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June 12, 2009

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The Original Technocrats

Alexis Madrigal (@alexismadrigal) points to an article by John G. Gunnell about the history of technocracy:

The term “technocracy,” though originated in the United States in 1919 by an engineer named William Smith, first became common when it was adopted by a movement that developed in the early 1930s as a response to the Great Depression. That movement, which for a time gained considerable notoriety and a substantial following, began with a group of technicians and engineers dedicated to social reform whose concepts were modeled on the technological republic in Edward Bellamy’s late-19th-century utopian novel Looking Backward. They were also influenced by the economic theories of Thorstein Veblen and the principles of scientific management growing out of the work of Frederick W. Taylor, both of which suggested, much like the later work of James Burnham in The Managerial Society, that politicians and industrial entrepreneurs should, and would, give way to technical elites. Although the movement may have appeared somewhat bizarre, it reflected a characteristic American faith in the compatibility of technology and civic vitality. The aim was to abolish corrupt politics and an obsolete economic system and expand administrative and technical rationality. “Technocracy” has been applied retrospectively to many of the technological utopias and dystopias that are so persistent a feature of Western literature and political theory.

It’s sometimes easy for us to forget that the early twentieth century was a time of huge media revolutions — radio, cinema, phonographs, among others — and that the engineer was very much at the center of it. There was also, I think, a really powerful charismatic quality associated with scientists, inventors, and capitalists, of the secular-aristocracy-without-history mode previously available probably only fully to generals. I mean, Steve Jobs had nothing on Thomas Edison. That dude literally appeared to be a magician. (For a great take on Edison-as-magician-inventor, see Villiers de l’Isle-Adam’s novel, The Future Eve — part of the inspiration for Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.)

Also, something I try to keep in mind is that then as now, “bureaucracy” is really used in two senses — both pejorative, sure, but functionally distinct. Bureaucracy can be cold, efficient, disciplined — in short, inhuman. But bureaucracy can also be petty, irregular, inefficient, feudal. You can be subject either to the impersonality of the machine or the fickle whims or incompetencies of an individual.

Traditionally, bureaucrats were minor officials, positions traded within and among families, indifferent to rules guiding their idiosyncrasies — think about Kafka’s The Trial, and it’s pretty clear that this is the kind of bureaucrat most of us truly dread. Max Weber’s model for the perfect bureaucracy wasn’t the modern office but the modern army. And when you think about the idea of a civil servant — professional, well-qualified, uncorrupt, willing to sacrifice for the public good, fastidious about following process and law — you can see the ethos of military discipline in a positive sense.

I wonder whether the idea and ideal of the technocrat - the true social engineer - is dead for us. What kinds of technologies would genuinely revolutionize — aw, that’s saying too much — substantively improve our politics, communities, society? Could an inventor genius somehow come along and charm us all once again?

Posted June 12, 2009 at 6:32 | Comments (5) | Permasnark
File under: Snarkpolitik, Technosnark


Belief in the prospect of a technocratic fix for our messy modern lives feels in some ways like a natural consequence of Pragmatism, the uniquely American philosophical school that grew up in amongst New England thinkers in the late 1800s. (The same general impulse likewise underscores John Dewey’s belief in empiricism, the movement that gave us “objectivity” as the goal of journalism, and other similarly empirical or “scientific” beliefs in the wake of Darwin et al.) Faith in the practical and provable seems to spring almost unbidden from New World soil, and was especially robust in the United States.

As I recall, Pragmatism is thought to have emerged because American intellectuals looked at the horrors of the Civil War and concluded that whatever philosophical foundations had led to that had to be wrong. Thus arose a new paradigm, uniquely suited to the new and still evolving nation in which it was birthed.

I don’t think the term or the notion of bureaucracy was initially pejorative. Even the “bad bureaucracy you mention was almost certainly a vast improvement on the retainers, courtiers and sinecures who were administering government and making those decisions before. (In the same vein, we think of “an eye for an eye” as brutal, primitive thought; at the time it was actually a liberalizing of contemporary practice, where “a life for an eye” or “a village for a life” was far more typical.)

I think attraction of demurring to a technocracy is very much alive, rooted in the desire for certainty and order. People don’t want to think about net neutrality or debate privacy in a networked world; they just want their “internet” to work.

Posted by: Howard Weaver on June 13, 2009 at 08:49 AM

Nice notes, HW:

1) I think "bureaucracy" -- being ruled or led by clerics and administrators -- is almost always pejorative, but I'll admit that it doesn't necessarily have to be. Again, as I point out, there is a sense, particularly in the military, of the deeply ethical nature of bureaucratic authority.

2) The bureaucrat in the early nineteenth century was essentially the man of letters. Think about Goethe, and then think about Kafka -- both administrators, but what a completely different world of administration! But this was in large part a holdover from the "retainers, courtiers, and sinecures." The twentieth-century also saw the invention of the white-collar worker -- a comparatively deskilled (but still usually college-educated) but technically proficient variation on the bureaucrat. (Friedrich Kittler's book Discourse Networks: 1800/1900 and especially Cornelia Vismann's Files offer terrific accounts of this transformation, as does Sigfried Kracauer's Weimar document The Salaried Masses.)

3) Pragmatism does seem to entail a rejection or at least a tempering of the Enlightenment notion of perfectibility of knowledge and human behavior. I'm not saying you're wrong, Howard,but you could also read Pragmatism as a drag on some of the more purely technocratic impulses of modernity in favor of a more holistic treatment of human behavior. Certainly the notion of questioning any absolute commitment to an idea, belief, or process is something that got new purchase after WWI (largely believed to be a "bureaucratic war").

For example, are Robin's talismanic economists examples of the technocratic impulse, or something else? Is the bank bailout the most expensive technocratic exercise ever?

Also, its worth noting regarding Pragmatism that it was just as capable of crossing the Atlantic as bureaucracy, technocracy, and Taylorism.

See the big WJ's shout-out to his man Papini on page 54 here

Posted by: Dan on June 13, 2009 at 07:34 PM

"This one goes out... to all my pragmatist homies in Tuscany... Holla at your boy!" -- DJ Devasting Dr James

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