The modern version of Sisyphus is the filling out of endless forms, where bureaucracy reigns supreme, where stupidity and inefficiency is compounded by the inept application of tech as seen in areas such as health care, taxes and the military, topics covered with biting humor and insight by David Graeber in his new book titled The Utopia of Rules. Click here to read an excerpt.
A few years ago David Graeber’s mother had a series of strokes. Social workers advised him that, in order to pay for the home care she needed, he should apply for Medicaid, the US government health insurance programme for people on low incomes. So he did, only to be sucked into a vortex of form filling and humiliation familiar to anyone who’s ever been embroiled in bureaucratic procedures.
At one point, the application was held up because someone at the Department of Motor Vehicles had put down his given name as “Daid”; at another, because someone at Verizon had spelled his surname “Grueber”. Graeber made matters worse by printing his name on the line clearly marked “signature” on one of the forms. Steeped in Kafka, Catch-22 and David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King, Graeber was alive to all the hellish ironies of the situation but that didn’t make it any easier to bear. “We spend so much of our time filling in forms,” he says. “The average American waits six months of her life waiting for the lights to change. If so, how many years of our life do we spend doing paperwork?”
The matter became academic, because Graeber’s mother died before she got Medicaid. But the form-filling ordeal stayed with him. “Having spent much of my life leading a fairly bohemian existence, comparatively insulated from this sort of thing, I found myself asking: is this what ordinary life, for most people, is really like?” writes the 53-year-old professor of anthropology in his new book The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy. “Running around feeling like an idiot all day? Being somehow put in a position where one actually does end up acting like an idiot?”
As proof , check out the metastasizing US Tax Code, a document set that doubles every 24 years.
I rest my case.