Today, I read this remarkable David Graeber essay from 2012, titled provocatively, “Of Flying Cars and the Declining Rate of Profit.” It asks: why did the flying cars, which we thought would be here by the turn of the millennium, not materialize? Graeber’s answer, which will not surprise anyone who has read him, is that this is all about capital. Capital decided that flying cars and robots would actually empower the working class, and therefore switched their energies to other, more frivolous matters (the Internet, say), that give us the illusion of technological progress but are nothing of the kind. HASTSies will find much to disagree. (NYT wunderkind Ross Douthat notes perceptively that this is a left-wing version of venture capitalist Peter Thiel’s arguments about technological stagnation.) But it’s worth taking a look, even if just to disagree.
This here is the key point:
By the sixties, conservative political forces were growing skittish about the socially disruptive effects of technological progress, and employers were beginning to worry about the economic impact of mechanization. The fading Soviet threat allowed for a reallocation of resources in directions seen as less challenging to social and economic arrangements, or indeed directions that could support a campaign of reversing the gains of progressive social movements and achieving a decisive victory in what U.S. elites saw as a global class war. The change of priorities was introduced as a withdrawal of big-government projects and a return to the market, but in fact the change shifted government-directed research away from programs like NASA or alternative energy sources and toward military, information, and medical technologies.
Thoughts? Comments? I would particularly love to know what our cold-war historians think of Graeber’s quick-and-dirty summary of cold-war era technological research.