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New York Prophecies by Richard Barbrook

'Biological intelligence is fixed, because it is an old, mature paradigm, but the new paradigm of non-biological computation and intelligence is growing exponentially. The crossover will be in the 2020s and after that, at least from a hardware perspective, non-biological computation will dominate...'

At the beginning of the 21st century, the dream of artificial intelligence is deeply embedded within the modern imagination. From childhood onwards, people in the developed world are told that computers will one day be able to reason - and even feel emotions - just like humans. In science fiction stories, artificial intelligences have long been favourite characters. Audiences have grown up with images of loyal robot buddies like Data in Star Trek TNG and of pitiless machine monsters like the cyborg in The Terminator. These science fiction fantasies are encouraged by confident predictions from prominent computer scientists. Continual improvements in hardware and software will eventually led to the creation of artificial intelligences more powerful than the human mind. Commercial developers are looking forward to selling sentient machines which can do the housework and help the elderly. Some computer scientists even believe that the invention of artificial intelligence is a spiritual quest. In California, Ray Kurzweil and his colleagues are eagerly waiting for the Singularity: the First Coming of the Silicon Messiah. Whether inspired by money or mysticism, all these advocates of artificial intelligence share the conviction that they know the future of computing - and their task is to get there as fast as possible.

Despite its cultural prominence, the meme of sentient machines is vulnerable to theoretical exorcism. Far from being a free-floating signifier, this prophecy is deeply rooted in time and space. Not surprisingly, contemporary boosters of artificial intelligence rarely acknowledge the antiquity of the concept itself. They want to move forwards not look backwards. Yet, it's over forty years since the dream of thinking machines first gripped the American public's imagination ago. The future of computing has a long history. Analysing this original version of the prophecy of artificial intelligence is the precondition for understanding its contemporary variants. With this motivation in mind, let's go back to the second decade of the Cold War when the world's biggest computer company put on a show about the wonders of thinking machines in the financial capital of the most powerful and wealthiest country on the planet...

A Millennium Of Progress

On the 22nd April 1964, the New York World's Fair was opened to the general public. During the next two years, this modern wonderland welcomed over 51 million visitors. Every section of the American elite was represented at the exposition: the federal government, US state governments, large corporations, financial institutions, industry lobbies and religious groups. The World's Fair proved that the USA was the leader in everything: consumer goods, democratic politics, show business, modernist architecture, fine art, religious tolerance, domestic living and, above all else, new technology. A 'millennium of progress' had culminated in the American century.

Not surprisingly, this fusion of hucksterism and patriotism was most pronounced among the pavilions of big business. Pepsi hired Disney to build a theme-park ride. The U.S. Rubber Company built a Pop Art big wheel in the shape of 'a giant whitewall tire'. Although they were very popular, these exhibits never became the stars of the show. What really impressed the millions of visitors to the exposition were the awe-inspiring displays of new technologies. Writers and film-makers had long fantasised about travelling to other worlds. Now, in NASA's Space Park, visitors could admire the huge rockets which had taken the first Americans into earth orbit. Ever since the Russians launched the Sputnik satellite in 1957, the two superpowers had been engaged in the 'space race': a competition to prove technological supremacy by carrying out spectacular feats outside the earth's atmosphere. By the time that the first visitors arrived in NASA's Space Park, America was on the verge of overtaking its rival. Despite its early setbacks, the USA was still Number One.

The corporate exhibitors also promised that the technological achievements of the present would soon be surpassed by the triumphs of tomorrow. General Motors' Futurama looked forward to a world of giant skyscrapers, underwater settlements and, best of all, holiday resorts on the moon. At its Progressland pavilion, General Electric predicted that electricity generated by nuclear fusion would be 'too cheap to meter'. For many corporations, the most effective method of proving their technological modernity was showcasing a computer. While most of the mainframes at the World's Fair were used as hi-tech gimmicks, IBM dedicated its pavilion exclusively to the wonders of computing as a distinct technology. For over a decade, this corporation had been America's leading mainframe manufacturer. In 1961, one single product - the IBM 1401 - had accounted for a quarter of all the computers operating in the USA. In the minds of most visitors, IBM was computing.

Just before the opening of the World's Fair, the corporation launched a series of products which would maintain its dominance over the industry for another two decades: the System/360. Seizing the opportunity for self-promotion offered by the exposition, the bosses of IBM commissioned a pavilion designed to eclipse all others. Eero Saarinen - the renowned Finnish architect - supervised the construction of the building: a white, corporate-logo-embossed, egg-shaped theatre which was suspended high in the air by 45 rust-coloured metal trees. Underneath this striking feature were interactive exhibits celebrating IBM's contribution to the computer industry. For the theatre itself, Charles and Ray Eames - the couple who epitomised American modernist design - created the main attraction at the IBM pavilion: 'The Information Machine'. After taking their places in the 500-seat 'People Wall', visitors were elevated upwards into the egg-shaped structure. Once inside, a narrator introduced a 'mind-blowing' multi-media show about how the mainframes exhibited in the IBM pavilion were forerunners of the sentient machines of the future. Computers were in the process of acquiring consciousness: artificial intelligence.

For over a decade, prominent computer scientists in USA had been convinced that machines would sooner or later become indistinguishable from humans. Language was a set of rules which could be codified as software. Learning from new experiences could be programmed into computers. With the launch of the System/360 series, mainframes were now powerful enough to construct the prototypes of thinking machines. At the 1964 World's Fair, IBM proudly announced that the dream of artificial intelligence was about to be realised. In the near future, every American would have their own Robby the Robot.

'Duplicating the problem-solving and information-handling capabilities of the [human] brain is not far off; it would be surprising if it were not accomplished within the next decade.'

The IBM pavilion's stunning combination of avant-garde architecture and multi-media performance was a huge hit with both the press and the public. Alongside space rockets and nuclear reactors, the computer had confirmed its place as one of the three iconic technologies of modern America. Most visitors to the New York World's Fair understood the ideological message of the machines on display: the present was the future in embryo. Within at the IBM pavilion, computers existed in two time frames at once. On the one hand, the current models on display were prototypes of the sentient machines of the future. On the other hand, the dream of artificial intelligence showed the true potential of the mainframes exhibited in the IBM pavilion. At the New York World's Fair, new technology was displayed as the fulfilment of science fiction fantasy: the imaginary future.

Exhibiting New Technology

When the New York World's Fair opened, Americans had good reasons for feeling optimistic about their prospects. During the previous fifty years, their nation had out-fought, out-produced and out-smarted all of its imperial rivals. By 1964, the USA had become an economic and military superpower without comparison. Above all, America was the global leader in the three most important new technologies: space rockets, nuclear reactors and mainframe computers.

The New York World's Fair demonstrated that the USA not only owned the future, but also the past. For over a century, cities across the world had been organising international expositions. Some were little more than glorified trade fairs. Others had been major cultural events. What united all of them was their common inspiration: the 1851 Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations. Flush with the wealth and power which flowed from owning the 'workshop of the world', the British elite had organised an international celebration of the wonders of economic progress. The Crystal Palace - a futuristic iron and glass building - was erected in a central London park. During its six months of operation, around one-fifth of the entire British population went to see the Great Exhibition. Once there, visitors were treated to a dazzling display of new products from the factories and exotic imports from the colonies. For most visitors, the stars of the show were the machines which were powering the world's first industrial revolution: cotton looms, telegraphy systems, farm equipment, rotary printing presses and, best of all, steam engines. The message of the technology exhibits was clear. Britain was the richest and most powerful nation on the planet because the British invented the best machines.

The promoters of the 1851 Great Exhibition declared that their event would give '...coherence to the idea of liberalism.' By wandering around the Crystal Palace, visitors would learn to admire the achievements of British industry. The layout of the exhibits of raw materials, machinery and finished goods was designed to give an overview of the manufacturing process. Despite this pedagogical intent, the displays at the Great Exhibition systematically ignored the lives of the people who had created the products on show. The silk dresses betrayed no traces of the horrors of the sweatshops where they were made. The glassware from Ireland contained no reminders of the terrible famine which had recently devastated the country. Public display was - paradoxically - the most effective method of social concealment: 'World exhibitions were places of pilgrimage to the fetish Commodity.'

Although the Crystal Palace was filled manufactured goods, none of them were directly on sale to the general public. Commodities became more than just commodities when on show at the Great Exhibition. With their labour hidden and their price irrelevant, their symbolic role of industrial products took centre stage. The commodity was transformed into an artwork. Use value and exchange value had been temporarily superseded by a more esoteric social phenomenon: exhibition value.

Within the space of the Crystal Palace, new technologies easily won the competition for public attention. Yet, the organisers of the Great Exhibition had originally envisaged a very different focus for their event: the promotion of high-quality British design. When the Crystal Palace was laid out, the prime location in the middle of the main hall was allocated to an exhibit of Gothic Revival furniture and religious items. Although inspired by English patriotism, this faux-medieval look deliberately avoided any aesthetic affinity with the foundations of the nation's domination over the world: the industrial revolution. Crucially, this retro-style also shaped the politics of Victorian England. The ruling elite took delight in disguising their hi-tech commercial republic as a romantic medieval monarchy. In the most modern nation in the world, the latest industrial innovation masqueraded as an archaic feudal custom: the invented tradition.

'[England's] essence is strong with the strength of modern simplicity; its exterior is august with the Gothic grandeur of a more imposing age.'

For its organisers, the Great Exhibition's primary purpose was the promotion of aesthetic nostalgia. Like the railway stations of Victorian England, new products in the Crystal Palace were supposed to be disguised as ancient artefacts. Yet, despite the best efforts of the organisers, it was the machinery hall which became the most popular section of the Crystal Palace. Gothic Revival furniture couldn't match the emotional impact of the noise and energy of working steam engines. More importantly, the machinery hall proudly celebrated the new technologies which had turned England into an economic and military superpower. Instead of disguising innovations as antiquities, the present was identified with better times to come. Invented tradition had lost out to the imaginary future.

Inside the Crystal Palace, new technology became the icon of modernity. Separated twice from its origins in human labour first through the market and then through the exposition, machinery was materialised ideology. Since the moment of production had disappeared from view, the specific ideology materialised in new technology was open to interpretation. Both bourgeois liberals and working class socialists found confirmation of their political beliefs in the steam engines of the Great Exhibition. Despite their deep differences about the ideological meaning of new technologies, the two sides agreed on one thing: defining the symbolism of machinery meant owning the imaginary future.

This political imperative also provided the impetus behind the world exposition movement. After the triumph of the Great Exhibition, other countries quickly organised their own industrial festivals to break the British ideological monopoly over the future. Within only two years, New York had held its first World's Fair and, a couple years later, Paris had hosted its inaugural exposition. Like the Great Exhibition, these imitators were much more than just trade fairs. The 1893 Chicago Columbian Exposition had more than 21 million visitors and the 1900 Paris Universal Exposition attracted nearly 48 million spectators. Whether as tourists, professionals or activists, huge numbers of people from many different nations and cultures came together at these events. World expositions were prefiguring world peace.

Despite these hopes, these expositions were also intensely nationalistic occasions. The main motivation for inviting foreigners to the Great Exhibition was so they could witness the economic supremacy of the British empire with their own eyes. When other countries subsequently put on their own expositions, the organisers always prioritised demonstrations of national technological excellence. The 1889 Paris Universal Exposition was immortalised by the superb engineering achievement of the Eiffel Tower. However, by the time that this exhibition opened, the European powers were already falling behind the rapid pace of innovation taking place in the USA. Only a few years after the Eiffel Tower was built, the Palace of Electricity at the Chicago Columbian Exposition provided spectacular proof of the technological superiority of US industry over its European rivals. America was taking ownership of the future.

During the first half of the twentieth century, the disparity between the two continents became ever more obvious. In the late-1930s, their diverging fortunes were dramatically demonstrated by the expositions held in Paris and New York. Visitors to the 1937 Paris International Exhibition were confronted with a sombre image of the world: the two massive pavilions of Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia championing their rival versions of the totalitarian imaginary future. The political and ideological divisions driving Europe towards catastrophe were starkly symbolised in brick and concrete. In complete contrast, the icons of the 1939 New York World's Fair were Democracity - the main attraction of the organisers' Perisphere building - and Futurama - a diorama inside the General Motors' pavilion. Both exhibits promoted a utopian vision of an affluent and hi-tech America of the 1960s. In this imaginary future, the majority of population lived in family homes in the suburbs and commuted to work in their own motor cars. The USA was about to become a consumer society.

Facing such strong competition for the attention of visitors, other corporations resorted to displaying sci-fi fantasy machines. The star exhibit of the Westinghouse pavilion was Electro: a robot which '... could walk, talk, count on its fingers, puff a cigarette, and distinguish between red and green with the aid of a photoelectric cell.' This gimmick provided the inspiration for the imaginary future of artificial intelligence. Until the 1939 World's Fair, robots in science fiction stories were usually portrayed as emotionless monsters intent on destroying their human masters. Only a year after the exposition closed, Isaac Asimov decided to change this negative image. Just like Electro in the Westinghouse pavilion, his fictional robots were safe and friendly products of a large corporation. During the 1950s, this change of image led to artificial intelligence becoming one of the USA's most popular imaginary futures. In both science fiction and science fact, the robot servant was the symbol of better times to come.
Cold War Computing

For most visitors to the 1939 New York World's Fair, its imaginary future of consumer prosperity must have seemed like a utopian dream. The American economy was still recovering from the worst recession in the nation's history and Europe was on the brink of another devastating war. Yet, by the time that the 1964 World's Fair opened, the most famous prediction of the 1939 exposition had been realised. The Democracity and Futurama dioramas had portrayed a future where most workers were living in the suburbs and commuting into work in motor cars. However sceptical visitors might have been back in 1939, this prophecy seemed remarkably accurate twenty-five years later. By the early-1960s, America was a suburban-dwelling, car-owning consumer society. Exhibition value had become everyday reality.

'The motor car ... directs [social] behaviour from economics to speech. Traffic circulation is one of the main functions of a society ... Space [in urban areas] is conceived in terms of motoring needs and traffic problems take precedence over accommodation ... it is a fact that for many people the car is perhaps the most substantial part of their 'living conditions'.'

Since the most famous prophecy of the 1939 exposition had largely come true, visitors to the 1964 New York World's Fair could have confidence that its three main imaginary futures would also be realised. Who could doubt that - by 1989 at the latest - the majority of Americans would be enjoying the delights of space tourism and unmetered electricity? Best of all, they would be living in a world where sentient machines were their devoted servants. The American public's confidence in these imaginary futures was founded upon a mistaken sense of continuity. Despite being held on the same site and having many of the same exhibitors, the 1964 World's Fair had a very different focus from its 1939 antecedent. Twenty-five years earlier, the centrepiece of the exposition had been the motor car: a mass produced consumer product. In contrast, the stars of the show at the 1964 World's Fair were state-funded technologies for fighting the Cold War. Computers calculated the trajectories which would send American nuclear missiles to destroy Russian cities and their unfortunate inhabitants. While its 1939 predecessor had showcased motorised transportation for the masses, the stars of the 1964 World's Fair were the machines of atomic armageddon.

In earlier expositions, the public display of new products had intensified the effects of commodity fetishism. Exhibition value added another degree of separation between creation and consumption. Above all, this social phenomenon concentrated the public's attention on the symbolic role of new technologies. The present was portrayed as the immediate precursor of the imaginary future. Inside its 1939 pavilion, General Motors' latest products played a supporting role to the Futurama diorama which portrayed the corporation's ambition to turn the majority of the US population into suburban-dwelling, car-owning consumers. But, despite its prioritisation of exhibition value, this exposition couldn't totally ignore the use value of new technology. Almost everyone at the 1939 World's Fair had at some point travelled in a motor car. Although it might obscure the social origins of products, the imaginary future expressed the potential of a really-existing present.

The 1964 New York World's Fair needed a much higher level of fetishisation. For the first time, exhibition value had to deny the principle use value of new technologies. Whatever their drawbacks, motor cars provided many benefits for the general public. In contrast, space rockets, nuclear reactors and mainframe computers had been invented for murdering millions of people. Although the superpowers' imperial hegemony depended upon nuclear weapons, the threat of global annihilation made their possession increasingly problematic. Two years earlier, the USA and Russia had almost blundered into a catastrophic war over Cuba. Despite disaster being only narrowly averted, the superpowers were incapable of stopping the arms race. In the bizarre logic of the Cold War, the prevention of an all-out confrontation between the two blocs depended upon the continual growth in the number of nuclear weapons held by both sides. The ruling elites of the USA and Russia had difficulties in admitting to themselves - let alone to their citizens - the deep irrationality of this new form of military competition. In a rare moment of lucidity, American analysts invented an ironic acronym for this high-risk strategy of 'mutually assured destruction': MAD.

Not surprisingly, the propagandists of both sides justified the enormous waste of resources on the arms race by promoting the peaceful applications of the leading Cold War technologies. By the time that the 1964 New York World's Fair opened, the weaponry of genocide had been successfully repackaged into people-friendly products. Nuclear power would soon be providing unmetered energy for everyone. Space rockets would shortly be taking tourists for holidays on the moon. Almost all traces of the military origins of these technologies had disappeared. Exhibition value completely covered up use value.

Like nuclear reactors and space rockets, computers had also been developed as Cold War weaponry. ENIAC - the first mainframe ever built in America - was a machine for calculating tables to improve the accuracy of artillery guns. From the early-1950s onwards, IBM's computer division was focused on winning orders from the American government. Using mainframes supplied by the corporation, the US military prepared for nuclear war, organised invasions of 'unfriendly' countries, directed the bombing of enemy targets, paid the wages of its troops, ran complex war games and managed its supply chain. Thanks to American taxpayers, IBM became the technological leader of the computer industry.

When the 1964 New York World's Fair opened, the corporation was still closely involved in a wide variety of military projects. Yet, just like the displays of fission reactors and space rockets, the computing exhibits at 1964 World's Fair carefully avoided showing the military applications of this new technology. Although IBM had grown rich from government contracts, the corporation's pavilion was dedicated to promoting the sci-fi fantasy of thinking machines. Like the predictions of unmetered energy and space tourism, the imaginary future of artificial intelligence distracted visitors at the World's Fair from discovering the original motivation for developing IBM's mainframes: killing millions of people. Visitors were supposed to admire the achievements of US industry not to question its dubious role in the arms race. The horrors of the Cold War present had to be hidden by the marvels of the imaginary futures.

Cybernetic Supremacy

At the 1964 World's Fair, imaginary futures temporarily succeeded in concealing the primary purpose of its three iconic technologies from the American public. But even the finest-crafted exhibition values couldn't hide dodgy use values for ever. As the decades passed, none of the predictions made at the World's Fair about the key Cold War technologies were realised. Energy remained metered, tourists didn't visit the moon and computers never became intelligent. Unlike the prescient vision of motoring for the masses at the 1939 World's Fair, the prophecies about the star technologies of the 1964 exposition seemed almost absurd twenty-five years later. Hyper-reality had collided with reality - and lost.

Like the displays of nuclear reactors and space rockets, the computer exhibits at the 1964 World's Fair also misread the direction of technological progress. Yet, there was one crucial difference between the collapse of the first two prophecies and that of the last one. What eventually discredited the predictions of unmetered electricity and holidays on the moon was their failure to appear over time. In contrast, scepticism about the imaginary future of artificial intelligence was encouraged by exactly the opposite phenomenon: the increased likelihood of people having personal experience of computers. After using these imperfect tools for manipulating information, it was much more difficult for them to believe that calculating machines could evolve into sentient superbeings.

Despite the failure of its prophecy, IBM suffered no damage. In stark contrast with nuclear power and space travel, computing was the Cold War technology which successfully escaped from the Cold War. Right from the beginning, machines made for the US military were also sold to commercial clients. By the time that IBM built its pavilion for the 1964 World's Fair, the imaginary future of artificial intelligence had to hide more than the unsavoury military applications of computing. Exhibition value also performed its classic function of concealing the role of human labour within production. Computers were described as 'thinking' so the hard work involved in designing, building, programming and operating them could be discounted. Above all, the prophecy of artificial intelligence diverted attention away from the role of technological innovation within American workplaces.

The invention of computers came at an opportune moment for big business. During the first half of the twentieth century, large corporations had become the dominant institutions of the American economy. Henry Ford's giant car factory became the eponymous symbol of the new social paradigm: Fordism. When profitable, corporations replaced the indirect regulation of production by markets with direct supervision by bureaucrats. As the wage-bill for white-collar employees steadily rose, businesses needed increasing amounts of equipment to raise productivity within the office. Long before the invention of the computer, Fordist corporations were running an information economy with tabulators, typewriters and other types of office equipment. However, by the beginning of the 1950s, the mechanisation of clerical labour had stalled. Increases in productivity in the office were lagging well behind those in the factory. When the first computers appeared on the market, corporate managers quickly realised that the new technology offered a solution to this pressing problem. The work of large numbers of tabulator operators could now be done by a much smaller group of people using a mainframe. Even better, the new technology of computing enabled capitalists to deepen their control over their organisations. Much more information about many more topics could now be collected and processed in increasingly complex ways. Managers were masters of all that they surveyed.

Almost from its first appearance in the workplace, the mainframe was caricatured - with good reason - as the mechanical perfection of bureaucratic tyranny. In Asimov's sci-fi stories, Mr and Mrs Average were the owners of robot servants. Yet, when the first computers arrived in America's factories and offices, this new technology was controlled by the bosses not the workers. In 1952, Kurt Vonnegut published a sci-fi novel which satirised the authoritarian ambitions of corporate computing. In his dystopian future, the ruling elite had delegated the management of society to an omniscient artificial intelligence.

'EPICAC XIV ... decided how many [of] everything America and her customers could have and how much they would cost. And it ... would decide how many engineers and managers and ... civil servants, and of what skills, would be needed to deliver the goods; and what I.Q. and aptitude levels would separate the useful men [and women] from the useless ones, and how many ... could be supported at what pay level...'

For business executives, Vonnegut's nightmare was their computer daydream. As mainframes increased in power, companies were able to automate more and more clerical tasks. According to the prophets of artificial intelligence, the computerisation of clerical work was only the first step. For its new System/360 machines, IBM had constructed the world's most advanced computer-controlled assembly-lines to increase the productivity of its high-skill, high-wage employees. When thinking machines were developed, mainframes would completely replace most forms of administrative and technical labour within manufacturing. The ultimate goal was the creation of the fully-automated workplace. In the imaginary future of artificial intelligence, the corporation and the computer would be one and the same thing.

As the US military had already fortuitously discovered, machinery could operate much more efficiently without any human intervention. By building predetermined responses into the design, an inanimate weapon acted according to 'feed-back' from its environment. According to Norbert Wiener, these self-regulating technologies had been forerunners of the computer. In turn, the advent of mainframe heralded the remoulding of the whole of society in the image of a new technological paradigm: cybernetics.

'The notion of programming in the factory had already become familiar through the work of Taylor ... on time study, and was ready to be transferred to the machine. ... The consequent development of automatisation ... [is] one of the great factors conditioning the social and technical life of the age to come...'

The corporate vision of cybernetic Fordism meant forgetting the history of Fordism itself. This economic paradigm had been founded upon the successful co-ordination of mass production with mass consumption. Ironically, since their exhibition value was more closely connected to social reality, Democracity and Futurama in 1939 provided a much more accurate prediction of the development path of computing than the IBM pavilion did in 1964. Just like motor cars twenty-five years earlier, this new technology was also slowly being transformed from a rare, hand-made machine into a ubiquitous, factory-produced commodity. IBM's own System/360 series of computers - launched in the same month as the 1964 World's Fair opened - was at the 'cutting edge' of this process. Like Ford's motor cars before them, IBM's mainframes were manufactured on assembly-lines. These opening moves towards the mass production of computers anticipated what would be most important advance in this sector twenty-five years later: the mass consumption of computers.

The imaginary future of artificial intelligence was a way of avoiding thinking about the likely social consequences of the widespread ownership of computers. In the early-1960s, Big Brother mainframe belonged to big government and big business. Above all, 'feedback' was knowledge of the ruled monopolised by the rulers. However, as Norbert Wiener himself had pointed out, Fordist production would inevitably transform expensive mainframes into cheap commodities. In turn, increasing ownership of computers was likely to disrupt the existing social order. For the 'feedback' of information within human institutions was most effective when it was two-way. By reconnecting conception and execution, cybernetic Fordism threatened the social hierarchies which underpinned Fordism itself.

'... the simple coexistence of two items of information is of relatively small value, unless these two items can be effectively combined in some mind ... which is able to fertilises one by means of the other. This is the very opposite of the organisation which every member travels a preassigned path...'

At the 1964 World's Fair, this possibility was definitely not part of IBM's imaginary future. Rather than aiming to produce ever greater numbers of more efficient machines at cheaper prices, the corporation was focused on steadily increasing the capabilities of its computers to preserve its near-monopoly over the military and corporate market. Instead of room-sized machines shrinking down into desktops, laptops and, eventually, mobile phones, IBM was convinced that computers would always be large and bulky mainframes. The corporation fervently believed that - if this path of technological progress was extrapolated - artificial intelligence must surely result. Crucially, this conservative recuperation of cybernetics implied that sentient machines would inevitably evolve into lifeforms which were more advanced than mere humans. The Fordist separation between conception and execution would have achieved its technological apotheosis.

Not surprisingly, IBM was determined to counter this unsettling interpretation of its own futurist propaganda. At the 1964 World's Fair, the corporation's pavilion emphasised the utopian possibilities of computing. Yet, despite its best efforts, IBM couldn't entirely avoid the ambiguity inherent within the imaginary future of artificial intelligence. This fetishised ideology could only appeal to all sections of American society if computers fulfilled the deepest desires of both sides within the workplace. Therefore, in the exhibits at its pavilion, IBM promoted a single vision of the imaginary future which combined two incompatible interpretations of artificial intelligence. On the one hand, workers were told that all their needs would be satisfied by sentient robots: servants who never tired, complained or questioned orders. On the other hand, capitalists were promised that their factories and offices would be run by thinking machines: producers who never slacked off, expressed opinions or went on strike. Robby the Robot had become indistinguishable from EPICAC XIV. If only at the level of ideology, IBM had reconciled the social divisions of 1960s America. In the imaginary future, workers would no longer need to work and employers would no longer need employees. The sci-fi fantasy of artificial intelligence had successfully distracted people from questioning the impact of computing within the workplace. After visiting IBM's pavilion at the 1964 World's Far, it was all too easy to believe that everyone would win when the machines acquired consciousness.

Inventing New Futures

Forty years later, we're still waiting for the imaginary future of artificial intelligence. In the intervening period, we've been repeatedly promised its imminent arrival. Yet, despite continual advances in hardware and software, machines are still incapable of 'thinking'. The nearest thing to artificial intelligence which most people have encountered are characters in video games. But, as the growing popularity of on-line gaming demonstrates, a virtual opponent is a poor substitute for a human player. Looking back at the history of this imaginary future, it is obvious that neither the optimistic nor the pessimistic versions of artificial intelligence have been realised. Robby the Robot isn't our devoted servant and EPICAC XIV doesn't control our lives. Instead of evolving into thinking machines, computers have become consumer goods. Room-sized mainframes have kept on shrinking into smaller and smaller machines. Computers are everywhere in the modern world - and their users are all too aware that they're dumb.

Repeated failure should have discredited the imaginary future of artificial intelligence for good. Yet, its proponents remain unrepentant. Four decades on from the 1964 World's Fair, IBM is still claiming that computers are on the verge of acquiring consciousness. The persistence of this fantasy demonstrates the continuing importance of exhibition value within the computer industry. As in the early-1960s, artificial intelligence still provides a great cover story for the development of new military technologies. Bringing on the Singularity seems much more friendly than collaborating with American imperialism. Even more importantly, this imaginary future continues to disguise the impact of computing within the workplace. Both managers and workers are still being promised technological fixes for socio-economic problems. The dream of sentient machines makes better media copy than the reality of cybernetic Fordism. At the beginning of the 21st century, artificial intelligence remains the dominant ideological manifestation of the exhibition value of computing.

The credibility of this imaginary future depends upon forgetting its embarrassing history. Looking back at how earlier versions of the prophecy were repeatedly discredited encourages deep scepticism about its contemporary iterations. Our own personal frustrations with computer technology should demonstrate the improbability of its transformation into the Silicon Messiah. Forty years after the New York World's Fair, artificial intelligence has become an imaginary future from the distant past. What is needed instead is a much more sophisticated analysis of the potential of computing. The study of history should inform the reinvention of the future. Messianic mysticism must be replaced by pragmatic materialism. Above all, this new image of the future should celebrate computers as tools for augmenting human intelligence and creativity. Exhibition value must give way to use value. Praise for top-down hierarchies of control must be superseded by the advocacy of two-way sharing of information. Let's be inspired and passionate about imagining our own visions of the better times to come.


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Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger (eds.), The Invention of Tradition, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 1983.

Honda, 'Asimo',

Jeremy Isaacs and Taylor Dowling, Cold War: for 45 years the world held its breath, Bantam, London 1998.

Herman Kahn, On Thermonuclear War, Princeton University Press, Princeton 1960.

Ray Kurzweil, 'The Intelligent Universe',

Fritz Lang (director), Metropolis, Eurekavideo, 2003.

Henri Lefebvre, Everyday Life in the Modern World, Transaction Publications, New Brunswick 1984.

Henry Luce, The American Century, Time, New York 1941.

F.S.L. Lyons, Ireland Since the Famine, Fontana, London 1985.

Karl Marx, Capital Volume 1: a critique of political economy, Penguin, London 1976.

Marvin Minsky, 'Steps Towards Artificial Intelligence',

Marvin Minsky, 'Matter, Mind and Models',

Emerson Pugh, Building IBM: shaping an industry and its technology, MIT Press, Cambridge Mass 1995.

Emerson Pugh, Lyle Johnson and John Palmer, IBM's 360 and Early 370 Systems, MIT Press, Cambridge Mass 1991.

Julie Rose, 'Reactions to the Fair',

James Schefter, The Race: the definitive story of America's battle to beat Russia to the moon, Century, London 1999.

Herbert Simon, The Shape of Automation for Men and Management, Harper, New York 1965.

Robert Sobel, IBM: colossus in transition, Truman Talley, New York 1981.

Jeffrey Stanton, 'Best of the World's Fair',

Jeffrey Stanton, 'Building the 1964 World's Fair',

Jeffrey Stanton, 'Showcasing Technology at the 1964-1965 New York World's Fair',

Robert A. M. Stern, Thomas Mellins and David Fishman, New York 1960: architecture and urbanism between the Second World War and the Bicentennial, Benedikt Taschen, Köln 1997.

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., Player Piano, Panther, St. Albans 1969.

Immanuel Wallerstein, The Politics of the World-Economy: the states, the movements and the civilisations, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 1984.

Norbert Wiener, The Human Uses of Human Beings: cybernetics and society, Avon Books, New York 1967.

Fred Wilcox (director), Forbidden Planet, Turner Entertainment, 1999.

Wikipedia, 'Data (Star Trek)',

Ray Kurzweil, 'The Intelligent Universe', p. 3.

See Wikipedia, 'Data (Star Trek)'; and James Cameron, The Terminator.

See Honda, 'Asimo'.

See James Bell, 'Exploring the 'Singularity''.

See Jeffrey Stanton, 'Building the 1964 World's Fair'; and 'Best of the World's Fair'.

'A Millennium of Progress' was one of the three feel-good themes used to promote the World's Fair. The publisher Henry Luce had announced the advent of the American century in 1941. See Jeffrey Stanton, 'Building the 1964 World's Fair'; and Henry Luce, The American Century.

See Editors of Time-Life Books, Official Guide New York World's Fair 1964/5, pp. 94, 96.

See Editors of Time-Life Books, Official Guide New York World's Fair 1964/5, p. 212.

See Editors of Time-Life Books, Official Guide New York World's Fair 1964/5, p. 208.

See James Schefter, The Race, pp. 145-231.

See Editors of Time-Life Books, Official Guide New York World's Fair 1964/5, pp. 52-53, 220, 222.

See Editors of Time-Life Books, Official Guide New York World's Fair 1964/5, pp. 90-92; and Jeffrey Stanton, 'Showcasing Technology at the 1964-1965 New York World's Fair'.

See Emerson Pugh, Building IBM, pp. 265-267.

In the early-1960s, IBM had a 70% share of the mainframe market and was making over 40% profit on some of its machines. See Paul Ceruzzi, A History of Modern Computing, pp. 110-112; and Richard Thomas DeLamarter, Big Blue, pp. 47-49.

See Richard Thomas DeLamarter, Big Blue, pp. 54-146.

See Editors of Time-Life Books, Official Guide New York World's Fair 1964/5, pp. 70-74; Jeffrey Stanton, 'Showcasing Technology at the 1964-1965 New York World's Fair'; and Robert Stern, Thomas Mellins and David Fishman, New York 1960, p. 1046.

See Marvin Minsky, 'Matter, Mind and Models'; and 'Steps Towards Artificial Intelligence'.

Robby the Robot was the devoted mechanical servant in Fred Wilcox, Forbidden Planet.

Herbert Simon, The Shape of Automation for Men and Management, p. 39. This confident prediction was made in 1960.

See Immanuel Wallerstein, The Politics of the World-Economy; and Stephen Ambrose, The Rise to Globalism.

See Jeffrey Auerbach, The Great Exhibition of 1851, pp. 47-53, 137-140.

See Robert Brain, Going to the Fair, pp. 97-103; and Jeffrey Auerbach, The Great Exhibition of 1851, pp. 104-108.

Jeffrey Auerbach, The Great Exhibition of 1851, p. 31.

See Jeffrey Auerbach, The Great Exhibition of 1851, pp. 100-104, 132-134.

See F.S.L. Lyons, Ireland Since the Famine, pp. 42-46.

Walter Benjamin, 'Paris - the capital of the nineteenth century', p. 165. Also see Karl Marx, Capital Volume 1, pp. 163-177.

See Walter Benjamin, 'The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction', pp. 218-219.

See Jeffrey Auerbach, The Great Exhibition of 1851, pp. 17-23, 113-118.

See Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger, The Invention of Tradition.

Walter Bagehot, The English Constitution, p. 65.

See Robert Brain, Going to the Fair, p. 10.

See Jeffrey Auerbach, The Great Exhibition of 1851, pp. 161-189.

See Urso Chappell, Expomuseum.

See Julie Rose, 'Reactions to the Fair'.

See Igor Golomstock, Totalitarian Art, pp. 132-137.

See Exposition Publications, Official Guide Book of the New York World's Fair 1939, pp. 42-45, 207-209.

Charles Eames and Ray Eames, A Computer Perspective, p. 105.

For a famous 1920s example of these malevolent artificial beings, see Fritz Lang, Metropolis.

See Isaac Asimov, I, Robot; and The Rest of the Robots.

Henri Lefebvre, Everyday Life in the Modern World, p. 100.

See Jeremy Isaacs and Taylor Dowling, Cold War, pp. 230-243.

See Robert Dallek, John F. Kennedy, pp. 535-574.

See Jeremy Isaacs and Taylor Dowling, Cold War, pp. 230-243; and Herman Kahn, On Thermonuclear War, pp. 119-189.

See Paul Ceruzzi, A History of Modern Computing, p. 15.

See Emerson Pugh, Building IBM, pp. 167-172.

See Edmund Berkeley, The Computer Revolution, pp. 56-7, 59-60, 137-145.

In late-1950s, a US airforce think-tank estimated that an all-out nuclear war between the two superpowers would kill around 90 million Americans. In the worst case scenario, 160 million would have lost their lives. Herman Kahn, On Thermonuclear War, pp. 109-114.

See Emerson Pugh, Building IBM, p. 152-155.

See Henry Ford, My Life and Work.

See James Beniger, The Control Revolution, pp. 291-425.

See Robert Sobel, IBM, pp. 95-184.

'A modern computer can calculate more in ten minutes than a man [or woman] can calculate in fifty years, even if the man [or woman] is using a desk calculating machine.' Edmund Berkeley, The Computer Revolution, p. 5.

Kurt Vonnegut, Player Piano, p. 106.

See Emerson Pugh, Lyle Johnson and John Palmer, IBM's 360 and Early 370 Systems, pp. 87-105, 204-210.

'... we will soon have the technological means ... to automate all management decisions.' Herbert Simon, The Shape of Automation for Men and Management, p. 47.

See Charles Eames and Ray Eames, A Computer Perspective, pp. 128-129, 146-149.

Norbert Wiener, The Human Uses of Human Beings, pp. 204-205.

See Emerson Pugh, Lyle Johnson and John Palmer, IBM's 360 and Early 370 Systems, pp. 87-105, 204-210.

See Norbert Wiener, The Human Uses of Human Beings, pp. 210-211.

See Norbert Wiener, The Human Uses of Human Beings, pp. 67-73.

Norbert Wiener, The Human Uses of Human Beings, p. 172.

See James Bell, 'Exploring the 'Singularity'', p. 2.

See Richard Barbrook and Pit Schultz, 'The Digital Artisans Manifesto'; and Richard Barbrook, 'Cybercommunism'.

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