In response to:
Ancient Technocrats from the June 3, 1971 issue
To the Editors:
Writing on ancient technology [NYR, June 3], M. I. Finley states a paradox about our own age: on the one hand, for the first time a majority of us in industrial countries are not engaged in technical processes, but in white-collar work; on the other hand precisely this majority values technology more highly than it has been valued in the past. I’d like to hear more about this if Mr. Finley will expand.
Specifically, isn’t the simple-minded resolution of this paradox also the right one? People who work with their minds—bureaucrats, managers, planners, coordinators, intellectuals—have a good deal of wealth and status in industrial societies because they preside over the technocracy and make it work (sort of). Recognizing technology as the foundation of their comfort and power, they naturally think well of it, though it does not follow that they think well of those lower on the social scale who still work with their hands. Or am I missing the point?
More speculatively: manipulating things is like manipulating symbols and managing people. Planning, as systematized by Frederick Taylor, took its cues from the success of industrial technique, and the thinking class approaches symbolic and human problems as Lancashire mechanics took on problems of efficient textile manufacture two hundred years ago. Problem-solving is the basic mode of achievement in liberal society, and the thinking class feels a deep affinity with the neat solutions provided by technology. This is why liberals talk about basic social and political choices as problems, and look for technical solutions—the Vietnam problem, the environmental problem, the problem of racial equality.
As Mr. Finley says, Plato knew more of tools and craft than our thinking class does. Maybe that’s one reason he did not mistake technology for the political and moral life.
October 7, 1971