Talking about Technocracy

Readers of this blog know that I’ve fretted a fair bit about recent invocations of “innovation” as an economic engine,  finding this recessionary return of Yankee Ingenuity to be  short on attention to issues of sustainability, corporate privilege, and the inequities of global labor markets.  But this selective vision is really part of a much bigger problem, I think. The sheer pervasiveness of scientific and technical knowledge in our industrialized culture, and the countless products of this expertise with which Americans are surrounded every day, render this human enterprise strangely invisible from any critical vantage point.

Put another way: For more affluent citizens, it is just awfully hard to turn away from the non-stop technology-party to which American car commercials, WIRED magazine, and the Apple store invite us.

I wonder…Were America’s few moments of widespread, really palpable criticality regarding technology–say, just after Hiroshima, or around the first Earth Day in 1970–so rare as to be culturally insignificant? Can we more well-off Americans of the 21st Century ever stop texting long enough to ask some hard  questions about the costs of our techno-centric lifestyles and what they mean for the nation’s “have-nots” (and talk about your loaded terms!), for the rest of the planet, for our grandchildren? Really, what is meant by “democracy” in a society where such questions are not asked?

I’m eager to see what ideas surface at a conference I’m joining at Harvey Mudd College later this week, for their 2012 Hixon Forum on Responsive Science and Engineering:  Engineers, Exact Scientists (Technocrats) and Political Processes: Global Perspectives. If you’re in the area, come by; it’s free an open to the public!

The historians, philosophers and others speaking at the meeting will talk about “technocracy,” a concept that has interestingly had a largely negative connotation in the U.S.  since its brief glory days early in the 20th century. Herbert Hoover notwithstanding, few Americans of any subsequent era have pictured engineers or even scientists as the experts best equipped to run the nation. I’d say it was the discouraging narrowness and inhumanity of the Soviet model that made us turn away from technocratic leadership, but the lawyers we do tend to choose as our cultural spokespersons on the global stage (whether Democratic or Republican) hardly make a habit of critiquing technology.  “Technocrats” sound narrow and unimaginative; but a culture committed to “technology”? Exciting and prosperous!

I want to understand why we make that distinction. And, why we spend very little time on public discourse about science and engineering, despite their influence on our lives. A little reflection, please, about how our culture discourages big questions about the knowledge, skills, and investments that shape our material world.  Some of my students, focussing on the ways that science and technology serve profit structures, would say, “It’s Capitalism!”…absolutely, but that’s where the explanation begins, not ends. I’m hoping this gathering will be a chance to see how this situation has come to be, and how it might change.