Rule by gadgets: demonstrating the Apple Watch. Photo: Jacopo Raule/Getty Images
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Anarchic Apple watches? Face it: we like rules

The latest book by anarchist anthropologist David Graeber reveals the technological age as one of total bureacracy.

The Utopia of Rules: on Technology, Stupidity and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy
David Graeber
Melville House, 261pp, £18.99

What is the Apple Watch for? By all reports it is not very good as a watch, because it takes a moment for the display to light up when you turn your wrist to look at it. Perversely, the gizmo’s main selling point right now seems to be that it is an iPhone accessory that will help you look at your iPhone less often. Notifications that ordinarily could tempt you to take your phone from your pocket can now be dismissed (or answered, with canned responses) from the Watch instead. And so, to the chronic social problem of zombified smartphone absorption, the tech world offers a marvellously self-interested answer: not “use your phone less”, but “buy this new gadget that will make your other gadget less annoying to yourself and others”.

Why, though, would prospective purchasers of the Apple Watch feel the need to process all these notifications in a more streamlined way? Only because they have voluntarily taken on an unnecessary amount of data-juggling labour in their daily lives. Our social as well as work existence has become thoroughly bureaucratised. The Apple Watch’s fitness-tracking sensors further encourage us to measure, chart and plan our every physical activity, too. What once would have taken a roomful of dusty clerks and scriveners, plus a personal assistant bearing stopwatch and stethoscope, can now be managed by a single person festooned with modern gadgets. I am become the bureaucratic support team of the industry of Me.

The Apple Watch is too new to feature in David Graeber’s new book, but it stealthily encapsulates his diagnosis of our age: that it is a time of “total bureaucratisation”. How is it that in the 21st century we spend more time than ever filling in forms and applications and mandates? (Many paper forms did migrate online, but they are still forms; at the same time, the internet enabled a world-historical Cambrian explosion of new and pointless species of forms for creating unnecessary “accounts”.) Meanwhile, banks and utilities invite us to “manage” our accounts online, because the idea of management has become our unquestioned ideal of authority and happy control.

The book is composed of three interconnected essays in which Graeber – the American anarchist anthropologist who wrote the bestselling Debt: the First 5,000 Years, coined the slogan “We are the 99 per cent” for Occupy Wall Street, and is a professor at the London School of Economics – interrogates aspects of bureaucratic modernity that are normally unexamined causes of annoyance. After he gets the runaround at his mother’s nursing home (he is made to do so much form-filling that she dies before she receives any Medicaid), he observes: “Bureaucracies public and private appear . . . to be organised in such a way as to guarantee that a significant proportion of actors will not be able to perform their tasks as expected.” But then he strikes a surprising note of wistfulness: surely, he argues, bureaucracies are truly “utopian” constructs. After all, “they have a naive faith in the perfectibility of human nature and refuse to deal with humans as they actually are”.

Beginning elsewhere from the premise that the police are “bureaucrats with weapons”, Graeber notices that the central heroes of form-filling modernity, too, operate at the intersection of bureaucracy and violence, from Sherlock Holmes to James Bond. Later discussions of fantasy literature and superheroes offer more pungent formulations, my favourite of which comes in the appendix on Christopher Nolan’s 2012 Batman movie, The Dark Knight Rises. Almost as an aside, Graeber writes that the war on terror “began with a bomb and ended with an assassination. One can almost think of it as an attempt, on both sides, to actually enact a comic-book version of the universe.”

The moral universe of Graeber’s book expands when it explains the subtitle’s sympathy for the “secret joys” of bureaucracy. The argument here is that we like rules because they are the opposite of chaos. Unstructured “free play” can be unpredictable and unpleasant (like free jazz). But good rules build good games, which are enjoyable. Bureaucracy itself is like a game, except that it’s no fun to play. Perhaps, Graeber argues, bureaucracy even intimates to us a possible paradise. “Who hasn’t dreamed,” he asks, “of a world where everyone knows the rules, everyone plays by the rules, and – even more – where people who play by the rules can actually still win?”

Such a world, Graeber laments, is a mere “illusion”. Here one might want to add a mention of sport. Professionalised and commercialised though it may be, modern sport surely offers something of the same utopian hope. In football, Cristiano Ronaldo pouts and dives, but we also have the redemptive figure of Lionel Messi, who does indeed play by the rules and win.

In these stylish and witty pieces, Graeber’s arguments sometimes move at exhilarating speed past debatable oppositions. He invites us to marvel, for instance, at the fact that cash machines never give out the wrong amount of money. This is indeed an impressive feat. He then writes: “This gives financial abstractions an air of utter certainty . . . Meanwhile physical infrastructure like roads, escalators, bridges and underground railways crumbles around us . . . None of this just happened. It is, precisely, a matter of national priorities . . .” Well, yes, but this is a false dichotomy. Cash machines weren’t engineered to be error-free at the expense, somehow, of road maintenance. And how much rebuilding of railways and bridges would go on if financial “abstractions” were not (usually) completely reliable?

Another arguable dichotomy is erected in a fascinating essay on why we don’t have the flying cars and robots that we were promised in the 1950s. Graeber suggests that there was a shift in the 1970s “from investment in technologies associated with the possibility of alternative futures to investment technologies that furthered labour discipline and social control”. But it is not generally the case that technologies are inherently benign or otherwise. Flying cars could have been used by brutal riot police. And even an Apple Watch could in principle be used for some kind of science-fictional pleasure. All you’d need is a sense of playful anarchy, of a kind that David Graeber, too, would surely celebrate.

Steven Poole’s books include “Who Touched Base in My Thought Shower? A Treasury of Unbearable Office Jargon” (Sceptre)

This article first appeared in the 06 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Power Struggle

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Counting the ways: what Virgin and Other Stories teaches us about want

April Ayers Lawson’s debut collection is both forensic and mysterious.

The title story of April Ayers Lawson’s debut collection, which won the Paris Review’s Plimpton Prize for Fiction in 2011, begins with a man staring at a woman’s breasts. The breasts belong to Rachel, a recent survivor of breast cancer and a wealthy donor to the hospital where Jake works. His attraction to Rachel grows in tandem with his suspicions about his wife, Sheila, who was a virgin when they married. Jake “thought . . . that she couldn’t wait to lose her virginity to him”. It didn’t turn out like that. Sheila was first horrified by, and then indifferent to, sex. But why does she smile at strange men in the street? Why does she come home so late from orchestra practice? The story ends on the brink of infidelity – but the infidelity is Jake’s own.

“Virgin” is a fitting introduction to the animating question of Lawson’s fiction: who feels what and for whom? The narrator of the second story lists the similarities between her and the two women with whom, at a summer party, she sits in a hammock. “All three of us were divorced or about to be legally so. All three of us were artists . . . All three of us were attractive but insecure and attracted to each other,” she begins. A couple of pages later, this accounting becomes more like a maths puzzle that seems to promise, if only it could be solved, a complete account of each woman and her relation to the others. “Two of us were pale with freckles. Two of us had dark hair and green eyes . . . One of us didn’t talk to her mother and one of our fathers had left and one of our sets of parents had not divorced. . . Two of us had at some point had agoraphobia and all of us had problems with depression . . .” It goes on.

Reading the five stories of Virgin and Other Stories, trying to catch the echoes that bounce between them, I caught myself performing the same move. One story is fewer than ten pages and one more than 60. Two are narrated in the first person and one in a mix of first and third. Two have teenage protagonists and two have young, married protagonists. Two protagonists steal works from a public library. Two stories mention Zelda Fitzgerald. Four contain women who have experienced sexual abuse, or experience it in the course of the story. Four are set partly or wholly in the American South. All five feature characters struggling with powerful and inconvenient desire.

Evangelical Christianity skirts the edges of Lawson’s stories. Her characters are seldom devout but they are raised in an atmosphere of fanatical devotion. The 16-year-old Conner narrates the collection’s funniest story, “The Negative Effects of Homeschooling”. “I saw women only at church,” he says. “Though . . . we went to a progressive church, our women looked the opposite of progressive to me: big glasses and no make-up, long skirts and cropped haircuts. You couldn’t imagine any of them posing naked.” He has “hard-ons ten or 12 times a day”, pores over Andrew Wyeth’s Helga Pictures, is furious about his mother’s intense friendship with a transgender woman and obsesses over a pretty, aloof girl from church. In another story, the 13-year-old Gretchen is fascinated by her piano teacher’s sick brother. Surrounded by people talking in religious platitudes, the two teenagers lack a language for their complicated feelings, re-narrating them as love.

The collection’s last and longest story, “Vulnerability”, suggests that this lasts beyond adolescence. The brutal, joyless sex that takes place near the story’s end is all the more disturbing because of the long, complicated sentences of the 60 preceding pages, in which the narrator tries to make sense of her interactions with two men. By turns she desires them, feels nothing for them and wants them to desire her. Yet brutal though the sex is, its aftermath brings a moment of peace that makes the reader wonder whether she should reconsider her interpretation of what came before. Lawson’s stories, at once forensic and mysterious, show how insistent our wants can be and how hard they are to understand.

Hannah Rosefield is a writer and a doctoral candidate in English at Harvard University.

Virgin and Other Stories by April Ayers Lawson is published by Granta Books, (192pp, £12.99​)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge