June 12, 2009
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?