The bureaucratic theory of technological stagnation

I’m finding David Graeber’s new book, The Utopia of Rules, to be a surprisingly enjoyable read. He’s a clear and vigorous writer, and as befits an anthropologist he is good at mining the minutiae of daily life for broader insights. Though admittedly my own long-ago degree in anthropology biases me to cheer him on, since Graeber is the only current example I know of a public intellectual who is an anthropologist (a species whose influence has always lagged economists, historians and sociologists.)

But I have to confess I was surprised to find the second of the book’s three essays tackling a fashionable topic among economists, bloggers and other non-anthropological commentators: the pace of technological progress, or rather the perceived lack thereof. The piece, entitled “Of Flying Cars and the Declining Rate of Profit,” mounts an original and compelling argument for why technology seems to be changing so much less quickly than we once hoped it would: in a word, it’s all about bureaucracy. Bureaucracy is not a synonym for “government,” even though Americans now tend to use the word that way. It’s a way of doing things, one whose pervasiveness means, in his words, that “a timid, bureaucratic spirit has come to suffuse every aspect of intellectual life.”

To summarize his argument as briefly as I can (and with much less style than the original):

  1. Corporations increasingly only spend their research money on product development and marketing, rather than seeking true breakthroughs. “The amount of really innovative research being done in the private sector has actually declined since the heyday of Bell Labs and similar corporate research divisions in the fifties and sixties.”
  2. Government investment in basic research has increased substantially, but since the 1980s has been directed primarily toward military purposes that are easier to justify, rather than true fundamental research. “The U.S. government…shifted their emphasis sharply away from civilian projects like the space program and in the direction of military research.”
  3. In academic institutions, the actual practice of research has become incredibly bureaucratic, time-consuming, and generally organized in such a way as to prevent genuine creativity.

On this last point, there is no substitute for quoting Graeber at a bit more length:

Our collective fascination with the mythic origins of Silicon Valley and the Internet have blinded us to what’s really going on. It has allowed us imagine that research and development is now driven, primarily, by small teams of plucky entrepreneurs, or the sort of decentralized cooperation that creates open-source software. It isn’t. These are just the sort of research teams most likely to produce results. If anything, research has been moving in the opposite direction. It is still driven by giant, bureaucratic projects; what has changed is the bureaucratic culture. The increasing interpenetration of government, university, and private firms has led all parties to adopt language, sensibilities, and organizational forms that originated in the corporate world. While this might have helped somewhat in speeding up the creation of immediately marketable products— as this is what corporate bureaucracies are designed to do— in terms of fostering original research, the results have been catastrophic.

Common sense dictates that if you want to maximize scientific creativity, you find some bright people, give them the resources they need to pursue whatever idea comes into their heads, and then leave them alone for a while. Most will probably turn up nothing, but one or two may well discover something completely unexpected. If you want to minimize the possibility of unexpected breakthroughs, tell those same people they will receive no resources at all unless they spend the bulk of their time competing against each other to convince you they already know what they are going to discover. That’s pretty much the system we have now.


How does this stand up? Well, it’s an essay and not an exercise in econometrics, and the piece is not, shall we say, overburdened with detailed empirical evidence. But it’s actually not too hard to find some. Point 1 has support from some economic research, notably a recent NBER paper entitled: “Killing the Golden Goose? The Decline of Science in Corporate R&D.” The title pretty makes the point pretty clear, but the specific finding is that “Over the period 1980-–2007…investments in scientific research by publicly traded American companies, as measured by publications in scientific journals by company scientists, has diminished over time.”

Point 2 is straightforwardly factual, as can be determined from a quick check of the data on federal R&D spending collated by the AAAS. After 1981, the share of defense R&D in total federal spending on R&D rose sharply from around 50% to 60-70% (though interestingly, it has come back down to about 50% over the last couple of budgets). Point 3 is a bit more difficult to substantiate with data, but it’s hard to imagine that other accounts of the grant-writing process are going to end up concluding that it is an ideal system. So it’s intuitively appealing. The risk of course is that we often think our current institutions are flawed and imperfect reflections of what our great ancestors did, which is why measuring things is a good corrective. But on the whole, I’d say the case against bureaucracy is definitely one I’m going to be thinking about.

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