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Narratives of the Invisible

January 07, 2016

“In this final, stultifying stage of capitalism, we are moving from poetic technologies to bureaucratic technologies. By poetic technologies I refer to the use of rational and technical means to bring wild fantasies to reality.”

-David Graeber

David Graeber is disappointed that we still don’t have flying cars, despite being promised them when he was a kid. He has been upset about this for a while. Who promised him flying cars and who let him down?

Graeber’s 2012 essay about the thrilling sci-fi future foretold throughout his youth blames bureaucracy and the dysfunctional culture of late capitalism for limiting the technological possibilities of the future to prosaic outcomes like smartphones, email, and sophisticated imagery displayed on screens. In this assessment, though, he fails to account for countless other advances that are as stunning as any house-cleaning robot. While Graeber may be right that the novel technologies of recent generations—driving a sports car or landing on the moon—are more romantic and exciting than staring at screens, checking websites, or friending one’s friends, his argument attacks a straw man: Of course the most mundane uses of today’s new technology don’t inspire us like the extraordinary ones imagined in mid-century science fiction, which had no responsibility to become real or serve any purpose but entertainment.


                     Image source

Take one earth-shaking invention of the past century: the automobile. Cars were “poetic” enough in their genesis to incite Filippo Marinetti’s 1908 declaration in the Futurist Manifesto that the roar of their engines was more beautiful than the Winged Victory of Samathrace. Decades later, driving a car came to symbolize everything that is not poetic about technology: traffic, boredom, danger, air pollution, and antisocial living arrangements. The “generational promise” of flying cars, in other words, was not first broken in the Internet Age. Most poetic technology eventually turns out not to be poetic.

Still, I have the same question as Graeber: Why did these midcentury predictions about the future turn out so wrong?


Five years ago I was having a drink at a bar in Cambridge, Massachusetts, noticing the countless iPhone screens twinkling in the dim lighting, when I had a revelation: A wildly advanced version of the future was already upon us, in which the average human could control more aspects of his own life from a seat at that bar than his predecessors could control from anywhere, but that future didn’t look any different than the world 40 years earlier. Everything in the bar was made of wood, the TVs had only slightly slimmed down and improved their resolution, and the entertainment was still booze, dartboards, and jukeboxes. Aside from all those glowing phone screens, and the bent posture of their users who couldn’t stop looking at them, a visiting time traveler from 1975 would have little to be amazed at. Robots weren’t serving the drinks and jetpacks weren’t parked outside. The Lindy Effect notwithstanding, this environment was more technologically advanced than any futuristic-looking one would have been: The barroom and its relationship to the rest of the world was entirely different from its similar-looking 1970s version, thanks to technology that I couldn’t even see.

Lately, one can feel like technological development is moving as fast as ever, while becoming less visible all the time. George Gilder called it the “overthrow of matter” (by information). The evolution of hardware has slowed down only relative to that of software, which keeps improving at a relentless pace. If I can communicate with any friend or family member in the entire world between drinks at a local bar, and probably get a reply right away, how is that not “poetic technology”?

Today, the divergence between the visible prediction and the invisible outcome amounts to gross inaccuracy. One hundred or two hundred years ago, the most important technologies manifested themselves with almost violent visibility, but gone are the days when microwave ovens or space shuttles symbolized the cutting edge. Developments in machine learning, materials science, and biotechnology, not to mention the internet (the eventual fruits of what Lewis Mumford called the Neotechnic era of technology), form a largely unseen matrix that massively impacts daily life, and to the reflective observer, these are equally “poetic” as flying cars, if not more so. Meanwhile, the camera-friendly bread and butter of any well-paid futurist—self-driving cars, drones, and wearables—are still images more than meaningful realities to almost everyone, and might always be, even if a drone looks better on the cover of Wired than an algorithm does.

If you can’t see something, can you still tell a story about it? Iain Softley, the director of the iconic early-internet-era movie Hackers, encountered this problem talking to the real hackers on whom the film was based. “I remember trying to persuade the director, suggesting that if you want to be true to what a hacking or technical experience actually looks like, you should show more text on screen. And he was not interested in that,” recalls Omar Wasow in a fascinating oral history of the movie’s production. Softley says, “I wanted the way that audiences saw the computer world to be similar to how our hackers felt when they were online. So I came up with what I called The City of Text. Which was this parallel, interior micro-world, with these luminous database towers, that very consciously was meant to look like the streets of Manhattan.” Like The Matrix a few years later, Hackers was one of the few successful representations of an abstracted present-day activity that embraced a kind of drama not easy to capture on film. In contrast to the reality I observed in the bar, these movies actually looked like the future. They had to make the invisible visible in order to work.

We should learn how to build more compelling narratives of the invisible, if not to predict the future then at least to understand the present. Ironically, the need for this subtlety arises at a time when images saturate life more than ever, thanks to the very forces that fail to impress Graeber and others in their invisibility.