The depoliticized ideology of tech work, then and now

The nature of technical, scientific, and engineering work seems to continually produce an ideology that alleges that technology workers have the supreme ability to govern and progress society.  From a talk at the Society for the Advancement of Socio-Economics:

As computer programmers, our formative intellectual experience is working with deterministic systems that have been designed by other human beings. These can be very complex, but the complexity is not the kind we find in the natural world. It is ultimately always tractable. Find the right abstractions, and the puzzle box opens before you. The feeling of competence, control and delight in discovering a clever twist that solves a difficult problem is what makes being a computer programmer sometimes enjoyable. But as anyone who’s worked with tech people knows, this intellectual background can also lead to arrogance. People who excel at software design become convinced that they have a unique ability to understand any kind of system at all, from first principles, without prior training, thanks to their superior powers of analysis. Success in the artificially constructed world of software design promotes a dangerous confidence.

The talk goes on to argue about the inherently political nature of technology, and the fact that modern technology workers tend to depoliticize their work, to dangerous affects, as seen in the rise of “surveillance capitalism”.

What’s interesting here is that the perceived “arrogance” of science and technology workers has been around for a rather long time–it stretches back at least since the mid-1940s.  David Noble’s Forces of Production: A Social History of Industrial Automation (1986) describes a proposed board of scientists and engineers, funded by the military, that would be totally autonomous and in charge of directing the nation’s research projects, that garnered fierce criticism:

…President Roosevelt killed the board by forbidding any transfer of funds to it from military appropriations. The sponsor of the executive action was Budget Bureau director Harold Smith, who had become concerned about the scientists’ attempt to circumvent Congress and insulate themselves from government oversight. He also viewed the entire plan as fundamentally anti-democratic, rejecting “the assumption that researchers are as temperamental as a bunch of musicians, and [that] consequently we must violate most of the tenets of democracy and good organization to adjust for their lack of emotional balance.” “The real difficulty,” Smith opined, was that the scientists “do not know even the first thing about the basic philosophy of democracy.” The New Republic agreed. In its own criticism of the ill-fated board, the journal noted wryly how “a good many well-known scientists…take their coloration from the conservative businessmen who are their associates.” Alluding to the “fantastic suggestion that in the long run the National Academy of Sciences should usurp the functions of the Executive,” the magazine argued that “the American people should no more acquiesce in the present scheme than to a proposal that the carpenters’ union [alone] should elect members of a board which is to plan public workers.”

Of course, looking at the present situation regarding climate change and state interference in climate science research, its worth re-thinking these criticisms…

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