There is only one God, and technologists are His prophets

August 1, 2013 § 10 Comments

The modern world is in significant part composed of vast human institutions staffed by technological and functional experts.  Jim Kalb gives a compelling take on (among other things) why that is the case in his books.

But given a background of vast institutions staffed by technological experts, I am frequently puzzled by the starry-eyed idealism with which many folks approach them.  This idealism manifests itself in viewing these human institutions as unmitigated goods or unmitigated evils.  Some vast human institutions are given unwavering deference while others are treated with jaundiced suspicion: we live in a world of Good Institutions and Bad Institutions.

Which institutions are which depends on the individual and his tribal alliances, and many examples could be given of the Pure vs the Corrupt:  the military vs the civilian government; the medical establishment vs the food industry; big finance versus organized labor; etc etc.

I suspect what we are witnessing is a kind of Manichean spiritual template impressed upon a naturalistic, modern, technocratic world view.  A naturalistic world view crowds out the Divine; and when you crowd out the Divine, man will seek perfection in created things.   Technocratic modernity builds a world made of vast institutions staffed by technocratic and functional experts.  Because evil and corruption manifestly exist, though, the Good Institutions must be opposed by Bad Institutions in the anti-spiritual spiritual economy of modernity.

So some vast institutions become as pure as the whitest snow, trustworthy and good; while others are treated as if they provide no public good whatsoever, only serving the selfish interests of some oligarchical elite. When big institutions assert “trust me”, sometimes folks do and sometimes they do not, based on tribal alliegences.  The military-industrial complex can’t be trusted when it says “we only kill bad people”; but calling into question the unmitigated good of biochemically altering billions of people through various vaccines is heresy.  Trust doctors, but don’t trust generals.  Or trust generals, but don’t trust doctors.

I would suggest that vast human institutions composed of technological and functional experts should be treated as what they are, though; not as tokens in a Manichean spiritual economy filling in after the death of God.

§ 10 Responses to There is only one God, and technologists are His prophets

  • Mike T says:

    The left likes to simultaneously preach deference to the technocratic elite and then bemoan the ensuing blind obedience to authority and anti-intellectualism that follows. You cannot instruct a population that only those with formal educations and accredited credentials are worthy of having an opinion and avoid having a population that generally doesn’t even bother to learn such subjects because they deem it pointless. After all, if only medical workers can have an educated opinion here worth listening to, then why bother learning more about medicine than is immediately needed for survival?

    The only group that seems almost systematically immune to this are lawyers. Andrew McCarthy wrote a article recently (his current one) where he cited an attorney and a historian with no discernible technical backgrounds (including informal experience with system integration) as “experts” on mining Big Data and minimizing privacy violations. Lawyers often feel justified in sticking their noses into other professions as peers whilst claiming that no one but their own can hold them accountable, but I digress.

    I’ve also noticed that as our culture has become more technocratic, we’ve institutionally become more tolerant of the experts and expert-lites screwing up. For example, most people I know have little problem with the idea of letting a cop who is trained in the law get away with not being held to the criminal standard of False Arrest because they believe ignorance of the law should be excusable for cops as long as the cop was “reasonable.” Similarly, high ranking government and corporate mandarins who screw up royally are rarely subjected to even the same standards as their subordinates. Doctors and some classes of engineers are about the only ones often accountable; lawyers are nearly impossible to disbar and kick to the poor house. Destroying the little guy, however, remains incredibly easy. I think this is part of the reason why I find the Distributist yearning for a return to the guild system disturbing even as I find myself sympathetic to many Distributist goals.

  • I think of it as secularizing the dogma of the Immaculate Conception. Our favored tribes are simply incapable of doing wrong, while lesser beings are feared and loathed in similar circumstances. Democrats are horrified about a Republican president ordering drone strikes against American citizens but it doesn’t occur to them that a Democratic president could ever give in to the temptation to misuse it, and vice versa.

    When a representative from a favored institution makes a pronouncement about, say, climate change, the institution’s supporters will tell critics “Shut up because he has credentials.” If someone has the same or better credentials and makes a contrary pronouncement, then it’s “Shut up because you’re on the payroll of our opponents.”

    My favorite anecdote about the credentializers comes from free market guru David Friedman. He expressed skepticism about climate change on his blog and an anonymous commenter said, “Why should I listen to the uninformed opinion of a law professor? I took physics in college and I can tell you XYZ.” Friedman waited a few beats before replying, “I teach law in a law school but I’m self-taught in that field. My PhD. is in physics.”

  • Dystopia Max says:

    “The military-industrial complex can’t be trusted when it says “we only kill bad people”; but calling into question the unmitigated good of biochemically altering billions of people through various vaccines is heresy. Trust doctors, but don’t trust generals. Or trust generals, but don’t trust doctors.”

    Bad comparison. A far better one would be: In order to implement my foreign policy, should I trust generals from the Defense Department, or diplomats from the State Department? Which job is more easily corrupted? Which has a better track record of success in their missions? Which is less likely to be infested by Communists?

    In the same way, you could ask whether medical doctors or scientists were better suited to implement public health measures. Which has a better track record of success, who knows better what this treatment looks like in the real world, etc.

  • Zippy says:

    Dystopia Max:
    Fair enough — I wasn’t attempting to set up related dichotomies though. I was just giving examples of technocratic institutions (both doctors and generals are just the tip of the spear of vast technocratic institutions) that folks tend to treat as completely trustworthy and good or as utterly contemptible and corrupt. For any given individual the cluster of Good Institutions and Wicked Institutions will differ, and many institutions will fit into each Manichean category.

  • Point taken – but in practice large institutions are almost unreformable, except by breaking them up and shutting major chucks of then; so it is helpful to know which can be, and which ought to be, destroyed.

    For example – the UN and the EU cannot be reformed and they get worse and worse – but they could be destroyed without any significant disadvantage and many advantages – therefore it makes sense to regard them as ‘bad’.

    Something similar could apply to the state schooling system – it could be privatized with very little loss and many gains.

    But something like the military or the legal system is more difficult – these are good in the sense of necessary, but may become grossly bloated, grossly inefficient and also may be put to evil use.

    The really difficult one is the continually expanding mass media (including the internet based stuff such as THIS, and the recent personal communications sites) – there is much good in what happens on the MM, our civilization depends on it; but there is vastly more evil, lies, ugliness, sin of every kind – and the mass media is killing us spiritually and (increasingly) physically…

  • Zippy says:

    Fair point that some institutions really are pervasively, crushingly evil – and that some are more necessary than others. I suppose I am more puzzled that modern skeptical Man seems to see some vast technocratic institutions (the current topic was the vaccination-industrial-government complex) as unmitigated goods, where mere skepticism toward the holy of holies is first dismissed as crackpottery and, when that dismissal begins to show cracks, is treated as despicable heresy.

    The deification of some manmade institutions and technologies is starting to look kind of like a gigantic golden calf.

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  • Yeah. Like, I get vaccinated (though not those unnecessary flu vacs), but I can hardly hold it against people if they don’t want the government to inject kids with unknown chemicals.

    And yet, it is the WORST heresy if you dare question this wisdom.


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