Sunday, September 26, 2010

The Technocratic Impulse

Often I find laissez faire idealogues railing on about how some far removed politicians have no place in telling an industry how to go about its business. They continue to imply that somehow business leaders, particularly in established businesses, have some level of expertise that our politicians don't. When I agree that yes, people who know what they are doing should run things, they nod in agreement until I explain who I think know how to do things: Scientists, engineers, and laborers.

The technocratic impulse has been cast aside due to its rough systemic resemblance to theocracy. The priestly class of earlier centuries have been displaced in role if not in functional behavior by scientists, even to the point of invoking public frenetic trend-seeking (often deliberately in the former case, mostly accidentally in the latter.) The failings of theocratic rule are obvious to skeptics; not only does a devotion to a religion not guarantee any particular competency at decision-making, it can and has served as a method of maintaining the status quo. Historically the former could be argued; the clergy were at one point (at least in Europe) among the most educated men within a population, and as such it may indeed have imbued them as a population more fit to rule than the common man. Similarly, hereditary rule guarantees at least some standard of education, even if it does nothing to guarantee character or responsiveness. These approaches had their merits at a time when education was lacking among the general public (though said condition was perpetuated by these approaches.) However, at one point in the history of the western world, we decided that governance wasn't best left up the crap shoot of genetics or to the interpretations of old tomes. (Note, theocratic rule here refers to any heavy use of religion in policymaking, not literal rule by the priestly class.)

The transition between these two phases leaves us with a time when communication was limited, knowledge wasn't readily available, and science frequently had little to say on common matters involving large systems, their conclusions largely isolated to issues without large-scale consequence. Until the formal investigation of the Cholera plague by Dr. John Snow in the 19th century (1), there was little to indicate that government took heed of the word of experts, and rightfully so. Formal science, and medicine in particular, was still not quite mature and had yet to bring about the massive transformative changes that we've seen in the past century. With the advent of telecommunication, experiments are more likely now to be verified or at the very least examined in depth by other researchers. The existence of a much larger pool of peers has made the academic world a more refined system than it was a century or two ago. We may have abandoned our priests and hereditary rulers for our representatives, but this was not necessarily the obvious progression. The gap that science's youth represented in the lineage of religion was filled with representative government.

As another valuable benchmark, in the 19th century, mankind reached an important critical point, becoming capable of creating a measurable impact on the environment around him; even if the full consequences of large-scale combustion were not fully known, the particulate pollution for which London became known had a noticable impact on the welfare of the nation. Though this may have been largely ignored at the time, the industrial revolution created two concepts that would echo through the following centuries: Capitalism and the common good.

I speak not of the concerns about inequality of wealth when I say "the common good;" that is a topic for another post. I speak instead about the concept of externalized costs and public goods. The industrial revolution not only heralded an increased ease in expanding income gaps as factory ownership and employment of unskilled labor displaced artisans, but also gave us the first real responsibility as a species. We now were capable of greatly negatively impacting our environment with no clear short-term indicators.

The irony, of course, is capitalism only enhances the incentive to abuse public goods. The water and air supply isn't the owner's problem, he lives in a different section supplied by different reservoirs, upwind from his plant. And even if he lived next door, his factory would not seem to make an impact on the quality of the water and air, lost in the heaps of pollution from other industry. Not only did we introduce a new, dangerous ability to mankind's repertoire; we had created the very social engine for its abuse.

Attempts to alleviate these conditions under the flag of reform liberalism have led us to where we are today; those of us in industrialized nations by and large live comfortably with reasonable assurances of our long-term health due to environmental factors, and as a side effect have gained reasonable assurances of protection from abuse by employers.

Fast forward to the consumerism of the 20th century; modern marketing, pioneered by Edward Bernays (2), creates a new lever for capital to control: Public opinion. But surely, public opinion was a crucial part of capitalism? Was this not the check, the invisible hand that made it so successful? Prior to the internet, media was purely centralized, and as such had little citizen involvement except for the weak feedback that is consumer behavior. Capital, the beast which is least likely to care about the people, now controls the people, who in turn control the government meant to tame the beast. The internet only has slightly alleviated this problem. Content generation may be largely decentralized, but this is fragile when the content provision is still quite centralized, in a social sense; this blog post, of course, is being transmitted from a server owned by a company with a $168 billion market cap, over wires and fiber most likely owned by one of a small handful of companies.

Forgive me if this talk of control sounds hyperbolic; this is not to say that we are totally under the thumb of large businesses. We are not. But we are not only by some of the virtues provided by the capitalist system that prevent them from cooperating. I find this to be cold comfort as we find that advertising has permeated every aspect of our lives, and our understanding of the technology we use every day is being obfuscated by trade secrets, DRM, and byzantine design. Even if Capital does not have a unified will, it nonetheless follows a stumbling walk towards the ideal position for its existence.

The weaknesses of representative government are simultaneously becoming clear and accelerating the ascendancy of a new form of organization; a renewed plutocracy devoid of human compassion and rationality and entirely filled with self-preserving animal emotion. Corporations in particular cannot be our beneficent overlords; beneficence is directly contradictory to their legal mandates. The slow response and waste in our representative government has spawned distrust for it, and the relative, superficial success of capital has made a large number of Americans clamor for it to take the throne, ignoring the real driver of our improving quality of life: Science and engineering.

Representative government, ultimately a stop-gap measure for establishing a proper meritocracy, has run its course. The educated among us tend towards the technocratic impulse, and for good reason; we see politicians flub basic facts of our chosen fields, and assume they do the same for other fields, even if we are not certain. But few of us seem to give voice to what this wish is. We think we want smarter politicians, or more benevolent businessmen; in truth, we (or perhaps just I) want the erudite to rule, not the popular, or the thrifty. Running a country isn't about making people like you, or finding some clever niche in which to fit and thrive. It is solving a vast, complex problem of many interlocking disciplines. Let's start acting like it.

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