Wednesday, June 13, 2012

the great slow down

from the recent issue of The Baffler, a thought-provoking article on the future that never came -  "Of Flying Cars and the Declining Rate of Profit" by David Graeber:

"There is reason to believe that even by the fifties and sixties, the pace of technological innovation was slowing down from the heady pace of the first half of the century... [but] because the space race gave everyone the impression that remarkable advances were happening, the popular impression during the sixties was that the pace of technological change was speeding up in terrifying, uncontrollable ways.

"Alvin Toffler’s 1970 best seller Future Shock argued that almost all the social problems of the sixties could be traced back to the increasing pace of technological change....Humans were not psychologically prepared for the pace of change, Toffler wrote. He coined a term for the phenomenon: “accelerative thrust.” It had begun with the Industrial Revolution, but by roughly 1850, the effect had become unmistakable. Not only was everything around us changing, but most of it—human knowledge, the size of the population, industrial growth, energy use—was changing exponentially....  

"While many of the historical trends Toffler describes are accurate, the book appeared when most of these exponential trends halted. It was right around 1970 when the increase in the number of scientific papers published in the world—a figure that had doubled every fifteen years since, roughly, 1685—began leveling off. The same was true of books and patents.

"Toffler’s use of acceleration was particularly unfortunate. For most of human history, the top speed at which human beings could travel had been around 25 miles per hour. By 1900 it had increased to 100 miles per hour, and for the next seventy years it did seem to be increasing exponentially. By the time Toffler was writing, in 1970, the record for the fastest speed at which any human had traveled stood at roughly 25,000 mph, achieved by the crew of Apollo 10 in 1969, just one year before. At such an exponential rate, it must have seemed reasonable to assume that within a matter of decades, humanity would be exploring other solar systems.

"Since 1970, no further increase has occurred. The record for the fastest a human has ever traveled remains with the crew of Apollo 10. True, the maximum speed of commercial air flight did peak one year later, at 1,400 mph, with the launching of the Concorde in 1971. But that speed not only has failed to increase; it has decreased since the Concorde was abandoned in 2003."


 among Graeber's arguments is that the misleadingly spectacular space race happened because the USA imitated the USSR -- NASA and Apollo was a gargantuan feat of planning and state-organised mobilisation of resources, and in that sense profoundly unAmerican...  and (once the race to the Moon was won) quickly abandoned

"It’s often said the Apollo moon landing was the greatest historical achievement of Soviet communism. Surely, the United States would never have contemplated such a feat had it not been for the cosmic ambitions of the Soviet Politburo. We are used to thinking of the Politburo as a group of unimaginative gray bureaucrats, but they were bureaucrats who dared to dream astounding dreams."

c.f. the Rem Koolhaas thing I quoted earlier in the year, where he--talking to Frieze about Expo 70 in Japan--identifies 1970 as a pivotal year, a peak:

"I was referring more to the spirit of the world’s reaction to both the launch of Concorde and the Moon landing than to the Expo itself. But it’s not only about technical prowess: it’s more to do with what can be imagined and what dimension imagination has in serious life. An organization like NASA was, essentially, 4,000 people seriously entertaining fantasy: that scale of working on visionary elements is now incredibly reduced. At the moment we want to achieve goals that are very imminent, very realistic. Few organisations are able to define an unconventional aim and then to engineer its implementation, even over a period of ten or 12 years. These days, projects often have a maximum of only four years in which to be realized, as that’s the typical period that a politician is in power.... [What fascinates me is] the combination of imagination and government action, of architecture and bureaucracy. The public sector is the sector with vision, and I think this is something that, for whatever reason, we haven’t had for a very long time."

and here's a piece I wrote a while back for Salon on this idea of "we were promised flying cars"/the future turned out less epic and spectacular and impressive 

oh and Neal Stephenson has been banging on about the absence of Big Visions of the Future in science fiction and launched something called the Hieroglyph Project to agitate for more Optimistic and Heroic imaginings of the future (as opposed to the surfeit of dystopias and cataclysms and entropic wind-downs):

"The Hieroglyph project’s first concrete achievement will be a sci-fi anthology from William Morrow in 2014, full of new stories about scientists tackling big projects, from building supertowers to colonizing the moon. 'We have one rule: no hackers, no hyperspace and no holocaust,' Stephenson says. He and his collaborators want to avoid pessimistic thinking and magical technologies like the “hyperspace” engines common in movies like Star Wars. And, he adds, they’re 'rying to get away from the hackerly mentality of playing around with existing systems, versus trying to create new things.' "

 The idea seems to be that these visions and all this positivity and ambition will directly or indirectly inspire scientists, policy-makers, children who'll grown into those roles etc etc to actually make them real, or things of this Heroic Scale. But  (if Graeber is right) that would seem to be a doomed attempt at  top-down, superstructure-leading-the-base, change... 

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