David Graeber on technology

There is a secret shame hovering over all of us in the twenty-first century… I am referring here to… a very specific generational promise – given above all to those were children in the fifties, sixties, seventies or even eighties – one that was never quite articulated as a promise but rather as a set of assumptions about what our adult world would be like. And since it was never quite promised, now that it has spectactularly failed to come true, we’re left confused; indignant, ashamed we were ever so silly to believe our elders to beginning with. 

I am referring, of course, to the conspicuous absence, in 2015, of flying cars. 

Well, all right, not just flying cars. I don’t really care about flying cars – especially because I don’t drive. What I have in mind are all the technological wonders that any child growing up in the mid-to-late twentieth century simply assumed would exist by 2015. We all know the list: Force fields. Teleportation. Antigravity fields. Tricorders. Tractor beams. Immortality drugs. Suspended animation. Androids. Colonies on Mars. What happened to them? Every now and then it’s widely trumpeted that one is about to materialise – clones, for instance, or cryogenics, or invisibility cloaks – but when these don’t prove to be false promises, which they usually are, they emerge hopelessly flawed. Point any of this out, and the usual response is a ritual invocation of the wonders of computers – why would you want an antigravity sled when you can have second life? – as if this is some sort of unanticipated compensation. But, even here, we’re not nearly where people in the fifties imagined we’d have been by now. We still don’t have computers you can have an interesting conversation with, or robots that can walk the dog or fold your laundry.

– David Graeber, The Utopia of Rules – On Technology, Stupidity and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy, 2015

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Paul Hodson

Head of Unit "EnergyEfficiency" at European Commission, Directorate-General for Energy

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