originally published November 28, 2012
Regular readers of this site know that I am anticipating a robot apocalypse any day now. Maybe not on December 21, this year’s highly-touted End-Of-The-World prediction, but that’s only because I want to believe the world wouldn’t be so cruel as to come to an end on a Friday. I’d like to think we’ll get the weekend.
Whether Miss Wiki hammered ‘Technocracy’ into today’s topic-punchcard as a warning or simply as a coincidence, I’ll never know. I was both intrigued and repulsed – do I want to look too deeply into our future robot overlords? Should I know my enemy? Or was I over-reacting? I have a tendency to do that.
Then I read the article and was swiftly disappointed. Technocracy has nothing to do with robots running the world. The reality is far less interesting and far less likely to result in a Terminator-type dystopia.
Technocrats believe that all the world’s problems can be solved through technology. Bad economy? Technology. Aggressive imperialist leader in Europe? Technology. Magazines not effectively delivering sufficient amounts of pornography into your home? Technology. Okay, they were right about that one.
The origins of the technocratic movement can be traced back to this guy:
That’s Edward Bellamy, noted American writer, socialist, and mustache model. In 1887 he wrote a book called Looking Backward, a utopian piece of sci-fi that examines the world as it would exist in the distant future: the year 2000. Was it accurate? Well, of course not. But it laid the groundwork for a movement, which is all any writer can hope for. Myself, I anticipate being cited by history when North America switches over to a government based upon the merits of bacon.
Despite an overreaching faith that the planet would be governed by a peaceful socialist ideology, Bellamy nailed a few 20th-century concepts. He predicted the giant warehouse club stores like Costco or Sam’s Club. He also predicted credit cards, though in a far more reasonable and equal-distribution format than we actually have today. In addition, Bellamy felt we would be able to receive sermons and music in our home, thanks to the cable telephone technology. It’s not a far stretch from here to radio, and just a few steps further to Grumpy Cat pictures gushing through the spigots of Reddit.
Obviously classical Marxism, which drips off the pages of Bellamy’s book like sour honey off a goose’s ass-feathers, did not become the predominant political system in the world. But it got a few minds reeling, notably the cerebral jelly belonging to Howard Scott. He kick-started the Technical Alliance in 1919, along with a group of scientists and engineers who hoped to change the world.
The Technical Alliance – and Howard Scott in particular – felt that the capitalist system was wasteful. Their proposal was the foundation of technocracy: a society run by technical experts who could eliminate the waste and resolve all of the world’s problems with their ingenuity and the technology they could create.
Leave it to a bunch of technology experts to devise a system run by technology experts.
The Alliance launched a study called the Energy Survey of North America to document specifically why the nations of the west were suffering so much. Unfortunately, North America sabotaged the study by not suffering in the post-war period. At least that’s why the Alliance claims they had to disband in 1921.
But technocracy was not dead. In 1932, once the economy had plummeted to the point where people were ready to entertain any crazy notion for salvation, Howard Scott took his cue and rallied the troops in New York City. He organized the Committee On Technocracy and tried once again to take his message to the people.
For a while, the people listened. The New York Times published a profile of Scott’s group on June 16, 1932, and proceeded to report on its activities. Scott took to the attention. When the Committee on Technocracy broke up in early 1933, he founded Technocracy Incorporated and kept the proverbial megaphone pressed to his lips. He ordered grey and red double-breasted suits as uniforms for everyone in the organization, as well as official grey and red cars. His followers saluted him in the streets. He even adopted the monad symbol as his official insignia:
The common measure to the production of all goods and services is energy, Scott mused. That means that the sole foundation of our entire monetary system is energy. Therefore by building society around an energy metric instead of a monetary metric, society could become more efficient, more productive. Maybe if we’d put Howard Scott in charge, I’d have my damn flying car by now.
On January 13, 1933, Scott made a national address, one you can read in its entirety here. I’ll warn you though, it’s excruciatingly dry, confusing, and whatever the opposite of inspiring is. Scott was proposing replacing our entire socio-political system. He took the public’s few months of budding interest and spewed the most extreme manifestation of his ideas all over them. Shocked, and now dripping with manifestation-spew, the public was not impressed.
Scott and Technocracy Incorporated became more an object of ridicule in the public eye after that. The press, businessmen and economists who had tweaked their ears at Scott’s initial ideas felt that changes could be made that supported Scott’s fundamental notions without tossing the entire Das kind mit dem Bade ausschütten, as the Germans say.
Technocracy Incorporated and Howard Scott kept up the good fight, even after Roosevelt’s New Deal was shown to be a good enough strategy to right the economy and shut down the Great Depression. They organized a speaking tour along the west coast after WWII, but by 1948 the movement had slowed to a near-halt.
Scott and his bunch had predicted a complete collapse of the Price System, first by 1936, then before the end of the decade. Back then this seemed totally viable. But after the next war, America was flush with money. Hard to sell impending disaster when everything seems so groovy.
The government of the USSR and the Communist government of China could be seen as technocracies, as both were (or are) run to a large extent by engineers. This didn’t work so well for the Soviets, but China’s infrastructure has leapt forward significantly with their most recent five-year plans.
Ultimately, technocracy may be proven right. But throwing out our entire system to get there won’t work. The robots will sense our weakness and take control – and that’s when shit really gets out of control.