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A technotopia is a governance model in which policy decisions would be made by a technocracy, a depoliticized branch of government that is staffed by highly educated scientific and technical specialists, to the exclusion of politicians or interest groups. Admission is based purely on scientific and technical expertise, as demonstrated in open, competitive examinations. Free from political interference, the technocracy makes decisions based solely on scientific evidence and instrumental rationality. At the core of technotopian thought is the conviction that technocrats will make better decisions than politicians. In their view, scientific and technological advances are inevitable and potentially beneficial, but only if they are managed by experts who can make scientifically driven decisions, free from political interference. In technotopian thought, scientific and technological advances broaden the relevance of scientifically driven decision making until the technocracy wholly supplants conventional political systems. The wealth and abundance created by a correctly managed technological infrastructure, it is argued, would eliminate the inequities that made conventional politics necessary.
The various components of technotopian thought are by no means new. For 1,300 years (605-1905), admission to the civil bureaucracy in dynastic China was based on a rigorous examination system. In New Atlantis (1627), the English philosopher and author Francis Bacon (1561-1626) envisioned a utopian society dedicated to fostering science and celebrating the achievements of explorers and inventors. In the eighteenth century, the French sociologist Henri de Saint-Simon (1760-1825) developed a recognizably technocratic governance model, in which an elite class of scientists and engineers would replace existing political institutions and make decisions on rational principles; Saint-Simon’s student, Auguste Compte (1798-1857), added a sense of historical inevitability to Saint-Simon’s formulation: Because the utility of the scientific method is matchless, it will ultimately be extended to all aspects of governance. In 1888, with the publication of Edward Bellamy’s Utopian novel Looking Backward, technocratic thought reached mass audiences in the United States and Europe; in the United States Looking Backward sold more than 1 million copies by the end of the nineteenth century. The novel describes a future utopian society in which a technocratically controlled industrial sector has been redesigned to serve human needs, resulting in abundance, leisure, learning, and social peace. In the early twentieth century (1919— 1933), the Technical Alliance of North America, a group of New York-based scientists, architects, and engineers, called for the restructuring of the entire U.S. economy on scientific principles and the replacement of conventional politics by technocratic rule.
Although there has never been a society in which technocrats have wholly supplanted politicians, technocratic principles inform the civil administration of science and technology in most of the world’s advanced industrial economies, if to varying degrees. Closest to the techno-topian ideal, arguably, is the modern civil administration of France, founded in 1945 in the wake of the Nazi occupation. Entry into the highest levels of the administration requires a diploma from the Ecole Nationale Administration (ENA); its graduates are called enarques, and they take positions in one of the two “grand corps of the state,” the administrative corps. Graduates of the leading French engineering school, the Ecole Polytechnique, qualify for the better positions in the second of the two grand corps, the engineering corps. Both are designed to insulate the civil administration from political interference. Entry into either of the two diploma-granting institutions is based solely on competitive examinations. A host of administrative regulations and civil statutes prevent a too-cozy relationship between civil servants and business interests, especially the practice of pantouflage, in which bureaucrats who rule in industry’s favor are rewarded with lucrative private-sector positions. However, there are no such rules against civil servants going into politics; indeed, Jacques Chirac and Valery Giscard d’Estaing, who have both served as presidents of France, are graduates of ENA.
The intent of France’s regulatory structure is clear: it is far better to have science and engineering affect politics than to have politics affect science and engineering. Although French citizens occasionally chafe at the perceived arrogance of their technocratic elite, it is also true that, in general, they trust the elite to make the right decisions concerning technology, and they take pride in France’s impressive record of postwar technological advances. For this reason, French government decisions to commit to nuclear power and to build high-speed rail lines throughout the country have met with little public opposition; in consequence, France is now a net exporter of electricity and is regarded as the world leader in railway technology.
Criticisms of technotopia focus on the risks of taking the public (and their elected representatives) out of the state’s decision-making apparatus. As part of their effort to stake out an autonomous zone of technocratic decision making, technocrats are tempted to elaborate and mystify their expertise in ways that make it appear to be far beyond the reach of the less educated; in so doing, they may be trying to cover up their inadequacies. At the same time, some technocrats express contempt for ordinary citizens who try to involve themselves in policy decision processes, believing that people with less-than-stellar educations could not possibly grasp the underlying science. Yet the public may question whether technocrats possess sufficient breadth of vision to make wise policy choices. Ultimately, technocrats must make policy decisions by trying to strike a balance between incommensurable factors, such as safety versus cost; critics of technocracy argue that these decisions need to be made transparently so that the public can evaluate them. Because technocrats are mainly drawn from the middle and upper classes, they may be suspected, as well, of class, gender, and racial biases. In the United States, for example, it has been argued that new hazardous waste disposal sites are disproportionately located within African American and Hispanic communities.
More fundamental criticisms question whether science and engineering are capable of providing an appropriate foundation for public policy decisions. Scholarship in science and technology studies (STS), for example, has repeatedly shown a picture of science at sharp variance with the naive view of science underlying technotopian thought. STS research has repeatedly shown that, within scientific communities, scientific evidence is susceptible to multiple interpretations, in which political and social values can easily be shown to play significant roles. Even if technocrats are protected from outright manipulation by politicians and political parties, their decisions are nevertheless driven by more subtle political, social, and professional values; these need to be brought to light so that they can be evaluated by affected communities. Still, it seems clear that the public’s interests are best served by keeping outright political manipulation out of technocratic decision-making processes. In the United States, for example, staff-recommended scientists were rejected from a Bush administration panel considering acceptable levels of lead in drinking water; they were replaced by appointees with financial ties to the lead industry.
- Akin, William E. 1977. Technocracy and the American Dream:The Technocrat Movement, 1900–1941. Berkeley: University of California Press.
- Burris, Beverly H. 1993. Technocracy at Work. Albany: State University of New York Press.
- Cozzens, Susan E., and Edward J. Woodhouse. 1995. Science, Government, and the Politics of Knowledge. In Handbook of Science and Technology Studies, eds. Sheila Jasanoff, Gerald E. Markle, James C. Pattern, and Trevor Pinch, 533–553. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
- Radaelli, Claudio M. 1999. Technocracy in the European Union. London: Longman.
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