The 21st was supposed to be the age of flying cars, teleporters and affordable space travel, says David Graeber. But now here we are in the future still arguing about overcrowded trains and the price of petrol. David Graeber feels cheated:
Where … are the flying cars? Where are the force fields, tractor beams, teleportation pods, antigravity sleds, tricorders, immortality drugs, colonies on Mars, and all the other technological wonders any child growing up in the mid-to-late twentieth century assumed would exist by now?
In an essay for the Baffler, Graeber, a radical anti-capitalist anthropologist, argues technological progress has slowed to a crawl. "Those who grew up at the turn of the century reading Jules Verne or H.G. Wells imagined the world of, say, 1960 with flying machines, rocket ships, submarines, radio, and television", says Graeber, "and that was pretty much what they got." But most of the technology imagined by sci-fi writers in the 50s, 60s and 70s has failed to eventuate.
Graeber blames bureaucracy. The culture of the corporation has taken hold of government, universities and the private sector. And the corporate obsession with competition, marketing and administration is strangling innovation. For example, Graeber argues that academics now spend all their time writing research proposals and competing for funding:
That pretty much answers the question of why we don’t have teleportation devices or antigravity shoes. Common sense suggests that if you want to maximize scientific creativity, you find some bright people, give them the resources they need to pursue whatever idea comes into their heads, and then leave them alone. Most will turn up nothing, but one or two may well discover something. But if you want to minimize the possibility of unexpected breakthroughs, tell those same people they will receive no resources at all unless they spend the bulk of their time competing against each other to convince you they know in advance what they are going to discover.
Noah Smith thinks this kind of thing is ridiculous: "Some sci-fi things are possible but hard (fusion, Mars colony, AI)", he tweeted, "Some, like faster than light travel, antigrav, and time travel, are not."
Many science fiction technologies are invented simply to make telling interesting stories easier. Star Trek’s transporter is an example. Teleporting characters from place to place saved money by avoiding the need for extra sets or special effects. Instead of climbing into a shuttle, the characters could go straight from the ship to the planet surface.
Faster-than-light drives serve a similar purpose. They allow readers and viewers to suspend their disbelief when characters appear on planets hundreds of light years away. How would your characters be able "to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations to boldly go where no man has gone before" if you were forced to deny them a technology just because it was impossible? H. G. Wells would never have created his time machine.
Physicist Jim Kakalios has another response. Asked why our world doesn’t look the future envisaged in 1950s and 60s science fiction, he says: "They got a lot of things wrong in that they expected that there would be a revolution in energy so that we would have jet packs and flying cars. When what we got instead were a revolution in information which led to cell phones and laptop computers."
But Graeber isn’t impressed by smart phones or the internet. Teenagers are carrying powerful computers, music collections and libraries around in their pockets and Graeber’s response is to complain that computers still can’t engage in an interesting conversation. As for the internet, if we described it "to a science fiction aficionado in the fifties and sixties and touted as the most dramatic technological achievement since his time, his reaction would have been disappointment."
When it comes to technological progress, Graeber argues that capitalism is the problem rather than the solution. We need to rethink some of our basic assumptions about capitalism, he says. "One is that capitalism is identical with the market, and that both therefore are inimical to bureaucracy, which is supposed to be a creature of the state", the second is that capitalism encourages progress through market competition.
So what’s the solution? According to Graeber: "To begin setting up domes on Mars, let alone to develop the means to figure out if there are alien civilizations to contact, we’re going to have to figure out a different economic system."
And that makes me wonder about the utopian economic systems imaged by late 19th century writers like Edward Bellamy. At the time many visionary thinkers assumed that the transition to socialism was only a matter of time. Would their readers feel cheated if they could time travel to 2012?