Technology and the Utopian Impulse
From 1933 to 1934, spectators gathered on the shores of Lake Michigan to attend the Chicago World’s Fair. Dubbed “A Century of Progress International Exposition,” the gathering highlighted the incredible advances science had recently brought to the human race.
The fair, which featured everything from the latest automobiles to cigarette-smoking robots, aimed to demonstrate that even in the midst of the Great Depression, there was still hope because there was still science.
The motto of the fair encapsulated the optimistic mood: “Science Finds, Industry Applies, Man Adapts.”
The guides and commentaries from the time elevated this optimism to dizzying heights of utopian expectation. One description from the time noted that the world “then still mired in the malaise of the Great Depression could glimpse a happier not-too-distant future, all driven by innovation in science and technology.” Another observer reported that the fair “emphasized technology and progress, a utopia, or perfect world, founded on democracy and manufacturing.”
The Chicago World’s Fair was not an anomaly but reflected wider intellectual currents at the time. Given the rapid advances in science the world had recently witnessed, it was widely believed that technology and science-driven industry might aptly solve all human problems, including the social and political woes of the 1930s.
The Politics of Technocracy
One popular ideology from the period promoted scientism, an epistemology claiming that science is the only way anything can be known. Rooted in philosophical materialism, this theory was often aligned with a prescription for progress based on the fashionable social science doctrines of the time, which sought to understand and regulate human behavior with the precision of science. C.S. Lewis portrayed a fusion of scientism and social science in his dystopian novel That Hideous Strength
Scientism gave plausibility to the “Technocracy Movement,” pioneered in the 1930s by figures like Howard Scott and Marion King Hubbert. These and other activists sought to replace elected politicians with scientists and engineers who could make governance more “rational.” Such experts, it was hoped, could stem the growing tide of political and economic woes by leveraging the power of scientific analysis and data-driven approaches.
The technocracy movement was parodied by the character of Roderick Spode in the film version of P. G. Wodehouse’s 1938 novel The Code of the Woosters. Spode wants to restructure Britain along purely scientific lines with proscriptions that include “the scientific measurement of all British knees.”
The technocracy of the 20th century now seems quaint, but at the time it was hugely influential. In volume 141 of the Mars Hill Audio Journal, Grant Wythoff explained that during the turmoil of the Great Depression, Technocracy offered dreams of a brighter future:
This new party…said the reason we got into this mess with the Great Depression is because politicians are running our national economy, and politicians are not skilled engineers. They don’t understand what it takes to produce all the goods and services that this country needs, so politicians are superfluous – we should kick them all out of office and instead install engineers and technical experts into power, who can best make decisions for the good of the country and the good of the economy.
Eventually, this technocracy movement became its own worst enemy when it adopted Fascist stylizations. For example, Howard Scott gave screaming radio addresses while his followers, dressed in black, marched down the street with red armbands.
The threat of Fascism from Germany killed off the lingering remnants of militant technocracy. Similarly, the Cold War finished off most of the utopianism embodied in the Chicago World’s Fair. With the threat of nuclear holocaust, the utopian expectation was replaced by dystopian fears. Instead of saving the human race, science and technology might eliminate it.
Our Own Utopian Moment
The social and political turmoil that gave rise to the technocracy movement of the 1930s—breakdown in certainties, social polarization, rapid intellectual shifts—is similar to our situation today. And a new generation of thinkers, not old enough to remember Fascism or even the Cold War, are resuscitating the utopian expectations of the last century, and they are just as eager to hand the management of the world over to engineers and technocrats.
Sam Altman, CEO of OpenAI, captured the utopian mood in his 2021 manifesto, “Moore's Law for Everything.” Yet Altman’s expectation for what science and technology can accomplish far exceeds anything published at the 1933 World’s Fair. Altman began his manifesto by declaring,
My work at OpenAI reminds me every day about the magnitude of the socioeconomic change that is coming sooner than most people believe…. In the next five years, computer programs....will do almost everything, including making new scientific discoveries that will expand our concept of “everything.”
What does this look like in practice? It means there can be “phenomenal wealth” including a universal basic income. This, in turn, will lead to a huge increase in net happiness:
The changes coming are unstoppable. If we embrace them and plan for them, we can use them to create a much fairer, happier, and more prosperous society. The future can be almost unimaginably great.
Our Own Technocracy Moment
These dreams of utopia come with a price tag, and its cost is technocracy. To achieve Altman’s desired utopia, we must hand the management of our political systems over to intelligent machines. This process is, in fact, already well underway.
We get a glimpse of this type of technocratic revolution by looking at Singapore. In a discussion on whether technocracy is the solution to failing democracies, Nazry Bahrawi from Singapore University pointed out that the political elite have all been drawn from the STEM disciplines, leading to an obsession with systems and with the concept of the “smart nation.”
What might technocracy look like in the context of the United States? Given our unique social and political context, it is likely that the corporate sector will be a primary driver in bringing technocracy. Those most eager to advocate technocracy are corporate elites who have an interest in using surveillance capitalism to mainstream new social norms.
We are also beginning to see a growing interest in technocracy from activists involved in various think tanks and NGOs, who believe that data science can bring to policy the type of precision associated with mathematics. In an article earlier this month, “The Tyranny of Data,” I shared how organizations from the Center for Public Impact to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation are lobbying to outsource decision making to intelligent machines (and thus by implication, to the engineers that control and program those technologies).
Before technocracy can be mainstreamed into American society, it first requires making humans compatible with a technologically-mediated society. This is where education plays a role, specifically new educational models that train humans to operate more like computers.
America is unlikely to experience our own version of Howard Scott or Roderick Spode, since many Americans instinctively recoil against anything resembling authoritarianism. But as Matthew Crawford has shown, our preference for procedural fairness makes us susceptible to a type of authoritarianism that disguises itself in the categories of information processing. Moreover, by appealing to Americans' desire for safety, happiness, and equity, technocracy may even come to appear as the truly humane option.Robin Phillips
has a Master’s in Historical Theology from King’s College London and a Master’s in Library Science through the University of Oklahoma. He is the blog and media managing editor for the Fellowship of St. James and a regular contributor to Touchstone and Salvo. He has worked as a ghost-writer, in addition to writing for a variety of publications, including the Colson Center, World Magazine, and The Symbolic World. Phillips is the author of Gratitude in Life's Trenches (Ancient Faith, 2020), and Rediscovering the Goodness of Creation (Ancient Faith, 2023). He operates a blog at www.robinmarkphillips.com.• Get SALVO blog posts in your inbox! Copyright © 2023 Salvo | www.salvomag.com https://salvomag.com/post/technocracy-creep