Blogging was where we began, and how we built our company so we have preserved this archive to show how our thinking developed over a decade of developing the use of social technology inside organisations

The future is what it used to be…


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.

After the lecture, I gave a little talk about the growing revival of the notion of hypermedia in current debates about social software and how the basic ideas of the early days of the Web are re-asserting themselves in current thinking. I mentioned that during the 1999-2000 dotcom boom, the basic underlying ideas of the Internet were obscured for a time – links, personal presence, network effects, self-representation, peer-to-peer interaction, and so on. These days, the most exciting developments tend to emphasise simplicity in interface and code, connectedness, accessibility and network effects or social affordances based on person to person interaction. This back to basics phenomenon is a useful antidote to the anxiety of future shock (or should that be futuresplash? 😉 that accompanied online innovation during the late 1990’s, when web browsers made some people suddenly go all Chicken Licken. In actual fact, as in many other areas of endeavour, we are still learning our trade. We can do a lot with (X)HTML, and as Google is demonstrating, even with Javascript. Home pages can be blogs, and with the addition of homebrew protocols such as RSS, connected homepages can revolutionise whole areas of media, commerce and society. There’s little we do now that was not possible in the late 90’s, but what has changed is the critical mass of connectedness that now exists. We have flow.

Perhaps we are ready to begin….

One Response to The future is what it used to be…

  1. By Lisa Devaney on April 10, 2007 at 6:56 pm

    Hi Lee: You caught the early excitement for Imaginary Futures, and now we are soon upon Richard Barbrook’s official release in May 2007. If you would like to attend the press preview, and book launch party, please get in touch with me. It is in London.