Reframing Technocracy

In his 1977 classic, Autonomous Technology: Technics-out-of-Control as a Theme in Political Thought, Langdon Winner invites us to consider not the question “Who governs?” but rather “What governs?”

He further elaborates:

“Are there certain conditions, constraints, necessities, requirements, or imperatives effectively governing how an advanced technological society operates? Do such conditions predominate regardless of the specific character of the men who ostensibly hold power? This, it seems to me, is the most crucial problem raised by the conjunction of politics and technics. It is certainly the point at which the idea of autonomous  technology has its broadest significance.”

Earlier, he had discussed one way in which technocracy had been envisioned throughout the 20th century: as the emergence of an elite class of scientists, technicians, and engineers, who displace the traditional political class and become the rulers of society. This vision was popular among science fiction writers and theorists who were overtly technocratic. This vision never quite played out as these writers and theorists imagined. But this does not mean, in Winner’s view, that there is no meaningful sense in which we might speak about our political order being technocratic.

This is the significance of the question “What rules?” rather than “Who rules?”

Here is Winner again:

“If one returns to the modern writings on technocracy in this light, one finds that parallel to the conceptions about scientific and technical elites and their power is a notion of order— a technological order— in which in a true sense no persons or groups rule at all. Individuals and elites are present, but their roles and actions conform so closely to the framework established by the structures and processes of the technical system that any claim to determination by human choice becomes purely illusory. In this way of looking at things, technology itself is seen to have a distinctly political form. The technological order built since the scientific revolution now encompasses, interpenetrates, and incorporates all of society. Its standards of operation are the rules men must obey. Within this comprehensive order, government becomes the business of recognizing what is necessary and efficient for the continued functioning and elaboration of large-scale systems and the rational implementation of their manifest requirements. Politics becomes the acting out of the technical hegemony.”

Winner takes this to be the view generally represented, despite their differences, by Spengler, Juenger, Jaspers, Mumford, Marcuse, Giedion, and Ellul. “[I]n them,” Winner writes, “one finds a roughly shared notion of society and politics, a common set of observations, assumptions, modes of thinking and sense of the whole, which, I be-
lieve, unites them as an identifiable tradition.”

Throughout this section of Autonomous Technology, Winner sets out to update and refine their argument.

Along the way, Winner takes some passing shots at the work of what we might call the popular tech criticism current at the time Winner was writing, a little over forty years ago.

“Much of what now passes for incisive analysis,” Winner notes, “is actually nothing more than elaborate landscape, impressionistic, futuristic razzle-dazzle spewing forth in an endless stream of paperback non-books, media extravaganzas, and global village publicity.”

A little further on he catalogs a list of recurring tropes in popular writing about technology: overcrowded cities, “labyrinthine bureaucracies,” consumerism and waste, the rise of the military-industrial complex, etc.

Winner goes on:

“To go on describing such things endlessly does little to advance our insight. Neither is it helpful to devise new names for the world produced. The Postindustrial Society? The Technetronic Society? The Posthistoric Society? The Active Society? In an unconscious parody of the ancient belief that he who knows God’s secret name will have extraordinary powers, the idea seems to be that a stroke of nomenclature will bring light to the darkness. This does make for captivating book titles but little else. The fashion, furthermore, is to exclaim in apparent horror at the incredible scenes unfolding before one’s eyes and yet deep in one’s heart relish the excitement and perversity of it all. Alleged critiques turn out to be elaborate advertisements for the situations they ostensibly abhor.”

On all counts, it seems to me that Winner’s book has aged well.

3 thoughts on “Reframing Technocracy

  1. I need to revisit that book! As a freshman in my introductory political science class back in 1982 we read excerpts from Robert Dahl’s 1961 classic Who Governs?: Democracy and Power in an American City. At the time it served to introduce us to the central question that occupied political scientists: namely “with whom does power reside?” But I love that re-framing by Winner. As you remind us: the question shouldn’t be “Who governs?” but “What governs?” The tragedy of political science is that it hadn’t absorbed Winner’s reframing back in 1982 (even though Winner’s book came out before then). And arguably it still hasn’t now even as technology’s presence becomes ever more inescapable.

  2. “The fashion, furthermore, is to exclaim in apparent horror at the incredible scenes unfolding before one’s eyes and yet deep in one’s heart relish the excitement and perversity of it all. Alleged critiques turn out to be elaborate advertisements for the situations they ostensibly abhor.”

    This is the exact sentiment I have been searching for to describe my thoughts about the show Black Mirror and the increasingly popular narrative that watching this show somehow counts as “good ethics” for technologists and designers. Thank you for sharing.

  3. The fun-house echo chamber is only another facet of the technological imperative. Time is running out. The psychology of the unconscious is the philosophy of the revolution! Id and superego in their unholy pact conspire to keep Authority in place. It must be this way until the nuclear arsenal is dismantled in toto. Absolute obedience to authority is indispensable to the core of the System that employs it as Winner outlined in his paper “Do Artifacts Have Politics?” Shelley–“The man of virtuous soul commands not, nor obeys. Power, like a desolating pestilence, pollutes whate’er it touches…”

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