Interview to Richard Barbrook
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 anti-globalization's movements?
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 connection!
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 approval!
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 everybody.
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 creativity.
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!