Technocracy vs. Democracy

The Baffler magazine has posted a peculiar article that spans between the absurd and the frightening.

The article does its best to paint the attitude of those subscribing to this “Dark Enlightenment” in highly ideological terms, making them look like right-wing extremists by today’s conventions.  I think this is mistaken.  The real threat that is posed by this manner of thinking, whether they are right-wing or left-wing, is the worshipful attitude towards technology and “meritocracy,” that those who, by (natural) rights, know the “right” answers, should rule over all the unenlightened folks with an iron fist regardless of the latter’s consent.

This is not necessarily a new idea:  this was at the heart of the original Enlightenment, that the enlightened despots should rule unbridled over the unwashed masses through dictatorship of “reason.”  This was the idea behind Marxist-Leninist idea of enlightened communist vanguard forcibly “leading” the masses against their allegedly “false consciousness” for their own good.  This was the “well-meaning” core behind the “White Man’s Burden.”  This is, of course, also the idea that crops up in Tom Frank’s new book, as the driving motive behind the “smug” modern liberalism (and yes, this is exactly why I consider Richard Dawkins the greatest enemy of teaching evolutionary biology.)

But this idea of “meritocracy” is predicated on a logical problem:  how “right” are the allegedly “right” ideas?  Harper’s had an article a few years ago about how physicists are increasingly coming to the conclusion that the universe and its underlying laws are fundamentally unknowable, at least beyond a certain very limited realm.  Thomas Kuhn, erstwhile physicist turned historian-philosopher, came to the same conclusion decades before.  Ultimately, no theory, no answer is ultimately “right.”  In order to evaluate any theory, we need to measure and understand its variance–or how wrong it is on average.  At some point, the variance becomes irreducible:  the universe is, at its core, fundamentally uncertain (thank you, Dr. Heisenberg) and we have to come to a reckoning with the fact that we don’t know.

The Silicon Valley authoritarian mentality, as best I can tell, and their favorite toys, “data science,” operates on the opposite premise:  all “algorithms” are to be judged on how “right” it gets answers, without concern for how they get there.  I actually heard Google engineers openly speak contemptuously of needing to understand how and how important it is to get the right answers.  Of course, this is how we got the Google Translate, which is simultaneously a greatest con job ever (because the algorithm doesn’t know what it is actually doing, or the greatest achievement in technology (because it does produce vastly superior translation in terms of results than almost anything before).  This breeds contempt and disdain for variance, which stand in the way of getting the “right answers.”  But in so doing, it breeds a medieval, anti-scientific attitude opposed to “learning” in a meaningful sense.  (Orwell, presciently, brings this potential rise of anti-science in guise of technology in 1984.  Yes, there will be scientists coming up with better weapons, surveilance technology, and so forth–but free thinking and unordered, unrehearsed learning that goes with real science will be treated with both suspicion and contempt.)

I wonder if Arrow’s famous chaos theorems have been completely misunderstood as arguments against feasibility of democratic rule.  The implication of Arrow’s Theorem is that a perfectly rigged agenda is impossible:  no matter how you set up the decision rule, some chaos, some unpredictability is inevitable some time.  But is there a difference between a completely ordered, rigged, and predictable “democracy” and a perfect authoritarianism?



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