INTERVIEW WITH RICHARD BARBROOK by Anna Fata
Richard Barbrook, Great Britain. Sociologist and member of the Hypermedia Research Centre at the University of Westminster, London. Dr. Barbrook received wide attention in the digital world in 1997 for his essay on "Californian Ideology." In it he provokes the readers with the assertion that some kind of virtual Western Coast elite dominated the debate about future possibilities of the cyberspace. He pleads for a European alternative concept, which aims at providing equal access to the digital world for everybody.
Q: Do you agree with the statement that technologies are neutral? Why?
A: How can a technology - or any other form of human creativity - be socially
neutral? We are all shaped by the specific historical and social
circumstances within which we live. When scientists develop technologies,
they are hoping to meet some real - or imagined - need of themselves and
their fellow humans. As the US military's sponsorship of the Net proves,
sometimes their technologies fulfill needs which their promoters didn't
know existed (and would have opposed if they did)...
Q: How do you think Internet will modify human relationship?
A: The Net is already modifying humans relationships. Just ask the leaders of
the G8 who've just had their summit disrupted by anti-capitalist
demonstrations! Here is a dramatic example of how the Net makes it much
easier for people to collaborate and work with each other at a distance. Of
course, most of us are doing much more banal and ordinary things when we're
on-line. However, it is not an accident that the network has replaced the
factory to become the social metaphor of our times...
Q: You mentioned the G8 in a your answer: what do you think about what
recently happened in Genova?
A: A few years ago, most of my leftist friends weren't much interested in
international economic institutions like the G8 - or IMF, WTO, World Bank,
etc., etc.. The greatest achievement of these protests has been to expose
the destructive role of these global enforcers of neo-liberalism. No longer
can trade negotiations be conducted in secret between the rich and
powerful. However, what is proving more difficult is achieving consensus
about what should replace neo-liberalism. It is no accident that the
protestors are defined by what they are *against* rather than what they
*support*: e.g. anti-globalisation, anti-capitalist, anarchist,
anti-corporate and so on. In the 1980s, Thatcher used to claim that "there
is no alternative" to global neo-liberalism. In 2001, the Left still can't
agree upon a positive response to this infamous phrase which is credible to
the majority of the population...
Q: To you, what was the role of the on-line communications to the
A: Like many others who are sceptical of the mainstream media, I relied upon
the Net for information about the Genoa events. During the weekend, the TV
and newspaper reports were dominated by reports of rioting by a small
minority of anarchists: politics-as-spectacle. What has been fascinating is
not just that Indymedia and similar organisations provided much better
coverage of the protests at the time, but also broke the news stories which
have subsequently been picked up by the mainstream media: the killing of a
demonstrator, police brutality, the involvement of fascist provocateurs and
so on. Once again, the Net has proved to be an effective antidote to
politics-as-spectacle. Even more important is the social model provided by the Net. In the mid-twentieth century, both Left and Right believed that society had to be
constructed in the image of the factory: Fordism. Many decades later, the
Net has displaced the factory as the epitonomy of modernity. The Right
claims that the spread of information technologies means every country must
adopt neo-liberal policies. During the dotcom boom, this ideology was
rarely questioned even on the Left. However, as the music industry has
recently found out, it is now becoming obvious that the Net can't be
confined within the limitations of e-commerce. The 'cutting-edge' of this
technology isn't simply about selling more commodities, but also
encouraging the swapping of gifts: MP3s, open source software, network
communities and peer-to-peer computing. Not just dotcom capitalism, but
also cybercommunism! Since the Net isn't the technological expression of
global neo-liberalism, its iconic role within contemporary society offers
hope for the future. As well as being against things as they are, we can
use its example to advocate better ways of working and communicating with
each other. Above all, as the Net becomes an integral part of everyday
life, more and more people will have personal experience of our new social
model. What was once utopian will soon become common sense...
Q: The digital divide is an important issue that must be faced: according
to you, which are the best ways to do it?
A: Government policies need changing. For instance, telecoms regulation should
be focused on ensuring universal access to services rather than simply
encouraging market competition between providers. Community initiatives are
also important. For instance, the creation of local cybercafes and the
wiring of neighbourhoods. However, the long-term solution to the digital
divide can't separated from the key problem of our age: the growing
disparities of income both within the industrialised countries and between
North and South. You need spare cash to have a computer, telephone and Net
Q: In your opinion, to facilitate the access to the Net could flatrate be
useful? Or couldn't be realizable, because it's not profitable enough?
A: The advantages of unmetered phone connections are shown by the American
example. This form of pricing doesn't appear to have harmed the profits of
their telephone companies either.
Q: In Italy, the editorial law prescribes the registration to the court
and the signature of a journalist of the professional association for
all the sites (on the Net) that give periodical informations, even if of
a collector. What is your opinion about this prescription?
A: This is the sort of legislation which brings the law into disrepute. It is
unenforceable in practice as Italians can easily have their websites hosted
in another country. It also contravenes the promise of media freedom in the
European Declaration of Human Rights. Since Berlusconi made his fortune
from pirate television stations, it would be especially hypocritical for
his government to criminalise people who create websites without official
Q: In which ways do you think the government should intervene to
safeguard democratic values in cyberspace?
A: The primary task of European governments should be ensuring that all
citizens have access to cheap and unmetered two-way broadband
communications. Media freedom will then be transformed from a formal right
promised in declarations of rights into an everyday activity exercised by
Q: In cyberspace information must be protected: authors must have a
sufficient control on their work, to be encoureged to write and public
must use this information correctly. According to you, what is the
government's task in this process?
A: I disagree with this statement. As I argue in 'The Regulation of Liberty',
I think that the current legal definition of copyright is not just
technically obsolete, but also socially undesireable in the age of the Net.
Since the majority of on-line information is never going to be bought and
sold, European governments should avoid getting involved in the USA's
unwinnable war against copyright "piracy": the legal imposition of economic
censorship on the many in the interests of the few. Our politicians' time
would be much better used devising other methods of rewarding cultural
Q: Francesco Bollorino and Andrea Rubini, in their essay 'Ascesa e caduta
del Terzo Stato digitale' stated that there are three possible future
background: a free and unconditioned access to the informations on the
Net, in which people will be user and creator, a free and unconditioned
access to the information, in which the information maker must respect
some preordained rules and a conditioned access and production of
information. What is your opinion abuot this issue?
A: The media corporations would love to impose the last option: the closing
down of the Net. They know that this is the only method of protecting their
near-monopoly over the production and distribution of information. However,
the owners of copyrights are cutting against the social mores and technical
structure of the Net. Eventually, they will have to adapt their business
models to the new situation rather than vice versa. People want to make
their own media as well as consuming other people's media. They will
respect those rules which help in this task and - as shown by the
popularity of swapping MP3s - ignore those laws which hamper them. A gift
is *not* a crime!
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