Saturday, 24 May 2008

Updating 'the New Barbarian Manifesto'?

Posted by: Ian Angell

{I find it hard to believe that the New Barbarian Manifesto was first published as far back as January 2000 at the very start of this new millennium. Yes, I do know that the millennium officially began in 2001, so I don’t want pedants writing to tell me. Time flies, and Ash has been pestering me for a while to produce a new edition, and that has got me thinking about how I came to write the book in the first place.}

The Manifesto actually took me the best part of a decade to produce, although I had been chewing over the ideas for much longer. Subconsciously, it was the reason I chose to apply for the chair in Information Systems at LSE in the first place. By coming here, I was in effect leaving the world of academic Computer Science behind. I had realized that LSE was the only seat of British Higher Education where I would be given a free hand to develop my counter-cultural stance on how Information Technology was polarizing our society. Most Computer Science in the UK is about promoting the technology, not studying it warts and all.

I had come to agree with Karl Marx on a number of issues, including his recognition that all technologies alienate. {That self-realization came as quite a shock to an unabashed anarcho-capitalist like myself. Interestingly enough, Ash too quotes Marx throughout his PhD dissertation, and if anything he is more of a capitalist that me}. Societies are all alienated from technology, and by technology. Technology creates winners and losers, and this places enormous stresses on the social institutions of the status quo.

Each society, each community, each ‘ethnos,’ is the result of compromises made over the years between members of the group, which differentiates and separates it from other groups. I wanted to get to grips with how new technology was causing the fragmentation I was observing in our society, and how it seemed to be precipitating new communities. How does new technology destroy our institutions and rituals? Will we start to form new ones? What will they look like?

I wanted to ask these and many other questions, not from the perspective of a social scientist, but as a technocrat and technophile. However, I must disabuse you of any notion that I set out to focus on computers and telecommunications. My cyberspace is no off-planet experience. It is merely the delivery mechanism for information. The high-tech medium has only changed the form and scale of that delivery. To me, information content does not exist in some mystical dimension. Information is the same as it always has been, something reserved for the planet-bound human brain, to communicate between people within human society; still very much down to earth. What really interested me was how this new form of communication was creating new forms of community.

So the New Barbarian Manifesto was about the eternal struggle between the individual and the collective. It was not a work of science fiction or cyberpunk. It was not steeped in Star Wars, Star Trek, Neuromancer, Mad Max or Blade Runner. And even though the Times, the Guardian, and the Independent all called me the ‘Angell of Doom’, the book was not written as an example millenarian doom and gloom.

The ideas underpinning the book were not post-modern, not even modern. They were not twenty first century ideas, not even twentieth century. Some will have gathered that from the title of the book The New Barbarian Manifesto, which was inspired by that much maligned German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, whom I claim predicted, one hundred and twenty years, ago the rise of the Information Rich Knowledge workers, and the reaction of their fellows:

“But now there are coming New Barbarians {cynics, experimenters, conquerors}, a union of spiritual superiority with well-being and an excess of strength. … Prometheus was this kind of barbarian.”

The new barbarians of the book-title are the innovators who destroy the degenerate, and start a vigorous new society. But in doing so they must face up to Old Barbarians, who insist that society must return to the false-certainties of a mis-remembered past.

Although my major philosophical influence is Nietzsche, the underlying theme of the book is as old as humanity, a mythology that was written down over two and a half thousand years ago. My archetypal New Barbarian is no Luke Skywalker, Mad Max, or Terminator, but, as Nietzsche tells us, Prometheus. Prometheus, the forethinker, the Titan master craftsman, who brought fire and civilization to humanity; the new barbarian who helped mankind survive and prosper. In Aeschylus’ play, Prometheus Bound, on the orders of Zeus, Prometheus is chained to a rock, and as a punishment for helping mankind, an eagle eats his immortal liver. Prometheus is the archetypal figure of defiance against tyrannical power.

In a world destabilised by new technology, wherever we look we see terrified masses, easy prey for re-vitalised Old Barbarians tyrannies: socialists, communists, fascists, racists, nationalists, religious fundamentalists, … democrats! What does the individualistic child of the Enlightenment do when confronted by bigots from the left, the right, and the centre? For a rabid fundamentalism has been let loose, from which there can be no indifference. Everywhere self-righteous totalitarian ‘pious commentators’ have “become virtuous from indignation” (Nietzsche) and set out to take control. To quote Herbert Marcuse: “Domination is transfigured into administration.” Everyone must be on message, or pay the price.

Homosexuals, immigrants, atheists, women are facing the not-so-subtle instruments of domination, repression, unfreedom, servitude. What must they do? The answer is as old as mythology: become New Barbarians. Hence the New Barbarian Manifesto.

The New Barbarian Manifesto is a reworking of the eternal conflict between innovative individual new barbarians (Prometheus) and the old barbarian leaders of the tyrannical collective (Zeus). I did consider calling the book Prometheus Unbound, but unfortunately the poet Shelley beat me to that title by a hundred and eighty years.

The book is badly in need of updating – the examples in it are now well over a decade old. I have proposed to my publishers that I turn the old edition into a Wiki, and make it freely available on the Web. I want to invite all and sundry to add in up-to-date examples. Naturally, correspondents would be named and credited for each new addition they make, with the final version published as a new edition. It’s a great model for book production, Many of those mentioned would buy a copy of the new version, and tell all their friends about it – creating a ready-made market. Furthermore, I don’t need to waste my time compiling an Index – the reader will already have the pdf online to download and search.

But the publishers don’t even reply to my e-mails - I am about to re-transmit my proposal to them yet again. Maybe this time they’ll reply, or are they so stuck in their old financial models that they doesn’t see the opportunities?


Govind said...

Congratulations on your 1000 visitors :D

fruitman said...

hi ian,
i was your student at admis 2003, i found your blog through facebook.
first of all, let me tell you that you were the best experience of LSE (well, together with the three girls i lived with :)
i am now director of a web analytics start-up company, and i have come back to your manifesto so many times, in search of common sense and inspiration.
just start the wiki, the publishers will come later. and you can always edit your own book with


Afifov said...

Prof. Ian,

The new barbarian manifesto only made my struggle with leftism and capitalism even more confusing. Am using "too much glass" - now what! The book caused me some chagrin, as it raised more questions than answers - something on the lines of "the more you know, the less you know"

The new edition should pickup on the credit squeeze - my bank's credit check didn't pass me for a credit card, but Debenham's was gladly more tolerant, and dished me a credit card right on the spot, by a guy who hardly spoke english, because the system he is operating, gave the go ahead.... LTCM and Bear Stearns aren't the cause of financial armageddon - technology abuse is. In Lebanon, they say "a knife in the hand of a kid is sharper".

Anonymous said...

Hello Prof Angell

Anonymous said...

Hello Prof Angell

I too encourage you to go ahead with the updating. I had you as a LSE student and still fondly remember your iconoclastic mind.  I would love to hear your thoughts on today's developments... especially the rise of bitcoin! Are we here??!?!? :)