“Where, in short, are the flying cars? Where are the force fields, tractor beams, teleportation pods, antigravity sleds, tricorders, immortality drugs, colonies on Mars, and all the other technological wonders any child growing up in the mid-to-late twentieth century assumed would exist by now? Even those inventions that seemed ready to emerge—like cloning or cryogenics—ended up betraying their lofty promises. What happened to them? ”
As I said in my last post, for part 3 of this series I wanted to talk about the article I was exposed to through writing my last post; entitled “Flying Cars and the Declining Rate of Profit.” by David Graeber. I have to encourage you right off to read the article. It is a long one, and while I don’t agree with it wholesale, it has given me plenty to think about, and has certainly challenged a few of my own ideas.
The opening of this post is from Graeber, and I think it is a great place to start. I think it is an excellent question; as a child my first encounter with science ficition was through my dad in the form of Star Trek; The Next Generation. See, I was born in the 80’s, and grew up all through the 90s. I would come back around to more classic science fiction as an adult, Asimov, Bradbury, Clarke… and so on. So I think Graeber’s question is a great one. What happened? As Graeber himself points out;
“Why did the projected explosion of technological growth everyone was expecting—the moon bases, the robot factories—fail to happen? There are two possibilities. Either our expectations about the pace of technological change were unrealistic (in which case, we need to know why so many intelligent people believed they were not) or our expectations were not unrealistic (in which case, we need to know what happened to derail so many credible ideas and prospects). ”
I will concede the fact that maybe some of these expectations were unrealistic, but it is the second part of the question that really stands out. Many notable science fiction writers were also scientists and professors. People like Isaac Asimov knew exactly what he was talking about. Brilliant minds that believed we could achieve all these things, some sooner, some later. Still, that leaves the second question unanswered. If these expectations were realistic, what derailed them? Graeber points to one possibility;
“In fact, the United States never did abandon gigantic, government-controlled schemes of technological development. Mainly, they just shifted to military research—and not just to Soviet-scale schemes like Star Wars, but to weapons projects, research in communications and surveillance technologies, and similar security-related concerns. To some degree this had always been true: the billions poured into missile research had always dwarfed the sums allocated to the space program. Yet by the seventies, even basic research came to be conducted following military priorities. One reason we don’t have robot factories is because roughly 95 percent of robotics research funding has been channeled through the Pentagon, which is more interested in developing unmanned drones than in automating paper mills. ”
The fact is that grand projects require time and resources, often in the form of investment. To work on grand projects, you need to pay researchers, scientists and engineers, workers of all sorts. You also need the metal, the plastic, and all the hard resources to build whatever it is you want to build. When you look at the big projects of today, from fusion reactors, to CERN, to the International Space Station, you are looking at collaborative projects that required large amounts of money, resources and international cooperation to be achieved.
As Graeber points out, the fact is that a large sum of government money goes to military, to be spent on military priorities, which of course are focused on matters of security. This has been especially true in the last couple of decades, when non-military research projects such as NASA have been basically reduced to bare bones. Missions to Mars were scrapped due to lack of funding, and a change in government priorities.
I understand the need for a military, and the needs to keep your people safe, especially in the world today. Military spending is one of the very few areas where America is still the leader, as last I knew we spend as much on our military as the next 20 some countries combined (most of which are our allies.) Still, I have to wonder what those kind of resources might have turned into had they gone to something like NASA.
Graeber hammers this point home by saying;
“What has changed is the bureaucratic culture. The increasing interpenetration of government, university, and private firms has led everyone to adopt the language, sensibilities, and organizational forms that originated in the corporate world. Although this might have helped in creating marketable products, since that is what corporate bureaucracies are designed to do, in terms of fostering original research, the results have been catastrophic. ” – Graeber
I studied anthropology and archaeology back in college, and by my own experience this is really apparent. I cannot count how many times my professors commented on the lack of resources that go to the social sciences. Even PhD’s had trouble finding enough funding for basic research. Forget about finding work in your field as an undergraduate, because chances are it is not going to happen. Graeber has more to say on this point;
“My own knowledge comes from universities, both in the United States and Britain. In both countries, the last thirty years have seen a veritable explosion of the proportion of working hours spent on administrative tasks at the expense of pretty much everything else. In my own university, for instance, we have more administrators than faculty members, and the faculty members, too, are expected to spend at least as much time on administration as on teaching and research combined. The same is true, more or less, at universities worldwide.”
Universities have the grand ideal of being places of research and learning, and yet even there we find a diminishing share of resources, and fierce competition for the few resources that are allocated. Research into new technologies and new ways of doing things are stymied at every point, and even research findings are jealously guarded. So instead of developing ways to build colonies on the moon, or solve some very serious problems we have today, we instead live in fear of the competition, and fear they will steal our ideas and our funding. That is the result of the corporate mentality creeping into our centers of learning. Graeber says;
“The growth of administrative work has directly resulted from introducing corporate management techniques. Invariably, these are justified as ways of increasing efficiency and introducing competition at every level. What they end up meaning in practice is that everyone winds up spending most of their time trying to sell things: grant proposals; book proposals; assessments of students’ jobs and grant applications; assessments of our colleagues; prospectuses for new interdisciplinary majors; institutes; conference workshops; universities themselves (which have now become brands to be marketed to prospective students or contributors); and so on. ” – Graeber
Have no doubt that universities have in fact turned into brands. I went to Michigan State University, and I have great love for the Spartans. Still, for all the research and teaching that did go on at the college, more time and resources were spent on sports facilities and marketing than was ever spent on research and teaching. The fact is that social science research has been very low priority on the funding scale for a long time (even if our overhead is generally lower), and we have gotten to the point that even the hard sciences have started to bemoan the lack of resources; as Graeber points out;
“If all this is true in the social sciences, where research is still carried out with minimal overhead largely by individuals, one can imagine how much worse it is for astrophysicists. And, indeed, one astrophysicist, Jonathan Katz, has recently warned students pondering a career in the sciences. Even if you do emerge from the usual decade-long period languishing as someone else’s flunky, he says, you can expect your best ideas to be stymied at every point:
You will spend your time writing proposals rather than doing research. Worse, because your proposals are judged by your competitors, you cannot follow your curiosity, but must spend your effort and talents on anticipating and deflecting criticism rather than on solving the important scientific problems. . . . It is proverbial that original ideas are the kiss of death for a proposal, because they have not yet been proved to work.”
This honestly hurts to acknowledge. That in many ways, our best and our brightest are being being stymied at nearly every conceivable point, at least partly because capitalist ideals and structures have crept into the halls of learning and research. In addition, decades worth of ideological lines of “lower taxes” and subsequent cutting of resources has left behind a crumbling intellectual infrastructure. This could also be linked to a growing wave of anti-intellectualism in several sectors of government. More still, when you add in the corporate mentality and the insidious specter of capitalism, you get an environment that is almost hostile to the goals of research.
Graeber hits this point home;
“That pretty much answers the question of why we don’t have teleportation devices or antigravity shoes. Common sense suggests that if you want to maximize scientific creativity, you find some bright people, give them the resources they need to pursue whatever idea comes into their heads, and then leave them alone. Most will turn up nothing, but one or two may well discover something. But if you want to minimize the possibility of unexpected breakthroughs, tell those same people they will receive no resources at all unless they spend the bulk of their time competing against each other to convince you they know in advance what they are going to discover. ”
And this is a small part of a much larger set of problems. When we look at the larger whole in America, we see a troubling trend all over. Infrastructure of all sorts is crumbling due to the same ideals that have been explored here. Decades of decline in research, investment in new technologies, and even basic infrastructures has left things in shambles. Common sense says it you want things like decent roads and research funding, it has to be paid for. Instead, we have gotten a long line of so-called “leaders” that had made it a point to slash taxes and the redistribution of wealth at every turn, and at the same time reduced the amount of ever diminishing resources to key social systems such as roads and universities. Add in the fact that corporate/capitalist mentality has crept into many of these institutions, and the recipe is disastrous. Graeber has this to say on these subjects;
“.. It’s not that vision, creativity, and mad fantasies are no longer encouraged, but that most remain free-floating; there’s no longer even the pretense that they could ever take form or flesh. The greatest and most powerful nation that has ever existed has spent the last decades telling its citizens they can no longer contemplate fantastic collective enterprises, even if—as the environmental crisis demands— the fate of the earth depends on it.”
And that terrifies me. That many of the factors I have just discussed have lead to a situation in which we are at a disadvantage in even contemplating the very real challenges that face us in the future. It is why other science fiction writers as well as myself have bemoaned the rise of apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction that has permeated our culture. It is not that these are necessarily bad stories, quite the contrary in many cases.
I enjoy stories like Mad Max, Fallout and zombie movies as much as the next guy. No, it is not that these are bad stories that makes them terrifying, it is the fact that they are a glaring reflection of our current state of thinking. It becomes harder with each passing day to envision a future where we don’t succumb to environmental destruction, oil, water and/or nuclear wars or the possibility that we and/or our civilization is not going to make it.
As a point of curiosity, a friend of mine once put it like this; paraphrased of course.
“Zombie movies and shows are unnerving because in a subtle way, they are preparing us for the possibility that sooner or later someone will come for our stuff. Whether water or brains, it impresses upon us the idea that people will come for us, and these people will be our wives, husbands, our loved ones. And we will have to shoot them without hesitation.”
Scarcity and competition over resources, looming environmental challenges, all things of which that our cultural mentality in many ways has left us ill prepared. This has lead many thinkers to the idea that we need to burn it all and start over, or we need to leave it all behind and take care of our own in some off grid manner. As Graeber points out;
“As an anthropologist and anarchist, I encounter anticivilizational types who insist not only that current industrial technology leads only to capitalist-style oppression, but that this must necessarily be true of any future technology as well, and therefore that human liberation can be achieved only by returning to the Stone Age. Most of us are not technological determinists. ” – Graeber
Modern technology in no way implies a capitalism based society, and truly it is not technology alone that will solve all our problems. The problems ahead are bigger than any one person or community, and it only through collective solutions that we have any chance at all of dealing with problems such as peak oil or climate change. The solutions will need to be implemented at all levels, locally, regionally and globally. Going back to some romanced past time will not be an option, but nor is continuing our current trends.
Threads from the past have led the present, and we look now at the future with trepidation. The question that faces us is how to weave these threads together in the future? Shall we change what needs to be changed, and pull together to solve very pressing problems?
For the next part of the series, and I want to talk about where I stand in regards to capitalism and socialism, and start talking about the practical ways we can adapt to the future.
(P.S. I feel this one is still more capitalism than animism. Maybe this series should have been called “capitalism” solely. I swear some kind of synthesis is coming, but these topics are just so big.)
“Flying Cars and the Declining Rate of Profit.” By David Graeber.