November 14, 2011

Technocracy, Then and Now

A number of prominent news organizations reported recently that "technocrats" have taken over the governments of Greece and Italy. Oddly, those reports failed to define what a technocrat might be. Slate magazine's Forrest Wickman stepped in with an "Explainer" column last Friday that nicely cleared up the issue.  A technocrat, he said, is:
 An expert, not a politician. Technocrats make decisions based on specialized information rather than public opinion. For this reason, they are sometimes called upon when there’s no popular or easy solution to a problem (like, for example, the European debt crisis). The word technocrat derives from the Greek tekhne, meaning skill or craft, and an expert in a field like economics can be as much a technocrat as one in a field more commonly thought to be technological (like robotics).
Technocracy is something I spend some time on in my book, and I'd like to make a few comments about it here. It's a way of thinking that inevitably gains influence as we increase our commitment to technology, especially in turbulent times. And given that an increasing commitment to technology and turbulent times tend to go together, it's a way of thinking that we'll surely be hearing more about in years to come.

To elaborate on Forrest Wickman's definition, technocracy can be described as the conviction that we will all be better off if we operate according to the rational standards of the machine. A given problem can be solved by the systematic application of a set of principles and procedures. Usually those are principles and procedures only experts can fully understand. It's a philosophy of methodology.

Lucas Papademos of Greece and Mario Monti of Italy both have advanced degrees in economics. Papademos has advanced degrees from MIT in physics and electrical engineering as well. As Wickman says, these qualifications implicitly suggest that they can be counted on to apply the necessary remedial measures without being swayed by anything so irrational as politics or popular opinion.  

In the United States we tend to associate technocracy with the Technocracy movement, which enjoyed a brief moment of national prominence in the early 1930s. In that case the connection to technology was slightly (only slightly) more direct. Americans feared that businessmen and politicians had shown themselves incapable of managing the explosive forces of industrial production, forces that were rapidly and radically reshaping the life and economy of the nation. The general feeling, says historian Henry Elsner, Jr., was that "somehow man had unleashed a monster in his midst – The Machine – which had gotten out of control and was threatening to wreck his civilization."[1]

One avenue of reform proposed was populism, which aimed to restore more control to the people. Another was technocracy, which aimed to focus control in the hands of the experts. This is an instance where we find history repeating itself today, with technocrats being asked to take charge by the established power structure in Europe even as the populists of the Occupy Wall Street movement agitate from street level for greater democratic control.

The Technocracy movement of the 1930s proposed that engineers take over as a sort of priesthood of the new industrial state. It wasn't the machine that was destroying society, they said, it was mismanagement of the machine by amateurs. Properly handled by qualified experts, technology would introduce an era of unprecedented plenty and leisure.

Here's how the Technocrats themselves described their qualifications for the job, in one of their pamphlets:
Technocracy's scientific approach to the social problem is unique, and its method is completely new…It speaks the language of science, and recognizes no authority but the facts. In Technocracy we see science banishing waste, unemployment, hunger, and insecurity of income forever…we see science replacing an economy of scarcity with an era of abundance….[And] we see functional competence displacing grotesque and wasteful incompetence, facts displacing guesswork, order displacing disorder, industrial planning displacing industrial chaos."[2]
The Technocracy movement faded quickly for lots of reasons, among them internal dissension, doubts about the credibility of its leaders, and absorption of its reforms by the New Deal. Technocracy was also hindered by a fundamental contradiction: It hoped to gain popular support for an ideology that was inherently elitist. 

Nonetheless, the temptation to rely on the expertise of the technocrat has remained, especially, as mentioned, in turbulent times. One of the more tragic examples to date was Robert S. McNamara's prosecution of the war in Vietnam.   

McNamara was a technocratic visionary whose evangelism on behalf of rationalism and efficiency took him from leadership positions in the Army Air Force's Statistical Control Office and the Ford Motor Company to the U.S. Department of Defense, which he headed under Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Baines Johnson. A passage from McNamara's 1968 book, The Essence of Security, described his philosophy:
Some critics today worry that our democratic, free societies are being overmanaged. I would argue that the opposite is true. As paradoxical as it may sound, the real threat to democracy comes, not from overmanagement, but from undermanagement. To undermanage reality is not to keep free. It is simply to let some force other than reason shape reality. That force may be unbridled emotion; it may be greed; it may be aggressiveness; it may be hatred; it may be inertia; it may be anything other than reason. But whatever it is, if it is not reason that rules man, then man falls short of his potential.[3]
Vietnam showed that, contrary to that philosophy, management by reason does not automatically eliminate the influence of emotion, greed, aggressiveness, hatred, or inertia. McNamara himself learned that lesson well. As he acknowledges in Errol Morris's documentary, The Fog of War, "Rationality will not save us."

Among the foremost advocates of technocratic principles today – in the business of technology, not in politics or in war, as far as I know – are Larry Page and Sergey Brin, the co-founders of Google. The company's vice president of global communications and public affairs has called them "ideological technologists."

(Given that Google provides the blog space on which these words are written, my comments here may be seen as lacking the graciousness due one's host.)

Here's how Page, now Google's chief operating officer, explained his management philosophy to the journalist Ken Auletta:
There is a pattern in companies, even in technological companies, that the people who do the work – the engineers, the programmers, the foot soldiers, if you will – typically get rolled over by the management. Typically, the management isn't very technical. I think that's a very bad thing. If you're a programmer or an engineer or a computer scientist, you have someone tell you what to do who is really not very good at what you do, they tell you the wrong things. And you sort of end up building the wrong things; you end up kind of demoralized. You want a culture where the people who are doing the work, the scientists and engineers, are empowered. And that they are managed by people who deeply understand what they are doing. That's not typically the case.[4]
This, of course, reflects the classic technocratic conviction that the only person who can properly run the machine is the person who built it, or who knows how to build it. In today's technological society, that leaves a lot of us out.



[1] Henry Elsner Jr., The Technocrats: Prophets of Automation (Syracuse University Press, 1967), p. 8-9.
[2] Quoted by Howard P. Segal, Technological Utopianism in American Culture (U. of Chicago Press, 1985), p. 122.
[3] McNamara's book quoted by Theodore Roszak, The Making of a Counter Culture (University of California Press, Berkeley, 1995, originally published 1968) p. 11-12.
[4] Auletta, Googled: The End of the World as We Know It (Penguin, New York, 2010), p. 227. 

Photo credit: Artist unknown, illustration from Common Ground-Common Sense

©Doug Hill, 2012


  1. Tangential, but not unrelated, as it ties our current dysfunctional educational system to antiquated notions fostered by the industrial revolution:

  2. Jerry --

    This is a fantastic video! Thank you for sending it, and you're right, not at all unrelated.

    It's also related to my earlier commentary, The Boffins and the Luvvies, which reviews some benchmark moments in the long history of tension in education between the arts and sciences. (My commentary on Walter Isaacson and the Aspen Institute touches on this as well.)

    Of particular interest to me in this video is the connection it notes between the Industrial Revolution and standardized approaches to education. That connection is NOT A COINCIDENCE! Rather it is a profound example of how the habits of mind conditioned by our interactions with machines spill out into the culture, shaping us in all sorts of ways that we don't normally associate with "technology."

    Also important to me is the fact that, although there is a growing awareness that perhaps our standardized approach to education is flawed -- indeed, broken -- we seem unable to find a way to break out of our established patterns in any significant way.

    Our children -- my children -- are paying the price of that failure as we speak!

    Thanks again Jerry, for sharing this.