Technology Spin

Thursday, June 7, 2007

Once again, I found it impossible to ignore this rant against the hype and marketing of technology.

Since the 1960s, politicians and pundits have predicted the imminent arrival of a digital utopia in which robots would do the washing up and we would live in peace and harmony in an electronically connected, global village, thanks to the net.  So why are the utopian visions of 40 years ago strangely similar to the ones we hold today?  Because business and political leaders have consistently pushed a carefully orchestrated fantasy of the future to distract us from the present, says Richard Barbrook, who explores the subject in Imaginary Futures – From Thinking Machines to the Global Village.  Barbrook, a senior lecturer in politics at the University of Westminster, has been researching this topic for more than four years.  What he wants is to show how ideology is used to warp time.  “In other words,” he says, “how we’re told that the importance of a new technology lies not in what it can do in the here and now, but what the more advanced models might be able to do one day.”  He is particularly interested in exposing the “nonsense of technological determinism”, which he describes as “the theory that someone builds a machine, the machine sprouts legs and runs around the world changing it“.  Barbrook believes we can trace today’s deterministic views of technology to the cold war; when the USSR and the United States dedicated huge resources to demonstrating which empire better represented progress and modernity.  During that period, the US repackaged the space rockets, atomic reactors and computer mainframes it was developing in the pursuit of atomic Armageddon into prototypes of better things to come.  “Nasa’s spaceships would evolve into luxurious interplanetary passenger liners,” says Barbrook.  “General Electric’s nuclear fission reactors would become fusion plants providing limitless energy for all.  IBM’s computers were prototypes of artificial intelligence.”  Soon, the implication went, loyal obedient robots would be at humanity’s beck and call.  But America’s packaging of the internet in the service of anti-communism has been the most significant influence on our thinking today, by Barbrook’s analysis.  Otherwise, he says, why do most of us today pick the internet as the technology that has transformed our lives?  After all, if we really considered what has made a difference, “it’s as likely to be soap or the contraceptive pill or antibiotics, which you could argue are more important than the convergence of computing, telecommunications and the media”.  So in 2007, with our mobile phones, computers and high-speed broadband connections, are we still hypnotised by cold war spin, patiently waiting for technology to deliver our utopian future?…..

The central idea that the fusion of broadcasting, computing and telecommunications would create a new – and better – social order.  The “information society” came from a US government remix of the ideas of Marshall McLuhan, the professor who coined the phrases “the global village” and “the medium is the message”.  We have been living with the belief that technologies “transform society” ever since, he claims…..”People who are writing about technology love a theory that says they are the most important people in society,” Barbrook says.  “How flattering to be told that ‘you are the future’, rather than train drivers or hospital workers.”…..”Because we live in this sort of society, you can see why technology gets fetishised.  So it seems to make sense to say that the internet is transforming the world, but it in fact it’s completely bonkers because it is simply a set of protocols.”  Today the internet is ubiquitous and to all intents and purposes we live in the information age.  The global village hasn’t healed the divisions of nations, class and culture or marked the birth of a new humanistic civilisation.  Our virtual world might be a strange combination of cybernetic communism and dotcom capitalism, but in the real world, wars continue and governments and large corporations behave as always…..

Reference :,,2096653,00.html

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