(Chris W here)
Unlike Jamie, I do have the hots for space exploration, big time. Thus, I get to point out to my mates that the real reason Neil Armstrong was a Right Stuff hero wasn't that he was so gloriously correct in his attitude to celebrity, nor was it that his crew found itself in line for the landing mission (Lovell's, Stafford's and Conrad's crews had missions which were if anything more difficult), no, it was his steely-eyed doing of the right thing when Gemini 8 went horribly wrong in orbit. See here for detail.
Today is a time for downbeat reflection on where the shiny dream all went wrong. Via Ken M's work blog I've just read David Graeber's attempt to work out the political economy of the strange dearth of flying cars. Following a neat recapitulation of the way that the jetpack future which we were promised shuffled out of range (is it a co-incidence, comrades, that he's identified the kitsch event horizon in a 1989 movie, Back to the Future?), he comes up with a diagnosis: those few technologies which have advanced are 'technologies of simulation'. Thus: 'The postmodern moment was a desperate way to take what could otherwise only be felt as a bitter disappointment and to dress it up as something epochal, exciting and new.' Graeber notes the 1970s 'end of work' thesis, and the way it spectacularly failed to come to pass as production was offshored and (in many cases) became less rather than more technologically advanced.
Clearly, he notes, something went wrong with the future. Was it result of faulty expectations, perhaps because these derived from two continent-spanning expansionist societies fighting a Cold War – or was it a failure of humanity to attain the vision? Regarding the former, Graeber nicely sticks the boot into Alvin Toffler, the futurologist whose predictions (like those of Malthus, sez I) became obsolete the year he published them; and who (also like Malthus, I note) ended up as a high-level purveyor of reaction to the likes of Gingrich. Regarding the latter explanation, he points out that Big Technology never went away, but since Apollo it has been pointed at enemies within and without, instead of disruptively fun technology. So we got drones but not automated factories. He neatly tags Neoliberalism as 'a form of capitalism that systematically prioritized political imperatives over economic ones.' Guard labour, howareya?
This essay could do with a few more numbers. It can be profitably read alongside MacLeod's 1998 essay Science Fiction After the Future Went Away and also David Edgerton's cautionary tale about the history of technology, The Shock of the Old. Insofar as Graeber talks about what's important about actually existing technology, he could probably have done with reading the latter himself. If there's a key weak point to this essay, it's that he's swallowed the hitech-centred view of what technology is (shorter: whizz for atoms, rockets, computers) which Edgerton neatly skewered in Shock.
Reading it, I'm left with two minor personal reactions. The first is another iteration of one of my current bugbears – why does Graeber have to hate on 'bureaucracy' so much, while apparently liking 'rational administration'? The second is an uneasy feeling that the Revolutionary Communist Party's one half-decent 1980s Big Idea - that we needed to get to the end of capitalism as soon as possible – wasn't all bad. So so far, I'm back at where I came in: maudlin introspection. On the other hand, I seem to recall claiming about 15 years ago, somewhere on USENET, that revolutionary syndicalism was the way to the stars, and it's nice to have Graeber join me on this.