Review: Imaginary Futures – Richard Barbrook
How do ideas about the future shape the present, which is of course ‘the future in the making’? Starting with the New York World Fair of 1964, Barbrook gives an interesting history of possible futures. The Cold War’s race between the US and the Soviet Union was not only one of arms. While the US emerged from the Second World War as an industrial superpower and things were looking good for it’s people, the Soviet Union was in control of the future.
Sure, the Soviet labourers were being oppressed and political dissidents were locked up in the Gulags but this was, of course, all for the greater good of establishing the Soviet Worker’s Paradise. US ideologist had to come up with an even brighter future to win the crucial propaganda battle during the Cold War.
Although the New York World Fair was presented as a peaceful showcase of commodities of the near future the rocket ships, computers, Russian-English translating machines all had their roots in Cold War technology and were spin-offs of machines that intended to kill millions of Russians in mere seconds. Artificial intelligence, private rocket ships, robot servants: all were supposed to be available in a matter of years. Barbrook does a very good job explaining the political situation between the US and the Soviet Union. The rise of cybernetics, the American need for anti-communism as a viable alternative for Soviet ideology or McLuhanism (alternately with or without the Canadian philosopher), culminating in the birth of ‘the Net’.
In explaining how the imaginary future shapes the present Barbrook also argues what went wrong during previous attempts of reaching Utopia. Imaginary futures is a hopeful message as well as a warning. Technological determinism does not shape the future of humanity. It is rather humanity itself, using new technologies as tools. The future of social democracy is decided by humanity. As Barbrook’s closing chapter reads: ‘Those who forget the future are condemned to repeat it’, let’s hope somebody’s paying attention. An interesting read.
Barbook, R. Imaginary Futures – From thinking Machines to the Global Village. London, Pluto Press. 2007. ISBN: 0 7453 2660 9