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.

Technology Will Not Save Us

A day after writing about technology, culture, and innovation, I’ve come across two related pieces.

At Walter Mead’s blog, the novel use of optics to create a cloaking effect provided a springboard into a brief discussion of technological innovation. Here’s the gist of it:

“Today, Big Science is moving ahead faster than ever, and the opportunities for creative tinkerers and home inventors are greater than ever. but the technology we’ve got today is more dynamic than what people had in the 19th and early 20th centuries. IT makes it possible to invent new services and not just new gadgets, though smarter gadgets are also part of the picture.

Unleashing the creativity of a new generation of inventors may be the single most important educational and policy task before us today.”

And …

“Technology in today’s world has run way ahead of our ability to exploit its riches to enhance our daily lives. That’s OK, and there’s nothing wrong with more technological progress. But in the meantime, we need to think much harder about how we can cultivate and reward the kind of innovative engineering that can harness the vast potential of the tech riches around us to lift our society and ultimately the world to the next stage of human social development.”

Then in this weekend’s WSJ, Walter Isaacson has a feature essay titled, “Where Innovation Comes From.” The essay is in part a consideration of the life of Alan Turing and his approach to AI. Isaacson’s point, briefly stated, is that, in the future, innovation will not come from so-called intelligent machines. Rather, in Isaacson’s view, innovation will come from the coupling of human intelligence and machine intelligence, each of them possessed of unique powers. Here is a representative paragraph:

“Perhaps the latest round of reports about neural-network breakthroughs does in fact mean that, in 20 years, there will be machines that think like humans. But there is another possibility, the one that Ada Lovelace envisioned: that the combined talents of humans and computers, when working together in partnership and symbiosis, will indefinitely be more creative than any computer working alone.”

I offer these two you for your consideration. As I read them, I thought again about what I had posted yesterday. Since the post was more or less stream of consciousness, thinking by writing as it were, I realized that an important qualification remained implicit. I am not qualified to speak about technological innovation from the perspective of the technologist or the entrepreneur. Quite frankly, I’m not sure I’m qualified to speak about technological innovation from any vantage point. Perhaps it is simply better to say that my interests in technological innovation are historical, sociological, and ethical.

For what it is worth, then, what I was after in my previous post was something like the cultural sources of technological innovation. Assuming that technological innovation does not unfold in a value-neutral vacuum, then what cultural forces shape technological innovation? Many, of course, but perhaps we might first say that while technological innovation is certainly driven by cultural forces, these cultural forces are not the only relevant factor. Those older philosophers of technology who focused on what we might, following Aristotle, call the formal and material causes of technological development were not altogether misguided. The material nature of technology imposes certain limits upon the shape of innovation. From this angle, perhaps it is the case that if innovation has stalled, as Peter Thiel among others worry, it is because all of the low-hanging fruit has been plucked.

When we consider the efficient and final causes of technological innovation, however, we enter the complex and messy realm human desires and cultural dynamics. It is in this realm that the meaning of technology and the direction of its unfolding is shaped. (As an aside, we might usefully frame the perennial debate between the technological determinists and the social constructivists as a failure to hold together and integrate Aristotle’s four causes into our understanding of technology.) It is this cultural matrix of technological innovation that most interests me, and it was at this murky target that my previous post was aimed.

Picking up on the parenthetical comment above, one other way of framing the problem of technological determinism is by understanding it as type of self-fulfilling prophecy. Or, perhaps it is better to put it this way: What we call technological determinism, the view that technology drives history, is not itself a necessary characteristic of technology. Rather, technological determinism is the product of cultural capitulation. It is a symptom of social fragmentation.

Allow me to borrow from what I’ve written in another context to expand on this point via a discussion of the work of Jacques Ellul.

Ellul defined technique (la technique) as “the totality of methods rationally arrived at and having absolute efficiency (for a given stage of development) in every field of human activity.” This is an expansive definition that threatens, as Langdon Winner puts it, to make everything technology and technology everything. But Winner is willing to defend Ellul’s usage against its critics. In Winner’s view, Ellul’s expansive definition of technology rightly points to a “vast, diverse, ubiquitous totality that stands at the center of modern culture.”

Although Winner acknowledges the weaknesses of Ellul’s sprawling work, he is, on the whole, sympathetic to Ellul’s critique of technological society. Ellul believed that technology was autonomous in the sense that it dictated its own rules and was resistant to critique. “Technique has become autonomous,” Ellul concluded, “it has fashioned an omnivorous world which obeys its own laws and which has renounced all tradition.”

Additionally, Ellul claimed that technique “tolerates no judgment from without and accepts no limitation.” Moreover, “The power and autonomy of technique are so well secured that it, in its turn, has become the judge of what is moral, the creator of a new morality.” Ellul’s critics have noted that in statements such as these, he has effectively personified technology/technique. Winner thinks that this is exactly the case, but in his view this is not an unintended flaw in Ellul’s argument, it is his argument: “Technique is entirely anthropomorphic because human beings have become thoroughly technomorphic. Man has invested his life in a mass of methods, techniques, machines, rational-productive organizations, and networks. They are his vitality. He is theirs.”

And here is the relevant point for the purposes of this post: Elllul claims that he is not a technological determinist.

By this he means that technology did not always hold society hostage, and society’s relationship to technology did not have to play out the way that it did. He is merely diagnosing what is now the case. He points to ancient Greece and medieval Europe as two societies that kept technology in its place as it were, as means circumscribed and directed by independent ends. Now as he sees it, the situation is reversed. Technology dictates the ends for which it alone can be the means. Among the factors contributing to this new state of affairs, Ellul points to the rise of individualism in Western societies. The collapse of mediating institutions fractured society, leaving individuals exposed and isolated. Under these conditions, society was “perfectly malleable and remarkably flexible from both the intellectual and material points of view,” consequently “the technical phenomenon had its most favorable environment since the beginning of history.”

This last consideration is often forgotten by critics of Ellul’s work. In any case, it is in my view, a point that is tremendously relevant to our contemporary discussions of technological innovation. As I put it yesterday, our focus on technological innovation as the key to the future is a symptom of a society in thrall to technique. Our creative and imaginative powers are thus constrained and caught in a loop of diminishing returns.

I hasten to add that this is surely not the whole picture, but it is, I think, an important aspect of it.

One final point related to my comments about our Enlightenment heritage. It is part of that heritage that we transformed technology into an idol of the god we named Progress. It was a tangible manifestation of a concept we deified, took on faith, and in which we invested our hope. If there is a palpable anxiety and reactionary defensiveness in our discussions about the possible stalling of technological innovation, it is because, like the prophets of Baal, we grow ever more frantic and feverish as it becomes apparent that the god we worshipped was false and our hopes are crushed. And it is no small things to have your hopes crushed. But idols always break the hearts of their worshippers, as C.S. Lewis has put it.

Technology will not save us. Paradoxically, the sooner we realize that, the sooner we might actually begin to put it to good use.

What Are We Talking About When We Talk About Technology?

I’ve been of two minds with regards to the usefulness of the word technology. One of those two minds has been more or less persuaded that the term is of limited value and, worse still, that it is positively detrimental to our understanding of the reality it ostensibly labels. The most thorough case for this position is laid out in a 2010 article by the historian of technology Leo Marx, “Technology: The Emergence of a Hazardous Concept.

Marx worried that the term technology was “peculiarly susceptible to reification.” The problem with reified phenomenon is that it acquires “a ‘phantom-objectivity,’ an autonomy that seems so strictly rational and all-embracing as to conceal every trace of its fundamental nature: the relation between people.” This false aura of autonomy leads in turn to “hackneyed vignettes of technologically activated social change—pithy accounts of ‘the direction technology is taking us’ or ‘changing our lives.’” According to Marx, such accounts are not only misleading, they are also irresponsible. By investing “technology” with causal power, they distract us from “the human (especially socioeconomic and political) relations responsible for precipitating this social upheaval.” It is these relations, after all, that “largely determine who uses [technologies] and for what purposes.” And, it is the human use of technology that makes all the difference, because, as Marx puts it, “Technology, as such, makes nothing happen.”[1]

As you might imagine, I find that Marx’ point compliments a critique of what I’ve called Borg Complex rhetoric. It’s easier to refuse responsibility for technological change when we can attribute it to some fuzzy, incohate idea of technology, or worse, what technology wants. That latter phrase is the title of a book by Kevin Kelly, and it may be the best example on offer of the problem Marx was combatting in his article.

But … I don’t necessarily find that term altogether useless or hazardous. For instance, some time ago I wrote the following:

“Speaking of online and offline and also the Internet or technology – definitions can be elusive. A lot of time and effort has been and continues to be spent trying to delineate the precise referent for these terms. But what if we took a lesson from Wittgenstein? Crudely speaking, Wittgenstein came to believe that meaning was a function of use (in many, but not all cases). Instead of trying to fix an external referent for these terms and then call out those who do not use the term as we have decided it must be used or not used, perhaps we should, as Wittgenstein put it, ‘look and see’ the diversity of uses to which the words are meaningfully put in ordinary conversation. I understand the impulse to demystify terms, such as technology, whose elasticity allows for a great deal of confusion and obfuscation. But perhaps we ought also to allow that even when these terms are being used without analytic precision, they are still conveying sense.”

As you know from previous posts, I’ve been working through Langdon Winner’s Autonomous Technology (1977). It was with a modicum of smug satisfaction, because I’m not above such things, that I read the following in Winner’s Introduction:

“There is, of course, nothing unusual in the discovery that an important term is ambiguous or imprecise or that it covers a wide diversity of situation. Wittgenstein’s discussion of ‘language games’ and ‘family resemblances’ in Philosophical Investigations illustrates how frequently this occurs in ordinary language. For many of our most important concepts, it is futile to look for a common element in the phenomena to which the concept refers. ‘Look and see and whether there is anything common to all.–For if you look at them you will not see something that is common to all, but similarities, relationships, and a whole series of them at that.'”

Writing in the late ’70s, Winner claimed, “Technology is a word whose time has come.” After a period of relative neglect or disinterest, “Social scientists, politicians, bureaucrats, corporate managers, radical students, as well as natural scientists and engineers, are now united in the conclusion that something we call ‘technology’ lies at the core of what is most troublesome in the condition of our world.”

To illustrate, Winner cites Allen Ginsburg — “Ourselves caught in the giant machine are conditioned to its terms, only holy vision or technological catastrophe or revolution break ‘the mind-forg’d manacles.'” — and the Black Panthers: “The spirit of the people is greater than the man’s technology.”

For starters, this is a good reminder to us that we are not the first generation to wrestle with the place of technology in our personal lives and in society at large. Winner was writing almost forty years ago, after all. And Winner rightly points out that his generation was not the first to worry about such matters either: “We are now faced with an odd situation in which one observer after another ‘discovers’ technology and announces it to the world as something new. The fact is, of course, that there is nothing novel about technics, technological change, or advanced technological societies.”

While he thinks that technology is a word “whose time has come,” he is not unaware of the sorts of criticisms articulated by Leo Marx. These criticisms had then been made of the manner in which Jacques Ellul defined technology, or, more precisely, la technique: “the totality of methods rationally arrived at and having absolute efficiency (for a given stage of development) in every field of human activity.”

Against Ellul’s critics, Winner writes, “While Ellul’s addition of ‘absolute efficiency’ may cause us difficulties, his notion of technique as the totality of rational methods closely corresponds to the term technology as now used in everyday English. Ellul’s la technique and our technology both point to a vast, diverse, ubiquitous totality that stands at the center of modern culture.”

It is at this point that Winner references Wittgenstein in the paragraph cited above. He then acknowledges that the way in which technology tends to be used leads to the conclusion that “technology is everything and everything is technology.” In other words, it “threatens to mean nothing.”

But Winner sees in this situation something of interest, and here is where I’m particularly inclined to agree with him against critics like Leo Marx. Rather than seek to impose a fixed definition or banish the term altogether, we should see in this situation “an interesting sign.” It should lead us to ask, “What does the chaotic use of the term technology indicate to us?”

Here is how Winner answers that question: “[…] the confusion surrounding the concept ‘technology’ is an indication of a kind of lag in public language, that is, a failure of both ordinary speech and social scientific discourse to keep pace with the reality that needs to be discussed.”There may be a better way, but “at present our concepts fail us.”

Winner follows with a brief discussion of the unthinking polarity into which discussions of technology consequently fall: “discussion of the political implications of advanced technology have a tendency to slide into a polarity of good versus evil.” We might add that this is not only a problem with discussion of the political implications of advanced technology, it is also a problem with discussions of the personal implications of advanced technology.

Winner adds that there “is no middle ground to discuss such things,” we encounter either “total affirmation” or “total denial.” In Winner’s experience, ambiguity and nuance are hard to come by and any criticism, that is anything short of total embrace, meets with predictable responses: “You’re just using technology as a whipping boy,” or “You just want to stop progress and send us back to the Middle Ages with peasants dancing on the green.”[2]

While it may not be as difficult to find more nuanced positions today, in part because of the sheer quantity of easily accessible commentary, it still seems generally true that most popular discussions of technology tend to fall into either the “love it” or “hate it” category.

In the end, it may be that Winner and Marx are not so far apart after all. While Winner is more tolerant of the use of technology and finds that, in fact, its use tells us something important about the not un-reasonable anxieties of modern society, he also concludes that we need a better vocabulary with which to discuss all that gets lumped under the idea of technology.

I’m reminded of Alan Jacobs’ oft-repeated invocation of Bernard Williams’s adage, “We suffer from a poverty of concepts.” Indeed, indeed. It is this poverty of concepts that, in part, explains the ease with which discussions of technology become mired in volatile love it or hate it exchanges. A poverty of concepts short circuits more reasonable discussion. Debate quickly morphs into acrimony because in the absence of categories that might give reason a modest grip on the realities under consideration the competing positions resolve into seemingly subjective expressions of personal preference and, thus, criticism becomes offensive.[3]

So where does this leave us? For my part, I’m not quite prepared to abandon the word technology. If nothing else it serves as a potentially useful Socratic point of entry: “So, what exactly do you mean by technology?” It does, to be sure, possess a hazardous tendency. But let’s be honest, what alternatives do we have left to us? Are we to name every leaf because speaking of leaves obscures the multiplicity and complexity of the phenomena?

That said, we cannot make do with technology alone. We should seek to remedy that poverty of our concepts. Much depends on it.

Of course, the same conditions that led to the emergence of the more recent expansive and sometimes hazardous use of the word technology are those that make it so difficult to arrive at a richer more useful vocabulary. Those conditions include but are not limited to the ever expanding ubiquity and complexity of our material apparatus and of the technological systems and networks in which we are enmeshed. The force of these conditions was first felt in the wake of the industrial revolution and in the ensuing 200 years it has only intensified.

To the scale and complexity of steam-powered industrial machinery was added the scale and complexity of electrical systems, global networks of transportation, nuclear power, computers, digital devices, the Internet, global financial markets, etc. To borrow a concept from political science, technical innovation functions like a sort of ratchet effect. Scale and complexity are always torqued up, never released or diminished. And this makes it hard to understand this pervasive thing that we call technology.

For some time, through the early to mid-twentieth century we outsourced this sort of understanding to the expert and managerial class. The post-war period witnessed a loss of confidence in the experts and managers, hence it yielded the heightened anxiety about technology that Winner registers in the ’70s. Three decades later, we are still waiting for new and better forms of understanding.


[1] I’m borrowing the bulk of this paragraph from an earlier post.

[2] Here again I found an echo in Winner of some of what I had also concluded.

[3] We suffer not only from a poverty of concepts, but also, I would add, from a poverty of narratives that might frame our concepts. See the end of this post.

Tip the Writer


Technology Is A License To Forget

“It is at this point [when the power of technology becomes evident] that a pervasive ignorance and refusal to know, irresponsibility, and blind faith characterize society’s orientation toward the technical. Here it happens that men release powerful changes into the world with cavalier disregard for consequences; that they begin to ‘use’ apparatus, technique, and organization with no attention to the ways in which these ‘tools’ unexpectedly rearrange their lives; that they willingly submit the governance of their affairs to the expertise of others. It is here also that they begin to participate without second thought in megatechnical systems far beyond their comprehension or control; that they endlessly proliferate technological forms of life that isolate people from each other and cripple rather than enrich the human potential; that they stand idly by while vast technical systems reverse the reasonable relationship between means and ends. It is here above all that modern men come to accept an overwhelmingly passive response to everything technological [….]

[…] there is a sense in which all technical activity contains an inherent tendency toward forgetfulness. Is not the point of all invention, technique, apparatus, and organization to have something and have it over with? One does not want to bother anymore with building, developing, or learning it again. One does not want to bother with its structure or the principles of its internal workings. One simply wants the technical thing to be present in its utility. The goods are to be oriented without having to understand the factory or the distribution network. Energy is to be utilized without understanding the myriad of connections that made its generation and delivery possible. Technology, then, allows us to ignore our own works. It is license to forget. In its sphere the truths of all important processes are encased, shut away, and removed from our concern. This more than anything else, I am convinced, is the true source of the colossal passivity in man’s dealings with technical means.”

More from Langdon Winner’s Autonomous Technology. Let the record show that I do not consider myself immune to this sweeping indictment.

Understanding Technology

In the Introduction to his 1977 book, Autonomous Technology: Technics-out-of-Control as a Theme in Political Thought, Langdon Winner identifies a “pervasive sense of puzzlement and disorientation” as a chief characteristic of late twentieth century discussions of technology. He adds:

“[…] writers who have isolated technology as an issue have repeatedly stressed that what is involved is not merely a problem of values or faith, but more importantly, a problem in our understanding of things. There is, they assert, something wrong in the way we view technology and man’s relationship to it. In its present array of vast and complex forms, technology continually surprises us and baffles our attempts at comprehension. From all sides one hears the call for new evidence and new interpretations to remedy our disoriented state.”

I would suggest that the situation is only more acute some 30+ years later. Winner is right to focus on understanding, or a lack thereof, and he is right to insist that understanding is not simply a matter of accumulating more data.

Speaking of research about technology and society Winner notes, “Much of social scientific research in this area amounts to a triumph of instrumentation–virtuosity in measuring and comparing quantifiable variables–rather than an earnest effort to advance our understanding.” Consequently, he adds a little further on,

“[…] in almost every book or article on the subject [of technology] the discussion stalls on the same sterile conclusion: ‘We have demonstrated the relationship between Technology X and social changes A, B, and C. Obviously, Technology X has implications for astounding good and evil. It is now up to mankind to decide which the case will be.'”

The problem, or at least one aspect of the problem, is that technology in some form or another is what we use to think about technology. Or, to put it differently, our understanding of technology tends to be circumscribed by technology and its modes of framing the world. Consider this example I serendipitously happened upon this morning courtesy of Alan Jacobs: the Reporter app. Reporter is the work of Nicholas Felton, who has been ambitiously documenting every quantifiable aspect of his life for the past few years. He is a lifelogger par excellence; a pioneer of the Quantified Self. Here is the description of Reporter cited by Jacobs:

“Reporter works by buzzing you several times per day with a brief quiz based on the questions Felton asks himself. They range from “Where are you?” to “What are you doing?” and “Who are you with?” Some questions can be answered by tapping Yes or No, while others are multiple choice questions, let you type in text, or offer a location picker that polls Foursquare for nearby places. You can also add your own questions (like “Are you happy?”) or program certain questions to occur only when you hit the app’s Awake or Sleep switch (like “How did you sleep?” and “What did you learn today?”). Each time you report, the app also pulls in various pieces of information like the current weather, how many steps you’ve taken today (using the iPhone 5s’ M7 motion coprocessor), and how noisy it is around you using your phone’s mic.”

Jacobs puts his finger on the problem: this kind of data collection proceeds on an impoverished view of the self. To make his point Jacobs suggest another set of questions that Reporter might choose to ask. I’ll let you click through to Jacobs’ post to read those.

Apart from its specific failures, the Reporter app is a useful example of a larger pattern. Whatever understanding the app may provide is already circumscribed by the limits of the sort of data that it can collect and process. Moreover, it already proceeds on the assumption that data collection is the best way to arrive at self-knowledge.

If I read him rightly, Winner might take the Reporter app to be illustrative of the whole of our relationship with modern technology. Our understanding of technology is stymied by how technology already sets the terms and conditions of our thinking;this is why getting any traction in our attempt to understand technology can be so challenging.


N.B. I’ve bracketed the question of the usefulness of “technology” as a category. It is a question that I go back and forth on, and in a subsequent post I’ll discuss it again in conversation with Winner.