The Roots of Progress

The lure of technocracy

A hypothesis about the mid–20th century attitude towards progress

I’ve said that society was generally optimistic about progress until the early 20th century, and lost that confidence in the World Wars. By the late 20th century, from about the 1970s on, a deep skepticism and distrust of progress had come to prominence. But what happened in between?

I have a new theory about what characterized the attitude toward progress (in the US, at least) from about the 1930s through the ‘60s. It’s just a hypothesis at this stage, but it goes like this:

The 19th century was dominated by a belief in the power of human reason and its ability to advance science and technology for the betterment of life. But after World War I and the Great Depression, it got harder to believe in the rationality of humanity or in the predictability and controllability of the world.

The generation that went through these shocks, however, was not ready to give up on the idea of progress. They still wanted progress and still believed that reason could achieve it—but they worried that the masses could not be trusted to be rational, and that progress could not be left to the chaos of democracy and free markets. Instead, progress was to be achieved by a technical elite that would exercise top-down control.

The purest form of this, perhaps, found expression in early Communism, which valorized industrial production but sought to achieve it by subordinating the individual to totalitarian rule. The US was too individualistic for that—but it evolved its own flavor of the idea that I’m just starting to understand. Call it “technocracy.”

Historical evidence

Here are some snippets from my research that indicate this theme.

Walter Lippmann and the “democratic realists”

Lippmann wrote a number of books around the 1920s arguing that democracy doesn’t work, because it relies on an informed public, which he saw as impossible. Quoting from “Can Democracy Survive in the Post-Factual Age?” by Carl Bybee:

For Lippmann, given the inevitable tendency of individuals to distort what they see, coupled with the basic irrationality of humankind, the only hope for democratic government was to reinvent it. This new, more “realistic” democracy would be tempered and guided by a form of knowledge which, Lippmann believed, rose above subjectivity and politics: science.

Lippmann was part of a school of “democratic realists”, says Bybee:

The major themes sounded by Lippmann were shared by the democratic realists. First and foremost was the belief in the fundamental irrationality of men and women. The second related theme was that the minimization of participation of the masses in public life was consequently a necessary goal. Third, to preserve democracy it must be redefined as rule for the people but not by the people. Rule would be by informed and responsible “men of action.”

H. G. Wells and other sci-fi authors

J. Storrs Hall, in Where Is My Flying Car?, describes Wells’s 1935 film Things to Come as portraying a “technological Utopia,” a “concept of a completely designed society”, run by a “technological elite that forms the enlightened scientific world government.” Elsewhere Hall points out that Wells “firmly embraced world government, public ownership of capital, and centralized planning on a grand scale,” and compared this to “Isaac Asimov’s computer-controlled economy and wise robotic overlords” and “E. E. Smith’s galactic government of wise, incorruptible Lensmen.”

Technocracy, Inc.

Technocracy was actually the name of a specific political/economic movement from this era, and the name of an organization that promoted it. Here’s how Charles Mann describes it in The Wizard and the Prophet:

Marion King Hubbert, an idealist through and through, believed in the power of Science to guide the human enterprise. A geophysicist at Columbia University in the early 1930s, he was one of the half-dozen co-founders of Technocracy Incorporated, a crusading effort to establish a government of all-knowing, hyper-logical engineers and scientists…. Technocracy adherents believed that the world was controlled by flows of energy and mineral resources, and that society should be based on this understanding. Rather than allowing economies to dance to the senseless, febrile beat of supply and demand, Technocrats wanted to organize them on the basis of a quantity controlled by the eternal laws of physics: energy.

Politically unbiased experts in red-and-gray Technocracy uniforms would assay each nation’s yearly energy output, then divide it fairly among the citizenry, each person receiving an allocation of so many joules or kilowatt-hours per month. If people wanted to buy, say, shirts, they would look up the price on a table of energy equivalents calculated by objective Technocratic savants. The leader of the system, the Great Engineer, would oversee a new nation, the North American Technate, a merger of North America, Central America, Greenland, and the northern bits of South America. No more would self-interested businesspeople and short-sighted politicians run rampant; the North American Technate would be smooth, efficient, and rational.

The twentieth century seen through this lens

No matter exactly how influential these specific ideas were, they point to something in the zeitgeist. When you adopt the technocracy lens, it seems to fit a lot of the major developments of the mid-20th century:

And, possibly but less obviously a fit:

Why didn’t technocracy last?

Technocracy made sense to the pre-war generation, who grew up when times were still optimistic. (FDR, Truman, and Eisenhower were all born in the 19th century and came of age before WW1.) But the generation raised after the wars—in an atmosphere of fear and soul-searching—felt differently. They weren’t simply looking for a different means to achieve the same end of progress—they rejected the idea of progress, seeing technology and industry as doing more harm than good. They didn’t trust the elites (or “anyone over 30”), and they bristled at authority and at restrictions on personal freedom.

In 1969, as technocracy reached its apotheosis with the Moon landing, the new generation was partying at Woodstock.

The crisis of technocracy

In the early 1970s, a perfect storm of events conspired to discredit the technocratic idea, including Vietnam, Watergate, and the oil shocks. By 1973 it was clear that our leaders were unfit to govern, in terms of either competence or ethics: they could not handle affairs at home or abroad, neither the economy nor foreign policy, and they were plagued by scandal.

From the 1970s on, the conversation changed. The belief in progress was not totally dead. But the idea that it could be achieved centrally by the elites held much less sway, and there was a major new element of distrust and skepticism at the very idea of progress—an element that has not gone away, and indeed by today has gone mainstream.


Again, all of this is still a hypothesis, and there are many missing pieces. What exactly was the philosophy of the new generation? How did Communism make the transition from the technocratic old Left to the anti-industrial, anti-elitist New Left? And how exactly should we characterize the period since the 1970s—which contains major elements of anti-technology, anti-growth, and anti-consumption sentiment, but which also saw the continued rise of Silicon Valley, the Reagan era, etc.?

Comment: LessWrong, Reddit

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