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A Special Supplement: Technology: The Opiate of the Intellectuals

This is not to say that the peculiar jargon which characterizes the speech of, say, aerospace technicians, crisis managers, or economic mandarins is intrinsically superior to the vocabulary of ordinary conversation, though sometimes this is indeed the case. What is important about technical language is that the words, being alien to ordinary speech, hide their meaning from ordinary speakers; terms like foreign aid or technical assistance have a good sound in ordinary speech; only the initiate recognizes them as synonyms for the old-fashioned, nasty word, imperialism. Such instances can be corrected but when almost all of the public’s business is carried on in specialized jargon correction makes little difference. Like Latin in the past, the new language of social and technical organization is divorced from the general population, which continues to speak in the vulgar tongue of, say, The New Republic, the Saturday Review of Literature, or The Reader’s Digest.

Secondly, the social organization of the new technology, by systematically denying to the general population experiences which are analogous to those of its higher management, contributes very heavily to the growth of social irrationality in our society. For example, modern technological organization defines the roles and values of its members, not vice versa. An engineer or a sociologist is one who does all those things but only those things called for by the “table of organization” and the “job description” used by his employer. Professionals who seek self-realization through creative and autonomous behavior without regard to the defined goals, needs, and channels of their respective departments have no more place in a large corporation or government agency than squeamish soldiers in the Army. Naturally some tolerance would normally be extended to very gifted or personable individuals. This is especially true in universities. But for the common garden variety employee (or junior faculty member) company sanctions on job behavior, style of work, and related matters must have the force of law.

However, those at the top of technology’s more advanced organizations hardly suffer the same experience. For reasons which are clearly related to the principle of the Altruistic Bureaucracy the psychology of an individual’s fulfillment through work has been incorporated into management ideology. As the pages of Fortune, Time, or Business Week or the memoirs of out-of-office Kennedyites serve to show, the higher levels of business and government are staffed by men and women who spend killing hours looking after the economic welfare and national security of the rest of us. The rewards of this life are said to be very few: the love of money would be demeaning and, anyway, taxes are said to take most of it; its sacrifices are many, for failure brings economic depression to the masses or gains for communism as well as disgrace to the erring managers. Even the essential high-mindedness or altruism of our managers earns no reward, for the public is distracted, fickle, and, on occasion, vengeful. (The extensive literature on the “ordeal” of Lyndon Johnson is a case in point.) Hence for these “real revolutionaries of our time,” as Walt Rostow has called them, self-fulfillment through work and discipline is the only reward. The managerial process is seen as an expression of the vital personalities of our leaders and the right to it an inalienable right of the national elite.

In addition to all of this, their lonely and unrewarding eminence in the face of crushing responsibility, etc., tends to create an air of mystification around technology’s managers. When the august mystery of science and the perquisites of high office are added to their halos, they glow very blindingly indeed. Thus, in ideology as well as in reality and appearance, the experiences of the higher managers tend to separate and isolate themselves from those of the managed. Again the situation within the US is not so severe nor so stark as in the Army in Vietnam but the effect on those who are excluded from self-management is very similar. Soldiers in Vietnam are not alone in believing huge, secret guns threaten them from various points; that same feeling is a national malady in the US.

It seems fundamental to the social organization of modern technology that the quality of the social experience of the lower orders of society declines as the level of technology grows no less than does their literacy. And, of course, this process feeds on itself, for with the consequent decline in the real effectiveness and usefulness of local and other forms of organization open to easy and direct popular influence their vitality declines still further, and the cycle is repeated.

The normal life of men and women in the lower and, I think, middle levels of American society now seems cut off from those experiences in which near social means and distant social ends are balanced and rebalanced, adjusted and readjusted. But it is from such widespread experience with effective balancing and adjusting that social rationality derives. To the degree that it is lacking, social irrationality becomes the norm, and social paranoia a recurring phenomenon.

Those who seek an explanation for the infatuation of local government with anti-fluoridation campaigns several years ago need look no further. A similar irrationality is now being exhibited toward the war in Vietnam and the anti-war Movement. With no great effort and using no great skill, Presidents Johnson and Nixon have managed to direct disorganized popular frustration over the continuation of the war and popular abhorrence over its unremitting violence on to precisely that element in the population most actively and effectively opposed to the war and its violence. As for paranoia, consider the widespread reaction of whites to the murder of Dr. King. Their demand for force and more force to be used against the Black population was consistent only with the hypothesis that Dr. King murdered James Earl Ray, just as SNCC members had lynched Klansmen only a few years before.

People often say that America is a sick society when what they really mean is that it has lots of sick individuals. But they were right the first time: the society is so sick that individual efforts to right it and individual rationality come to be expressed in fundamentally sick ways. Like the soldiers in Vietnam, we try to avoid atrophy of our social intelligence only to be led into fantasy and, often, violence. It is a good thing to want the war in Vietnam over for, as everyone now recognizes, it hurts us almost as much as the Vietnamese who are its intended victims. But for many segments of our population, especially those cut off from political expression because of their own social disorganization, the rationality of various alternatives for ending the war is fundamentally obscure. Thus their commendable desire to end the war is expressed in what they believe is the clearest and most certain alternative: use the bomb!

Mesthene himself recognizes that such “negative externalities” are on the increase. His list includes “…pollution of the environment, potential damage to the ecology of the planet, occupational and social dislocations, threats to the privacy and political significance of the individual, social and psychological malaise….” Minor matters all, however, when compared to the marvelous opportunities laissez innover holds out to us: more GNP, continued free world leadership, supersonic transports, urban renewal on a regional basis, institutional innovation, and the millennial promises of his school.

This brings us finally to the ideologies and doctrines of technology and their relation to what I have argued is a growing gap in political culture between the lower and upper classes in American society. Even more fundamentally than the principles of laissez innover and the altruistic bureaucrat, technology in its very definition as the organization of knowledge for practical purposes assumes that the primary and really creative role in the social processes consequent on technological change is reserved for a scientific and technical elite, the elite which presumably discovers and organizes that knowledge. But if the scientific and technical elite and their indispensable managerial cronies are the really creative (and hardworking and altruistic) element in American society, what is this but to say that the common mass of men are essentially drags on the social weal? This is precisely the implication which is drawn by the laissez innover school. Consider the following quotations from an article which appeared in The New Republic in December, 1967, written by Zbigniew Brzezinski, one of the intellectual leaders of the school.

Brzezinski is describing a nightmare which he calls the “technetronic society” (the word like the concept is a pastiche of technology and electronics). This society will be characterized, he argues, by the application of “…the principle of equal opportunity for all but…special opportunity for the singularly talented few.” It will thus combine “…continued respect for the popular will with an increasing role in the key decision-making institutions of individuals with special intellectual and scientific attainments.” (italics added.) Naturally, “The educational and social systems [will make] it increasingly attractive and easy for those meritocratic few to develop to the fullest of their special potential.”

However, while it will be “…necessary to require everyone at a sufficiently responsible post to take, say, two years of [scientific and technical] retraining every ten years…,” the rest of us can develop a new “…interest in the cultural and humanistic aspects of life, in addition to purely hedonistic preoccupations.” (Italics added.) The latter, he is careful to point out, “would serve as a social valve, reducing tensions and political frustration.”

Is it not fair to ask how much respect we carefree pleasure lovers and culture consumers will get from the hard-working bureaucrats, going to night school two years in every ten, while working like beavers in the “key decision-making institutions”? The altruism of our bureaucrats has a heavy load to bear.

Stripped of their euphemisms these are simply arguments which enhance the social legitimacy of the interests of new technical and scientific elites and detract from the interests of the rest of us; that is to say, if we can even formulate those interests, blinded as we will be by the mad pursuit of pleasures (and innovation??!) heaped up for us by advanced technology. Mesthene and his schoolfellows try to argue around their own derogation of the democratic ethos by frequent references, as we have seen, to their own fealty to it. But it is instructive in this regard to note that they tend, with Brzezinski, to find the real substance of the democratic ethos in the principle of the equality of opportunity. Before we applaud, however, we ought to examine the role which that principle plays within the framework of the advanced technological society they propose.

As has already been made clear the laissez innover school accepts as inevitable and desirable the centralizing tendencies of technology’s social organization, and they accept as well the mystification which comes to surround the management process. Thus equality of opportunity, as they understand it, has precious little to do with creating a more egalitarian society. On the contrary, it functions as an indispensable feature of the highly stratified society they envision for the future. For in their society of meritocratic hierarchy, equality of opportunity assures that talented young meritocrats (the word is no uglier than the social system it refers to) will be able to climb into the “key decision-making” slots reserved for trained talent, and thus generate the success of the new society, and its cohesion against popular “tensions and political frustration.”

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