From poetic technologies to bureaucratic technologies


David Graeber has the most interesting take I have read on why you don’t have your flying car:

Of Flying Cars and the Declining Rate of Profit

Graeber’s hypothesis is that our economic system is run with a preference for fostering bureaucracy over creation, and this stifles innovations that do not themselves result in more bureaucracy.

I find his thesis provocative and plausible.  For example, it is consistent with my experience of what is happening to academe in the United States.


Addendum:  Graeber and Thiel discuss the issue for Baffler.

2 Replies to “From poetic technologies to bureaucratic technologies”

  1. Maybe once technology frees us from the need for work, what comes next is not the age of leisure, but the age of unneeded work, a.k.a. universal bureaucracy. Maybe you’re living in Marx’s utopia right now!

    That was meant as a joke. More seriously, Graeber and other whiners of his generation might get the facts right, but their values are wrong. If you ask them point blank about whether they’d prefer to live in the actual 2015, or the 2015 that smart people were expecting in 1965, they would be crazy to prefer the latter. Imagine losing the things we were promised we’d have by now but don’t: a Mars colony, jetpacks, moving sidewalks, pills that inflate into steaks, designer babies, etc. Now imagine losing the things we actually have, that most futurists didn’t foresee: Google, video games, Netflix, GPS, home theaters, online communities, smartphones that record video, global trade. The latter set just seems objectively more significant.

    It’s also worth remembering that futurism in the 60’s wasn’t all happy housewives with shiny dresses. A large portion of smart people were expecting a 2015 of overpopulated famine, or radioactive craters. Taking all this into account, I think we’ve done great! My evidence is that when we want to scare ourselves with horror stories about the future, the most popular horror story now is one in which global temperature rises by 3.5 degrees. I don’t want to minimize the potential seriousness of global warming, but it’s not in the same nightmare ballpark as nuclear winter.

    And maybe the reason why we have so many bureaucrats now is that we finally have the means to address social problems that we never even pictured fixing – for example, making sure our universities are free of discrimination based on sex, race, able-bodiedness, etc. These jobs are bureaucrat jobs, yet the fact that someone fills them is a sign of progress, not decay. Of course, bureaucrats need oversight – from other bureaucrats – and so on. Multiplying bureaucrats are a sign of ever-growing risk aversion that someone somewhere will get away with doing something bad. But isn’t a growing risk-aversion another important sign of progress? In living memory, slapping a secretary on the ass was considered not a big deal. Now we treat it as a big deal, and that is a luxury that we never thought we’d have. All that oversight happened because we can finally afford the bureaucrats that make it happen. And we can afford all kinds of other important stuff in addition. Go us! The present is really much better than even optimists had imagined 50 years ago.

    1. Thanks very much for the note.

      Neither I nor Graeber would endorse those values of the 1950s; and many of the dire predictions of that time are, as you point out, so far wrong. (Though I disagree about your description of the relative optimism of the SF. There are many dire predictions being made nowadays. And remember that The Hunger Games, such as it is, is by far the most popular SF work of our time.) The question is only about the development of technologies.

      We’ll have to disagree about whether Netflix et al is better than a Mars colony et al. I find the claim very hard to believe, but you and I may just have different preferences. In any case, one can presume that Netflix would be easy to have if you had developed the technologies necessary for a Mars colony. That is, they surely are not exclusive. The comparison (they promised us Mars and instead we got Netflix) is only there to show the relative paucity of dreams versus accomplishment. It is not meant to be a trade-off.

      I understood Graeber’s primary question to be this: do we have more control over the development of technology than we assume? And, if so, why have we slowed and narrowed this development (at least by the measures that I and Graeber would share)? One generation in the West gets electricity and running water and roads and telephones and space exploration and penicillin and an explosion in speed and rapidly rising living standards, and my generation in the West gets Netflix and Xoloft and a declining real income for most people.

      I understood Graeber’s answer to be: we may have more control over technological development than we have believed. And, the reason technological development has slowed is that we have preferred to develop technologies that create and increase and perpetuate bureaucracy, over taking risks (with capital) and pursuing profound innovation.

      About bureaucracy: very little of it is there to ensure rights, Graeber argues, and I think he is right. After all, all kinds of rights and social mores lack a bureaucracy to “support them,” and they remain firmly entrenched. We don’t have a Coordinator of Second Amendment rights on campus just yet. Does that mean second amendment rights are being trampled? We don’t have a Dean of Student Civility, but does this mean the students are uncivil? Arguably, many tasks that get bureaucratized happened at least as well before the introduction of the bureaucracy. Think of the tax code. Few or none of the complications in the every-growing-and-already-immense tax code are protecting rights or rendering valuable services. Or think of the ten-thousand-word long user agreements that accompany every software purchase. Are those adding value to civilization? No, they just provide CYA for the corporation, behind an impenetrable wall of verbiage. And why do our ever faster computers increase, rather than decrease, the form filling, and so on? That seems backwards. But it is hard to know how to settle this difference between us; it is perhaps largely or at least partly an empirical question. We can hope future study might be able to measure the effectiveness and purpose of bureaucracy in some way.

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