Imaginary Futures (2007)

The imaginary future is invariably a claim to the present by its dominant political and economic class. In the case of Cold War America, there was an urgency to its creation, because although it was outdoing the USSR in all conventional economic and productive indices, the distorted Marxist veneer maintained in Moscow had a stronger rhetorical vision of the future which, in the end, it claimed, would win out: history was on its side. The creation of such an American version ‘imaginary future’, spurred on also by short lived moments when the Soviets were ahead, or appeared to be ahead in certain modernist technologies – the first satellite in space, and then the possibility of a communist cybernetics — is what Richard Barbrook describes in this book., Imaginary Futures. It is an account which exhaustively pulls out the ideological and fetishistic dynamics from under the flim-flam of its promoters, but also describes how the development of the internet and its world wide web has ironically emerged as a tool with liberatory possibilities.

His starting point is the 1964 World’s Fair in New York that took place during an intense period of the Cold War, its planning no doubt underway during the time of the Cuban missile crisis. With its futurist IBM Pavilion the Fair acted as Trojan-Horse type propaganda. “Instruments of genocide,” Barbrook writes “were successfully disguised as benefactors of humanity.” Nuclear weapons, militarized computing, and militarized space use were presented as the utopian future being made real in the present.

To make the particular nature of this futurism clear, he contrasts the Fair with London’s Great Exhibition of 1851, which instead disguised Britain’s modern hi-tech world in the medieval fantasies of the Gothic Revival; and with the American exhibition of 1939 whose promise of a suburban America built around the motor car was realized, and had a New Deal rhetoric of a cohesive and peaceful society. On the other hand, the 1964 promises of unmetered energy (nuclear fusion), tourism to the moon, and intelligent computers, have been unfulfilled and, since Chernobyl and an Apollo crash at take-off, have been discredited. Only the Holy Grail of Artificial Intelligence is still on the table, pursued with a fanaticism borne of some deep and perverse psychic need, and enabled by the non-stop levels of its research budget, forthcoming during the period described here, because of an equally deep ideological need to disguise the grotesque military ‘game-playing’ it allowed for.

Barbrook himself was at the 1964 Fair as a boy with his mother, sister, and an academic father who he comes to realize was part of what he calls the cold-war left, one which willingly made accommodation with the technological fantasies on display there, and the ‘military definition of reality’ as described by C. Wright Mills. This, given that he hates this view of the world and what it lead to, gives the book its drive and its edge. It ends with a rousing cry for the equality of an intelligent citizenry, allied to use of the world wide web as a liberatory tool, but it is also an angry lament, that a generation of self-styled progressives should have destroyed social democracy both as a possible, perhaps likely, governmental mode, and as an ideal.
What destroys it is the Vietnam War, though he is scrupulous enough to avoid his anger becoming yet another version of this being ‘an American Tragedy’. He is forthright in saying that this was a Vietnamese tragedy, and is horrified that here were nominal progressives who became obsessed with how many Vietnamese peasants could be killed. This callousness began with an ideological notion of what was modernity – a Cold War version – but also from a faith in technology itself. This faith — in line with the top-down history of social democracy, — involved a denial of human agency. Describing the IBM Pavilion at the 1964 Fair, he argues that it wasn’t just military use being disguised, but that the imaginary future of electronic brains concealed the human labour involved.
Computers were described as ‘thinking’ so that the hard work, the surplus-value producing labour of designing, building and operating of them, could be discounted.


In the course of World War II, various intellectuals, including Marxists, and ex-Marxists, found a place in positions of responsibility and power in a militarized government. This wartime government was the genesis of what C. Wright Mills came to call the Power Elite, and as it morphed into Cold War governments, the ‘military definition of reality’ became a crucial cohesive force for it. In this transition the newcomer intellectuals who remained in this elite included ex-Marxists, and especially ex-Trotskyists whose hostility to the USSR as it existed, made the switch to a wholly militarized American view of the world not so difficult.

Barbrook sees them as playing an important role in the creation of this ‘counter futurism.’ We have seen something depressingly similar among the ‘Blairites’ of New Labour, and the presence of ex-Marxists among today’s American neo-cons has also been noted. He quotes from Ignazio Silone that “the final struggle (for global hegemony)…will be between the Communists and the ex-Communists.” But with both the neo-cons of today, and the real villains of this book, their influence is rather over played for polemical effect. In this book those real villains are intellectuals, social democrat Keynesians if pushed, but with a penchant for American military superiority, and a role in the Power Elite, who had read some Marx, understood the idea of historical materialism, and wanted to create a class-free version of it.

Early in the book he introduces the ex-Trotskyist leader James Burnham, who had made such a switch, to describe a revolution in which a managerial class was the deservedly new elite, one most developed in the USA.. To give this notion force, Burnham wanted to give it the Shock and Awe touch, inevitability. It is true that managerialism was new in its ideological and practical importance for the Power Elite, and that computer development would only strengthen this development. Equally, the imagined future was dependent on managerial capacity, but of itself, managerialism provided none of the required appeal.


Instead, Barbrook presents the advent of cybernetics, and soon after the ‘global village’ notions of converging communication technologies pioneered in new style by Marshall McLuhan. Both were, and are, capable of varying interpretation and so become, though he is hesitant to say it, sites of ‘struggle’. He traces the history of cybernetics back to ‘the Macy Conferences’, and from this there emerge hero and villain. The hero, and this is the big rescue job of the book, is Norbert Wiener. True, Wiener’s theory of a continual feedback between information and action which could be used to describe the behaviour of living organisms and technological systems would seem to make misuse possible, even likely, but he also challenged the ‘patriotic consensus’ of the Cold War which allowed scientists to rationalize their military-funded research; and asserted the need for humans to control their machines.

Later he became an inspiration to a short-lived reformist faction of the USSR elite and their utopian idea of computerized and interactive planning, a “new cybernetic model of communism: the ‘unified information network’” It did not survive the return to centralized control under Brezhnev, but in turn, spurred the American cybernetic world to make something more inspiring than one dominated by military use and Artificial Intelligence fanaticism. This is how Barbrook characterizes the turn cybernetics had taken when it became dominated by John von Neumann, mathematician and Cold War enthusiast, who had been involved in developing the atomic bomb and then in building a prototype mainframe computer for the US Navy. The inherent danger of metaphor and analogy in scientific work, allowed him to argue that ‘feedback’ meant that computers operated like humans. He is the first of Barbrook’s villains whose propagandizing of AI, allowed the development of war games with a clean conscience for those doing the work.

But this, no more than Burnham’s managerial elite, created much of an attractive version of the future. Enter Marshall McLuhan, an obscure literature professor in Canada with a suitably modern mish-mash of snappy perceptions based on the ideas of Harold Innis. that ‘the movement of information’ played the primary role in shaping human societies. In Understanding Media and the more snappier titled The Gutenberg Galaxy, he postulated a convergence of a communication technologies, and neutral gloabliaztion. For him “print consciousness – the indifference of rationalism – would be superseded by electronic media consciousness – the empathy of intuition,” as Barbrook puts it. One might object to the domineering arrogance of some of its proponents, but the superseding of rationalism, can only make one nervous. The intellectuals of the Power Elite on the other hand, were all to happy keep their monopoly on rationalism, while taking up McLuhan’s ideas. What appealed to them in his work was not just the heralding of the information age, but in particular the converging and ‘unification’ of computing, media and telecommunications, and how this provided a vision of the future in which the USA already had an unassailable lead. The technical determinism implied in his argument –a changed technological mode of communication making for a new mode of consciousness — also meant that, in the right hands, the ideas could be rendered ideologically safe.


The intellectuals, the ones Barbrook calls ‘the cold war left’, were of the type who tell you what you were really saying the moment you’ve finished saying it. In this instance there was not even acknowledgement of what McLuhan had said.. He to be interpreted and unacknowledged because he himself was too off-the-wall to provide a Cold War imaginary future, or to be useful to academic careerists. Without acknowledgement, interpretation becomes appropriation, and what was constructed was McLuhanism without McLuhan. This when McLuhan himself had shown his ‘flakiness’ when, at a 1969 meeting of the Bilderberg Group he asked, “What are we fighting Communism for? We are the most Communist people in world history.”

The appropriation of the ideas and breakthroughs of inventers, innovators, and mavericks by those with institutional and financial power is hardly new. In the case of McLuhan, his appropriators were real operators, Daniel Bell and the geopolitical cold warrior Zbigniew Brzezinski, a member of Bell’s multi-disciplinary Commission which had come out of the American Cybernetics Conference of 1964 and was financed by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Bell had already provided an early version of the “Third Way” with his End of Ideology, (“The end of ideology is not – and should not – be the end of utopia as well”) having already proved himself a reliable hatchet man for the Power Elite with a critique of Wright Mills’ book, that depended on nod-and-wink put-downs and the distortions that arise from simply ignoring the phenomena it highlighted.ii As well as professional academics, the Commission also involved think-tankers like Herman Kahn who, in the 1950s, had claimed a nuclear war against the USSR was winnable on the basis of simulated war games. It was he and a colleague from the Hudson Institute who came up with a list of 100 imminent inventions for the Commission. Much was predicated on the power of ‘thinking machines’. Meanwhile Brzezinski in a 1968 article and a 1970 book, reproduced McLuhanism as academic sociology with technology as the driving form of human history, no class conflict involved. And this time it was new technology which was effecting a new economy, and a view of the world to go with it, the information society replacing the industrial with the USA in the lead.

Barbrook argues that Bell found this insufficient, that it didn’t offer their own vision of “the emancipated society, ” their vision of utopia, and that this was his self-appointed job. His point of view was essentially similar however: “As in earlier stages of growth, people were spectators of an evolutionary movement outside of their control,” B arbrook writes. Certain ironies also arise. For one thing, there is a distinct whiff of ‘the end of history’ in Bell’s conclusions, and the end of history itself sounds all too like the thousand year Reich, an absurd claim, inviting hubris. Already there has been a new version of the end of history, American also, but from a rather different viewpoint. Then there is the date of Bell’s final ‘canonical text’ (a phrase Barbrook is overly fond of) The Coming of Post-Industrial Society. It finally appeared in 1973, but by then the political-ideological base it had been built on, had gone. Not that the technological developments towards the information society as network (net) came to a stop, far from it, but that his ‘third way version’ had been discredited by the Vietnam War, a triple whammy.


First of all information technology was used not just in a callous manner in this war, it also created delusions of victory. It is also the Vietnamese – and this irony Barbrook does emphasize – who used television to greater effect, making it integral to the Tet Offensive which had such an impact on American opinion. Then a youth counter-culture which had already smelled something rotten, a technological determinism which was intrinsically anti-democratic in this notion of a post-industrial society, saw that the War brought it out into the open. This counter-culture included students who, for Bell, were to be integral to, leaders of the information society, with bases in the universities They were integral to his society. Instead many students became militant opponents of the War and all that went with it.

Longer term, the costs of the war was a catalyst for a radical shift in general capitalist policy. The Keynesianism which had been taken for granted by the cold war left was in any case becoming unacceptable to capital and its representative power elite, blamed for its failure to deliver social discipline. The costs of the war and those of the Great Society, and then the oil price shock in the same year that Bell finally published, made this shift in capitalist strategy both necessary and possible. It was a switch aimed at making people work harder for the same, or less money. Computerized technology, developed as it was within the capitalist relations of production that Bell airbrushed out of the picture, was an important means of making this happen. Instead of the greater free time for creativity inherent in the cold war left’s imaginary future, people have come to work harder and for longer hours.

Barbrook describes the political ironies, but remains ambivalent about them because of the longevity he ascribes to the conception of the information society as both imaginary future and fetish, that was developed by this group with Bell as its synthesiser and promoter. But before he gets there, and what this means and has meant for the present, the real villain of this cold war left, W.W. Rostow steps out of his role as a key intellectual contributor to cold war leftist ideology, to become the most enthusiastic of the Washington desk bombers of Vietnam; and the one who could not give up on its supposed efficacy. The saddest off-stage individuals in the book are his parents who had optimistically christened him Walt Whitman. For Rostow, the global village required the destruction of real villages that did not, and had no chance of following his stages of growth,


The ideological contribution was his stages of economic growth theory which had the merit of providing a historical materialist alternative to Marxism as against the dominant bourgeois theories of the market and equilibrium. He understood, as Barbrook puts it, that “market competition was a historical creation rather than an immutable law of nature.” But that was as far as it went, ‘progressive’ only in relation to the pre-New Deal economics of laisser-faire, and in its promise of everyone a consumer of the goods technology had made available. It is a theory which eradicates class and class conflict as a motor of economic growth; and leaves out the crucial importance of the military budget for both research and armaments to the US economic growth of the time, something at least recognized by ex-President Eisenhower in his ‘military-industrial complex’ warning speech of 1961. Most of all the theory itself is also ahistorical, believing that the American model was the only ‘modern’ one in town, and that it was universally available, its prescriptive stages ultimately unrecognizing of all the advantages and violence of the USA’s economic history. For development to take place for Rostow, a change in attitudes to technology was required, along with a “willingness to work”.

However, its claim as a model for modernity and the future for the “Third World” in a period when a proxy Cold War was being fought in this world, fell down when even “communist economics” seemed more modern and realistic, given the US’s support for the most regressive forms of the elites of that world. That this was the case was intolerable not just to Rostow and the Cold War left, but to American ultra-nationalists wholly imbued with a ‘military definition of reality’ like Samuel Huntington who, at this time, was railing – with racist overtones – about a surfeit of democracy within the USA, itself, and who hated the very idea of the Great Society. iiiWith some consistency, his solution to the ‘Maoist threat’ was to destroy the Vietnamese peasantry as a class, the non-modern peasant class. This coalition of forces, the cold war left and authoritarian nationalists, has recently returned to cause more misery to other people, and exhibited the same characteristics:

  • the same arrogant ignorance. In the earlier case they could not even be bothered to know Vietnam’s history of fierce independence towards China, when China was presumed to be the instigator of ‘dominos’ falling.
  • the same gruesome wishful thinking
  • the same absolute belief in the abstract violence of its military technology. Noting the importance of games theory, and then war gaming, Barbrook says “When processed through a computer, the irrational could be made to appear rational…and according to ARPA (Advanced Research Programme Agency, an agency with financial backing from the military) computer simulations, the success of their B 52 air offensive was guaranteed. When their losses in people and property reached the critical breaking point, the Communists would be forced to admit defeat and abandon the struggle against South Vietnam.”

For Rostow, the war criminal, the people whose losses were to reach breaking point were abstractions, and whose deaths were required to prove a point. At the same time, he never questioned the reliability of the data provided by the US military (with its own interests), and placed his trust in “the mediated interpretation of the war provided by information technologies.” That the people killed in wars are abstract figures for those who perpetuate them was not new, but the fetishizing of information technology took it to new levels, while all the time, this same technology was being proclaimed for making a liberatory society possible.


Imaginary Futures is a history lesson. Its purpose to show how the Net both as shorthand for, and realization of the Information Society, was theorized by the cold war left he describes. He argues that this theorizing made in the circumstances of the Cold War, has somehow survived the limits of its time and, one way or another, established the parameters within which it is imagined. The blind faith in American superiority in information age warfare, re-packed as Shock and Awe, has played a great part in the devastation heaped on the people of Iraq. The notion that any model other than the American information society is of the dinosaur variety (a handy and clichéd symbol implying what is heavy, slow-moving, and awaiting distinction) has had great resonance, as well as minimizing the political impact of a decline in US manufacturing and its balance of trade.

This is true, but as a history of the intellectuals in this process, questions remain. An alternative view of these cold war leftists might be that those who ally themselves with the power elite, are its ‘useful idiots’, useful only at certain times. In this case, that it was not just the Vietnam War, but a shift in the elite’s requirements that meant that any ‘progressive’ elements that existed in their imaginary future could be ditched, and just the rhetoric maintained. This is not a single case. Monetarism for example, economic theory from the 1920s, was dusted down to be used in the capitalist offensive of the 1970s. Lip service to Milton Friedman was still to be paid until his recent death, , but voodoo economics and militarized Keyensianism have been the order of the day ever since.
Barbrook cannot bring himself to give this alternative view. It is a history of intellectuals, but he has a problem with them. With a nasty piece of work like von Neumann, the ‘fanatical Cold War warrior’, there is a psycho-political history attached; he was “traumatized by the nationalization of his family’s bank during the Hungarian revolution of 1919”. What we don’t get is any real history of more ‘progressive figures’ in the story. Or rather, a question posed by Armin Medosch, is whether the psycho-political histories of the technologists who helped make some of the building blocks of the Net as a reality, played a part in the nature of the technical developments they worked on. Barbrook makes the practical suggestion that as with reading Marx himself, rather than the Bolshevik version, we should read Norbert Wiener and McLuhan in their own words. Wiener the pacifist socialist he implies is the person who theorized cybernetics as a non-hierarchical form of interaction. But what of J.C.R. Licklider and his ARPA group. Of these he says that some of the cybernetic radicals who had been ‘persuaded’ to serve the US military were able to “hardwire the academic gift economy into its social mores and technical architecture.” This begs the question as to whether certain technical achievements were the product of some ‘socialist’ consciousness. Paul Baran for example, and Licklider himself, was their such consciousness at work in the development of packet-switching?

Technological and scientific leaps have been made, or managed by, people committed to such advances being public property. There is the well-known case of Tim Beners-Lee and the world wide web. Sir John Sulston has been very clear about the moral basis of the long battle to keep the Human Genome Project as public property against Craig Venter’s push for profitable patenting. In this instance, motivation did not change the nature of the human genome, but given that it is in this field we are likely to see a new wave of technological determinism, that it is public knowledge is likely to be crucial.

Neither Berners-Lee nor Sulston were financed by the military however, so that motivations are visible. In the case of packet-switching, Barbrook is not helpful with his ‘persuaded’ and ‘hardwired’ , a word that seems to substitute itself for explanation. Is the net as gift economy an accidental, ironic outcome of ARPA, or is he suggesting that Licklider and Baran consciously mad a ‘deal with the devil’ knowing the ultimate public good that could come from packet-switching.iv
If this question, now perhaps being resolved in the world of the computer itself by the ‘hactivists’ of Open Source Culture, is not answered in the book, it is much clearer in the case of the maverick McLuhan. He has been as Barbrook shows, open to interpretation from all sides, v but it is the “we are the most communist people in history,” that he says to the Bilderberg Conference, which should stand out to us.. It is this possibility, this possible view of the present, which has stood out in Barbrook’s own writing from the famous Californian Ideology This is, in a sense, the miracle; an internet which regardless of the motives of those making its constituent parts has real elements of the gift economy and the public ownership of knowledge so important to Sulston, This is what Barbrook aims to celebrate. It is accompanied by his consistent attack on technological determinism, and an insistence on people-made decisions as to how technology can and should be developed. It follows up his previous attacks on capitalist versions of the Net. By giving us the history of intellectuals thriving on an ahistorical view of the world, and what this view lead to, he has given depth to the critique that began with the Californian Ideology, and provided the tools to see through new versions of the same, however attractively packaged.

The imaginary future is an area of contestation. Harlan K. Ullman, co-author of Shock and Awe, a man with his own military consultancy business sits on the Advisory Board of the Roosevelt Group, a characteristically Power Elite organization, a mega-consultancy for CEOs and their senior corporate executives who are “charged with leading, indeed inventing the future.” Given how much technological research is financially controlled by military and corporate interests, a grim future is what they have in mind. Imaginary Futures gives us some tools to recognize and contest the flim-flam with which it will be presented as it was in the New York World’s Fair of 1964.