The Emergence of a New Technocracy?

Khana Parag, author of Connectography’s  new book Technocracy in America: Rise of the Info-State  supplies us with the emergence of – to take the title of a recent novel, Infomacracy, or the combination of algorithmic compliance and governmentality by experts:

Technocratic government is built around expert analysis and long-term planning rather than narrow-minded and short-term populist whims. Technocrats are not to be confused with the complacent establishment elites that were just stunned by Trump. Real technocracy has the virtues of being both utilitarian (inclusively seeking the broadest societal benefit) and meritocratic (with the most qualified and non-corrupt leaders). Instead of ad hoc and reactive politics, technocracies are where political science starts to look like something worthy of the term: A rigorous approach to policy.1

The notion of technocracy is not new but that people are actually contemplating this form of governance in our moment when both the Left and Right are in the extreme modes of embitterment, and the common man is fed up with both, and the populist revolt that sparked Trump and brought both the Left and Right into an end game for Democracy is. Are we staging a new Technocracy in our time? With the looming sense of catastrophe, climacteric collapse, Sixth Extinction events, and the immersion of most of the world in drought, famine, and austerity the mobilization of a technological fix is being hyped in all quarters. Where do we go from here?

Years ago Jaques Ellul in his dystopian take on what he’d term The Technological Society2 remarked,

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For Elllul there was this sense that technology had its own motives and determinations, that it had an intelligence of its own the ran counter to the old industrial factory model of reality that had spawned modern capitalist societies. It would be none other than Zbigniew Brzezinski in Between Two Ages who would coin the neologism ‘technetronic’ for the emergence of the Technocratic Society:

Today, the most industrial y advanced countries (in the first instance, the United States) are beginning to emerge from the industrial stage of their development. They are entering an age in which technology and especialy electronics—hence my neologism “technetronic” —are increasingly becoming the principal determinants of social change, altering the mores, the social structure, the values, and the global outlook of society. And precisely because today change is so rapid and so complex, it is perhaps more important than ever before that our conduct of foreign affairs be guided by a sense of history—and to speak of history in this context is to speak simultaneously of the past and of the future. (p. 5)

As Ellul would say Brzeninski would list a number of differences between the older industrial model and the new technocratic vision. In industrial society, the machine plays the essential role. The dominant social problems are unemployment and employment. Teaching is done through human relations. The ruling class is plutocratic. The university is an ivory tower isolated from reality. Reading favors a conceptual thinking proper to ideologies. Political conflicts are intrinsic; the masses are organized into trade unions; economic power is personalized; wealth is the object of activity.

In the new technocratic society one the other hand according to Brezinski there is growth of “services.” Automation replaces industrial employment. The central issue is that of qualifications: meritocracy. People are bound by security and conformity to the technologies that support their daily lives. Learning is universal and lifelong process, hooked to the technics and technologies that are ever changing. Knowledge is the new wealth: data, not money is the market power. Decision making is bound to the knowledge-systems of computational and functional algorithms which enforce normalization and the rules-based systems that all must conform too. The technocratic society is a-political in the sense that technology, not humans is the driver and enforcer of decision making policies. Ideologies vanish, economic power is depersonalized, and wealth is no longer useful.

For Parag we are becoming motivated to invent the possibility of direct technocracy, which as he explains would look something like this:

A collective presidency of about a half-dozen committee members backed by a strong civil service better able to juggle complex challenges; a multi-party legislature better reflective of the diversity of political views and using data technologies for real-time citizen consultation, and the Senate replaced by a Governors Assembly that prioritizes the common needs of states and shares successful policies across them; and a judicial branch that monitors international benchmarks and standards, and proposes constitutional amendments to keep pace with our rapidly changing times. (TA: 6)

This would be an algorithmic government bound to the technologies of ICT’s and global communications systems of information and Artificial General Intelligence. In Luciana Parisis’s Contagious Architectures we discover that algorithms are no longer seen as tools to accomplish a task: in digital architecture, they are the constructive material or abstract “ stuff ” that enables the automated design of buildings, infrastructures, and objects. Algorithms are thus actualities, defined by an automated prehension of data in the computational processing of probabilities.3

In this work randomness allows the accidental vagrancies of code and algorithms to produce indeterminate relations that cannot be bound to the logicomathematical systems that many are terming algorithmic governmentality.

Her use of Whitehead’s concept of prehension is as she describes it:

This is where computation becomes entangled with Whitehead ’ s view that it is prehensions that define what an entity is and how it relates to others. Prehensions point to how any actuality (from an animal body to a grain of sand, from an amoeba to an electron) grasps, includes and excludes, and transforms data. Instead of an ontological dominance of higher forms of actuality (such as human beings) over others, Whitehead argues that all entities have an equivalent status. Not only are they all real, but also they all matter. Nevertheless, this seemingly flattening ontology does not simply contend that these actualities are all the same, nor does it hold that they are all different. Whitehead proposes a radical pragmatism according to which determinate events, or what he calls occasions of experience, are defined by degrees of prehension that in turn constitute the degree of importance of some actualities compared to others. (p. 13)

In some ways these “degrees of prehension” align well with Nietzsche’s ‘levels of abstraction’ and ranking, the generative function of thought and non-conceptual relations no longer determinant in relation to the logic of the same (Identity). This is a book for those seeking a better understanding of the cultural mechanics underlying these new notions around algorithmic culture and governmentality.

For Parag the development of these algorithmic entities and smart systems is not to construct an algorithmic order but a generative algorithm, as in music or architecture, which is interactive and open-ended with infinite possibilities: A structure that does not discriminate against inputs but rather adapts to each change from within the system. Policymaking must therefore become a continuous loop involving stages of assessment, preparation, formulation, implementation, evaluation and modification. It is the society that experiments most without believing in either its own perfection or perfectibility that is most likely to evolve rather than decay.(TA: 114)

This notion that society is an open experiment, a test-bed for technological adaptation and appropriation guided by new technologies of decisioning and governance that can accelerate, simulate, and model the reality systems and problems that have become too complex for human decision and old style politics is at the forefront of this technocratic imperative. In Parag’s estimation,

Technocratic decision-making over other key global issues does not mean an end to transparency, but it does mean an increase in expert influence. The Bank of International Settlements (BIS), for example, which provides independent research—and warning—to central banks about the impact of excessive leverage in the financial system, has thought through how to reduce monetary policy volatility better than individual governments have. Listening to such bodies only after the next crisis begs the question as to why they were created in the first place. From immigration to climate change to Internet governance, today’s hot-button international issues are actually deep structural challenges in need of long-term strategies. Historical civilizations have collapsed precisely because they fail to develop solutions to complex problems. More sophisticated technocracy is better than praying for global democracy. (TA: 118)

That Parag has already bought into this, and is now hyping it to the governments, corporations, and social media systems that give him ear is without doubt. That there does seem a tendency toward our externalization and reliance of technology and experts of late is also without doubt. Does this mean we are buying into a new capture system of desire, a new form of enslavement that will appropriate our decision making power in exchange for economic and security needs? Time will only tell… are we entering an age when the invisible hand of the algorithm, not God or Oligarch rules over us?

My problem with much of this is the anomalous emergence since the 80’s and 90’s of an anti-technology, anti-scientism, anti-progressive, and populist implosion into the old ideologies of the Great Man: the Leader who confronts the sciences, secularism, and modernity of Globalism and its Technocracy. Trump as anomaly? A renovation? A return to those early splits within anti-fascisms of the 20’s? Even the globalists of his own party sought to oust him from its enclaves, and yet he prevailed. How? Why? Is the expansion of the Western economic globalist technocracy in its death throes? Is the so called neoliberalism of the past sixty years giving way under its own success? Is luxury capitalism becoming its own end game, thriving in the indelible excess of its own toxic wealth? This reemergence of paranoia, anti-intellectualism, and the recourse to affect, irrationalism, and the old forms of democratic tyranny? As America falls into civil strife, paupery, collapse and ruin under the pressure of a shift-change from the West to the East. The Rise of China and India among others as the new locus of economic power for the 21st Century what place do the failing economies of the West play in this scenario?

Arnold J. Toynbee in his Study of History once described the breakdowns of civilization as a loss of harmony:

The successive transformations of the prophet into the drill-sergeant and of this martinet into a terrorist explain the declines and falls of civilizations in terms of leadership. In terms of relation or interaction, the failure of the Promethean elan declares itself in a loss of harmony. In the movement of life a change in any one part of a whole ought to be accompanied by sympathetic adjustments of the other parts if all is to go well; but when life is mechanized one part may be altered while others are left as they have been, and a loss of harmony is the result.4

The same goes in out current movement toward an automated society, where our machinic children are inheriting and replacing their organic parents in the machinic spaces of the global system. The humans left behind are as they’ve always been and are experiencing this deep loss of harmony in both the natural and artificial orders. The eerie feeling that we’ve become spectres in our own house, that life is going on elsewhere and we’ve become mere shadowkeepers of a temporal order that is obsolescing us a stage at a time is prevalent across even the pop-cultural sphere. Darkened we turn from technology to technology to pacify and  entertain our lonely hours in a mechanized world of robots, AI’s, and machinic systems that have no need of us or our services.

  1. Khanna, Parag. Technocracy in America: Rise of the Info-State (p. 3). CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform. Kindle Edition.
  2. Ellul, Jaques. The Technological Society. Vintage Books; Extensive Underlining edition (1964)
  3. Parisi, Luciana. Contagious Architecture: Computation, Aesthetics, and Space. The MIT Press (March 8, 2013)
  4. Arnold J. Toynbee. A Study of History (Kindle Locations 3351-3355). Kindle Edition.

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