by Laurence Miall on July 16, 2012Leave a comment
Has the spectacle of somebody poking and prodding an iPad or some other iThingy ever left you feeling rather underwhelmed? Do the latest apps that make your cell phone resemble a beer glass leave you cold? World-famous anthropologist, David Graeber, probably shares some of your cynical snarkiness. His new essay, “Of Flying Cars and the Declining Rate of Profit,” builds upon a fascinating question: where are the flying cars, Mars colonies, and robot servants that scientists and futurologists promised us 30 to 40 years ago? Next to a robot maid that could clean the dishes, sweep the floor, and take out the maggoty garbage, the iPad 3 seems almost useless.
Graeber’s essay appears in the reborn (again!) Baffler magazine and is well worth reading in full. Tim Lacy at the US Intellectual History blog has done a nicer job than I can of summarizing one of the essay’s main arguments:
…Defenders of capitalism are trapped between two competing impulses. On the one hand, they want to suppress the idea of any sort of liberatory technology (or, really, just different technology) that could re-order the economic hierarchy, and so they want to limit the notion of technological possibility. On the other hand, they want to reinforce the belief that capitalism brings technological innovation, and so they want to encourage the understanding that innovation is happening all the time. The tricky balance between these impulses is to stir up excitement around minor products with negligible features, like phones that play video games and televisions that play two channels at once.
It’s vexing to live at a time when an invention like Skype, which permits people to have a phone conversation whilst looking at each other, actually impresses people, meanwhile, as Graeber points out, there is no cure for cancer in sight. I’ll add my own two cents and argue that text messaging and the exchange of smiley faces seem downright inane while the physical infrastructure we inhabit is literally falling apart. Montreal had nine water mains ruptures last month; the streets resemble a lunar landscape; keeping a bridge standing longer than five decades is beyond us. We need the Romans to come back and give remedial building lessons.Demand for such a helpful robot is high, but supply is zero. Thanks for nothing, capitalism!
Graeber points out that in 1900, we dared to dream of putting a man on the moon, and over a half century later we did it (!) but the dreams from the 1960s for our nascent 21st century now seem far-fetched – such dreams as fully automated factories, freeing up humans to enjoy lives of leisure. One of the central problems he identifies with capitalism in the West is its bureaucratic inertia. He speculates that perhaps the inventors and scientific pioneers of this century will come from Asia rather than North America or Europe. But even that might be too optimistic. The current economic system appears exhausted everywhere, even if the telltale signs are often buried under a new gleaming Dubai skyscraper. Where the heck any economic power would free up the resources to build a Mars colony is beyond me. In the globalized system, the current economic precariousness of Europe and North America equals the future crises of China.
So if there is a modern-day Einstein, or even a Thomas Edison, please come to the front of the class now. Those of us who have been dreaming of robot servants need you now more than ever.