Imaginary futures: frozen and fluid time

Richard Barbrook
15 May 2007

Like artificial intelligence, the concept of the information society is an old acquaintance. For decades, politicians, pundits and experts have been telling the citizens of the developed world that the arrival of this digital utopia is imminent. These premonitions have been confirmed by media coverage of the increasing sophistication and rapid proliferation of iconic technologies: personal computers, satellite television, cable systems, mobile phones, video games and, above all, the internet.

During the late 1990s dotcom boom, the Californian acolytes of the information society became intoxicated with millennial fervour. Kevin Kelly (in New Rules for the New Economy) claimed that the net had created a "new paradigm" which had abolished the boom-and-bust economic cycle. Manuel Castells published a multi-volume celebration of the transition from the miseries of industrial nationalism to the marvels of post-industrial globalism.

When the share bubble imploded in 2001, this tale of sunny optimism lost its core audience. Shattering the dreams of the Californian ideology, boom had been followed by bust. The business cycle still regulated the economy. With jihadi terrorism and imperial adventures dominating the headlines, new media seemed so last century. However, this fall from favour was only temporary. As more people went on-line and connection speeds increased, confidence slowly returned to the new-media sector. By the mid 2000s, dotcom shares were once again trading at premium prices on the stock exchange.

Richard Barbrook is a senior lecturer in the school of social sciences, humanities and languages at the University of Westminster, London. Among his writings are with Andy Cameron) The Californian Ideology ( 1995) and The Class of the New (OpenMute, 2006). His most recent book is Imaginary Futures: From Thinking Machines to the Global Village (Pluto Press, 2007); the book's website is here

Also by and about Richard Barbrook in openDemocracy:

"The gift of the net"
(4 September 2006)

Rosemary Bechler, "The Class of the New"
(24 July 2006)

As if the bubble had never burst, the United Nations hosted a conference on 16-18 November 2005 in Tunis promoting the hi-tech future: the World Summit on the Information Society. The net had regained its status as the epitome of modernity. As Viviane Reding, the European commissioner for the information society and media explained in the run-up to the conference:

"For many years, experts have been talking about digital convergence of communication networks, media content and devices. ... Today [1 June 2005], we see digital convergence actually happening. Voice over IP, Web TV, on-line music, movies on mobile telephones - all this is now reality."

In the prophecies of artificial intelligence and the information society, ideology 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. Every step forward in computing technology is further progress towards the final goal of artificial intelligence. The prophecy of the information society comes closer to fulfilment with the launch of each new piece of software and hardware. The present already contains the future and this future explains the present. What is now is what will be one day. Contemporary reality is the beta version of a science-fiction dream: the imaginary future.

Difference and sameness

It's over forty years since the dreams of thinking machines and post-industrial cornucopia gripped the American public's imagination at the New York World's Fair in 1964. But the Unisphere, the Rocket Thrower and other survivors of the event at Flushing Meadow aren't just historical curiosities. The frozen time of the 1960s past is almost indistinguishable from our imaginary futures in the 2000s.

Thinking about what has happened over the last four decades, this proposition seems counter-intuitive. After all, the international political and economic system has gone through a process of radical restructuring. The cold war ended. The Russian empire collapsed. American hegemony has declined. Europe became a single trading zone. East Asia has rapidly industrialised. Electoral democracy became the dominant form of politics. Economic globalisation has imposed strict limits upon national autonomy. Some of the most pressing problems facing the world today weren't even heard of forty years ago: climate change, the Aids epidemic, Islamist terrorism and debt relief for the impoverished south. Yet, throughout this period of turmoil and transformation, our conception of the computerised future is the one thing which has remained fixed. As in the mid-1960s, the invention of artificial intelligence and the advent of the information society are still only a couple of decades away. The present is continually changing, but the imaginary future is always the same.

Living in pre-modern societies, both Aristotle and Mohammed Ibn Khaldun observed similar historical cycles. The slow pace of social evolution limited the impact of political upheavals. When the system changed, the present was forced to repeat the past. According to the gurus of postmodernism, this phenomenon of circular time returned in the late 20th century. Ever since the Enlightenment, the "grand narrative" of history had imposed the logic of progress upon humanity. But, now that the process of industrialisation had been completed, these philosophers believed that modernity had lost its driving force. Linear time had become obsolete (see Jean-François Lyotard, The Post-Modern Condition). For the more pessimistic postmodernists, this rebirth of cyclical time proved that there could be no better future. Historical evolution had ended. Cultural innovation was impossible. Political progress had stopped. The future is nothing more than the "eternal return" of the present (see Gilles Deleuze, Difference and Repetition).

When the concept of postmodernism was first proposed in the mid-1970s, its founding fathers argued that the spread of information technologies was responsible for the emergence of this new social paradigm. Jean-François Lyotard claimed that the fusion of media, computing and telecommunications was sweeping away the ideological and economic structures of the industrial age. Jean Baudrillard denounced the new form of domination imposed by the hypnotic power of audio-visual imagery over the public imagination (see Jean Baudrillard, The Ecstasy of Communication). Ironically, although both philosophers were critical of techno-optimism, their analysis required an uncritical belief in the hi-tech prophecies of the New York World's Fair. The 1960s future of modernism explained the 1970s present of postmodernism. Because the philosphers didn't question the validity of the previous decade's predictions, their revival of cyclical time was founded upon their certainty about the direction of linear progress. The perpetual present was justified by the immutable future.

Contrary to its self-image as the new theory of the information age, postmodernism was itself an ideological symptom of the hegemony of hi-tech prophecies. Most tellingly, its concept of cyclical time was derived from the continual repetition of the same model of the sci-fi utopia. In contrast, the premise of this book is asking why the imaginary futures of the past have survived into the present. Despite their cultural prominence, the semiotic ghosts of sentient machines and post-industrial economies are vulnerable to theoretical exorcism. Far from being free-floating signifiers, these predictions are deeply rooted in time and space.

My book Imaginary Futures: From Thinking Machines to the Global Village traces the intellectual origins of these predictions back to cold-war America. By data-mining the history of these two imaginary futures, the social underpinning of these techno-ideologies can be revealed. Not surprisingly, contemporary boosters of artificial intelligence and the information society rarely acknowledge the antiquity of their predictions. They want to move forwards rather than look backwards. Time is fluid, never frozen.

In contrast, my book insists that the imaginary futures of artificial intelligence and the information society have a long history. Examining earlier attempts to propagate these prophecies is a requisite for understanding their contemporary iterations. Frozen time illuminates fluid time. Rather than being a diversion, looking backwards is the precondition for moving forwards.

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