The Utopia of Rules: on Technology, Stupidity and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy
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)