If religion was formerly the opiate of the masses, then surely technology is the opiate of the educated public today, or at least of its favorite authors. No other single subject is so universally invested with high hopes for the improvement of mankind generally and of Americans in particular. The content of these millennial hopes varies somewhat from author to author, though with considerable overlap. A representative but by no means complete list of these promises and their prophets would include: an end to poverty and the inauguration of permanent prosperity (Leon Keyserling), universal equality of opportunity (Zbigniew Brzezinski), a radical increase in individual freedom (Edward Shils), the replacement of work by leisure for most of mankind (Robert Theobald), fresh water for desert dwellers (Lyndon Baines Johnson), permanent but harmless social revolution (Walt Rostow), the final comeuppance of Mao Tse-tung and all his ilk (same prophet), the triumph of wisdom over power (John Kenneth Galbraith), and, lest we forget, the end of ideology (Daniel Bell).

These hopes for mankind’s, or technology’s, future, however, are not unalloyed. Technology’s defenders, being otherwise reasonable men, are also aware that the world population explosion and the nuclear missiles race are also the fruit of the enormous advances made in technology during the past half century or so. But here too a cursory reading of their literature would reveal widespread though qualified optimism that these scourges too will fall before technology’s might. Thus population (and genetic) control and permanent peace are sometimes added to the already imposing roster of technology’s promises. What are we to make of such extravagant optimism?

Several months ago Harvard University’s Program on Technology and Society, “…an inquiry in depth into the effects of technological change on the economy, on public policies, and on the character of society, as well as into the reciprocal effects of social progress on the nature, dimension, and directions of scientific and technological development,” issued its Fourth Annual Report to the accompaniment of full front-page coverage in The New York Times (January 18). Within the brief (fewer than 100) pages of that report and most clearly in the concluding essay by the Program’s Director, Emmanuel G. Mesthene, one can discern some of the important threads of belief which bind together much current writing on the social implications of technology.1 Mesthene’s essay is worth extended analysis because these beliefs are of interest in themselves and, of greater importance, because they form the basis not of a new but of a newly aggressive rightwing ideology in this country, an ideology whose growing importance was accurately measured by the magnitude of the Times’s news report.

At the very beginning of Mesthene’s essay, which attempts to characterize the relationships between technological and social change, the author is careful to dissociate himself from what he believes are several extreme views of those relationships. For example, technology is neither the relatively “unalloyed blessing” which, he claims, Marx, Comte, and the Air Force hold it to be, nor an unmitigated curse, a view he attributes to “many of our youth.” (This is but the first of several reproofs Mesthene casts in the direction of youth.) Having denounced straw men to the right and left of him he is free to pursue that middle or moderate course favored by virtually all political writers of the day. This middle course consists of an extremely abstract and—politically speaking—sanitary view of technology and technological progress.

For Mesthene, it is characteristic of technology that it:

…creates new possibilities for human choice and action but leaves their disposition uncertain. What its effects will be and what ends it will serve are not inherent in the technology, but depend on what man will do with technology. Technology thus makes possible a future of open-ended options….

This essentially optimistic view of the matter rests on the notion that technology is merely “…the organization of knowledge for practical purposes…” and therefore cannot be purely boon or wholly burden. The matter is somewhat more complex:

New technology creates new opportunities for men and societies and it also generates new problems for them. It has both positive and negative effects, and it usually has the two at the same time and in virtue of each other.

This dual effect he illustrates with an example drawn from the field of medicine. Recent advances there

have created two new opportunities: (1) they have made possible treatment and cures that were never possible before, and (2) they provide a necessary condition for the delivery of adequate medical care to the population at large as a matter of right rather than privilege.

Because of the first, however,

the medical profession has become increasingly differentiated and specialized and is tending to concentrate its best efforts in a few major, urban centers of medical excellence.

Mesthene clearly intends but does not state the corollary to this point, namely that the availability of adequate medical care is declining elsewhere.2 Moreover, because of the second point, there have been


…big increases in demand for medical services, partly because a healthy population has important economic advantages in a highly industrialized society. This increased demand accelerates the process of differentiation and multiplies the levels of paramedical personnel between the physician at the top and the patient at the bottom of the hospital pyramid.

Similarly, Mesthene points out that marvelous improvements in auto and air transportation have aggravated social and other problems in the inner city. Furthermore,

Mass communications technology has also made rapid strides since World War II, with great benefit to education, journalism, commerce and sheer convenience. It has also been accompanied by an aggravation of social unrest, however, and may help to explain the singular rebelliousness of a youth that can find out what the world is like from television before home and school have had the time to instill some ethical sense of what it could or should be like.

Mesthene believes there are two distinct problems in technology’s relation to society, a positive one of taking full advantage of the opportunities it offers and the negative one of avoiding unfortunate consequences which flow from the exploitation of those opportunities. Positive opportunities may be missed because the costs of technological development outweigh likely benefits (e.g., Herman Kahn’s “Doomsday Machine”). Mesthene seems convinced, however, that a more important case is that in which

…technology lies fallow because existing social structures are inadequate to exploit the opportunities it offers. This is revealed clearly in the examination of institutional failure in the ghetto carried on by [the Program]. At point after point, …analyses confirm…that existing institutions and traditional approaches are by and large incapable of coming to grips with the new problems of our cities—many of them caused by technological change…—and unable to realize the possibilities for resolving them that are also inherent in technology. Vested economic and political interests serve to obstruct adequate provision of low-cost housing. Community institutions wither for want of interest and participation by residents. City agencies are unable to marshall the skills and take the systematic approach needed to deal with new and intensified problems of education, crime control, and public welfare. Business corporations, finally, which are organized around the expectation of private profit, are insufficiently motivated to bring new technology and management know-how to bear on urban projects where the benefits will be largely social.

His diagnosis of these problems is generous in the extreme:

All these factors combine to dilute what may be otherwise a genuine desire to apply our best knowledge and adequate resources to the resolution of urban tensions and the eradication of poverty in the nation.

Moreover, because government and the media “…are not yet equipped for the massive task of public education that is needed…” if we are to exploit technology more fully, many technological opportunities are lost because of the lack of public support. This too is a problem primarily of “institutional innovation.”

Mesthene believes that institutional innovation is no less important in combatting the negative effects of technology. Individuals or individual firms which decide to develop new technologies normally do not take “adequate account” of their likely social benefits or costs. His critique is anti-capitalist in spirit, but lacks bite, for he goes on to add that

…[most of the negative] consequences of technology that are causing concern at the present time—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—are negative externalities of this kind. They are with us in large measure because it has not been anybody’s explicit business to foresee and anticipate them. [Italics added.]

Mesthene’s abstract analysis and its equally abstract diagnosis in favor of “institutional innovation” places him in a curious and, for us, instructive position. If existing social structures are inadequate to exploit technology’s full potential, or if, on the other hand, so-called “negative externalities” assail us because it is nobody’s business to foresee and anticipate them, doesn’t this say that we should apply technology to this problem too? That is, we ought to apply and organize the appropriate organizational knowledge for the practical purpose of solving the problems of institutional inadequacy and “negative externalities.”3 Hence, in principle, Mesthene is in the position of arguing that the cure for technology’s problems, whether positive or negative, is still more technology. This is the first theme of the technological school of writers and its ultimate First Principle.

Technology, in their view, is a self-correcting system. Temporary oversight or “negative externalities” will and should be corrected by technological means. Attempts to restrict the free play of technological innovation are, in the nature of the case, self-defeating. Technological innovation exhibits a distinct tendency to work for the general welfare in the long run. Laissez innover!


I have so far deliberately refrained from going into any greater detail than does Mesthene on the empirical character of contemporary technology (see below section II) for it is important to bring out the force of the principle of laissez innover in its full generality. Many writers on technology appear to deny in their definition of the subject—organized knowledge for practical purposes—that contemporary technology exhibits distinct trends which can be identified or projected. Others, like Mesthene, appear to accept these trends, but then blunt the conclusion by attributing to technology so much flexibility and “scientific” purity that it becomes an abstraction infinitely malleable in behalf of good, pacific, just, and egalitarian purposes. Thus the analogy to the laissez-faire principle of another time is quite justified. Just as the market or the free play of competition provided in theory the optimum long-run solution for virtually every aspect of virtually every social and economic problem, so too does the free play of technology, according to its writers. Only if technology or innovation (or some other synonym) is allowed the freest possible reign, they believe, will the maximum social good be realized.

What reasons do they give to believe that the principle of laissez innover will normally function for the benefit of mankind rather than, say, merely for the benefit of the immediate practitioners of technology, their managerial cronies, and for the profits accruing to their corporations? As Mesthene and other writers of his school are aware, this is a very real problem, for they all believe that the normal tendency of technology is, and ought to be, the increasing concentration of decision-making power in the hands of larger and larger scientific-technical bureaucracies. In principle, their solution is relatively simple, though not often explicitly stated.4

Their argument goes as follows: the men and women who are elevated by technology into commanding positions within various decision-making bureaucracies exhibit no generalized drive for power such as characterized, say, the landed gentry of pre-industrial Europe or the capitalist entrepreneur of the last century. For their social and institutional position and its supporting culture as well are defined solely by the fact that these men are problem solvers. (Organized knowledge for practical purposes again.) That is, they gain advantage and reward only to the extent that they can bring specific technical knowledge to bear on the solution of specific technical problems. Any more general drive for power would undercut the bases of their usefulness and legitimacy.

Moreover their specific training and professional commitment to solving technical problems creates a bias against ideologies in general which inhibits any attempts to formulate a justifying ideology for the group. Consequently, they do not constitute a class and have no general interests antagonistic to those of their problem-beset clients. We may refer to all of this as the disinterested character of the scientific-technical decision-maker, or, more briefly and cynically, as the principle of the Altruistic Bureaucrat.

As if not satisfied by the force of this (unstated) principle, Mesthene like many of his school fellows spends many pages commenting around the belief that the concentration of power at the top of technology’s organizations is a problem, but that like other problems technology should be able to solve it successfully through institutional innovation. You may trust in it; the principle of laissez innover knows no logical or other hurdle.

This combination of guileless optimism with scientific toughmindedness might seem to be no more than an eccentric delusion were the American technology it supports not moving in directions that are strongly anti-democratic. To show why this is so we must examine more closely Mesthene’s seemingly innocuous distinction between technology’s positive opportunities and its “negative externalities.” In order to do this I will make use of an example drawn from the very frontier of American technology, the Vietnam War.


At least two fundamentally different bombing programs are now being carried out in South Vietnam. There are fairly conventional attacks against targets which consist of identified enemy troops, fortifications, medical centers, vessels, and so forth. The other program is quite different and, at least since March, 1968, infinitely more important. With some oversimplification it can be described as follows:

Intelligence data is gathered from all kinds of sources, of all degrees of reliability, on all manner of subjects, and fed into a computer complex located, I believe, at Bien Hoa. From this data and using mathematical models developed for the purpose, the computer then assigns probabilities to a range of potential targets, probabilities which represent the likelihood that the latter contain enemy forces or supplies. These potential targets might include: a canal-river crossing known to be used occasionally by the NLF; a section of trail which would have to be used to attack such and such an American base, now overdue for attack; a square mile of plain rumored to contain enemy troops; a mountainside from which camp fire smoke was seen rising. Again using models developed for the purpose, the computer divides pre-programmed levels of bombardment among those potential targets which have the highest probability of containing actual targets. Following the raids, data provided by further reconnaissance is fed into the computer and conclusions are drawn (usually optimistic ones) on the effectiveness of the raids. This estimate of effectiveness then becomes part of the data governing current and future operations, and so on.

Two features must be noted regarding this program, features which are superficially hinted at but fundamentally obscured by Mesthene’s distinction between the abstractions of positive opportunity and “negative externality.” First, when considered from the standpoint of its planners, the bombing program is extraordinarily rational, for it creates previously unavailable “opportunities” to pursue their goals in Vietnam. It would make no sense to bomb South Vietnam simply at random, and no serious person or Air Force General would care to mount the effort to do so. So the system employed in Vietnam significantly reduces, though it does not eliminate, that randomness. That canal-river crossing which is bombed at least once every eleven days or so is a very poor target compared to an NLF battalion observed in a village. But it is an infinitely more promising target than would be selected by throwing a dart at a grid map of South Vietnam. In addition to bombing the battalion, why not bomb the canal crossing to the frequency and extent that it might be used by enemy troops?

Even when we take into account the crudity of the mathematical models and the consequent slapstick way in which poor information is evaluated, it is a “good” program. No single raid will definitely kill an enemy soldier but a whole series of them increases the “opportunity” to kill a calculable number of them (as well, of course, as a calculable but not calculated number of non-soldiers). This is the most rational bombing system to follow if American lives are very expensive and American weapons and Vietnamese lives very cheap. Which, of course, is the case.

Secondly, however, considered from the standpoint of goals and values not programmed in by its designers, the bombing program is incredibly irrational. In Mesthene’s terms, these “negative externalities” would include, in the present case, the lives and well-being of various Vietnamese as well as the feelings and opinions of some less important Americans. Significantly, this exclusion of the interests of people not among the managerial class is based quite as much on the so-called “technical” means being employed as on the political goals of the system. In the particular case of the Vietnamese bombing system, the political goals of the bombing system clearly exclude the interests of certain Vietnamese. After all, the victims of the bombardment are communists or their supporters, they are our enemies, they resist US intervention. In short, their interests are fully antagonistic to the goals of the program and simply must be excluded from consideration. The technical reasons for this exclusion require explanation, being less familiar and more important, especially in the light of Mesthene’s belief in the malleability of technological systems.

Advanced technological systems such as those employed in the bombardment of South Vietnam make use not only of extremely complex and expensive equipment but, quite as important, of large numbers of relatively scarce and expensive-to-train technicians. They have immense capital costs; a thousand aircraft of a very advanced type, literally hundreds of thousands of spare parts, enormous stocks of rockets, bombs, shells and bullets, in addition to tens of thousands of technical specialists; pilots, bombardiers, navigators, radar operators, computer programmers, accountants, engineers, electronic and mechanical technicians, to name only a few. In short, they are “capital intensive.”

Moreover, the coordination of this immense mass of esoteric equipment and its operators in the most effective possible way depends upon an extremely highly developed technique both in the employment of each piece of equipment by a specific team of operators and in the management of the program itself. Of course, all large organizations standardize their operating procedures, but it is peculiar to advanced technological systems that their operating procedures embody a very high degree of information drawn from the physical sciences, while their managerial procedures are equally dependent on information drawn from the social sciences. We may describe this situation by saying that advanced technological systems are both “technique intensive” and “management intensive.”

It should be clear, moreover, even to the most casual observer that such intensive use of capital, technique, and management spills over into almost every area touched by the technological system in question. An attack program delivering 330,000 tons of munitions more or less selectively to several thousand different targets monthly would be an anomaly if forced to rely on sporadic intelligence data, erratic maintenance systems, or a fluctuating and unpredictable supply of heavy bombs, rockets, jet fuel, and napalm tanks. Thus it is precisely because the bombing program requires an intensive use of capital, technique, and management that the same properties are normally transferred to the intelligence, maintenance, supply, coordination and training systems which support it. Accordingly, each of these supporting systems is subject to sharp pressures to improve and rationalize the performance of its machines and men, the reliability of its techniques, and the efficiency and sensitivity of the management controls under which it operates. Within integrated technical systems, higher levels of technology drive out lower, and the normal tendency is to integrate systems.

From this perverse Gresham’s Law of Technology follow some of the main social and organizational characteristics of contemporary technological systems: the radical increase in the scale and complexity of operations that they demand and encourage; the rapid and widespread diffusion of technology to new areas; the great diversity of activities which can be directed by central management; an increase in the ambition of management’s goals; and, as a corollary, especially to the last, growing resistance to the influence of so-called “negative externalities.”

Complex technological systems are extraordinarily resistant to intervention by persons or problems operating outside or below their managing groups, and this is so regardless of the “politics” of a given situation. Technology creates its own politics. The point of such advanced systems is to minimize the incidence of personal or social behavior which is erratic or otherwise not easily classified, of tools and equipment with poor performance, of improvisory techniques, and of unresponsiveness to central management.

For example, enlisted men who are “unrealistically soft” on the subject of civilian casualties and farmers in contested districts pose a mortal threat to the integral character of systems like that used in Vietnam. In the case of the soldier this means he must be kept under tight military discipline. In the case of the farmer, he must be easily placed in one of two categories; collaborator or enemy. This is done by assigning a probability to him, his hamlet, his village, or his district, and by incorporating that probability into the targeting plans of the bombing system. Then the enlisted man may be controlled by training and indoctrination as well as by highly developed techniques of command and coercion, and the farmers may be bombed according to the most advanced statistical models. In both cases the system’s authority over its farmer subjects or enlisted men is a technical one. The technical means which make that system rational and efficient in its aggregate terms, i.e., as viewed from the top, themselves tend by design to filter out the “non-rational” or “non-efficient” elements of its components and subjects, i.e., those rising from the bottom.

To define technology so abstractly that it obscures these observable characteristics of contemporary technology—as Mesthene and his school have done—makes no sense. It makes even less sense to claim some magical malleability for something as undefined as “institutional innovation.” Technology, in its concrete, empirical meaning, refers fundamentally to systems of rationalized control over large groups of men, events, and machines by small groups of technically skilled men operating through organizational hierarchy. The latent “opportunities” provided by that control and its ability to filter out discordant “negative externalities” are, of course, best illustrated by extreme cases. Hence the most instructive and accurate example should be of a technology able to suppress the humanity of its rank-and-file and to commit genocide as a by-product of its rationality. The Vietnam bombing program fits technology to a “T.”


It would certainly be difficult to attempt to translate in any simple and direct way the social and organizational properties of highly developed technological systems from the battle-fields of Vietnam to the different cultural and institutional setting of the US. Yet before we conclude that any such attempt would be futile or even absurd, we might consider the following story.

In early 1967 I stayed for several days with one of the infantry companies of the US Fourth Division whose parent battalion was then based at Dau Tieng. From the camp at Dau Tieng the well-known Black Lady Mountain, sacred to the Cao Dai religious sect, was easily visible and in fact dominated the surrounding plain and the camp itself. One afternoon when I began to explain the religious significance of the mountain to some GI friends, they interrupted my somewhat academic discourse to tell me a tale beside which even the strange beliefs of the Cao Dai sect appeared prosaic.

According to GI reports which the soldiers had heard and believed, the Viet Cong had long ago hollowed out most of the mountain in order to install a very big cannon there. The size of the cannon was left somewhat vague—“huge, fucking…”—but clearly the GI’s imagined that it was in the battleship class. In any event, this huge cannon had formerly taken a heavy toll of American aircraft and had been made impervious to American counterattacks by the presence of two—“huge, fucking”—sliding steel doors, behind which it retreated whenever the Americans attacked. Had they seen this battleship cannon, and did it ever fire on the camp, which was easily within its range? No, they answered, for a brave flyer, recognizing the effectiveness of the cannon against his fellow pilots, had deliberately crashed his jet into those doors one day, jamming them, and permitting the Americans to move into the area unhindered.

I had never been in the army, and at the time of my trip to Vietnam had not yet learned how fantastic GI stories can be. Thus I found it hard to understand how they could be convinced of so improbable a tale. Only later, after talking to many soldiers and hearing many other wild stories from them as well, did I realize what the explanation for this was. Unlike officers and civilian correspondents who are almost daily given detailed briefings on a unit’s situation capabilities and objectives, GI’s are told virtually nothing of this sort by the Army. They are simply told what to do, where, and how, and it is a rare officer, in my experience anyway, who thinks they should be told any more than this. Officers don’t think soldiers are stupid; they simply assume it, and act accordingly. For the individual soldier’s personal life doesn’t make too much difference; he still has to deal with the facts of personal feelings, his own well-being, and that of his family.

But for the soldier’s group life this makes a great deal of difference. In their group life, soldiers are cut off from sources of information about the situation of the group and are placed in a position where their social behavior is governed largely by the principle of blind obedience. Under such circumstances, reality becomes elusive. Because the soldiers are not permitted to deal with facts in their own ways, facts cease to discipline their opinions. Fantasy and wild tales are the natural outcome. In fact, it is probably a mark of the GI’s intelligence to fantasize, for it means that he has not permitted his intellectual capacity to atrophy. The intelligence of the individual is thus expressed in the irrationality of the group.

It is this process which we may observe when we look to the social effect of modern technological systems in America itself. Here the process is not so simple and clear as in Vietnam, for it involves not simply the relations of today’s soldiers to their officers and to the Army but the historical development of analogous relations between the lower and upper orders of our society. Moreover, these relations are broadly cultural rather than narrowly social in nature. It is to a brief review of this complex subject that I now wish to turn.


Among the conventional explanations for the rise and spread of the democratic ethos in Europe and North America in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries, the destruction of the gap in political culture between the mass of the population and that of the ruling classes is extremely important. There are several sides to this explanation. For example, it is often argued that the invention of the printing press and the spread of Protestant Christianity encouraged a significant growth in popular literacy. In its earliest phases this literacy was largely expended on reading the Old and New Testament, but it quickly broadened to include other religious works such as Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, and after that to such secular classics as Gulliver’s Travels. The dating of these developments is, in the nature of the case, somewhat imprecise. But certainly by the middle of the eighteenth century, at least in Britain and North America, the literacy of the population was sufficient to support a variety of newspapers and periodicals not only in the larger cities but in the smaller provincial towns as well. The decline of Latin as the first language of politics and religion paralleled this development, of course. Thus, even before the advent of Tom Paine, Babeuf, and other popular tribunes, literacy and the information it carried were widely and securely spread throughout the population and the demystification of both the religious and the political privileges of the ruling classes was well developed. Common townsmen had closed at least one of the cultural gaps between themselves and the aristocracy of the large cities.

Similarly, it is often argued that with the expansion and improvement of road and postal systems, the spread of new tools and techniques, the growth in the number and variety of merchants, the consequent invigoration of town life, and other numerous and familiar related developments, the social experiences of large numbers of people became richer, more varied, and similar in fact to those of the ruling classes. This last, the growth in similarity of the social experiences of the upper and lower classes, is especially important. Social skills and experiences which underlay the monopoly of the upper classes over the processes of law and government were spreading to important segments of the lower orders of society. For carrying on trade, managing a commercial—not a subsistance—farm, participating in a vestry or workingmen’s guild, or working in an up-to-date manufactory or business, unlike the relatively narrow existence of the medieval serf or artisan, were experiences which contributed to what I would call the social rationality of the lower orders.

Activities which demand frequent intercourse with strangers, accurate calculation of near means and distant ends, and a willingness to devise collective ways of resolving novel and unexpected problems demand and reward a more discriminating attention to the realities and deficiencies of social life, and provide thereby a rich variety of social experiences analogous to those of the governing classes. As a result not only were the processes of law and government, formerly treated with semi-religious veneration, becoming demystified but, equally important, a population was being fitted out with sufficient skills and interests to contest their control. Still another gap between the political cultures of the upper and lower ends of the social spectrum was being closed.

The same period also witnesses a growth in the organized means of popular expression. In Britain, these would include the laboring people’s organizations whose development is so ably described in Edward Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class. In America, the increase in the organized power of the populace was expressed not only in the growing conflict between the colonies and the Crown but more sharply and fundamentally in the continuous antagonism between the coastal areas and the backwoods, expressed, for example, in Shay’s rebellion in western Massachusetts in 1786. Clearly these organizational developments were related to the two foregoing as both cause and effect. For the English workingmen’s movement and the claims to local self-government in America spurred, and were spurred by, the growth in individual literacy and in social rationality among the lower classes. They were in fact its organizational expression.

These same developments were also reflected in the spread of egalitarian and republican doctrines such as those of Richard Price and Thomas Paine, which pointed up the arbitrary character of what had heretofore been considered the rights of the higher orders of society, and thus provided the popular ideological base which helped to define and legitimate lower-class demands.5

This description by no means does justice to the richness and variety of the historical process underlying the rise and spread of what has come to be called the democratic ethos. But it does, I hope, isolate some of the important structural elements and, moreover, it enables us to illuminate some important ways in which the new technology, celebrated by Mesthene and his associates for its potential contributions to democracy, contributes instead to the erosion of that same democratic ethos. For if, in an earlier time, the gap between the political cultures of the higher and lower orders of society was being widely attacked and closed, this no longer appears to be the case. On the contrary, I am persuaded that the direction has been reversed and that we now observe evidence of a growing separation between ruling and lowerclass culture in America, a separation which is particularly enhanced by the rapid growth of technology and the spreading influence of its laissez innover ideologues.

Certainly, there has been a decline in popular literacy, that is to say, in those aspects of literacy which bear on an understanding of the political and social character of the new technology. Not one person in a hundred is even aware of, much less understands, the nature of technologically highly advanced systems such as are used in the Vietnam bombing program. People’s ignorance in these things is revealed in their language. No clearer illustration of this ignorance is needed than the growing and already enormous difference between the speech of organizational and technical specialists and that of the man in the street, including many of the educated ones. To the extent that technical forms of speech within which the major business of American society is carried on are not understood or are poorly understood, there is a decline in one of the essentials of democracy.

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.”

The structures which formerly guaranteed the rule of wealth, age, and family will not be destroyed (or at least not totally so). They will be firmed up and rationalized by the perpetual addition of trained (and, of course, acculturated) talent. In technologically advanced societies, equality of opportunity functions as a hierarchical principle, in opposition to the egalitarian social goals it pretends to serve. To the extent that it has already become the kind of “equality” we seek to institute in our society, it is one of the main factors contributing to the widening gap between the cultures of upper and lower class America.


Approximately a century ago the philosophy of laissez faire began its period of hegemony in American life. Its success in achieving that hegemony clearly had less to do with its merits as a summary statement of economic truth than with its role in the social struggle of the time. It helped to identify the interests of the institutions of entrepreneurial capitalism for the social classes which dominated them and profited from them. Equally, it sketched in bold strokes the outlines of a society within which the legitimate interests of all could supposedly be served only by systematic deference to the interests of entrepreneurial capitalists, their institutions, and their social allies. In short, the primary significance of laissez faire lay in its role as ideology, as the cultural or intellectual expression of the interests of a class.

Something like the same thing must be said of laissez innover. As a summary statement of the relationship between social and technological change it obscures far more than it clarifies, but that is often the function and genius of ideologues. Laissez innover is now the premier ideology of the technological impulse in American society, which is to say, of the institutions which monopolize and profit from advanced technology and of the social classes which find in the free exploitation of their technology the most likely guarantee of their power, status, and wealth.

This said, it is important to stress both the significance and limitations of what has in fact been said. Here Mesthene’s distinction between the positive opportunities and negative “externalities” inherent in technological change is pivotal; for everything else which l’ve argued follows inferentially from the actual social meaning of that distinction. As my analysis of the Vietnam bombing program suggested, those technological effects which are sought after as positive opportunities and those which are dismissed as negative externalities are decisively influenced by the fact that this distinction between positive and negative within advanced technological organizations tends to be made among the planners and managers themselves. Within these groups there are, as was pointed out, extremely powerful organizational, hierarchical, doctrinal, and other “technical” factors, which tend by design to filter out “irrational” demands from below, substituting for them the “rational” demands of technology itself. As a result, technological rationality is as socially neutral today as market rationality was a century ago.

Turning from the inner social logic of advanced technological organizations and systems to their larger social effect, we can observe a significant convergence. For both the social tendency of technology and the ideology (or rhetoric) of the laissez innover school converge to encourage a political and cultural gap between the upper and lower ends of American society. As I have pointed out, these can now be characterized as those who manage and those who are managed by advanced technological systems.

This analysis lends some weight (though perhaps no more than that) to a number of wide-ranging and unorthodox conclusions about American society today and the directions in which it is tending. It may be useful to sketch out the most important of those conclusions in the form of a set of linked hypotheses, not only to clarify what appear to be the latent tendencies of America’s advanced technological society but also to provide more useful guides to the investigation of the technological impulse than those offered by the obscurantism and abstractions of the school of laissez innover.

First, and most important, technology should be considered as an institutional system, not more and certainly not less. Mesthene’s definition of the subject is inadequate, for it obscures the systematic and decisive social changes, especially their political and cultural tendencies, that follow the widespread application of advanced technological systems. At the same time, technology is less than a social system per se, though it has many elements of a social system, viz., an elite, a group of linked institutions, an ethos, and so forth. Perhaps the best summary statement of the case resides in an analogy—with all the vagueness and precision attendant on such things: today’s technology stands in relation to today’s capitalism as, a century ago, the latter stood to the free market capitalism of the time.

The analogy suggests, accurately enough I believe, the likelihood that the institutional links and shared interests among the larger corporations, the federal government, especially its military sector, the multiversity and the foundations, will grow rather than decline. It suggests further a growing entanglement of their elites, probably in the neo-corporations of technology, such as urban development corporations and institutes for defense analysis, whose importance seems likely to increase markedly in the future.

Finally, it suggests a growing convergence in the ethos and ideology of technology’s leading classes along lines which would diminish slightly the relative importance of rhetoric about “property” and even about “national security,” while enhancing the rhetoric of laissez innover. This does not necessarily imply and sacrifice in the prerogatives of either the private sector or of the crisis managers and the military, for one can readily understand how the elite strictures of laissez innover may be applied to strengthen the position of the corporate and military establishments.6

A word about the elites: a number of writers of the laissez innover school, for example, J.K. Galbraith in his The New Industrial State, have argued that the enhanced importance of scientific and technical knowledge within advanced technological systems implies an enhanced socio-political power for the people who have such knowledge. Galbraith in particular has argued that these people, whom he calls “the educational and scientific estate,” now constitute an elite class whose interests diverge quite sharply from those of other elites. Since I have argued at length elsewhere against this view,7 let me limit myself here to only a few critical observances.

Galbraith’s concept of an “educational and scientific” elite class overlooks the peculiar relationship which the members of that supposed class have to advanced technology. Specifically, it overlooks the fact that most technical, scientific, and educational people are employed at relatively specialized tasks within very large organizations whose managing and planning levels are hardly less insulated from their influence than from the influence of the technically unskilled.

The obvious growth in status and, I think, power of such men as Ithiel de Sola Pool, Herman Kahn, Samuel Huntington, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Henry Kissinger, Charles Hitch, and Paul Samuelson hardly represents the triumph of wisdom over power—an implication not absent from Galbraith’s analysis. An examination of the role which these men now play in our national life should emphasize that they are scientific and technical entrepreneurs whose power is largely based on their ability to mobilize organized intellectual, scientific, and technical manpower and other resources, including foundation grants and university sponsorship, in behalf of the objectives of going institutions. They are much more like managers than like intellectuals, much more like brokers than like analysts.

The same hardly applies to the thousands of E.E.’s, Ph.D.’s, M.S.’s, and so forth who make up the resources over which these mandarins preside and whose skills are so much at their disposal. But in recognizing the managerial and brokerage functions which predominate in the mandarin role we must also recognize that mandarin interests are more likely than not to converge toward the interests of other segments of the national elite. This conclusion is diametrically opposed to the one argued by Galbraith.

A second major hypothesis would argue that the most important dimension of advanced technological institutions is the social one, that is, the institutions are agencies of highly centralized and intensive social control. Technology conquers nature, as the saying goes. But to do so it must first conquer man. More precisely, it demands a very high degree of control over the training, mobility, and skills of the work force. The absence (or decline) of direct controls or of coercion should not serve to obscure from our view the reality and intensity of the social controls which are employed (such as the internalized belief in equality of opportunity, indebtedness through credit, advertising, selective service channeling, and so on).

Advanced technology has created a vast increase in occupational specialties, many of them requiring many, many years of highly specialized training. It must motivate this training. It has made ever more complex and “rational” the ways in which these occupational specialties are combined in our economic and social life. It must win passivity and obedience to this complex activity. Formerly, technical rationality had been employed only to organize the production of rather simple physical objects, for example, aerial bombs. Now technical rationality is increasingly employed to organize all of the processes necessary to the utilization of physical objects, such as bombing systems, maintenance, intelligence and supply systems. For this reason it seems a mistake to argue that we are in a “post-industrial” age, a concept favored by the laissez innover school. On the contrary, the rapid spread of technical rationality into organizational and economic life and, hence, into social life is more aptly described as a second and much more intensive phase of the industrial revolution. One might reasonably suspect that it will create analogous social problems.

Accordingly, a third major hypothesis would argue that there are very profound social antagonisms or contradictions not less sharp or fundamental than those ascribed by Marx to the development of nineteenth-century industrial society. The general form of the contradictions might be described as follows: a society characterized by the employment of advanced technology requires an ever more socially disciplined population, yet retains an ever declining capacity to enforce the required discipline.

One may readily describe four specific forms of the same general contradiction. Occupationally, the work force must be over-trained and under-utilized. Here, again, an analogy to classical industrial practice serves to shorten and simplify the explanation. I have in mind the assembly line. As a device in the organization of the work process the assembly line is valuable mainly in that it gives management a high degree of control over the pace of the work and, more to the point in the present case, it divides the work process into units so simple that the quality of the work performed is readily predictable. That is, since each operation uses only a small fraction of a worker’s skill, there is a very great likelihood that the operation will be performed in a minimally acceptable way. Alternately, if each operation taxed the worker’s skill there would be frequent errors in the operation, frequent disturbance of the work flow, and a thoroughly unpredictable quality to the end product. The assembly line also introduces standardization in work skills and thus makes for a high degree of interchangeability among the work force.

For analogous reasons the work force in advanced technological systems must be relatively over-trained or, what is the same thing, its skills relatively under-used. My impression is that this is no less true now of sociologists than of welders, of engineers than of assemblers. The contradiction emerges when we recognize that technological progress requires a continuous increase in the skill levels of its work force, skill levels which frequently embody a fairly rich scientific and technical training, while at the same time the advance of technical rationality in work organization means that those skills will be less and less fully used.

Economically, there is a parallel process at work. It is commonly observed that the work force within technologically advanced organizations is asked to work not less hard but more so. This is particularly true for those with advanced training and skills. Brzezinski’s conjecture that technical specialists undergo continuous retraining is off the mark only in that it assumes such retraining only for a managing elite. To get people to work harder requires growing incentives. Yet the prosperity which is assumed in a technologically advanced society erodes the value of economic incentives (while of course, the values of craftsmanship are “irrational”). Salary and wage increases and the goods they purchase lose their over-riding importance once necessities, creature comforts, and an ample supply of luxuries are assured. As if in confirmation of this point, Fortune has pointed out (January, 1969) that among young people one can already observe a radical weakening in the power of such incentives as money, status, and authority.

Politically, the advance of technology tends to concentrate authority within its managing groups in the ways I have described. But at the same time the increasing skill and educational levels of the population create latent capacities for self-management in the work place and in society. This aspect of the contradictions inherent in technology seems especially noteworthy in much of the current dissent within the armed forces. Of course, there has always been griping in the Army, but the fact that the griping now attaches itself to political problems—the war, the rights of servicemen, and so on—clearly speaks to the fact that GI educational levels have increased very radically.

A similar explanation casts light on the campus revolt. As Lionel Trilling has pointed out (Partisan Review, Summer, 1968), the cultural and intellectual level of today’s university students is far higher than that of their predecessors, if only because of television and the fact that a good part of traditional college work is now completed in the better high schools. The claim to greater self-management by university students is the natural outcome of this change. At the same time, however, the university has been developing the power and status of its own elites. These include the research elites whose power and status are based on consultantships, on their ability to win research grants and contracts and thus prestige for their universities, as well as the more general category of professional elite, i.e., those whose power within the university is buttressed by their prestige in the national professional associations and expressed in their control of the major academic departments. In spite of the apparent decentralization within the university organization, one must recognize that there has been a very tangible increase in the influence of these elites. Within the university (as elsewhere) power has become more centralized, that is, it has gravitated toward an identifiable collection of research and professional mandarins. It is the power of the latter over curriculum, admissions, research and consulting policy, hiring and advancement that is being challenged by student dissidence.8

It should be added here that even the “irrationality” of the student revolt is clarified by the general lines of this explanation, i.e., its common failure to formulate coherent social programs and its tendency to enter battle under extremely vague symbolic banners. As we have seen social irrationality can be explained as a normal effect of the social and organizational patterns of advanced technological systems and, if anything, is increased by the personal intelligence of the people trapped in those systems.

Finally, there is a profound social contradiction between the highly stratified society implicit in, say, Brzezinski’s meritocracy and the spread of educational opportunity. Yet each appears equally required by advanced technology.

These are brief and, I believe, barely adequate reviews of extremely complex hypotheses. But, in outline, each of these contradictions appears to bear on roughly the same group of the American population, a technological underclass. If we assume this to be the case, a fourth hypothesis would follow, namely that technology is creating the basis for new and sharp class conflict in our society. That is, technology is creating its own working and managing classes just as earlier industrialization created its working and owning classes. Perhaps this suggests a return to the kind of class-based politics which characterized the US in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, rather than the somewhat more ambiguous politics which was a feature of the second quarter of this century. I am inclined to think that this is the case, though I confess the evidence for it is as yet inadequate.

This leads to a final hypothesis, namely that laissez innover should be frankly recognized as a conservative or right-wing ideology This is an extremely complex subject for the hypothesis must confront the very difficult fact that the intellectual genesis of laissez innover is traceable much more to leftist and socialist theorizing on the wonders of technical rationality and social planning than it is to the blood politics of a De Maistre or the traditionalism of a Burke. So be it. Much more important is the fact that laissez innover is now the most powerful and influential statement of the demands and program of the technological impulse in our society, an impulse rooted in its most powerful institutions. More than any other statement, it succeeds in identifying and rationalizing the interests of the most authoritarian elites within this country, and the expansionism of their policies overseas. Truly it is no accident that the leading figures of laissez innover, the Rostows, Kahn, Huntington, Brzezinski, to name but a few, are among the most unreconstructed cold warriors in American intellectual life.

The point of this final hypothesis is not primarily to re-impress the language of European politics on the American scene. Rather it is to summarize the fact that many of the forces in American life hostile to the democratic ethos have enrolled under the banner of laissez innover. Merely to grasp this is already to take the first step toward a politics of radical reconstruction and against the malaise, irrationality, powerlessness, and official violence that characterize American life today.

This Issue

July 31, 1969