Technocracy may be generally described as an organizational structure in which decision makers are selected based on their specialized, technological knowledge, and/or rule according to technical processes. It has also been defined more simply as rule by experts. In all such cases technocracy constitutes a particular interaction between science, technology, and politics that has led to significant ethical debate.
The concept of technocracy needs to be qualified because the idea of rule by experts is at least as old as Plato's proposal for philosopher kings. Similarly, in his New Atlantis (1627), Francis Bacon envisaged an ideal society directed by scientists. But the contemporary meaning of technocracy presupposes the existence of complex industrial societies and the large-scale production and consumption processes that arose at the beginning of the twentieth century. It is only under these conditions that a class of experts in organization and production, namely engineers or technologists, could form. Technocracy, then, is rule by this particular type of expertise. Its advocates either assume or explicitly state that the efficient, rational production and distribution of goods for material abundance is the primary or even exclusive goal of society, because only in this way could they justify expert governance in these fields.
Early in the nineteenth century, the French writer Henri de Saint-Simon (1760–1825) foreshadowed calls for modern technocracy by arguing that the organization of production was more important to society than any other political end. By the 1890s, an emerging ambiguity in the social role of engineers led some to question their traditional subservience to employer goals. Unlike doctors, lawyers, and most other experts, engineers used their expertise to shape productive and technological systems, thereby transforming entire societies. Many began to feel that their power enabled or even obliged them to bring about social progress. With his idea that scientific laws would govern the efficient management of labor and use of resources, Frederick Taylor (1856–1915) provided a practical platform to extend the domain of engineering expertise into management and politics.
Henry Gantt (1861–1919) and James Burnham (1905–1987) further argued for the independence of engineers in their critiques of societal irrationalities and inefficiencies. Thorstein Veblen (1857–1929) critiqued wastefulness in the dominant political and economic system (i.e., the capitalist price system) and argued that engineers were best suited to direct society, because their objectivity was preferable to the short-sighted greed of business leaders. One of his disciples, Howard Scott (b. 1926), formed the Technical Alliance (in 1918) and later—rivalling with the "Continental Committee on Technocracy" (led by Harold Loeb and Felix Frazer)—Technocracy Inc. (in 1933). Members of Technocracy Inc. advocated a transition away from the price system and the establishment of a "governance of function," or a Technate, on the North American Continent. They argued that the scientific design of social operations would guarantee abundance for all.
Types of Technocracy
Analytically there exist at least seven variations on the technocracy theme. First, there is the notion of "expertocracy," or a conspiracy of experts who usurp decision making powers from democratically elected representatives. Second, technocracy can serve as a form of social engineering, where administrative procedures and organizational contrivances, rather than experts, gain power and form a "technological state." Third, there is a technocracy of work best articulated by Taylor's Principles of Scientific Management (1911). Fourth, the technological imperative of "can implies ought," in which means and feasibility determine goals, may create a technocracy that values the improvement of instrumentalities as a primary end. Fifth, there is the systems technocracy that may emerge from dynamic, interdependent systems engineering and by thereby administrating soci(et)al and political systems. Sixth, technocracy can refer to a situation in which laws are enforced by designing systems such that it is almost impossible to break them and that societal decisions and developments are totally streamlined by them and/or computerization. Finally, there is the technocratic movement spearheaded by Technocracy Inc. Additionally, the term has also been applied to a number of dictatorship governments and to a virtual reality game that claims to be based on "the inexorable advance of real-life technocracy" (see the web site at www.white-wolf.com/Games/Pages/MagePreview/technocracy.html).
Nevertheless, only four of these possibilities exhibit continuing viability. The idea of technocracy as expertocracy remains the most popular: a conspiracy of experts taking power through their personal, knowledge-based control of complex decision making. In the version promoted by Veblen (1925) this would involve rule by engineers especially in industrial corporations. But other alternatives might stress the intelligence and efficiency of more localized expertise, such as medical doctors to run health care systems. In all instances, expertocracies are argued to increase intelligence and efficiency in technical action—but threaten democracy.
A second widely discussed possibility focuses on the scientific optimization of social engineering through public administration. Here it is not experts as persons but administrative procedures and organizational structures that would exercise power. No individual or group would rule; individuals or groups would at most have a role in properly managing institutions and processes. This is the vision of technological politics presented by Jacques Ellul and others in which technological and administrative decisions replace political deliberation. Legislation by elected officials would wither under such an automated bureaucracy.
During the 1960s the idea of a technological imperative led to the articulation of another important version of technocracy, although one that has declined in intellectual salience. According to critical social theorist Herbert Marcuse (1898–1979) and science fiction writer Stanislaw Lem (b. 1921), there is a strong tendency for technical possibilities to determine social or political goals. Anything that can be done or produced will be done or produced, even becoming a matter of need. Means would determine ends; can implies ought. In a society established along these lines, improvement of instrumentalities becomes of singular value; the constant improvement of technology becomes the goal.
A fourth form of technocracy that continues to be examined conceives it in system terms. This is an important new variation on the technocracy theme. Systems engineering as well as systems analyses of the interconnections and complexities of society (as in the work of Niklas Luhmann) suggest a new kind of systems-technocracy. Discussions of systems-technocracy and the special case of "computerocracy" have emerged as serious issues in association with the rise of the so-called era of "information and systems technology" (Hans Lenk 1971, 1973).
Is systems-technocracy the wave of the future? There certainly are trends pointing in this direction, and the discussion should not be left to sociologists and politicians only. Instead, the single-focus framework of the social sciences should be combined with historical, engineering, and philosophical approaches to create an adequately interdisciplinary perspective. From such a perspective it can be argued that in a pluralistic technoscientific society the best way forward is to steer a pragmatic middle path between the extremes of an inhumanly efficient technocracy, a ruthless power politics, and a vulgar democracy devoid of intelligence.
As Jean Meynaud (1964) summarized the issue, the decades-old debate on technocracy comes down to the fact that there is no conspiracy on the part of the technical community to usurp political power, though technical matters have taken on ever increasing importance.
Because the complexity of social, technological, economic, and ecological systems has increased, there is a progressive demand for technological, scientific, and organizational expertise. At the same time, narrow expertise calls forth a complementary needs for generalists, people with a broad view ("specialists of the general") of interdisciplinary complexes who can take a systems approach toward problems.
Historically speaking, the technocracy debate simply continued the social criticisms of technology from the early part of the twentieth century. Its dominant characteristic has been a pessimistic attitude that ignores the extensive ways technology has humanized the world. But the privileged position of experts in particular cases has not led to the demise of politics in the so-called "technolocal state" (Helmut Schelsky) or of the importance of its interplay between conflicting and overlapping interest groups and power structures. The opposite seems to be the case. The most significant outcome of the technocracy debate is thus an awareness that complex political decisions cannot be replaced by the technological or "computerocratic" procedures of optimization and maximization.
There are several explanations for this. Most significant is the fact that complex political decisions involve both information and the adjudication of a plurality of values. The inexplicable and undecidable character of political questions in contrast to technological answers, as was argued by Hans Lenk (1973), has largely been confirmed by experience. Society and the state are not machines with mere objective standards of performance, and there is no scientifically generated "one best way" (as Schelsky believed) to solve many technical, let alone political, problems. Attempts to apply science to societal problems with this intention often lead to interminable debates among competing experts, while the underlying values at stake remain unexamined.
Yet it remains true that technical matters have taken on ever increasing importance in the complex problems of modern societies and computerocracy as a virulent version of systems technocracy is an imminent danger in our hi-tech societies. The challenge for democratic governance is to integrate technical experts with non-expert participants to strike common interest solutions in contexts where many elements are beyond the comprehension of all but a few specialists. These interdisciplinary contexts may even demand generalists capable of integrating diverse sets of knowledge and perspectives.
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Fischer, Frank. (1990). Technocracy and the Politics of Expertise. Newberry Park, CA: Sage Publications.
Koch, Claus, and Dieter Senghaas, eds. (1970). Texte Zur Technokratiedieskussion [Materials on the Debate about Technocracy] Frankfurt: Europaeische Verlagsanstalt.
Lenk, Hans. (1971). Philosohphie im Technologischen Zeitalter [Philosophy in the Technological Era] Stuttgart: W. Kohlhammer.
Lenk, Hans. (1984). "Toward a Pragmatical Social Philosophy of Technology and the Technological Intelligentsia." In Research in Philosophy and Technology, ed. by Paul T. Durbin.
Lenk, Hans. (1991). "Ideology, Technocracy, and Knowledge Utilization." In Europe; America, and Technology: Philosophical Perspectives, edited by Paul T. Durbin. Dordrecht/ Boston/ London: Kluwer.
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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 disintermedia-tion 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.
SEE ALSO Internet; Technology; Technotopia
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.
A technocrat, according to the most basic meaning of the word, is someone who advocates or governs a technoc-racy—the rule of technical experts. The roots of the word technocrat lie in the classical Greek words for “skill” or “craft” (techne ) and “rule” (kratos ). The word technocrat is typically used to convey derogatory or ironic attitudes about technology and about the authority or power of those who understand and use technologies. Thus a technocrat is one who advocates technological or technical, rather than political, solutions to collective problems and who fails to consider the humanistic, historical, symbolic, moral, or personal elements of collective decisions. In France, for example, the word technocrate (“technocrat”) is used by both the political left and right as an epithet for one who is said to administer or manage an organization on the basis of narrow technical expertise, and who lacks class consciousness, democratic commitments, moral conscience, and basic humanity (for example, Hecht 1998).
Daryush Sheyagan in Cultural Schizophrenia (1992) characterizes technocrats as “the managers of the technical, political, economic and scientific spheres of a modern society. They … take on the depersonalized, neutral quality of the world for whose efficiency they are responsible. They symbolize pure function stripped of all personal connotations … they are indifferent to the ethical purposes of what is produced” and can serve one type of political regime as well as another (pp. 148–149). However, if, as Jacques Ellul (1964) and Langdon Winner (1977) have suggested, technology is autonomous and technological imperatives determine decision outcomes, then in principle technocracy would not involve the authority of technocrats, for the real sources of authority and power would be impersonal and systemic.
Unlike the term bureaucrat, which since introduced by Max Weber has had a well-established place in the conceptual vocabulary and research of the social sciences, technocrat has had little use in social science research. Moreover, while a technocrat may also be a bureaucrat, technocrat can refer more generally to anyone who exercises scientific, technological, economic, administrative, or environmental authority.
The term is also used to refer to a member of a movement or organization that advocates governance by engineers or other technically trained experts instead of by politicians. Since 1933 in the United States, Technocracy, Inc. has been the principal research and educational organization representing the technocracy movement. Its predecessor, the Technical Alliance, was founded in 1919 by Howard Scott (1890–1970), who had been inspired by the writings of Thorstein Veblen (1857–1929). The official publication of Technocracy, Inc. is North American Technocrat. Henry Elsner Jr. (1967) has traced much of the history of the technocratic movement in the United States.
SEE ALSO Bureaucrat; Democracy; Technocracy; Technology
Ellul, Jacques. 1964. The Technological Society. Trans. J. Wilkinson. New York: Vintage Press.
Elsner, Henry, Jr. 1967. The Technocrats: Prophets of Automation. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press.
Hecht, Gabrielle. 1998. The Radiance of France: Nuclear Power and National Identity after World War II. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Shayegan, Daryush. 1992. Cultural Schizophrenia: Islamic Societies Confronting the West. Trans. J. Howe. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press.
Technocracy, Inc. Web site. www.technocracy.org.
Veblen, Thorstein. 1921. The Engineers and the Price System. New York: B.W. Heubsch.
Winner, Langdon. 1977. Autonomous Technology: Technics-out-of-Control as a Theme in Political Thought. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
tech·no·crat / ˈteknəˌkrat/ • n. an exponent or advocate of technocracy. ∎ a member of a technically skilled elite. DERIVATIVES: tech·no·crat·ic / ˌteknəˈkratik/ adj. tech·no·crat·i·cal·ly / ˌteknəˈkratik(ə)lē/ adv.
tech·noc·ra·cy / tekˈnäkrəsē/ • n. (pl. -cies) the government or control of society or industry by an elite of technical experts. ∎ an instance or application of this. ∎ an elite of technical experts.