Long But Worth It

The final question of the reading prompt asks us to examine the notion of a technological fix and it’s potential pitfalls. There is, however, a definitional flaw at the heart of this discussion which, in my opinion, obscures the true nature of the problem.  To really understand the issues associated with a techno-fix, one must draw a distinction between a technological solution to a social problem, and a technocratic one.  Although we find the prefix “tech” in both words, it is the suffix which distinguishes their natures. “-ological” refers to the study of a subject and implies a scientific approach.  “-ocratic” is definitionally political.  In the two supplemental readings, the Huesemanns in particular, the political and technological are combined and although it may seem reductionist at first blush, my claim is that the two are fundamentally separate. Furthermore any technological failure in a technocratic endeavor is a failure of policy rather than technology.


One can see this effect clearly by comparing the distributed and organic process of solving problems with technology in the market, to the centralized, managed approach of solving problems with technology via policy. Take, for example, the streetcar platform problem in Johnston’s writing.  The “techno-fix” was to enclose the entrance and exit to the streetcar rather than to try to convince people through threats of arrest, to stay off the platforms.  This is a better fix than arrests and fines, but it was still a political solution. The solution was implemented by public officials. Indeed the existence of public transportation created the problem in the first place! The actual technological solution came from Henry Ford with the mass production of the personal automobile.  This division of the political and technological doesn’t mean that one doesn’t affect the other.  Additionally, it doesn’t resolve the central planner’s inability to account for unintended consequences nor the market’s tendency to create spillover effects and externalities.  What it does is give us the clarity to talk about if, when, and how problems should be solved by central planning. Much as the mass of Newton’s orbiting cannonball drops out of the equation describing the relationship between its velocity and altitude, technology drops out of the heart of the techno-fix question and leads us to deeper and more productive questions of human nature, individual action, and collective action.


Approaching the skepticism of the techno-fix directly, there is every reason to be skeptical of a technocratic solution.  This has been discussed at length in economics.  The Nobel Prize-winning economist Friedrich Hayek made the “knowledge problem” a key research area of his career.  In short, the central planner never has as much knowledge about the optimal distribution of value-bearing goods and services as the person giving or receiving those goods and services. This distributed nature of value and knowledge is why it is so hard (impossible really) to efficiently plan even small sectors of an economy.  Again we see the irrelevance of technology itself in the discussion as this economic observation holds true in any society, mechanized or not. In contrast to technocracy, a technological solution that emerges to address a social problem in pursuit of profit, has a fundamentally different character.  If we are to talk about the tradeoffs of the advancements of technology, this difference must be recognized. Solutions to problems that arise due to central planning (technocracy) are very different from solutions to problems that arise due to spillover effects in market-based innovation (technology).


With that distinction made clear, one can address the earlier questions in the prompt.  That governments, or more properly, those in power, fear technology, is nearly tautological. When Jonson says “Priestly thought the war chest would be better spent on libraries and laboratories,” (Johnson, 209) he is referring to the economic and military might that comes with technological advances.  Economic and military power is always a threat to political supremacy.  In the case of Priestly’s support of the Republican cause, he believed that war-mongering was counterproductive in part because the French government had more to fear from American technology than it did from an American navy.


Finally, all of this is terribly and wonderfully relevant to today’s world. Johnson is right that science, politics, engineering, religion, and society form a cultural ecosystem and changes to one affect all.  I cannot foresee a world where this is not the case.  However, the long zoom view risks missing the details. From the long view, it is far too easy to make causal claims without sufficient supporting evidence. Though in fairness the narrative rather than the proof is the language of the long zoom view.  Narratives are powerful, but also dangerously prone to misunderstanding or even misrepresenting the relationships between people and systems. We are in the midst of a contentious election year compounded by a viral pandemic and civil unrest.  Narratives, politics, fear, violence, technology, science, and human progress confront us every day.  Evidence and opinions flow to us at the speed of light in fiber optic cable.  Perspective may indeed be more important than proof at this moment.  In closing, perhaps we can find some hope in Franklin’s wartime despair.  People will often be vicious and bloodthirsty, but they also can return to magnanimity.  Priestly’s undying optimism and love of “hacker” science is a testament to the better part of human nature.  Hopefully our own strivings toward a better world through technology will be tempered by a social understanding that comes from multidisciplinary study.

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