At first glance, it looks to be any other Fourth of July parade in the faded Kodachrome photos. That is, until subtle details begin to pop: the uniformed marchers handing out pamphlets, the yin-yang emblem adorning banners, the fleet of identical gray automobiles driving in slow procession. “Operation Golden Gate” was the name of a 1948 plan among the followers of a political movement known as Technocracy Inc. to converge on the San Francisco Bay area. These self-described Technocrats gathered from around the country to educate the public in their central belief: that politicians lacked the ability to effectively manage the complexities of the modern world and that the public should delegate decision-making instead to a small group of technological experts.
Some of the Technocrats’ more fanciful proposals included a 16-hour workweek, equal income for all in the form of energy certificates, and the unification of North and Central American nations into the Technate of America. But Technocracy’s iconography — its militaristic marches, insignia, uniforms and salutes — wasn’t about to win any hearts soon after the defeat of fascism in Europe. The 1948 parade through San Francisco, Palo Alto, Santa Clara and San Jose was one of the final public displays of this obscure techno-utopianism that was soon to fizzle out. The Technocrats packed up their cars and headed home after their parade to what would soon be called Silicon Valley.
There, after years of dormancy, the Technocratic ethos appears to have reemerged as the dominant response to concerns as diverse as fake news, data privacy and smartphone addiction. As public grievances mount against the few tech companies determining how we connect with and understand the world around us, concrete proposals for action are coming from those companies themselves, rather than from lawmakers. In the absence of a functioning regulatory apparatus in the United States, Silicon Valley is stepping in to police itself, as if restoring trust in the public sphere were any other kind of scheduled maintenance.
Technocracy Inc. promoted a philosophy that required treating the public as passive users rather than active citizens, and so far, the solutions put forward by the tech industry have taken a similar approach. As a nation trying to understand what has become of democratic consensus in an age of increasing fragmentation, this anti-democratic approach is precisely the opposite of what we need.
Politicians, for their part, have been vocal about tech industry overreach. In the wake of revelations about Cambridge Analytica, Facebook’s data sharing and election hacking, governments around the world are holding hearings on social media and user privacy protections. The coming months will surely see a slow-moving clash between the ideals of representative government and the Technocratic vision of expert management. But in many ways, it feels as if the Technocratic vision has already won.
While the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation recently caused countless sites with poor user protections to go dark across Europe, the legislation took six years to come to fruition. President Barack Obama’s “Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights,” also proposed in 2012, suffered attacks on all sides and never left the drawing board. More recently, April’s Facebook hearings on Capitol Hill have resulted in two overlapping pieces of legislation . But it’s unlikely that either will get traction in a dysfunctional Congress, especially as politicians joke that they can understand only half of what they hear during tech hearings.
Meanwhile, as the public begins to fall out of love with its gadgets, Silicon Valley is rushing to make amends. Former engineers and investors have formed the Center for Humane Technology to “reverse the digital attention crisis.” The San Francisco-based nonprofit Common Sense Media has been airing a public service ad campaign called “Truth About Tech.” Even Facebook has been so willing to humble itself that it modified News Feed to promote “more meaningful social interactions” — and as a result is seeing the first-ever drop in time spent on the now slightly less addictive platform.
Across the board, Silicon Valley is offering new features meant to address distraction and discord, sometimes calling them “digital health” initiatives. Google’s and Apple’s forthcoming mobile operating systems both include settings that allow you to track and limit how much time you spend using particular apps, or how many times a day you unlock your screen. The features have been branded as “Digital Wellbeing ” in Android and “Screen Time” in iOS. Similarly, Twitter has released calls for proposals to measure “conversational health” on the platform. As Casey Schwartz recently wrote in the New York Times, “Apparently, we now need our phones to save us from our phones.”
These solutions offered by tech companies in the absence of legislation are classic examples of what Technocracy Inc. founder Howard Scott and his followers proudly promoted as the “technological fix.” For the Technocrats, all social problems were simply waiting for the right design solution. One of the most widely circulated images in Technocracy Inc.’s promotional materials, for instance, used the example of a streetcar to argue that design solutions will always succeed where legislation or fines fail. If passengers insist on riding on the car’s dangerous outer platform, leaders need only design cars without platforms. Problem solved.
Silicon Valley similarly offers technological fixes for structural problems that it attempts to portray as little more than bad user habits. Instead of producing editorial standards in response to public concern over false information and hate speech, Facebook defends everyone’s right to get “a few things wrong.” Twitter rarely bans those whose passionate engagement feeds its business model, instead mostly filtering particular words and providing the option to “show additional replies, including those that may contain offensive content.”
From the vantage point of Silicon Valley, the health of the public sphere is in question not because of any fault in the systems it has engineered but because users cannot be trusted with the tools they’ve been given. Not only is this a Technocratic idea, it’s a fundamentally anti-democratic one.
Technocracy Inc. was a political movement that left no place for public participation in the process of governing. As political theorist Langdon Winner described it, “The authority rests on a human population dwarfed and submissive before forces it cannot understand or influence but entirely content with the services offered.” Without credible legislation to rein in the excesses of tech companies, and without a workable means of allowing the public to influence the way we communicate, we will be left by default with the Technocratic system that seems to have resurfaced, in which democratic citizens are addressed as passive users.
I, for one, welcome new features that allow me to measure the sad fickleness of my attention. But these gimmicks will do nothing to address the underlying issue: that our habits and proclivities have been monetized in ways that have begun to affect the shape of public discourse. As calls for digital privacy regulations continue to grow, we should remain suspicious of attempts by tech companies to shift blame onto addicted users for irresponsibly overindulging in their “neutral” tools.
At the same time, technological fixes such as tweaking the News Feed algorithm cannot replace regulation and critical conversations about technology and culture. We can do better than simply counting on the expertise of Technocrats and the abstinence of users.
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