Richard Barbrook had to wait 20 years to speak publicly about his landmark essay "The Californian Ideology" in California. Though he'd toured the paper around Europe when it was first released in 1995, UC Santa Cruz's "50 years of Imagined Futures in California" conference was the first time he'd talked about it to an audience anywhere in the U.S., and they were very prepared to listen. After all, he'd been right about so much of what California, or at least its tech industry, has become.
"Now it's orthodoxy," Barbrook, who's now 60, told me of the manifesto, which he co-authored with the late Andy Cameron. "That's the weird thing. People were turning up, other academics were quoting from The Californian Ideology. And, then there were all these students who'd read it. It's like on all the reading lists."
While The Californian Ideology has garnered a following in the two decades since it was first published, it began as Barbrook and Cameron, two Marxist academics, critiquing a very Californian institution: Wired, circa the early 1990s. The two leveled the accusation thatWired was reproducing some of the right-wing ideas then-Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich was promoting. And they claimed the magazine was ignoring the effects of policies like welfare reform, and was "instead mesmerised by their enthusiasm for the libertarian possibilities offered by new information technologies."
"We had all these people in England who were going on, who loved Wired magazine, because it was, you know, New York, California, new, the internet! We had these people who would not approve the privatization of the Health Service or the railways, which they did actually do, absurdly. But as soon as it became anything to do with the internet, they used to spout all this free market nonsense."
Before writing The Californian Ideology, Barbrook had a background in the punk scene and pirate radio while Cameron was an photographer and artist. The two wrote the essay in about a month in 1995, in part for themselves, and in part as a sort of statement of purpose for a new Masters program in Hypermedia Studies they were setting up at the University of Westminster.
Unsurprisingly, Wired disagreed with Barbrook and Cameron's assessment that the tech industry's libertarian tendencies were generators of inequality and oppression. The magazine's co-founder, Louis Rosetto, wrote a rebuttal that began by labeling the piece as "[a] seeming understanding of the Digital Revolution’s crucial left-right fusion of free minds and free markets, followed by a totally out-to-lunch excursion into discussions of the role of the government, racism, and the ecology in California." He called the two "smug Europeans."
Despite Rosetto's objections, many of the diagnoses Barbrook and Cameron made have been borne out, though they often come in (admittedly vague) packages or sweeping pronouncements. The following could be a description of governmental mass surveillance, the technological walled gardens that companies like Facebook, Google, and Apple are increasingly creating, or both:
While the proponents of the electronic agora and the electronic marketplace promise to liberate individuals from the hierarchies of the state and private monopolies, the social polarisation of American society is bringing forth a more oppressive vision of the digital future. The technologies of freedom are turning into the machines of dominance.
Much of The Californian Ideology is also devoted to addressing the internal culture of the industry and its workers, the "virtual class," who were flooding Northern California in 1995 and have continued to do so rampantly ever since:
Like the labour aristocracy of the last century, core personnel in the media, computing and telecoms industries experience the rewards and insecurities of the marketplace. On the one hand, these digital artisans not only tend to be well-paid, but also have considerable autonomy over their pace of work and place of employment. As a result, the cultural divide between the hippie and the organisation man has now become rather fuzzy. Yet, on the other hand, these skilled workers are tied by the terms of their contracts and have no guarantee of continued employment. Lacking the free time of the hippies, work itself has become the main route to self-fulfillment for much of the virtual class.
It's all but an exact description of what Anna Weiner describes in her insider's description of startup culture from earlier this year:
Work has wedged its way into our identities, and the only way to maintain sanity is to maintain that we are the company, the company is us. Whenever we see a stranger at the gym wearing a T-shirt with our logo on it, whenever we are mentioned on social media or on a client’s blog, whenever we get a positive support ticket, we share it in the company chat room and we’re proud, genuinely proud.
Barbrook attributes the accuracy of many of these guesses to the fact that he's simply read about it all before. When I mentioned mass surveillance, he started listing instances of technological surveillance going back to Joseph Fouché, Napoleon's Minister of Police.
"I was trained as a historian, and I now teach in a politics department, and I am teaching in the media studies department. What's interesting is there's always this resistance to history," he added. "It's always got to be the latest thing, and, you know, you're lucky if they'll go back to 1968. Some people go back to 1917. And [when] people like me start talking about the 19th Century or the 18th and 17th Century, their eyes start to glaze over. And so I actually think if you're going to talk about capitalism, you have to talk about the whole of capitalism."
Not all of what Barbrook and Cameron hoped for came to pass, and indeed the alternatives they laid out were largely ignored. The Californian Ideology offers a lengthy explanation of how Minitel, the now-defunct French, government-administered proto-web, could be a model for centralized, largely available internet access. It also holds out great hope for tech-based art, which while still a venue for protest, has arguably been largely co-opted by the technology industry.
Despite his critiques, Barbrook remains fairly, even surprisingly, optimistic, particularly about people using the internet to organize. He was buoyed earlier this month when thousands of people turned out in Liverpool, gathered on short notice through social media to support Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, who's being challenged for party leadership by Owen Smith. (Barbrook helped to write a "digital democracy manifesto" for Corbyn's leadership campaign.)
But Barbrook wonders if what's really necessary for the internet's potential to be fully realized is that it'll have to become like electric light: an underlying layer that's largely taken for granted. Barbrook now has a two-year-old son, and while he still has misgivings about how technology is produced and owned, he holds out hope that his son's generation will be able be able to put it to better use.
"Maybe the internet will only become radical when we don't even think about it," Barbrook said. "My little boy, he won't even think about [the internet and social media]…but they'll just assume that they can just express their opinion, socialize, mobilize, do everything like this without all those barriers that people had….We haven't even got there yet. We're getting there."
Ethan Chiel is a reporter for Fusion, writing mostly about the internet and technology. You can (and should) email him at firstname.lastname@example.org