April 20, 2012

David Graeber’s Debt to science fiction

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As great books sometimes do, Debt, the First 5,000 Years has struck a chord with an unexpected audience: science fiction readers.

Over at Boing Boing, Cory Doctorow reiterates the notions submitted by science fiction writer Jo Walton, namely that David Graeber’s work correlates with science fiction because of its analysis and breadth.

What Debt does is to focus on a question of morality, first by framing the question, and then by examining how a really large number of human societies over a huge geographical and historical range have dealt with this issue, and how they have interacted with other people who have very different ideas about it. It’s a huge issue of the kind that shapes societies and cultures, so in reading it you encounter a whole lot of contrasting cultures. Graeber has some very interesting ideas about it, and lots of fascinating details, and lots of thought provoking connections.

That’s an outward reason sci-fi lovers are excited about Debt. Maybe an interior one is that Graeber occasionally writes more directly about the realm of the fantastic and the implications it has on reality.

In the current issue of The Baffler, Graeber’s essay, “Of Flying Cars and the Declining Rate of Profit,” explains that people who came of age in the mid-to-late twentieth century have reason to feel shortchanged with the version of the “future” they currently inhabit. Sure, the internet is pretty impressive, but what happened to flying cars? Pedestrian robots? Space stations on Mars?

In a word, capitalism, or at least the version of it that defines today’s society.

Graeber argues that corporate, bureaucratic capitalism supports smaller ideas and forces otherwise creative, big thinkers to spend their time competing with colleagues, allocating funds to keep various projects afloat.

He quotes a letter from astrophysicist Jonathan Katz to students considering the field:

You will spend your time writing proposals rather 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.

This, Graeber writes, “pretty much answers the question of why we don’t have teleportation devices or antigravity shoes.”

He goes on to say that the US Space Program largely shaped ideas of the future from the twentieth century. Leaps and bounds were made in short periods of time, which in turn induced people’s thinking that by the time the year 2000 came along, we’d all be flying to work in star-powered air-buggies.

This point is on display in the video below made by the Seattle Times.

Back in the 1960s, a Times journalist asked a class of 3rd graders what the future would look like. More than 50 years later those students, and their answers, are revisited.

You’ll probably agree, it’s the stuff of science fiction.

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