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kleinbl00  ·  20 days ago  ·  link  ·    ·  parent  ·  post: Of Flying Cars and the Declining Rate of Profit - David Graeber

I haven't read any Rushkoff. Should I?

I have read Lanier. His basic argument is that technology, for technology's sake, is bad for humanity. Graeber's argument, on the other hand, is "why is there no technology for technology's sake?" on the premise that we were promised technology for technology's sake.

Thing is, they're all covering recent history. When you go further back, when you read Tamim Ansary or Jared Diamond or the Durants, you get the perspective that technology is always deployed only when it is beneficial to the deployer.


    Obviously, there have been advances in military technology in recent decades. One of the reasons we all survived the Cold War is that while nuclear bombs might have worked as advertised, their delivery systems did not; intercontinental ballistic missiles weren’t capable of striking cities, let alone specific targets inside cities, and this fact meant there was little point in launching a nuclear first strike unless you intended to destroy the world.

So... this is just flat-out wrong. Clearly, nuclear delivery systems were accurate enough to end a world war and even German V-2s were accurate enough to hit "cities." However, by 1948 there was no longer a nuclear monopoly and any attempt to wage remote war at scales that would have led to real loss of life by the direct aggressors would have triggered a massive, expensive, hobbling conflict even back in the early days. As a result, our money went into proxy warfare and ways of influencing world politics in other ways.

Graeber again:

    Contemporary cruise missiles are accurate by comparison. Still, precision weapons never do seem capable of assassinating specific individuals (Saddam, Osama, Qaddafi), even when hundreds are dropped.

Assassination is also illegal and an act of war for any signatory of the Geneva Convention. Franz Ferdinand isn't just an indie band and when you attempt to control the world through extrajudicial killing you end up in hot water faster than you can say Anwar Sadat. It's reasonable to argue that our assassination technologies haven't been advancing at blistering pace but it's equally reasonable to argue that they've advanced as fast as we need them to. Remember - it was our failure to kill Osama Bin Laden with cruise missiles that prompted our development of the UAV program... which killed Anwar Al Awlaki just fine.

So again, Graeber:

    Part of the answer has to do with the concentration of resources on a handful of gigantic projects: “big science,” as it has come to be called. The Human Genome Project is often held out as an example. After spending almost three billion dollars and employing thousands of scientists and staff in five different countries, it has mainly served to establish that there isn’t very much to be learned from sequencing genes that’s of much use to anyone else.

I dunno, man. I just found out that one of my old friends' kids has cri du chat syndrome, and thanks to the human genome project they know that the damage done to her genetic code is not in the place that causes mental retardation. I imagine they'd argue that the Human Genome Project has been useful. But it doesn't make big headlines like "death rays" would. So really, Graeber is griping that the future doesn't look the way the pulp sci fi writers said it would, and that's probably a good thing, considering they were one-world-government totalitarians to a man.

    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.

This precisely maps the explosion of scribes and actuaries under the Ottoman Empire, as well as the legal and clerical classes in Rome. It's almost as if agriculture and civics advances lead to a population explosion who then must be employed so they can eat. Supply and demand in and of itself creates this stuff - the printing press didn't come about until after the Black Death had taken out a third of the population of Europe, thereby putting scribes in high demand. Meanwhile, the Han dynasty had movable type in 1000AD but didn't have the economics to make it worth bothering with.

So again, to Graeber:

    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.

And here I give it over to Petroski - his argument is that we don't have teleportation devices or antigravity shoes is we have no tasks for which the most direct labor-saving device is teleportation or antigravity shoes. Petroski argues (quite convincingly) that necessity is not the mother of invention, luxury is - and that people invent things to make their lives easier, not to make their lives radically different. The Internet is a communications protocol. Cars are faster carriages. There isn't always an obvious precursor - planes are not faster balloons - but balloons got their boost by being movable spy towers that could be deployed easily. Teleportation is a storyteller's conceit, not an engineer's dream and antigravity is nothing more than a fervent wish for the revocation of the physical laws of the universe. Even the most impractical ideas (like the Human Genome Project) have their foundations in practical desires.

Which is where I end up handing things over to guys like Bill McKibben and Paul Gilding - who argue that technology is always disruptive and that the exponential growth we've experienced over the past 100 years or so was not the new steady-state, but a discontinuity in an otherwise steady progression of technology. Really, the big thing we did (which none of the guys we've discussed so far have mentioned) is radically increase the availability of energy and for the past ten-twenty years our technological advances have been largely about increasing energy efficiency.

It's fair to say that the SR-71, for example, is a pinnacle of Golden Age technology. It's also fair to say that keeping it in the air uses twice as much energy as the Queen Mary. And we've been working on break-even fusion for a long-ass time which is Big Technology in every way Graeber intends but it hasn't paid off... yet. So in the meantime, technological progress has been about doing more with what we have.

And damn, I wandered off at the end, too - but fundamentally, I think the argument is not that technology is at a standstill because it doesn't pay off, the argument is technology serves whoever is willing to pay for it and lately, that technology has been serving more boring masters than it did at the height of the Cold War.

I'm okay with that.