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Imaginary Futures
From Thinking Machines to the Global Village

Richard Barbrook

Sarah Snider
posted 30 May 2007

Architectural exhibitions, science fiction books and movies, courses on ‘Textile Futures’ – why this obsession with the future? Granted we all believe in the future: without this necessary faith, the continued functioning of society would be undermined. Yet the conviction that we have a definite causal relationship with the future is up for debate: it is a grey area where lines of political engagement and apathy are drawn, where activism and despair feel equally at home.

In Imaginary Futures, Richard Barbrook demonstrates this paradox, indicating that we tend to have even less control over the future than we do over the past. The glorious future, as described not only in science fiction, art and architecture, but also by scientists, historians, archaeologists, children and politicians, is always dissociated from the present, not only by time, but also by some sort of watershed moment. Futurists have always believed that there is no current basis for any desirable future. A sea change must occur – the advent of widespread space travel, acute artificial intelligence, revolution, war – before the future can begin. In the meantime, we must continue in the drudgery of the present. Through fantasy, possibility or narrative, we can artfully wallpaper our present with altering, conflicting versions of the future, but the future remains always a few years off.

Barbrook reminds us that the future, or perhaps future-in-the-making, is now. Imaginary Futures posits that those in the past who have promised us a better future have done so to assure the steady continuation of the present. Safeguarding the status quo requires more than hard power and military might: soft, media power is required to paint a picture of the present as the history of a glorious future. Barbrook demonstrates how, taking advantage of our necessary belief in the future, competing factions have fought to secure soft power by generating common technological goals. These goals have necessarily been intertwined with technology’s seemingly inherent capacities for inclusion, participation and utopian democracy. Through an in-depth examination of historical representations of technologies, and a multi-tiered analysis of Cold War political and social economy, Barbrook ties together diverse discourses to present the mediated history of media.

Barbrook initially makes the seemingly naïve claim that if we had a different past, we would have a different present. What does this mean? In a book called Imaginary Futures, we have to see the future as precisely that: imaginary. The present is thus shaped not by past futures past, but by past presents. If the task of a historian is to locate events in time, then Barbrook has turned the future into an event. The construction of futures has acted to distort the present, adding contour and context, adding currency to the present. In the US, the political left, of course, believed in the idea of a different future, while more conservative types desired perpetuated presents. On a national level, Barbrook says, these patriotic political projects were tied together through reworking key texts to reflect American, anti-Communist values.

Imaginary Futures shows how technology has itself been, and is still, mediated by competing versions of the future. The parallax of time allows us to turn correlation into causality, retroactively instilling agents with intentionality, and actions with meaning. ‘Ideology’, says Barbrook,

is used to warp time. The importance of a new technology lies not in what it can do in the here and now, but in what more advanced models might be able to do one day. The present is understood as the future in embryo – and the future illuminates the potential of the present… Contemporary reality is the beta version of a science fiction dream: the imaginary future (8-9).

The promises of imagined future benefits to society encourage big government sponsorship and protection in conjunction with entrepreneurship. Barbrook reveals certain paradoxes lying at the heart of the funding machine. Military research funds, initially aimed at nuclear and computer technologies to compete with the Russians, ended up funding ‘cybernetic communism’ (167). The money that was supposed to be linked to an idea of capitalist, democratic development was in fact pour into a process resembling the Communist dream.

Contradictions such as this one lie at the heart of Barbrook’s analysis. Rather than offer abstract definitions of his terms, Barbrook illuminates the way in which these terms have been instrumentalised by competing political factions. Alternately, he highlights moments at which similar processes have fallen under widely differing headings. Concepts of Communism – with a big C or little c – capitalism, and liberalism are put into question, and explained according to their techno-political contexts. Specifically, Barbrook captures privileged moments where a splitting of these concepts has operated to create a possible way forward in the deadlocked Cold War system. Through a morphological study of political parlance and its implications for technological development on both sides of the iron curtain, Barbrook shows how big government and big business came together in the physiology of post-war American capitalism.

Barbrook proffers an intricate history of the uses of the works of Karl Marx and Marshall McLuhan by the Cold War Left. By finding alternate roots for theories of economic determinism and commodity fetishism, America developed a Marxism without Marx. The followers of McLuhan, the renegade technological determinist popularised by Tom Wolfe, provided more complex, academically sound papers to retain his initial technofetishism. Effectively, Barbrook is invoking a process of defetishisation, not unlike a Foucauldian genealogy, to give us a history of the present. The task of genealogy is to tell us what we are because of what came before. The project questions the dominance of the phenomenological subject, the privileged ‘knower’ of the world. Genealogy is designed to tell us something about what we are today that we couldn't immediately tell ourselves within our historical present. Barbrook establishes a critical distance in an effort to say something about our technologies and our futures that we couldn't otherwise say as constituted subjects. By mapping the uses of technological determinism and fetishism in the construction of the future, Barbrook dismantles these futures and allows us to ask useful questions. Instead of wondering what the future will be, we can ask what the future is for, and who needs it.

Does the future ever happen? Most of the prophecies around new technology failed to materialise. At the end of the 20th century, Barbrook notes,

the central prophecy of McLuhanism remained unfulfilled. In the late 2000s, the Net was ubiquitous, but it was still business as usual. The global village hadn’t healed the divisions of nation, class and culture which had plagued the industrial era…What the McLuhanists had to explain is why this technological revolution hadn’t caused a social revolution. For some reason, utopia had been delayed (285).

Barbrook asks why he is still being offered the same version of the future he was forty years ago. The answer, it seems, is that technology, while presenting itself widely to military and civilian consumers, has very rarely and for only short periods of time acted to temper unequal production and distribution processes. The medium was not, after all, the message; rather the medium worked as a motor, context and code to disguise ideology, space and time.

Rather than looking at the problems with initial future plans, ‘the delay’, perhaps it is more fruitful to turn to the present to see how the future has adapted and changed. Barbrook’s point, well taken, is that ideologies and aesthetics do not develop out of technologies, rather technologies develop in ideological contexts. Actors such as the state plan, the military, the economy, academia, communalists, the market, and big business have utilised the future of technology to justify their ideological presence. If the only constant across technological discourses is their links to the future, then the only constant across future discourses is their capacity for change before realisation. Biotechnology, for instance, seems to be the present manifestation of many futures past. Since artificial intelligence has always been something on the horizon, a few years off, we’ve had to span the gap by merging with our technologies. This Hegelian twist synthesises humanity and technology, eradicating unuseful oppositions and questioning ideas of both artificial and natural intelligence. At the same time, it bridges the gap between us and the future – a further step along the defetishisation and recontextualisation Barbrook has embarked upon.

Imaginary Futures seems to be, then, less about the future than about the past as a window to the present. As Simon Schaeffer says, today we suffer from a multiply distorted experience of the past. On the one hand there is a nostalgia, a remembrance and longing for a past that never existed; on the other we have an amnesia, a forgetting of which we are not conscious. These disorders can operate to place humans outside of history, at the end of ideology. To find our feet again, we need to continue the project of writing and rewriting history. We need to ask how rewriting history has functioned in the past, and to what end. Is this a better, more useful project than rewriting the future? Perhaps we need to temper Barbrook with a good dose of historicism. Perhaps Barbrook himself already has.


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