Where did the flying cars go?

Post,Reflections May 22, 2014 12:08 pm
Image from this article.

Image from this article.

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.

1 Comment

  • candyflame9@gmail.com' David

    I messed up my first comment (repeated several paragraphs). Resubmitting.

    I think a core component of Graeber’s thesis is correct: that market priorities can affect the direction and form of technological development. But he oversteps in arguing that as a strong reason for the absence of certain expected* technologies today. That asterisk is for a reason I’ll explain soon.

    He gave one good reason — capital development pressures — but I can think of two stronger ones: the limitations placed on theoretical tech development under a framework (e.g. it would be unrealistic to expect superluminal propulsion sans warp-drives due to the limitations imposed with special relativity)…and the third factor, engineering capacity.

    There’s a complex overlap between these three factors when we discuss the shades of engineering concepts; the theoretical, the cutting edge, and the mainstream. Theory informs the limitations on potential tech. development, as engineering applies theory to the real world.

    However, these limitations can be lowered to some extent, as we’ve seen with the recent bumping down of the theoretical energy requirements for Albicuerre warp drives. We don’t have the engineering capacity for warp drives, and certainly not the development pressures, the systemic demand, for that sort of application. But it still remains a promising, well-grounded theoretical concept.

    And as it turns out, these three factors neatly describe the pressures that engineering concepts face. Concepts which have some theoretical support, are either abandoned or modified according to revisions in theory and rethinking of engineering ability. Even favored concepts in the expert imagination experience cycles of popularity and face reasonable internal opposition.

    This is why I find Graeber’s thesis lacking, in that he mentions the “sober discussion” of potential technologies in academic circles, but fails to mention one instance where such technologies were seriously proposed in scientific circles in that period! Not a Smithsonian exhibit (which he does mention), but a peer-reviewed paper.

    There’s always a disconnect between concepts discussed in the scientific journals, and the popular imagination and even non-science academia. Flying cars are just that — a relic of the 1950s popular imagination. Just like how automatons that could cut your hair for you, were a relic of the Victorian era imagination…an ignorant extrapolation of historical trends.

    I can’t find one reference in his article to a scientific paper to support the feasibility of the exotic technologies he mentions. So I’m tempted to chock up the “sober discussion” of such ideas to academic hubris, rather than ideas seriously speculated about in then-science. Non-science academia isn’t qualified to judge which technology will develop, and which won’t, because it doesn’t work in engineering and/or theoretical fields, and thus can’t accurately sense its progress. It’s an uninformed expectation.

    To argue my point, let’s return to an actual engineering concept: the Albicuerre warp drive. Unlike anti-gravity boots, this concept has strong theoretical support. Why doesn’t Graeber mention it? Because, he didn’t scrutinize the source of those ideas he mentions, or examine closely enough, the systemic reasons those ideas faded out of popularity. He offers way too much credit to non-science academia.

    It wasn’t because those ideas were *feasible* and productive forces were diverted — there was no relevant support to begin with. If he had, he would’ve seen the Albicuerre paper –just as futuristic and ambitious — and realized his mistake. Implying that complete labor automation was imminent in the mid-sixties, as Graeber does, is ludicrous. That workers lobbied for it means nothing — couldn’t possibly know the ultimate trend.

    I know I’m beating home the point — but Graeber hits one while also missing the mark.

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