David Graeber isn’t too happy about the here and now. Maybe he’d take offense at that characterization—I’m sure he’s a perfectly happy dude—but he’s not reading my analysis (yet…) and I’m going to take the liberty of following through with that assessment. After all, he was promised flying cars, robot butlers, force fields, tractor beams, antigravity sleds, tricorders, immortality drugs, colonies on Mars, and a host of other technological breakthroughs, yet all have remained frustratingly confined to the television screens and book pages that spawned them.
Graeber’s 2012 article, “Of Flying Cars and the Declining Rate of Profit,” deals at length with perceptions of futures and perceptions of perceptions of futures with a refreshingly detailed economic perspective. Fair warning: Graeber admits to being a bit of an anarchist, so his attitudes towards capitalism aren’t exactly kind; however, the same could be said of his attitudes towards any existing economic system, so his is actually about as neutral a perspective as we’re likely to get.
To simplify twenty pages of reading: Graeber posits that American-style capitalism, together with the huge popularity of corporate management systems, have stymied technological advancement by producing little more than increasingly “complex platforms for filling out forms.”
Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, a bureaucratic, form-centric dystopia
Woah, Dave, that’s pretty harsh, but you’ve got a point. So, what went wrong? Graeber starts by pointing to the sci-fi of the 1950s and 1960s and its heavy-duty technological optimism. 1984, 2001, 2015: to the many creative, intelligent minds envisioning the future, substantive progress seemed only a few decades distant. Even in less-than-desirable futures, like Blade Runner’s dystopian Los Angeles circa 2019, off-world colonies and life-like, intelligent robotic humanoids are well within reason. What gives? No colonies, no Replicants, not even a measly flying car? I think it’s safe to say that we all want a refund.
The forward-looking ideas behind postmodernism, by Graeber’s estimation, are actually a manifestation of our bitter disappointment at not living in the future we thought we’d have. How better to contend with a lack of progress than by embracing the idea that nothing is new or original? While not an overtly positive outlook by any means, the idea does succeed in redirecting negativity into a creative force. Graeber is taking the most macro possible view into the recent past, grasping somewhat to link cause and effect in the psychology of an entire society, making his point a hard one to prove. Still, it’s an interesting idea, and certainly one worth holding onto.
The optimism and ambitiousness of mid-Twentieth Century sci-fi also carries more than a little bit of Manifest Destiny bravado, an attitude that humankind is destined to explore (and, of course, colonize) distant rocks hurtling through space. It’s what we do, after all: we’re the best, and we deserve the best rocks! The tenor of that narrative has changed somewhat today: Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar (2014) deals entirely with a soon-to-be-barren Earth and a galaxy-traversing, against-all-odds expedition to find humanity’s future home. In the time of inconvenient truths, colonization seems a matter of eventual need, an inevitability to be considered once we’ve used up the planet we’ve got.
The prospect of interplanetary colonization seemed reasonable in the ’50s and ’60s given the apparent acceleration of scientific discovery in the postwar period, but what futurists failed to consider was how the scientific landscape would change after America landed on the Moon: very suddenly, space seemed to have been conquered for the time being, so many of the minds and the research dollars behind the Apollo program were shifted into military research and the development of information technology. You know, Star Wars missile defense systems, incrementally improving tanks and planes, computers, the Internet (formerly known as DARPANET), et cetera.
So, where does capitalism fit into the equation? It’s everywhere, baby. Post-Apollo America was a strange one indeed: with no massive, government-funded scientific efforts outside of military research in the mix, the private sector benefitted from an influx of scientific and engineering talent, which brought about the personal computing revolution of the ’70s and ’80s. The phrase ‘Silicon Valley’ was thrown around left and right (an aside: I’m from San Jose, the city where Steve(s) Jobs and Wozniak made and sold the first Apple computers, and I have no idea what the valley I live in was called before everyone called it Silicon Valley), engineers and programmers achieved their own kind of stardom, and computers began to find their way into every office, every home, and eventually, every pocket.
Mankind seemed to be riding a wave of free market innovation and entrepreneurship towards tremendous progress! Computers everywhere? Incredible! And that’s to say nothing of mankind’s crown jewel, the zenith of the Information Age: the Internet! What happens when all of these machines can talk to each other? As far as Graeber is concerned, nothing too noteworthy:
The Internet is a remarkable innovation, but all we are talking about is a super-fast and globally accessible combination of a library, post office, and mail-order catalogue.
Ouch. Still, guy’s got a point. As I mentioned earlier in the post, Graeber rightly contends that technological advancements in the past four decades have mostly just added additional layers of complexity to the process of filling out forms. Now we can do it faster and with more engagement than we ever have before, but the fundamental processes remain the same, and show no signs of changing in a meaningful way in the near future. Innovation, which once implied something in the league of a moon shot, has since been relegated to the realm of solving small problems for people with enough time and money to make solving small problems a marketable endeavor.
In Graeber’s view, we highly evolved form-fillers can’t escape spending more of our lives than ever before attending to administrative duties, especially when the means for filling the correct forms and assuring that said forms are delivered to the right people are so close-at-hand and easy-to-use. Furthermore, computers and the Internet have jeopardized job security and lengthened work hours for nearly everyone in contact with a “smart” device, generally leading to anxiety, economic net losses, and a pervasive culture of short-sightedness.
As far as solutions go, Graeber has some ideas, all of which are put forth in very general terms because…well, “How could anyone know?” In sweeping strokes, Graeber notes that Capitalism hinders innovation in the “moon shot” sense because the research and investment that go into “blue skies” scientific inquiry have no guaranteed payout. Similarly, entrenched corporate and political interests offer friction at every stage of the innovation process, making it extremely difficult to make a mark in a market dominated by well-funded governments and corporations.
Naturally, the solution is to encourage innovation, to give research funding to “oddballs and eccentrics” in the worlds of science and technology and leave them to it in the hopes that they’ll shape a future that isn’t another damned form. Awesome! Great work, team, we can all go home; David figured it out! None of this is exactly groundbreaking on its own, but Graeber does succeed in tying a number of diverse threads—from sci-fi to postmodernism to the economics behind the space race—into a nice, neat bow on top of his extremely enjoyable article.
Mostly, I think he just wants his readers to glance momentarily away from their computer screens and meditate on whether or not the progress they see in the world around them is any kind of real progress at all. It’s easy to look at an iPhone 8w or whatever and imagine ourselves to be the most advanced civilization that has ever lived, but what if the things we keep making are affecting the long-term socioeconomic bottom line in a very real, very negative way? Theoretical solutions are all elaborate guesswork; the hard part is getting people to realize that a solution is needed in the first place, and in that respect, I think Graeber succeeds. He certainly got me to stop contenting myself with the progress I’ve grown accustomed to seeing; now I’m considering the progress I’d like to see. Maybe flying cars are as much a waste of time as the next dumb exercise monitor to hit the App Store, but we’ll never know if we don’t try.