Thursday, February 23, 2006

We can imagine it for you wholesale

Last night I attended a fascinating lecture at the BCS: Dr Richard Barbrook on Post-Industrial Imperialism - The imaginary future of the information society. This was an examination of the origins of the internet. Not its technical origins but its political, philosophical and sociological origins. The key question is, if ARPANET was supposed to be a communications network for use after a nuclear war why was it made out of flaky computers instead of almost indestructible switches? Because it wasn't really about post-nuclear communication, it was about demonstrating the superiority of the American future.

Barbrook's intriguing premise is that the internet is the future we've been promised for over forty years now. He started off with Marshall McLuhan. We've lived so long inside a cloud of McLuhanisms - the global village, the medium is the message, yadda yadda - that it's easy to forget that his key vision was the usurpation of the dominant print culture by an electronic one. Now, with the maturing of the internet, we are living in something approaching McLuhan's information society. (But Tony Blair and others are still saying we need to move to a "knowledge economy". Will this darned future ever arrive?)

Barbrook then traced the rise of post-industrialism as a countervailing philosophy to Communism. This was part of a general mobilisation of the social scientists to fight the Cold War on the intellectual front in the same way that natural scientists were striving to beat the Russians on the technological battlefield. The Third Way, the Affluent Society, the Great Society: these coinages of the fifties and sixties asserted not just how much more modern was American society but the inevitability that all societies would evolve in such a fashion.

So were does the internet fit into all this? Well, at the same time Eastern Bloc thinkers, in the wake of the death of Stalin, were positing the Unified Information System. This gigantic network of computers, linking up every node of the economy, would replace the centralised bureaucracy of the five-year plan with mathematical programs. The fear in the US was that this Cybernetic Communism would be a second refutation of democracy's advanced technological status following hard on the heels of Sputnik and Gargarin. They needed to prove not just that that the American vision of the future was better but that democracy was better at realising the future. So ARPA poured millions of dollars into delivering on McLuhan's vision. Hence ARPANET, hence the internet.

Finally Barbrook took us on a quick trot through the Vietnam War. He highlighted it as the first electronic battlefield, with computers guiding bombing missions, planning campaigns, running simulations. And, of course, the infamous Body Count was a computer produced tool for assessing the nearness of an American victory and it was every bit as accurate as the average Excel pie chart is today. Of course, McNamara's background in automobile manufacturing also had a role shaping the technocratic approach the Americans took but that doesn't detract from Barbrook's point.

The irony was that the pre-industrial Vietnamese guerillas understood far better than the American technorati that the real electronic battlefield was television. From the Tet Offensive in 1968 to the re-enactment of the fall of Saigon for the TV cameras that weren't there the first time, everything the NVA did was assessed in the light of how it would look on the six o'clock news. Despite the fact that the Americans were deploying cutting edge technology on the battlefield in the service of a new definition of geo-political interest they were fighting an old-fashioned war, of the kind von Clausewitz would have recognised. It was the Viet Cong who were fighting a post-modern war.

Barbrook finished off his presentation with an exhortation. The internet was the future as refracted by the lens of the Cold War. But cold war is over and it's time to invent new futures. This would be preferable to the current "new idea" - the Clash of Cultures - which is just the Cold War rebadged. The echoes of Vietnam in the Iraq imbroglio are compelling. I have seen the future and it's a re-run.

Having attended a number of training courses, seminars and presentations recently I am aware of the gap between academe and the usual business talk. Barbrook was confident, fluent and on top of his subject. He did use slides (Flash not Powerpoint, he is that revolutionary!) but it consisted of apposite pictures (not clip art) and relatively few words other than well-chosen quotes. Besides, you've got to admire a man whose opening line to a British Computer Society meeting is, "I'm not a techy, I've got a Mac."

In case it's not abundantly clear I thoroughly enjoyed this lecture. It reminded me of some of the enthusiasms of my youth - history, the Vietnam War, cultural studies, sixties American SF - and made it seem slightly less unlikely that I ended up as a database developer. Barbrook has written a book, Imaginary Futures, the draft of which is available for downloading. In an aside he observed that far from factories turning into universities we've ended up with universities becoming like factories. So do your bit to reverse this trend by printing a copy on your work's printer today!


Alex Buckley said...
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Alex Buckley said...

Hi Andrew,

I also attended this fascinating event. (I was the one who asked about DRM.)

Great write-up. I blogged it too, though not as well, here.