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Virtual dreams, real politics

About the author
Richard Barbrook is a senior lecturer in the school of social sciences, humanities and languages at the University of Westminster, London.

"What are we fighting communism for? We are the most communist people in world history" - Marshall McLuhan, 1969

In 1961, at its twenty-second congress, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union formally adopted the goal of spreading the benefits of computerisation across the whole economy. Over the next two decades, the information technologies being developed within Russia's research laboratories were going to create a socialist paradise. Ever since the 1917 revolution, totalitarian Communists (with a big C) had drawn ideological sustenance from their self-proclaimed role as the vanguard of proletarian communism (with a small c). Under Stalin, the horrors of forced industrialisation were sold to the Russian population as premonitions of the promised land of socialism.

In the event, it was the successful completion of this task which posed a potentially fatal existential dilemma for the totalitarian system. Having successfully identified communism with the factory, the Communist Party was now making itself obsolete. According to its reformist faction, the vanguard had to move on to tackling the tasks of the next stage of its world-historical mission: building the "unified information network", with computers placed in every factory, office, shop and educational institution. In this Russian vision of the net, two-way feedback between producers and consumers would calculate the correct distribution of labour and resources which most efficiently satisfied all of the different needs of society.

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 Richard Barbrook in openDemocracy: "The gift of the net" (4 September 2006)

"Imaginary futures: frozen and fluid time" (16 May 2007)

And about his work:

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

Even better, this technological revolution also promised to democratise an undemocratic society. In his leader's speech at the twenty-second congress, Nikita Khrushchev assured his audience that - after decades of purges, wars, corruption and austerity - the promised land was within sight. By the 1980s at the latest, the inhabitants of the Russian empire would be enjoying all the wonders of cybernetic communism.

Across the Atlantic, the CIA had watched the rise to power of the post-industrial reformers in the east with growing concern. Embracing their opponents' analysis, its analysts warned the US government that the technological race to develop the net was becoming the key contest which would decide which superpower would lead humanity into the future.

In 1957, America had suffered a major setback in the propaganda struggle when its cold-war enemy succeeded in launching the first satellite into space. Determined to prevent any repetition of this humiliation, the US government had quickly set up the Advanced Research Projects Agency (Arpa). Next time, America was going to win the hi-tech race. Responding to the CIA's briefings, the Kennedy administration sent Arpa into battle against the cybernetic communist enemy. Bringing together the top scientists in the field, the agency coordinated and funded an ambitious programme of research into computer-mediated-communications. In 1969, overtaking the Russian opposition, its team created the appropriately-named first-ever iteration of the net: Arpanet.

From the outset, the US government was convinced that this contest was much more than a test of scientific virility. The two superpowers were competing not only to develop new technologies, but also, more importantly, to decide which side had the most advanced social system. In 1964, a multidisciplinary team of intellectuals led by Daniel Bell was given a large grant to invent the anti-communist vision of the non-communist future: The Commission on the Year 2000. Luckily, these experts were able to find exactly what they were looking for in Marshall McLuhan's bestselling book Understanding Media.

Just like Karl Marx, this prophet had also foreseen that the next stage of modernity would sweep away the most disagreeable manifestations of capitalism: national rivalries, industrial exploitation and social alienation. As in proletarian communism with a small c, peace, prosperity and harmony would reign in the global village. What made McLuhan so much more attractive than Marx was that the knowledge elite - not the proletariat - was the maker of history.

In 1966, three years before its first hosts were connected, the Bell commission persuaded itself that the arrival of the net utopia was imminent. Just as McLuhan had foreseen, the limitations of industrialism were about to be overcome by the wondrous technologies of the information society. Best of all, 1960s America was already entering into this post-capitalist future. JCR Licklider - the founder of Arpa's project to build the net - had long been arguing that the primary purpose of computer-mediated communications was facilitating the idiosyncratic working methods of the scientific community.

Instead of trading information with each other like the overwhelming majority of cultural producers, academics collaborate by sharing knowledge. Promotion and prestige depends upon contributing articles to journals, presenting papers at conferences and distributing findings for peer-review. Although deeply enmeshed with the state and corporate hierarchies of the United States, this communistic method of advancing knowledge had proved its worth in both the natural and social sciences. Thanks to the American taxpayer, Licklider now had the money to sponsor the emergence of a virtual social space emancipated from both the market and the factory. Inside this hi-tech gift economy, proprietary hardware and software were technical obstacles to the most efficient ways of working. The people who built the net were the ones who ran it. In a bizarre twist, at the height of the cold war, the US military was funding the invention of cybernetic communism.

The future that failed

The equally bizarre situation on the other side is that the Soviet elite lacked the self-confidence to sponsor even Arpa-style small-scale experiments in networked socialism. The reformists had offered a rejuvenation of the world-historic mission of the vanguard party. However, for their conservative opponents, the advantages of owning the imaginary future were by far outweighed by the threat which the net posed to their power and authority. When the Czechoslovak reformers' theoretical manifesto Civilisation at the Crossroads celebrated the unified information network as the demiurge of participatory democracy, the subversive image of this cybernetic technology was confirmed for these conservative bureaucrats. In 1968, the Russian government sent in its tanks to put an end to the Prague spring. The perpetuation of totalitarian Communism depended upon the prevention of cybernetic communism.

In the 1930s, Stalinist state planning had been at the cutting-edge of economic modernity. But, by holding on to its ideological monopoly, the Communist Party had deprived itself of the information which it needed to deliver the goods. In 1980, the Polish workers rebelled when they were once again called upon to pay for the mistakes of the economic planners. The disintegration of totalitarianism in one country started a chain-reaction of events which within a decade brought down the entire Russian empire. Communism with a big C was the future which had failed. In his 1992 neo-conservative bestseller The End of History and the Last Man, Francis Fukuyama proudly announced that the whole world had become American. With all alternatives now discredited, there was only one path to modernity.

In the mid-1960s, McLuhanism had been invented as a credo of the mildly reformist Democratic Party. Over the next four decades, its meaning had moved steadily rightwards. In 1983, Ithiel de Sola Pool - a Bell-commission member - codified this neo-liberal appropriation of McLuhanism in his masterpiece: Technologies of Freedom. From software to soap operas, all forms of information would soon be traded as commodities over the net. For the first time, everybody could be a media entrepreneur. By the end of the 1980s, this conservative remix had become the dominant form of American McLuhanism. George Gilder a Republican Party activist - proclaimed the computer companies of northern California as the harbingers of a free market paradise. Not only Stalinist central planning, but also Social Democratic welfare provision was a relic from the Fordist past. Looking at Silicon Valley, the neo-liberal prophets were convinced that the factory and the campus were synergising into a superior entity: the hi-tech entrepreneurial firm.

By the time that the 1990s dotcom boom took off, McLuhanist technological determinism had become an unapologetic celebration of "out of control" capitalism. In his New Rules for the New Economy, Kevin Kelly explained how technologies which were prototyped within the hi-tech gift economy could be successfully spun off into commercial products. Like the Stalinist elite, the music majors had found out to their cost that it was futile trying to resist the onrush of the McLuhanist future. In contrast, dotcom companies had shown how to transform user generated content and online communities into profitable enterprises. The phenomenal growth of MySpace, Bebo and YouTube demonstrates that successful businesses can be built upon Kelly's dictum of following the free. Clever managers know how to make cybernetic communism serve establishment goals.

Like their Stalinist predecessors, these 1990s proponents of McLuhanism saw themselves as the vanguard of the hi-tech utopia. As the early-adopters and beta-testers of the dotcom future, this privileged group was prefiguring today what the general public would be doing tomorrow. When everyone had access to the net, participatory democracy and cooperative creativity would be the order of the day. But, until this happy moment arrived, humanity required the guidance of the cybernetic elite to reach the promised land.

From convergence to freedom

But in the 2000s, the boosters of the information society - like the Stalinists before them - are unexpectedly faced with the problem of living within their own future. Confounding the McLuhanist credo, the advent of the net hasn't marked the birth of a new humanistic and equalitarian civilisation. For more than four decades, the knowledge elite has asserted its control over space through ownership of time. Now, in the early 21st century, the imaginary future of the information society is materialising in the present. What the McLuhanists have to explain is why utopia has been delayed.

When the users of the net are both consumers and producers of media, the vanguard has lost its ideological monopoly. Yet, at the same time, the arrival of the information society hasn't precipitated a wider social transformation. Cybernetic communism is quite compatible with dotcom capitalism. Contrary to the tenets of McLuhanism, the convergence of media, telecommunications and computing has not - and never will - liberate humanity. The net is a useful tool not a mechanical saviour. In the 2000s, ordinary people have taken control of sophisticated information technologies to improve their everyday lives and their social conditions. Freed from the preordained futures of McLuhanism, this emancipatory achievement can provide inspiration for new anticipations of the shape of things to come.

Cooperative creativity and participatory democracy need to be extended from the virtual world into all areas of life. Rather than disciplining the present, our futurist visions should be open-ended and flexible. We are the inventors of our own technologies. We can intervene in history to realise our own interests. Our utopias provide the direction for the path of human progress. Let's be hopeful and courageous when we imagine the better futures of libertarian social democracy.


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