The late David Graeber, a very well-known social anthropologist and economist, once wrote that when he was a child in the 1960s he and his friends used to assume that by the twenty-first century lots of new inventions would have happened. ‘We all know the list,’ he wrote in 2015. ‘Force fields. Teleportation. Antigravity fields. Tricorders. Tractor beams. Immortality drugs. Suspended animation. Colonies on Mars. What happened to them?’
Graeber’s view is interesting, because there is a tendency to suppose that the things that have happened in the last fifty years – computers in every home, the internet, mobile phones and so on – must be an unimaginable advance on what people could have expected half a century ago. Graeber takes the opposite view. He thinks that we’ve invented new ways of communicating without having much that’s new to communicate. What he calls ‘a timid, bureaucratic spirit has come to suffuse every aspect of intellectual life.’ Everyone talks the talk of thinking outside the box, having vision and the power of creativity, but the reality is that anyone who tries to think outside the box gets firmly shoved back into it.
Graeber’s book (it’s called The Utopia of Rules) came back to me when reading recently about Elizabeth Holmes, the so-called darling of Silicon Valley whose start-up Theranos claimed to be able to develop a one-stop diagnosis from a pin prick of blood. It attracted millions of dollars in investment before the whole thing collapsed. Holmes was found guilty of conspiring to defraud investors but defended herself vigorously. Had she been over-hyping? Yes, but so was everyone else.
What she called ‘a certain amount of swagger and hustle’ was expected. To the accusation that there was no proper peer-reviewed scientific analysis of her claims, she reminded people that a start-up had to protect itself from anyone who might steal or copy its ideas. It even had to protect itself from its own staff, should they try and run off with the company’s ideas. That meant bringing in the lawyers to enforce non-disclosure agreements and effectively a ban on whistle-blowers. At the same time, you knew that you only had a small window in which to lure people to support your new venture, hoping to win a fortune as an investor. In short, you had to fake it in order to make it.
Elizabeth Holmes may be justified in saying that she was not really any worse than others. But her experience gives a clue as to why antigravity shoes are off the menu in twenty-first century shops. When you need instant results, the patience that is needed in research becomes an inhibitor. When you have to attract investors by promising the earth, you are bound to take short-cuts and end up bypassing what might really send you towards something original. Even universities are filled (as I know from experience) with people spending more time filling out forms to get research projects financed than doing the projects themselves.
Somewhere we have lost the capacity to be original – perhaps because we never talk about anything else. Everything promises to take us to the next level, when in fact all we do is stay at the same level and paint it another colour. When Graeber (and I) were children, human beings first set foot on the moon. Now, fifty years on, a few billionaires and their rich friends can spend a few seconds in space. They never stop telling us how ‘awesome’ it all is. But give me antigravity shoes or flying cars any day.