Welcome to Technocracy and You
Some early thoughts
I plan to launch this Substack in May. In the mean time, here is the pitch for Technocracy and You: Distilling the work of philosophers who recognized expert technical knowledge and prudent political judgement are not the same thing. Thinking is for everyone.
In a newsletter critiquing “technocracy,” I should first say: the problems of the 21st century are complex. They require technical knowledge far beyond what the average citizen can be expected to know in order to mitigate. I am not an epidemiologist. I know very little about conflict in Eastern Europe. I am glad that the information we use to make political decisions is supplied by technical experts. Scientific discoveries have improved our quality of life in ways that I am tremendously grateful for.
However, in our need to elevate expert information, we have diminished the citizens’ role in prudent communal decision making. In 1958, Hannah Arendt warned that science’s increased complexity may have pernicious effects on our politics. As expert knowledge became impenetrable for most citizens, the “technocratic” impulse has been to depoliticize the public square. We are told to “trust” not only expert knowledge, but also decision making and values. When we stop having these conversations in real public spaces, in Arendt’s words, we fail to “think what we are doing.” The purpose of a policy— our values, and how we make tradeoffs between them— is increasingly removed from public deliberation or careful thought. Arendt makes the “thoughtlessness” of our modern lives a centrepiece throughout her work, seeking to reinvigorate our ability to make political judgements with fellow citizens. In The Human Condition, she writes:
The reason why it may be wise to distrust the political judgement of scientists qua scientists is not primarily their back of “character” —that they did not refuse to develop atomic weapons—or their naïveté—that they did not understand that once these weapons were developed they would be the last to be consulted about their use—but precisely the fact that they move in a world where speech has lost its power.
The purposes that we use our scientific and technical expertise towards— the ends that we pursue— are not neutral. What we ought to do is not an inevitable or purely technical question. Arendt wrote that what we do with the newfound technological innovations of the 20th century “is a political question of the first order, and therefore can hardly be left to professional scientists or professional politicians.”
As early as 1917, Max Weber also argued that science cannot answer our deepest moral questions. He writes, “science is meaningless because it has no answer to the only questions that matter to us: ‘What should we do? How shall we live?” For Weber, science is still important to provide a clarity of information so that citizens can choose their own values and make their own decisions. Yet he is clear that its role in modern life cannot be to “preach new theisms” from academic podiums. The public should be well informed with clear and correct information, but must deliberate about what they value most in a public square among fellow citizens. The fact/value distinction is complicated in his thought, but it should not be forgotten today.
Earlier still in ~350BC, Aristotle made a distinction between teche, the technical knowledge required to reshape nature through a craft, and phronesis, the practical wisdom required to make good decisions based on life experience.1 While both have an important place in society, Aristotle believed the political rule of techne alone would fail. Just as a craftsman shapes wood and stone, the “technical” ruler would have to manipulate his people like mere material to serve his purposes. For Aristotle, this misses the diverse and unpredictable nature of human beings— the complexity of not just technical information, but human lives and communities. Instead, good political judgement happens at the intersection of life experience, deliberation, traditions, and the ever-changing circumstances of current events. The rule of techne alone would necessarily reject this, constraining our ability to think outside of the purely technical, and eroding any sense of community or virtue.
This is what I am trying to get at when I say we live under a “technocracy” today. It is an imperfect word, attempting to critique the moment without disregarding technical knowledge’s own importance. The Wikipedia page for technocracy defines it as “a form of government in which the decision-maker or makers are selected on the basis of their expertise in a given area of responsibility, particularly with regard to scientific or technical knowledge.” In some sense it could also be called bureaucracy— the “iron cage” which Weber said created “specialists without spirit” and “sensualists without hearts.” It could be “meritocracy,” one more inscrutable -cracy which captures the popular sentiment that elite credentials are separating average people from common sense decision making. Whatever this thing is called, I hope we can get back to looking our fellow citizens in the eye and thinking what we are doing together.
From my conversations with political science students and professors, I worry that we don’t think about this enough. It is so easy to sneer at the trucker convoy protestors (a fellow student said “I wonder if they can read”) without asking how they have come to feel this alienated. I disagreed with the purpose and practices of that protest, as I have with almost every populist movement, but I wish we had the intellectual curiosity to think about why this keeps happening. There is great research on populism which emphasizes socioeconomic status, education, cultural anxieties. But I think we should also listen in good faith to what these people are saying, and not be surprised when the top-down technocratic project of elite management fails. Scholars should turn a critical eye on their own institutions and their relationship to people without a university degree.
This may seem like a dangerous project. “Restoring the public and political role of speech in a technocratic age” could be met with yawns at best or attacks at worst. I hope to make clear throughout my writing that technical and scientific knowledge is absolutely necessary to make good decisions. However, we cannot rule with teche alone. A public square with active deliberation about values— what citizens want to do with technical expertise— is essential for a democracy. To say that any discussion of these topics is taboo, reckless, or “anti-science” is precisely the kind of depoliticization that these philosophers warned against. We should remember, again with Hannah Arendt, that…
There are no dangerous thoughts. Thinking itself is dangerous.
I hope this has given a general overview of this newsletters’ objectives and target audience. I will make weekly posts focused on specific topics starting in May.
For a fantastic book on this subject, see David Tabachnick’s The Great Reversal: How We Let Technology Take Control of the Planet