I promised a follow-up to my previous post, so here I am. In this post and the next I want to discuss two essays by David Graeber — one and two — because I think that, while they seem to have very different purposes, they contribute in interesting and useful ways to a single important point.
Let me say at the outset that I have significant reservations about some details of the arguments that Graeber develops. But I want to see what ideas emerge if we at least take those arguments seriously.
In the first of these essays Graeber takes up the old “Where are our flying cars?” question — or, in my favorite version of the complaint, Jaron Lanier’s sharp comment: “Let’s suppose that, back in the 1980s, I had said, ‘In a quarter century, when the digital revolution has made great progress and computer chips are millions of times faster than they are now, humanity will finally win the prize of being able to write a new encyclopedia and a new version of UNIX.’”
Might the cultural sensibility that came to be referred to as postmodernism best be seen as a prolonged meditation on all the technological changes that never happened? The question struck me as I watched one of the recent Star Wars movies. The movie was terrible, but I couldn’t help but feel impressed by the quality of the special effects. Recalling the clumsy special effects typical of fifties sci-fi films, I kept thinking how impressed a fifties audience would have been if they’d known what we could do by now — only to realize, “Actually, no. They wouldn’t be impressed at all, would they? They thought we’d be doing this kind of thing by now. Not just figuring out more sophisticated ways to simulate it.”
So why have things turned out this way? That’s the subject of Graeber’s essay, and if you’re interested in this question at all you should read the whole thing, because he makes his case in some detail. But he sums up that case here:
By the sixties, conservative political forces were growing skittish about the socially disruptive effects of technological progress, and employers were beginning to worry about the economic impact of mechanization. The fading Soviet threat allowed for a reallocation of resources in directions seen as less challenging to social and economic arrangements, or indeed directions that could support a campaign of reversing the gains of progressive social movements and achieving a decisive victory in what U.S. elites saw as a global class war. The change of priorities was introduced as a withdrawal of big-government projects and a return to the market, but in fact the change shifted government-directed research away from programs like NASA or alternative energy sources and toward military, information, and medical technologies.
The question Graber wants to put to us is this: To what extent are our imaginations shaped — constrained, limited — by our having had to live with the technological choices made by the military-industrial complex — by industries and universities working in close collaboration with the government, in a spirit of subservience to its needs?
Or, to put it another way: How were we taught not even to dream of flying cars and jetpacks? To see “sophisticated simulations” of the things we used to hope we’d really see as good enough?
Next time, I’ll look at the second Graeber essay and start to draw together some of my themes.