Neoliberalism stole my teleporter, says Graeber

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?

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cbp
cbp
9 years ago

Honestly, anyone who can’t look at a modern smartphone and not be filled with wonder at the technological achievement contained within is in the running for the world’s biggest whinger.
The fact is, far from falling short, modern technology has surpassed the imaginations of sci-fi writers!

Katz
Katz
9 years ago

In an analogue world, jet packs and airborne Buicks marked the limits of the popular imagination. The digital world was beyond the reach of the analogue imagination.

Theosophists and speakers of Esperanto everywhere no doubt feel keenly the failure of Edward Bellamy to foresee what the world was actually like in 2000. These folks are always deeply disappointed in the present while touchingly believing in a transcendent future for humanity. For them, it is a matter of Paradise Postponed. The interesting truth is that fewer folk believe in the immanence of any kind of paradise.

The twentieth century made us sadder, but wiser.

Yobbo
Yobbo
9 years ago

Yep, it’s capitalism’s fault that humans have failed to break the laws of physics.

Presumably the soviets would have come up with iPad in 1992 if it wasn’t for Reagan.

Moonfriend
Moonfriend
9 years ago
Reply to  Yobbo

Graeber doesn’t support state capitalism either.

Mel
Mel
9 years ago
Reply to  Yobbo

Well I think Yobbo neatly fills the role of Marvin the Paranoid Android. Btw, do you still earn a living as an internet card shark?

Fyodor
9 years ago

News flash: Utopianists disappointed with reality.

Next at Nine: communists say communism will work when done right. This time. Promise.

I’m a big fan of Wells’ and Verne’s fiction, but Wells was as socialist as they come and Verne was French, FFFS. Both were thus thoroughly clueless on economic realities. That their imagination was fired by the technological advances of the mos’ def’ capitalist industrial revolution taking place around them only adds to the irony of Graeber’s banalogies.

The sad reality for economic illiterates like Graeber is that, to paraphrase Kennedy, we choose NOT to set up domes on Mars not because it’s hard but because there’s no fucking point to spending the money on it now that we’ve realised it’s a barren rock, and not even populated with alien babes.

GrueBleen
GrueBleen
9 years ago

If you want an early – and quite prescient – scifi view of ‘the web”, then try Isaac Asimov’s The Jokester, first published in 1956.

John
John
9 years ago

Given the length and substance of Graeber’s article, I’m somewhat amazed at some of the comments made above. Having read his book – Debt the first 5000 years – I can assure you that he is not economically illiterate. Far from it. Also to reduce his argument to the claim that, “Yep, it’s capitalism’s fault that humans have failed to break the laws of physics” demonstrates a woeful misunderstanding of his thesis. If anything, the central import of his argument concerned the extent to which bureaucracies are not restricted to government alone. His example concerning Universities was particularly interesting. And finally, even if you don’t agree with his “anti-capitalist” position – which I think would be more accurately described as anarchist – his critique is still useful if correct. For if there is presently an issue with excessive bureaucracy – and the associated problems of stifling innovation etc – then even “pro-capitalist’s” interested primarily in improving innovation and profit margins stand to benefit from his insights.

John
John
9 years ago
Reply to  Don Arthur

Don,

Truthfully I’m not sure it’s a question which can be answered in any definitive sense. For me, too some extent, it’s in a similar category to asking the question are we more moral today than in the past. While I don’t find his evidence convincing, I still think it’s a really interesting interpretive exercise; one of the benefits of which being that it forces the reader to come up with their own set of ideas about what constitutes real innovation etc.

Fyodor
9 years ago

I no longer get hopelessly lost when I drive because I have device that uses satellites to figure out where I am and gives me directions in a nice Irish accent (and unlike the old method, nobody gets mad and start shouting when I miss a turn).

‘Zactly. Sat nav has enabled women and Don Arthur to navigate. You can’t stop progress.

Katz
Katz
9 years ago

I’m confident we’ll achieve the wheel-less auto the very day after we achieve the paperless office.

Don Arthur
Don Arthur
9 years ago

Fyodor – According to 50s motor designer Carl Reynolds, the flying car “would be a woman’s dream because it could fly sideways into a parking spot.”

Which sounds great because I’m not to good at parallel parking either. Wouldn’t it be great if they could invent a car that parks itself? Oh wait …

Dan
Dan
9 years ago

Isn’t this a redux of Galbraith’s The New Industrial State? Basically Big Capitalism is all about the minimisation of risk, not entrepreneurialism or the market, and in a general sense, the longer capitalism continues, the Bigger it gets.

Tel
Tel
9 years ago

Funny that no one notices that the flying car has already been designed and built several times over. Most obvious would be the Harrier Jump Jet, which is big, noisy, expensive and sucks fuel, but government won’t let you own one, and if you did own one, government certainly wouldn’t let you use one.

Then there are your common or garden helicopters, which are also noisy, expensive and suck fuel, but at least you are allowed to own and operate one, if you have to spare money to do so. There are actually tiny personal helicopters which have already been built and they look quite promising, but probably will be outlawed before they … err … get off the ground so to speak.

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.

Common sense says that if you do as suggested, then the definition of “bright people” will be whoever can piss away resources faster than anyone else (most often also a family member of whoever gets the job of handing out these apparently easily available resources).

Patrick
Patrick
9 years ago
Nick
Nick
9 years ago

Give me an Elon Musk over a Peter Thiel any day. One’s designs his own inventions. The other thinks he’s a genius but always needs someone else to come up with the bright ideas. “Why oh why hasn’t our awesome libertarian future happened yet! What’s wrong with this crappy human race of ours…give me my flying car and my seastead!” One talks about the differences he wants to make. The other can’t shut up about what’s holding him back.