What the hell is a “technocrat,” and are you one of them?

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What the hell is a "technocrat," and are you one of them?

You used to hear the word “tech­no­crat” a lot, refer­ring to a par­tic­u­lar kind of gad­get-lover. Bat­man has been called a tech­no­crat, and so have Tony Stark and the Doc­tor from Doc­tor Who. But what does this word mean, and why does it have the same suf­fix as “aris­to­crat”?

The Tech­noc­racy Move­ment

Before there was the term “tech­no­crat,” there was the idea of “tech­noc­racy” — a sys­tem of gov­er­nance where sci­en­tists and tech­ni­cal experts could hold sway. In the ear­ly 1920s, William Hen­ry Smyth wrote a book called Tech­noc­racy, which advo­cates the fdor­ma­tion of a Nation­al Coun­cil of Sci­en­tists, who could exert “con­trol with­out con­trol,” steer­ing the econ­omy and soci­ety with­out peo­ple real­iz­ing.

Smyth writes about the prim­i­tive side of human­ity, rep­re­sented by a cou­ple named Iras­ci­ble Strong and Trix­ie Cun­ning:

In the for­est primeval, Iras­ci­ble Strong, our semi-human first par­ent, promis­cu­ously thrashed and smashed with his ragged tree-branch-club, joy­ously crack­ing skulls in his gory pur­suit of grub and life inter­est; and Trix­ie, his less pow­er­ful and less fero­cious, but more cun­ning mate (in her pur­suit of life inter­est and grub), jolt­ed his slug­gard wits by her auda­ciously flir­ta­tious actions; swiped some of his pro­cure­ments; and in many oth­er fem­i­nine ways act­ed most rep­re­hen­si­bly.

So it is today — mere­ly mod­ern­ized.

It’s this prim­i­tive nature of ours that needs to be con­trolled and shaped by those who know bet­ter, sci­en­tists and engi­neers.

A lead­ing light of tech­noc­racy was Fred­er­ick Winslow Tay­lor, an indus­trial the­o­rist who influ­enced both Hen­ry Ford and Lenin with his idea about the “sci­en­tific man­age­ment” of indus­try and work­ers. He helped shape the assem­bly line and the

What the hell is a "technocrat," and are you one of them?

After the Great Depres­sion, with the econ­omy in sham­bles, tech­noc­racy seemed to offer a way to get things back on track — we could hand con­trol over the econ­omy to sci­en­tists, who would fig­ure out how to run things smooth­ly. In 1933, famed sci­ence fic­tion edi­tor Hugo Gerns­back found­ed a mag­a­zine called Tech­noc­racy Review, which he adver­tised in the pages of Won­der Sto­ries (oppo­site a short sto­ry called “The Robot Tech­no­crat.”)

What the hell is a "technocrat," and are you one of them?

Tech­noc­racy Review was a mag­a­zine that con­tained no fic­tion — just arti­cles about tech­noc­racy. And, as Gary West­fahl reveals in his book Hugo Gerns­back and the Cen­tury of Sci­ence Fic­tion and this arti­cle, the mag­a­zine didn’t whole-heart­ed­ly advo­cate for tech­noc­racy — in one arti­cle, Gerns­back com­plained that most of the lead­ing advo­cates for tech­noc­racy were not first-rate sci­en­tists, but rather tech­ni­cians. In fact, most of the state­ments made in sup­port of tech­noc­racy were sci­en­tif­i­cally invalid.

Plus by the 1930s, tech­noc­racy had got­ten bound up with an eco­nomic scheme to val­ue com­modi­ties accord­ing to the amount of ener­gy they required to pro­duce, rather than based on sup­ply and demand. And Gerns­back didn’t agree with that notion, not least because it might inter­fere with his own pur­suit of wealth.

What the hell is a "technocrat," and are you one of them?S

In the book Speak­ing Sci­ence Fic­tion, crit­ic Farah Mendel­son argues that Robert A. Heinlein’s famous sto­ry “The Roads Must Roll” is “star­tling in its unself­con­scious advo­cacy of tech­noc­racy,” with its depic­tion of a mas­sively com­pe­tent hero fac­ing off against a rab­ble of strik­ing work­ers who are upset­ting the per­fect con­vey­er-belt world.

And mean­while, Isaac Asimov’s famous idea of “psy­chohis­tory,” in which per­fect knowl­edge of a sys­tem would allow you to pre­dict and con­trol it in the long run, is inher­ently tech­no­crat­ic.

But in fact, most of the tech­nocrats you meet in sci­ence fic­tion aren’t engaged in eco­nomic man­age­ment at all — they’re sim­ply using tech­nol­ogy to have fan­tas­tic adven­tures.

The Tech­no­crat in Gold­en Age sci­ence fic­tion

Most of us who’ve con­sumed pop cul­ture from the Cold War era have seen the word “tech­no­crat” — but not describ­ing some­one who advo­cates a par­tic­u­lar polit­i­cal view­point, at all. Rather, a tech­no­crat is just some­one who’s super-com­pe­tent, and loves gad­gets and fan­cy devices.

In fact, as Amer­i­can tech­nol­ogy became ascen­dant, the super-com­pe­tent sci­ence nerd (and “orga­ni­za­tion man”) became sci­ence fiction’s spir­it ani­mal. As David Samuel­son notes in his arti­cle on Robert Hein­lein in the book Voic­es for the Future, “Tied to the most part to Amer­i­can val­ues, sci­ence fic­tion writ­ers have por­trayed the active man, the adven­turer, tak­ing prac­ti­cal advan­tage of sci­ence and tech­nol­ogy in order to make his dreams come true, some­times to the extreme dis­ad­van­tage of oth­er peo­ple.”

Famed edi­tor John W. Camp­bell filled his sto­ries with the fig­ure of “the tech­no­crat who is pre­pared to engi­neer solu­tions that are ‘brave’ enough to dis­place lib­eral or human­i­tar­ian con­cerns to engi­neer species sur­vival,” writes Roger Luck­hurst in his his­tory of sci­ence fic­tion. This was “the fig­ure that Camp­bell as edi­tor helped place at the heart of works by Robert A. Hein­lein, Isaac Asi­mov, and A.E. Van Vogt.”

The Cold War era gives us Tony Stark, the indus­tri­al­ist who invents the Iron Man armor in a cave, plus a more gad­get-focused ver­sion of Bat­man. It also gives us spy thrillers like The Man from U.N.C.L.E., James Bond and Mis­sion: Impos­si­ble, in which pow­er­ful orga­ni­za­tions entrust impos­si­ble mis­sions to ridicu­lously com­pe­tent peo­ple who are armed with a hand­ful of awe­some devices.

These peo­ple are “tech­nocrats” in the sense of lov­ing tech­nol­ogy and using clev­er­ness to solve prob­lems — but you couldn’t imag­ine Tony Stark or James Bond advo­cat­ing sci­en­tific con­trol over the econ­o­my.

Tech­noc­racy and its dis­con­tents

At some point, sci­ence fiction’s view of the hero­ic tech­no­crat seems to become less uncrit­i­cal, reflect­ing a gen­eral dis­com­fort with some aspects of tech­nol­ogy and indus­tri­al­iza­tion.

Two dif­fer­ent essays point to William Gibson’s land­mark cyber­punk nov­el Neu­ro­mancer, in par­tic­u­lar, as being crit­i­cal of the idea of tech­nocrats run­ning every­thing. In the book Tech Anx­i­ety, Christo­pher A. Sims says the rea­son why Peter Riv­iera is a “sick fuck” (as Mol­ly calls him) is because he rais­es the pos­si­bil­ity that tech­nol­ogy will empow­er psy­chotic tech­nocrats to con­trol us all.

In an essay the book Fic­tion 2000: Cyber­punk and the Future of Nar­ra­tive, John Hunt­ing­ton writes:

In Neu­ro­mancer we are see­ing evi­dence of a new, per­haps the final, stage in the tra­jec­tory of SF. If we con­trast Gibson’s book with the prod­ucts of the genre forty years ago, we see a sig­nif­i­cant change in the role of the accom­plished tech­no­crat. The heroes of writ­ers such as Hein­lein or Asi­mov used their man­age­r­ial com­pe­tence to dom­i­nate their worlds. Even Van Vogt’s para­noid vision allowed for mas­tery and tri­umph at the end. By con­trast, Case and Robin do not dom­i­nate their world. If they pull off a caper, it is accord­ing to some­one else’s plan, and its con­se­quences are not what they expect­ed. Of course, Neu­ro­mancer is by no means new in its doubts about the social effi­cacy of tech­no­log­i­cal mas­tery. The tech­no­log­i­cal opti­mism of Gold­en Age SF had begun to dis­in­te­grate as ear­ly as the 1950s, and by the 1960s the new wave had chal­lenged the dom­i­nant faith in tech­no­log­i­cal solu­tions and tend­ed to see us all as vic­tims of the tech­no­cratic sys­tem.

What the hell is a "technocrat," and are you one of them?S

And Paul Can­tor argues, in his book The Invis­i­ble Hand in Pop­u­lar Cul­ture, that a lot of TV and movie sci­ence fic­tion of the past 20 years has been about reject­ing the influ­ence of tech­nocrats. Shows like X-Files, Fringe and V use aliens and vis­i­tors from the future to talk about our fear of being con­trolled by peo­ple with supe­rior com­mand of sci­ence and tech.

Return of the Tech­nocrats

In the past five years, as the glob­al econ­omy has melt­ed down to the great­est extent since the 1930s, the notion of the hero­ic tech­no­crat made a slight — but only a slight — come­back. The ail­ing economies of Greece and Italy were tak­en over by peo­ple who were described as tech­nocrats in count­less arti­cles, with the idea that the Euro could be saved by clever man­age­ment, and maybe slight­ly less democ­racy. Also, Egypt formed “a gov­ern­ment of tech­nocrats.”

Respond­ing to this short-lived craze, Slate wrote an explain­er, which said:

The word tech­no­crat derives from the Greek tekhne, mean­ing skill or craft, and an expert in a field like eco­nom­ics can be as much a tech­no­crat as one in a field more com­monly thought to be tech­no­log­i­cal (like robot­ics). Both Papademos and Mon­ti hold advanced degrees in eco­nom­ics, and have each held appoint­ments at gov­ern­ment insti­tu­tions.

The word tech­no­crat can also refer to an advo­cate of a form of gov­ern­ment in which experts pre­side. The notion of a tech­noc­racy remains most­ly hypo­thet­i­cal, though some nations have been con­sid­ered as such in the sense of being gov­erned pri­mar­ily by tech­ni­cal experts. His­to­rian Wal­ter A. McDougall argued that the Sovi­et Union was the world’s first tech­noc­racy, and indeed its Polit­buro includ­ed an unusu­ally high pro­por­tion of engi­neers.

And mean­while, Facebook’s Mark Zucker­berg tried to start a new lob­by­ing orga­ni­za­tion for Sil­i­con Val­ley, which was billed as a way to change Wash­ing­ton, DC’s dys­func­tional style of pol­i­tics — and also described as a failed attempt at tech­noc­racy, in the 1930s sense of the term.

So the notion of “tech­nocrats” hold­ing sway, either in eco­nom­ics or in sci­en­tific fields, hasn’t entire­ly gone away — in fact, Tesla’s Elon Musk could be described as tech­no­crat. And in pop cul­ture, Tony Stark has had a wee bit of a come­back late­ly.

Addi­tional report­ing by Emi­ly Stamm.

About Charlie Jane Anders