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Where are my hover boots? How capitalist bureaucracy betrayed the future...

 
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Want to know why you still don't scoot around in a jet-pack or hover-boots (apart from the obvious reason that many people have more than enough trouble driving their own car safely down the road with gravity on their side)? I just read a thought-provoking essay by LSE academic David Graeber in The Baffler on flying cars and the declining rate of profit. He covers a lot of ground (you'll want to get a cup of coffee before you sit down to read this), but his take seems to be that late 20th century capitalism bears a lot of the blame for undermining true innovation. He presents this as a kind of post-modernism,

the feeling that we had somehow broken into an unprecedented new historical period in which we understood that there is nothing new; that grand historical narratives of progress and liberation were meaningless; that everything now was simulation, ironic repetition, fragmentation, and pastiche

an idea which discourages the belief in alternative visions of the future or alternative economic models. He also points out how many of the technological changes that have taken place have actually taken us away from the "workless utopia" that was once promised (however naively) and into a world of outsourcing, piece work and chronic insecurity:

Computers have opened up certain spaces of freedom, as we’re constantly reminded, but instead of leading to the workless utopia Abbie Hoffman imagined, they have been employed in such a way as to produce the opposite effect. They have enabled a financialization of capital that has driven workers desperately into debt, and, at the same time, provided the means by which employers have created “flexible” work regimes that have both destroyed traditional job security and increased working hours for almost everyone. Along with the export of factory jobs, the new work regime has routed the union movement and destroyed any possibility of effective working-class politics.

Meanwhile, despite unprecedented investment in research on medicine and life sciences, we await cures for cancer and the common cold, and the most dramatic medical breakthroughs we have seen have taken the form of drugs such as Prozac, Zoloft, or Ritalin—tailor-made to ensure that the new work demands don’t drive us completely, dysfunctionally crazy.

With results like these, what will the epitaph for neoliberalism look like? I think historians will conclude it was a form of capitalism that systematically prioritized political imperatives over economic ones. Given a choice between a course of action that would make capitalism seem the only possible economic system, and one that would transform capitalism into a viable, long-term economic system, neoliberalism chooses the former every time. There is every reason to believe that destroying job security while increasing working hours does not create a more productive (let alone more innovative or loyal) workforce. Probably, in economic terms, the result is negative—an impression confirmed by lower growth rates in just about all parts of the world in the eighties and nineties.

But the neoliberal choice has been effective in depoliticizing labor and overdetermining the future. Economically, the growth of armies, police, and private security services amounts to dead weight. It’s possible, in fact, that the very dead weight of the apparatus created to ensure the ideological victory of capitalism will sink it. But it’s also easy to see how choking off any sense of an inevitable, redemptive future that could be different from our world is a crucial part of the neoliberal project.


In his view, bureaucracy is actually a consequence of contemporary capitalism:


Americans do not like to think of themselves as a nation of bureaucrats—quite the opposite—but the moment we stop imagining bureaucracy as a phenomenon limited to government offices, it becomes obvious that this is precisely what we have become. The final victory over the Soviet Union did not lead to the domination of the market, but, in fact, cemented the dominance of conservative managerial elites, corporate bureaucrats who use the pretext of short-term, competitive, bottom-line thinking to squelch anything likely to have revolutionary implications of any kind.

If we do not notice that we live in a bureaucratic society, that is because bureaucratic norms and practices have become so all-pervasive that we cannot see them, or, worse, cannot imagine doing things any other way.

Computers have played a crucial role in this narrowing of our social imaginations. Just as the invention of new forms of industrial automation in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries had the paradoxical effect of turning more and more of the world’s population into full-time industrial workers, so has all the software designed to save us from administrative responsibilities turned us into part- or full-time administrators. In the same way that university professors seem to feel it is inevitable they will spend more of their time managing grants, so affluent housewives simply accept that they will spend weeks every year filling out forty-page online forms to get their children into grade schools. We all spend increasing amounts of time punching passwords into our phones to manage bank and credit accounts and learning how to perform jobs once performed by travel agents, brokers, and accountants.


Anyway, this is all good polemical stuff to get your argumentative juices flowing, and lots more where that came from. Think I'll poke around this magazine some more.

I dunno. When I was a kid, men walked on the moon. Now they get excited about a new iPhone or social media app. The future isn't what it used to be, that's for sure.
 
chris webster
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Well, I just tumbled down the rabbit hole into a strange world of techno-politics. New Yorker magazine's profile of Paypal founder Peter Thiel, No Death, No taxes, shows that Thiel shares many of David Graeber's disappointments about yesterday's futures:

New Yorker wrote:Thiel’s venture-capital firm, Founders Fund, has an online manifesto about the future that begins with a complaint: “We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters.” He believes that this failure of imagination explains many of the country’s problems—from the collapse in manufacturing to wage stagnation to the swelling of the financial sector. As he puts it, “You have dizzying change where there’s no progress."


But he comes to very different conclusions about how to respond to these failures. Where Graeber seems firmly on the left, Thiel seems entirely to justify New Yorker's portrayal of him as a libertarian futurist with strong right-wing leanings - Thiel's vision seems more "Logan's Run" or "The Matrix" than Iain Banks's "The Culture":

New Yorker wrote:In Thiel’s techno-utopia, a few thousand Americans might own robot-driven cars and live to a hundred and fifty, while millions of others lose their jobs to computers that are far smarter than they are, then perish at sixty.


Interestingly, Thiel is one of the key figures in Corey Pein's article Mouthbreathing Macchiavellis Dream Of A Silicon Reich which paints a rather disturbing picture of the weird overlap between far right politics and Silicon Valley techno-futurists.

Have to admit I have a profound distrust of fascistic techno-utopias dreamed up by Silicon Valley billionaires and their Rand-addled acolytes who are all brains and no sense (or heart). Corey Pein rightly points out

Corey Pein wrote:the fundamental problem with these mouthbreathers’ dreams of monarchy. They’ve never role-played the part of the peasant.


Speaking of peasants, the sun is shining, so I'm heading out to toil in the garden. No more tech for me today!
 
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