you exactly why we’re in the financial crisis.

So, that question cannot be answered with postmodern philosophers, because they deliberately said in the 1960s and 1970s that political economy was garbage, we are not going to read this any more. They do not read this stuff! They used words like ‘commodity’ and ‘capital’, or ‘exchange value’, but they do not actually know what they mean. So they use it like sexy words, but they do that with the natural sciences too.

What question about the future should I have asked you, but didn’t?

It’s interesting. It comes back to your original question, which is how do we conceive the future now.

IBM pavilion at New York World Fair 1964 / Walter Reed / flickr.com

In a way, the Internet is acting like a comfort zone. In a way, fantasy is being the same through 50 – 60 years. And it’s being very comforting fantasy, because it’s always just around the corner, and ubiquitous interactive communication will create some form of utopia, and it doesn’t matter where you are in the political spectrum. So you can be on the extreme left and they will create some form of online direct democracy and electronic Agora. If you are on the right, they will create former capitalism in the only existing neo-​classical economics textbooks.

So, that’s the interesting thing about it. Either this electronic Agora will be an electronic market place, but it’s a utopia just around the corner, we’ve got this utopia called the Internet. It comes back again and again: The 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, 2000s, and here we are in 2013. The thing is – now it’s exhausted, this utopia. Not because it failed, but because it succeeded. And that’s the problem. You know, in a sense, we’ve got there. And now the question is, and this is what a lot of interesting debate is going on about, it is that we need a social utopia, and a political-​economic utopia. Because that’s what we face at the moment –the dominant economic model, which is neo-​liberal, has run out of steam. Even those people who are practising in it, who are promoting it, don’t really believe it’s going create a utopia in a way that they did in the 1980s.

What we need is a new imaginary future where people not machines are at its centre

I’m old enough to remember when neo-​liberalism was seen as radical: it was challenging the status quo, the post-​war consensus, it offered a way out of the crisis of the 1970s, for some parts of the world it offered the chance of escaping from very authoritarian states. And so it offered a way out. But now it just seems completely exhausted. That forces us to think about what sort of future. So, it’s not the future based on technology, though the technology will help, but it’s a sort of future where the humans are
at the centre, not the machines. Creating a truly human civilisation.

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