Last week I found myself sitting at the back of the class in a small lecture room at the Hypermedia Research Centre at the University of Westminster. I was not only blogging, but also eating an apple. If I had done either as an undergraduate in one of his classes 13 years ago, Dr. Richard Barbrook would have swooped on me with some withering remark, as he did when I dared to reference the inferior English translation of some (now forgotten) political tract in my essay, rather than its German original. Later, in 1994, it was Richard who entered my maniacally busy press office, logged me on to GreenNet and showed why a Netscape pre-release. Bye bye Winfax, I thought! But it turned out to be more important even than that.
Anyway, in customary French intellectual attire, Richard entered the room and began writing a long sequence of names, references and concepts on two large white-boards showing the influence of various C20th historical and ideological movements and moments on the emergence of cybernetics and computing. Here is a slice:
As part of a series of lectures on imaginary futures that will presumably emerge as a book at some point, Richard examined the way that 1960’s techno-utopianism, with its bold new ideas of artificial intelligence and computerised automation, actually looked to the past for a language with which to construct a vision of the future.
He went on to trace the influence of ideas associated with post-1960’s new social movements on the development of cybernetics – from Wiener, Robert Theobald (‘Manifesto of the Triple Revolution’) and Bayard Rustin (one of MLK’s organisers) to Ted Nelson (Computer Lib, Community Memory and the homebrew computing club, BBSs, USENET, the Internet and hacker culture via McLuhan, Students for a Democratic Society (Port Huron Statement, 1962) and the gift economy of the academy.
It was an interesting perspective on the historical background to some of the cultural underpinnings of the Internet today. The use of technology to create communities rather than just markets (cf Mcluhan’s village idea) was seen back then as part of a wider search for meaning and an end to the alienation created by what Marcuse called our one-dimensional consumption society. As we try to understand the growth of the Internet and online social behaviour, now and in the future, it is useful to be aware of the hopes of dreams of previous generations who tried to use technology for social improvement (whilst maintaining a healthy scepticism towards modern utopias, which was the subject of an excellent discussion on In our Time this morning).
Perhaps, as somebody put it the other day (via Dina),
“…Social Software is a vector, a return to an old culture.
When I say old culture, I mean the culture that fits the essential nature of humans and that fits nature itself. I imagine a return to the custom of being personally authentic, to a definition of work that serves the needs of our community, and to a society where our institutions serve to enhance all life.”
Richard’s lecture’s title – The future is what it used to be – was also appropriate for another reason: just at the point when Richard’s areas of interest within the HRC are hitting the mainstream, the University is closing down the course. Most courses in this field today teach people how to use a particular brand of fishing rod, rather than teaching them how to fish (or, in Richard’s case, what fish are what fishing really means). To my mind, the HRC’s historical and economic perspective (whether or not you agree with its conclusions) on open source, commons-based peer production, hacker culture and artisanal modes of production are actually of increasing relevance today. The future really is what it used to be.
Perhaps we are ready to begin….