Some thoughts via Reddit via technocracies and democracy

Neil Postman describes a technocracy in his 2011 book “Technopoly.” (one of my favorites, I’ve posted about it before). As he understands it, technocracy is an intermediate step between a tool-using culture and a technopoly. Up until the 17th century all societies were tool using societies. Tools performed in the way you might expect them to.

With some exceptions, tools did not prevent people from believing in their traditions, in their God, in their politics, in their methods of education, or in the legitimacy of their social organization. These beliefs, in fact, directed the invention of tools and limited the uses to which they were put. Even in the case of military technology, spiritual ideas and social customs acted as controlling forces. (P. 23)
The tools are not intruders. They are integrated into the culture in ways that do not pose significant contradictions to its world-view. (P.25)


In a technocracy, tools play a central role in the thought-world of the culture. Everything must give way, in some degree, to their development. The social and symbolic worlds become increasingly subject to the requirements of that development. Tools are not integrated into the culture; they attack the culture. They bid to become the culture. As a consequence, tradition, social mores, myth, politics, ritual, and religion have to fight for their lives. (P.28)

Scientific rationalism and emperical exactitude by men like Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, Descartes, and Newton, created a social foundation for technocracy during an era of tool-using cultures because of their utilitarian approach to knowledge and the way they differentiated between “Truth” and prevailing social views of the time.

Technocracy gave us the idea of progress, and of necessity loosened our bonds with tradition—whether political or spiritual. Technocracy filled the air with the promise of new freedoms and new forms of social organization. Technocracy also speeded up the world. We could get places faster, do things faster, accomplish more in a shorter time. Time, in fact, became an adversary over which technology could triumph… technocracy did not entirely destroy the traditions of the social and symbolic worlds. Technocracy subordinated these worlds—yes, even humiliated them—but it did not render them totally ineffectual.
The technocracy that emerged, fully armed, in nineteenth-century America disdained such beliefs, because holy men and sin, grandmothers and families, regional loyalties and two- thousand-year-old traditions, are antagonistic to the technocratic way of life. They are a troublesome residue of a tool-using period, a source of criticism of technocracy. They represent a thought-world that stands apart from technocracy and rebukes it—rebukes its language, its impersonality, its fragmentation, its alienation. And so technocracy disdains such a thought-world but, in America, did not and could not destroy it. (P.45&46)

As a result, specialized and technical literacies are directly related to how much agency people would have in a technocracy. While there are still institutional and systemic forces at work, people who are skilled and educated generally have a great deal more mobility and power in a technocratic society. There is also the troubling concept of how “big data” and algorithmization affects the world, if technocracy becomes the de facto or de jure status quo. This is why there’s a big debate over stuff like Stephen Pinker’s praise for scientism, the sometimes-ridiculously optimistic attitude adopted by cyber-utopians like Jeff Jarvis and Clay Shirky, and the blind arrogance of the humanistic-yet-absolutely-inhumane Silicon Valley culture. This points to an important need for critical analysis and a humanities perspective today, despite the STEMy rationality of a technocracy.

(Technopoly, in contrast, does not tolerate the characteristics of societies which have come before it, and instead eliminates alternatives to itself by making them “invisible and irrelevant.” Postman says the US is the only culture which has become a technopoly. Anyway, it’s a great book with lots of detail on those issues.)

Noorje Marees also writes about technocracy in “Material Participation” (2012), and she presents a bit more of an optimistic view:

… to speak of an object turn in relation to participation is an attempt to loosen the grip of this story that equates objectivity with science on our imagination of the public: the narrative of the threat of ‘technocracy’ as the principal danger to democracy in post-industrial times. As I mentioned, the wider object turn in social and political theory precisely seeks to move beyond the idea that scientific objects, technology, commodities are necessarily corruptive of social and political life. And this also has consequences for how we conceive of the relation between technology and democracy. If we recognize that projects of democratization draw on scientific and technological forms, it is no longer so plausible to understand democracy and technocracy in strict opposition to one another (see also on this point Braun and Whatmore, 2010; Kelty, 2008; Lezaun and Soneryd, 2007; Marres, 2005a, Laurent et al., 2010). Indeed, it may now seem problematic to let the ‘threat of technocracy’ guide our thinking about democracy; it distracts from all the ways in which projects of public engagement with science and technology involve the mobilization of expert knowledge, methods and technologies of public participation (Lezaun and Soneryd, 2007).

This distraction is problematic for a negative reason: it prevents us from noting how easily the democratization of science and technology may collapse into its opposite, the technicalization of publics. But the spectre of technocracy may also count as a distraction for a positive reason: it may prevent us from imagining the public as a technologically equipped entity, whose organization requires the material and technical modification of settings and practices. Indeed, this is another way of understanding why an object-centred perspective on participation is useful: it sensitizes us to the instruments deployed in the enactment of participation and directs attention to the artifice involved in processes of democratization, reminding us that science and technology are not necessarily external to democracy. (P.18)

That last point relates to a lot of stuff Herbert Marcuse writes about whether or not technology is compatible with communitarianism, particularly if the tech is born out of a fundamentally individualistic and stratified society.

Addressing the question of the implications of the internet for democratic theory may be improved by situating it within critical theory, which has always been interested in the relationship of technology to society. Marx considered technology as a driver of worker alienation that also produces a state of affairs where “the entire production process appears […] as the technological application of science”45. That is, the interests that led to the creation of an alienating technology rather than a liberating one are hidden under the veil of rationality. This position is more explicitly taken up by theorists like Marcuse who argues that technology can proceed “in different directions of progress” but that the “choice is primarily (but only primarily!) the privilege of those groups which have attained control over the productive process.” 46

McKay, Spencer. “Democratic theory and the commons: conceptualizing the relationship between deliberation, publics, and the internet.” (2013).

(also see Joss Hands “@ is for Activism”)

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