I attended David Graeber’s talk last Thursday at New York’s School of Visual Arts, On Bureaucratic Technologies and the Future as Dream-Time. I want to post some notes and thoughts from the lecture. Graeber framed his talk around the idea that the science fiction of 1900 had been, largely, realized by 1950. Whereas the ideas from science fiction from the 1950s era have gone mostly unfulfilled today. We, in the West (and especially the U.S.) suffer a sort of social trauma because of our failure.
Graeber argues, humorously, that in a very postmodern way, we have simulation of the science fiction vision, instead of a material realization. He pointed to the special effects of Hollywoord movies, which have made fantastic gains in the last 50 years. His main thesis, though, was that one of visions of the 50s and 60s was the disappearance (or at least reduction) of manual labor. For me, he successfully argued that, along with space exploration, there was a sincere belief that manual tasks would be mechanized and automated to a large degree. Instead, we have the simulation of mechanization by outsourcing labor tasks to China and Mexico (for example). The same tasks (e.g. building cars) are then carried out in a more labor intensive process than in the U.S., but the labor itself is hidden.
Looking especially at the work of Alvin Toffler (Future Shock) and George Gilder, Graeber notes a reactionary political fear that the current direction (in the 60s and 70s) of technology development would lead to a loss of control. In part, this movement led technology research away from technologies of material production toward immaterial, cognitive, and information technology. Graeber does not attribute the failure of our technological gains solely, or even mostly, to the political class. He argues that corporatism and bureaucracy played an equally important role. With good humor, he raised the three different forms that he needed to sign as an indication of the bureaucracy that has insinuated itself into all aspects of (Western) life today. He asked how many hours (days, week?) of our life are spent filling out paperwork.
Graeber claims that the greatest achievement of the capitalism today, is that it prioritizes politics over rational economics. The current capitalist class will sacrifice economic gain in order to maintain political hegemony. Effectively, this limits our possible horizons: capitalism does not offer a “progressive narrative” of a “redemptive future” — a future society which offers a better life for all. It has, though, dampened “poetic technologies.” Graeber contrasts the (failed) grand visions of the Soviet Union (beaming alternate energy sources from satellites in space, seeding the seas to end world hunger), to the grudging pessimism of capitalist societies that our current system, despite limitations and inequity, is the best system that can work in the “modern world.” According to Graeber, poetic technologies are not inherently good or incompatible with capitalism. Coast-to-coast railways were a capitalist, poetic technology realized under a less corporate capitalist structure.
Clearly, Graeber is underwhelmed by the Internet as a means to radically transform or re-envision society. While I enjoyed the scifi framework for the talk, I’m not sure that it will hold up to close scrutiny. Graeber ignores some important technological realizations. He specifically downplays military technology, where I would argue we very much have the killer robots we feared in the 1950s. For me, the final message was that we ignore the material base of society at our own peril. While this may seem obvious, it is easy to be submerged by arguments about immaterial production or cognitive capitalism; and lulled (or trolled) into the minutia of internet freedom, software patents, and copyright licenses.
Surely Facebook, Apple, and Google do not offer a vision of a redemptive future. Graeber suggested that 3D printers may be a poetic technology, but I think he invites us (the people, the “Left”) to recapture the optimism and vision that we have lost.