Them’s the Rules
Grand Theft Auto V, Rockstar Games, 2014
The Internet is surely a remarkable thing. Still, if a fifties sci-fi fan were to appear in the present and ask what the most dramatic technological achievement of the intervening sixty years had been, it’s hard to imagine the reaction would have been anything but bitter disappointment.
Putting aside the absurdity of ranking technologies and the absurdity of allowing a sci-fi fan from sixty years ago to decide the importance of all technological change, Graeber fundamentally undervalues information technologies like the Internet here. (Also, he really believes that someone from the 1950s wouldn’t be impressed by the complexity of a video game like Grand Theft Auto V? Or that Jorge Luis Borges’s reaction to finding out that his Library of Babel now exists, in a way, would be to shrug his shoulders? Perhaps this says more about how high human expectations can be than about how low our age has fallen.)
What technological progress we have seen since the seventies has largely been in information technologies—that is, technologies of simulation.… a technological environment where the only major breakthroughs were ones making it easier to create, transfer, and rearrange virtual projections of things that either already existed, or, we now came to realize, never really would…. The “postmodern” moment was simply a desperate way to take what could only otherwise be felt as a bitter disappointment, and dress it up as something epochal, exciting and new.
This is the core of Graeber’s disillusionment with bureaucracy and with other information technologies: he does not see differences between simulation – which to him implies a kind of falseness – and organization, nor does he recognize that the creation, transfer, and rearrangement of simulated things can have profound impacts on real things. Take, for example, early computers. Much of the early work on the development of computers was a response to the pressing need for information processing during World War II, resulting in the computers at Bletchley Park that helped to crack the Enigma Code and those in America that were involved in the creation of atomic weapons. In the former case, reorganizing strings of information resulted in significant advantages on the battlefield; in the latter, simulating the potential effects of nuclear reactions was necessary before the actual devices could be created. (We might add that these developments occurred within the vast bureaucracies of the Allied wartime military-industrial economies, which somehow managed not to stifle them.)