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Initially and most generally, a technocracy was a form of organizational structure or system of governance in which decision makers were selected on the basis of technological knowledge. In the past, such individuals were called technocrats, a term used frequently in the twenty-first century by, for example, journalists, but differently, to refer to individuals exercising governmental authority because of their knowledge rather than political profile (e.g., “a government of technocrats, not politicians”). When used in the twenty-first century, the term technocracy is more likely to mean governance exercised by technological systems themselves than by experts.
Sharing connotations with theocracy (government by a divinity or its representatives), autocracy (ruleless governance by a lone individual), and bureaucracy (governance via routinized exercise of authority by humans), technocracy contrasts with democracy, rule by the citizenry. In addition to having a high estimation of applications of science-based learning, advocates of technocracy (such as the engineer/social activist Howard Scott) view governmen-tality as problematic, the complexity of technological systems being itself an important contributor of difficulty. They believe that, where possible, decisions should be designed into systems, because direct application is most effective and efficient. If humans have to be involved in governance, they should be highly familiar with the systems, rather than those with the authority of office, divinely inspired, with charisma, or by the people at large.
Late twentieth-century social studies of technoscience (such as those of the scholar Bruno Latour) tried to broaden the notion of technology, applying the term to any routinized complex of artifacts, agents, and practices. Users of technocracy generally think of technology in a more restricted sense, as the highly complex systems distinctive feature of “high tech” social formations.
In 1919 the American engineer W H. Smith claimed to have coined the term technocracy, but Scott, founder of the arguably fascistic social movement Technocracy, Inc., asserted that he had heard the term as early as the 1880s. Used explicitly in this period by diverse Progressive political movements in the United States, technocracy was presumed to be a natural and inevitable consequence of social evolution. Society was dependent on increasingly ubiquitous complex systems—like the railroad, those providing clean water, or those promoting public health—that themselves needed public support to function. Because systems were best understood by experts, technological expertise came to be seen as essential. The social chaos of the Great Depression of the 1930s exacerbated the perceived democracy crisis following from immigrant access to a broadened franchise. Giving governance to those who best understood technology (initially, engineers, such as Thorstein Veblen and Scott), but, later, managers (including James Burnham) would naturally promote scientific governance. Consonant with the positive social sciences, especially political science, technocracy also drew heavily on Western Utopian traditions (as in the work of novelist Harold Loeb) and a long American tradition of technological determinism.
A second period of the concept’s popularity came with the 1960s rise of postindustrial theorizing, which fostered talk of an “information society” based in knowledge rather than manufacturing. For Daniel Bell, author of The Coming of Post Industrial Society (1973) technocracy was marked by the increasing power of professionals, as a consequence of which society was taking a more self-conscious, planned trajectory. The chief legacy of this second wave period, however, is that technocracy has come to mostly be used critically, to acknowledge an unfortunate necessity, not to be advocated. In his book Autonomous Technology (1977), for example, Langdon Winner developed an “alternative conception of technocracy,” by adding “reverse adaptation” to the earlier technological imperative. Via technocracy, technologies have become ends, not means, displacing even the experts: “…[I]t matters little who in specific obeys the imperative or enacts the adaptation” (p. 258).
With today’s widely shared sense that any human agency is marginalized by technology, technocracy is arguably common sense, even though its negative connotations mean only the critical freely use the term itself. Still, advocates of new systems feel compelled to justify them as democratic. Even though computing’s implications for democracy, as in many other social arenas, are contradictory, the democratic implications of automated information and communications technologies (AICTs) were the ones that were stressed. Indeed, if networked, digitized representations at least theoretically democratize access to knowledge, and on-line plebiscites can extend opportunities for direct democracy, their disintermediation lessening the need for representation.
However, increasingly ubiquitous, self-governing smart machines, having artificial intelligence, can govern affairs autonomously, thus decreasing any need for democracy. Similarly, a perceived technology-enabled, rapidly proceeding globalization seems to lessen the need for any state.
Is computing the triumph of technocracy? This may depend on the ultimate cultural correlates of the new governance model emerging in cyberspace. This model takes institutional form in entities like the Internet Society and the World Wide Web Consortium, as well as in Free/Libre and Open Source Software development networks. Here governance focuses on devising technical standards, decisions about which are made whenever possible by consensus. Ostensibly democratic, such activities are open to the participation, either physical or electronically mediated, of anyone, as long as the participant can demonstrate the requisite technical expertise.
Perception of the technocratic affordances of new technologies has also spawned forms of resistance. As described by Richard Sclove in Democracy and Technology (1995) and especially in Scandinavia, AICTs are themselves used to support democratic technology consensus conferences, which aim to achieve broad social agreement before mega-projects begin. In these, cross-sections of the populace are encouraged to draw on their own experience, supplemented by expert responses to the citizens’ own questions, to develop independent positions with regard to proposed technological ventures.
As argued by cyberspace ethnographers like David Hakken, technocratic presumptions filter what “impacts” are seen as likely to follow from AICTs. The same presumptions interfere with seeing how social factors shape the technologies themselves. The increased centrality of technological systems to the reproduction of capital is one of several important factors promoting the building of technocracy into computerized life. Still, as the success of consensus conferences show, this tendency can be contested. It must be for democracy to be more than mere posturing. Once implementation begins, the broader social correlates of using complex technological systems can be very hard to reverse. To avoid technocracy, it is essential to insert democratic participation early in the design of complex technological systems.
- Bell, Daniel. 1973. The Coming of Post-Industrial Society: A Venture in Social Forecasting. New York: Basic Books.
- Hakken, David. 2003. The Knowledge Landscapes of Cyberspace. New York: Routledge.
- Sclove, Richard. 1995. Democracy and Technology. New York:Guilford Press.
- Scott, Howard, et al. 1933. Introduction to Technocracy. New York: John Day Company.
- Winner, Langdon. 1977. Autonomous Technology: Technics-out-of-Control as a Theme in Political Thought. Cambridge, MA:MIT Press.
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