Imaginary futures: from thinking machines to the global village

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By MARCOS DANTAS*

Commentary on the book by Richard Barbrook

In 1999, the British sociologist Richard Barbrook offered us his ironic Cybercommunist Manifesto. In this parody of Marx's work, a number of ideologues fetishized by information technology, making Wired its Pravda, are presented to us as the vanguard of a new Promethean revolution, capable of merging communism and the free market thanks to the advanced productive forces of the world wide web.

Em Imaginary Futures, Barbrook goes deeper in his taunts. This is an inspired, well-researched and thought-provoking essay that examines the theoretical and ideological construction that will make the US vision of the world and society the very project of the world and society of the future, legitimizing the rise of the US as a global hegemonic power. from World War II.

Yes, the future project did not belong only to Marxist socialism. In the US, a group of militant intellectuals, many of them holding high positions in Washington, sought to craft an alternative metatheory capable of winning sophisticated hearts and minds to their country's cause. Barbrook, with his quintessentially British humour, calls them the “Cold War Left”.

Some of its most influential names, such as James Burnham, Walter Rostow and Daniel Bell, had been Marxists (and Trotskyists) in their youth. They had a solid knowledge of Marx's work. Articulated with them, politicians and theorists parade who had their moments best sellers in the 1950s to 1980s: John von Neumann, Herbert Simon, Ithiel de Sola Pool, John Galbraith, Herman Kann, Arthur Schlesinger, Peter Drucker etc. Barbrooke dissects their lives (including their excellent relationships with CIA or Pentagon money), work and thought throughout passages that, not infrequently, occupy, for each one, two, three or more pages of the book.

Thus everything gains a surprising coherence. The USA came out of World War II aware of its leadership – economic, political and military – of the non-communist portion of the world. However, they did not manage to offer this world a “grand narrative” (and here, Barbrook provokes the postmoderns), as attractive and mobilizing as Marxism. It was about giving “shape to things to come”, remembering HG Wells. But a way that should lead to a future contrary to that proposed by the then also victorious and still dynamic Soviet Union.

The Cold War Left drew from three sources. In the reformist Marxist strand that inspired social democracy and its Social Welfare State. In Norbert Wiener, whose cybernetics thought the man-machine relationship prioritizing the human being. And Marshall McLuhan, of the three, the most important source, to whom an unflattering exclusive chapter is dedicated.

Superficial ideologue, media celebrity, easy to read, McLuhan proposed a conception of history that was very attractive to the media, seen as “extensions of man”. This was nothing more than vulgar technological determinism packaged in “crazy catchphrases” and “paradoxical exaggerations”. Now, at the very moment when information technology was being born, this thesis came in handy: the shapes of things to come will be shaped by computers and the internet, not by society and its struggles... of class.

Through a Marxism that hides Marx, a cybernetics without Wiener and his humanism, and a McLuhanism that does not mention the unruly McLuhan, Daniel Bell conceived the information society, the highest stage of capitalist development.

So, the future has arrived. In the last chapter, Barbrook demonstrates the line of continuity between all that fifty-year-old ideological construction and the current discourse of the dot-com market. The collapse of the USSR deprived the US of a powerful mobilizing enemy, soon replaced by Samuel Huntington's "clash of civilizations", while the internet, already mature, would be the deterministic technology that would take the market and free enterprise to all corners of the world .

The magazine Wired emerges as a herald of this new era. George Gilder and Kevin Kelly, following Bell, began to explain how this dot-com market could work, “combining cybernetic communism with networked neoliberalism”. John Barlow launches, in Davos (soon where!), the Jeffersonian “Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace”. Many good people believed and still believe, see the recent debates on Senator Azeredo's bill...

This whole process faced, of course, strong resistance. The great narrative of the Cold War Left, soon accepted by European social democracy, did not gain many supporters in the countries of the so-called Third World, whose thinkers and political leaders insisted on building their own, anti-imperialist theories, inspired by Marxism. If the siren's pretty song didn't work, then the old man would still do. bigstick: military dictatorships in Latin America, or the war in Vietnam, gallantly defended by Rostow, would serve to frame the recalcitrant.

Today, despite resistance from free software supporters and the massive practice of free exchange of files on the net, it is a fact, notes Barbrook, that the vast majority of navigators actually prefer to occupy their connections with gossip, celebrity news, the sameness of TV, the latest football, everyday chats – and lots of pornography.

The Frankfurt School, he forgot, in a rare lapse, perhaps still has something to tell us about all this. No politics, much less revolution. Big business drives the expansion of the internet. A popular server with “user-generated content” can sell a lot of advertising. Helping hobbyists make their own media can be just as lucrative as selling professionally made media products. Contrary to the McLuhanist credo, the advent of the Internet did not mark the birth of a new humanist and egalitarian civilization. “For some reason, utopia was postponed.”

Basically, this is what Marx had already explained: what is decisive is not technology, but capital...

“Knowing who invented the prophecy of the information society is the precondition for understanding the ideological meaning of its intellectual concepts” – a wise warning, above all for our schools of sociology, communication, education, economics and the like, nowadays infested by this uncritical McLuhanist technological determinism of, despite differences, Castells, Deleuze, Toni Negri, etc. In this, the project of Rostow and Bell, via military dictatorship, was completely successful. Caio Prado, Celso Furtado, Florestan Fernandes, Sergio Buarque or Darci Ribeiro left no heirs.

*Marcos Dantas He is a professor at the School of Communication at UFRJ, elected counselor of the Internet Management Committee (CGI.br). Author, among other books, of The logic of information capital (Counterpoint).

Originally published on Journal of Reviews no. 5, March 2009.

 

Reference


Richard Barbrook. Imaginary futures: from thinking machines to the global village. Translation: Adriana Veloso and others. São Paulo, Peirópolis, 448 pages.

 

 

 

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