technocracy is impossible

I’m re-reading Kim Stanley Robinson‘s magnificent Mars trilogy right now, which might be something to blog about in the coming days and weeks, so why not get started?

Not long ago I was in a Zoom conversation with several people, one of whom is a very distinguished scientist, and he told me that when he read my book The Year of Our Lord 1943 and got to the end, he felt that I had given short shrift to the virtues of technocracy. He thinks technocracy would be a pretty good thing, especially as compared with the plausible alternatives. The conversation veered onto other paths soon after that, possibly more fruitful ones, but before it did I sketched out an answer that I want to develop a little more fully here — because it’s a little different than the view I (implicitly) endorse in that book, which is that Technocracy Is Bad. What I think I now want to say is Technocracy Is Impossible.

You see, in the strict sense there cannot be a technocracy as such, and Mars trilogy proves that point. If you read that story, you will discover that it is really more about politics than it is about the exploration of Mars, or perhaps it would be better to say, it demonstrates irresistibly that none of our scientific or technological pursuits can be detached from deliberations about the character of our lives together, that is to say, deliberations about politics.

Right from the beginning of the story there is great debate, forceful and even sometimes hostile debate, among the First Hundred — the 100 (or, to be precise, 101) people who are sent from Earth to start the first Mars colony — about what sort of society they should form once they get there. They are theoretically responsible to the national governments that sent them and to the U.N., but one of the things that becomes clear to them as even as they’re on their way to Mars is that upon arrival they’re going to have to make their own decisions about how to order their common life. And so a great deal of the book is about, for lack of a better phrase, political philosophy.

One of the things we are occasionally reminded of in the first book of the trilogy, Red Mars, is the international celebrity of the First Hundred. People back on Earth obsessively watch video of the colonists, and enter passionately into their debates:

So nearly everyone had an opinion. Polls showed that most supported the Russell program, an informal name for Sax’s plans to terraform the planet by all means possible, as fast as they could. But the minority who backed Ann’s hands-off attitude tended to be more vehement in their belief, insisting that it had immediate applications to the Antarctic policy, and indeed to all Terran environmental policy. Meanwhile different poll questions made it clear that many people were fascinated by Hiroko and the farming project, while others called themselves Bogdanovists; Arkady had been sending back lots of video from Phobos, and Phobos was good video, a real spectacle of architecture and engineering. New Terran hotels and commercial complexes were already imitating some of its features, there was an architectural movement called Bogdanovism, as well as other movements interested in him that were more concentrated on social and economic reforms in the world order.

All of this makes more sense if you have read the books and know the characters, but even if you haven’t, I think you’ll get the general picture. Terrans are not only interested in what the colonists will do to organize life on Mars, they‘re reflecting on the implications of those ideas for life on Earth.

For me, here’s the key thing: When you have an environment completely dominated by scientists and engineers — the only non-scientist we meet is a psychologist, sent to provide therapy to the colonists — there is no agreement among them about what kind of life they should live together. That is, scientific and technological expertise does not correlate with any particular mode of social and political organization. Scientists can vary just as much in their beliefs about what kind of life is worth living as any randomly selected group of people in a society. They don’t even agree about the importance of technology. Rule could theoretically be given over to people who have demonstrated certain kinds of scientific or technical knowledge, but we would be wrong to think that everyone who has the same level of STEM achievement will have the same views about politics. When you read Robinson’s great trilogy you will understand not only why this might be so but why it must be so.

Therefore it makes no sense to say that the decisions of political leaders should be governed by “the science.” Leaders should pay attention to scientists, dramatically more than the current Presidential administration does, but an immunologist will say one thing, an epidemiologist something slightly different, an economist something altogether other. The various sciences and academic disciplines will not speak with a single voice, indeed will not speak at all: individual scholars will speak, and what they say will arise from a combination of their scholarly expertise and their beliefs (derived from non-scientific sources) about what matters most in life, and a good political leader will have the general intelligence and moral discernment to sift the various messages he or she receives and make a decision based on all the relevant input. Which is another way of saying that there are not, nor will there ever be, charts and algorithms that can substitute for political judgment. Alas for the U.S.A. that political judgment is precisely what our leadership lacks.