In these times, it has become something of a cliché to criticize the notion of “Rule by Experts”. That is, the expectation that decisions should be taken by the technically prepared, with the Greater Good of the public in mind. The coronavirus pandemic brought this debate to very explicit terms, as policies came to be judged in regards to their relation to current scientific knowledge. The meme of the disconnected, smug elite started to converge with that of the myopic hyper-specialist, oblivious to realities outside his field and prisoner of his abstractions.
In any case, the now-questioned Rule by Experts seems a product of a previous era, in which it seemed that the Technosphere was a refuge of peace and neutrality, far from the stridencies of the National, the Religious or the Ideological. This perception of Technoptimism as a thing of the past is, however, artefactual.
Traditionally, technology is defined as whatever technical means Humans employ to solve a problem. Since solved problems don’t appear as problems anymore, the Technosphere always seems to be at the edge of the Present. We don’t perceive technologies designed to address past problems as technology, but as nondescript objects within our reality of abundance. Thus, primitive technologies such as the knife, the hearth or clothes become trivial in our world of wealth and security.
A pack of matches or a piece of rope lacks the aura of power projected by more advanced technologies with less obvious ways of functioning, such as the Internet or vaccines. Its true significance only becomes manifest in dire and rare circumstances of remoteness, solitude and lack of preparation, such as being stranded in a desert island. Only in the post-apocalypse will we think of subsistence farmers as the embodiment of Rule by Experts. Soothing notes of absolute, rational neutrality will suddenly become obvious in their voices. We’re not there yet, though.
The faith with which our epoch rewards technical solutions is only a particular case of the Technooptimistic phenomenon, in which we believe to have found in it a territory of ultimate neutrality. Everybody can be served by the existence of electricity or ink: compared to ideological or moral discussions, technical problems are marvelously clear and objective. The comfort they provide is understandably seen as a possible road to peace and understanding amongst all of Humanity.
Those too secure in this promise, however, are victims of magic thinking when they expect from technology any capacity for human and moral progress. The I Fucking Love Science™ types, as their previous historical iterations did, naively believe that technology will only be used “in a sociological sense”, to paraphrase Carl Schmitt’s reflections on The Concept of the Political. Precisely, 15th century transoceanic navigation technologies were seen by Spanish missionaries with the same optimism that shined in the eyes of English capitalists when beholding James Watt’s myriad applications for the steam engine. It’s the hopeful spirit that took over the hearts of early nuclear physicists when they learned they could harness the energy of the atom. We all know how these stories end, and it’s not Universal Salvation.
For every “vulgar mass religion” (Schmitt’s words again) expecting paradise come from the Technosphere, an opposite cult often arises. It’s a cult based around the fear of a new Class; of Mass emerging from technological acceleratio, with Revolution in its womb. The Proletariat was born out of the cultural nothingness and void of Capitalist exploitation: a debt owed by Communist revolutionaries to Capitalists, according to Marx himself. Proletarians brought with them total disdain for old sociological and political forms, their answer to total technification.
And what was radio broadcasting for the world if not a more recent iteration of this meme? From the nothingness of World War I emerged the totalitarian radicals of Right or Left persuasion who would set the globe on fire in the 1930s. The fear engendered by these strange, frightening figures, so particular of their time, is nothing but a lack of faith in Humanity’s capacity to use the enormous potential of Technology. It’s exactly the fear expressed by cyberpunk: that “the street will find its own uses for things”. That nothing will work as expected and no Deus ex Machina is just out of frame, waiting to save us.
Once again, here we are. At the edge, in the crisp rim of a new Total Technological Revolution. What are the supposed techlords of Silicon Valley? No lords at all, but a New Proletariat. This generation’s faceless, uprooted Mass, incessantly produced by the world’s STEM programs. The derisive talk of “bugmen” and “yeast life”, with which they are scorned by those who fear them, is not casual. It’s just perfect for the youngest scions of Technoeconomic Acceleration.