Technocracy-Zilla: Origins

Thanks to all of you who made deep and incisive comments on my technocracy essay. But the part of the post I was happiest with survives all your critiques. That's because it was the cartoon of the rampaging robot dinosaur marked "TECHNOCRACY" that I used as the preview image.

I stole it from a 1933 issue of the San Francisco Examiner, which had a great article on technocracy. I liked it enough that I thought it would make a fun first test paid subscriber post. I probably don't have permission to reprint the whole thing, so I'm going to liberally excerpt from it:

Millions of women sat, straining their eyes, sewing by hand. The sewing machine set them free. It was a great blessing. Now you are asked to believe that this invention was, in reality, A CURSE.

The farmer, far from the city or town, lived in isolation. Insane asylums were filled with farmers' wives, alone all day, with men in the fields. Then came rural mail delivery, that improved conditions; then the telephone, enabling isolated farmers to talk to their neighbors. Then, equally marvelous, came the automobile, that brought every farm near the city, the mountains and the water. And with these magnificent inventions and endless others began the real era of civilization.

And yet you are asked to believe that all this is a curse, the terrible curse of machinery. "Technocracy" means the rule of technical skill and machinery, inventive genius and modern high production methods ruling the world, destroying our social and industrial systems by enabling machines to do all the work, making human labor unnecessary.

I was a bit confused by this article until I figured out that the 1933ians are using "technocracy" to mean something more like "technological unemployment", and technocrats are people who believe in / are sounding the alarm about technological unemployment.

A Greek philosopher said slavery was necessary, because without slaves there could be no intelligent class with leisure for philosophy, art and science. He did not know that machines, the "technocracy that frightens geese," would replace slaves of flesh and blood, and eventually give leisure to all.

The idea back of technocracy is older than Veblen, Scott or Chase, older than the Constitution of the United States which, according to some technocrats, is threatened by technocracy; older even than the banking system, which technocrats tell you must succumb when technocracy forces us to give up gold, silver, money that we know, and replace it with units of electric force. So many units of electric force for a pair of shoes.

How come two-bit futurists always predict energy credits will replace money? Energy is such a bad currency! It’s hard to store, hard to move around, it’s worth different amounts in different areas/weather conditions/seasons, and if someone invents fusion power your life savings instantly become worthless. Stop trying to make energy credits happen!

(though for the record, an average pair of shoes costs 0.002 Bitcoin.)

The first bow and arrow started technocracy talk. Wise old men of the tribe, seeing "that modern machine," predicted ruin for young men. "They will get game too. easily, there will be too much meat, not" enough hunting. Young men of the tribe will no longer be able to run down the game. What shall we do with all our young men when ten men, with bows and arrows, can supply the camp with food? Ninety per cent of our young men will be idle, nothing to do, and all the game will be killed off soon."

Civilization has overcome that bow and arrow difficulty; even the repeating rifle has not killed off all the game, or made young men idle. Another "technocrat" was the wife of the man who first invented the sewing machine. She told him: "Your machine will take work from poor sewing women. With nothing to do, they will starve. To make such a machine is a crime." The inventor destroyed his model. Somebody else made a sewing machine and where one woman formerly sewed with a needle, ten are using a sewing machine today and earn ten times as much as the old sewing woman got, on the average, although one electrically-driven sewing machine can do in an hour what one sewing woman could do in a week.

Stuart Chase, usually a level-headed observer, hastily admits that "human labor is beginning to pass out of the picture," because "in an automobile selling for $3000 the direct labor cost was found to be $180 - a beggardly six per cent of the whole price." That is true, and it is also true that in the United States ten men can produce as many automobiles as it takes one hundred men to produce in England. BUT the American automobile industry created FOUR MILLION NEW JOBS, AT GOOD WAGES, by creating a demand for twenty-five million automobiles now running in the United States.

Technocracy and this civilization will discover that public needs, the demands for luxury, pleasure, improvement, will increase even more rapidly than the productive-power of machines. Our depression is only an interruption. It will pass.

Technocracy tells the human race to shiver and tremble. WHY? Because a day may come when men will have leisure to think, read, look at the sky, study the stars, enjoy the company of their children, travel and see the earth.

This is a lovely early deployment of what I think of as the bank teller argument against technological unemployment (see here for example). It's fascinating to see the same arguments about "machines are putting us all out of work" going around in 1933, and the same arguments about "no because human labor complements machine labor" coming up. Knowing that machines did not make humans obsolete in 1933 really increases my confidence that these arguments were and remain true (although CTRL+F "the argument in favor" here for some remaining concerns).

"Our depression is only an interruption" hints that some people during the Great Depression must have thought it was because of technological unemployment!

The Egyptian mother for ages has refused to brush disease-carrying flies from the eyes of her baby, believing that the ghost of her grandmother might reside in one of those flies. She is wrong about that, and technocracy is wrong.

This is the worst argument I have ever heard. "Egyptians do some dumb things, so technocracy might also be a dumb thing". I guess this is what passed for rhetoric pre-Flynn Effect.

It is your duty to read all that you can on the subject of technocracy. To know and judge FOR YOURSELF is the only way. Mr. Scott tells you that the United States has installed one thousand million horsepower of machinery, and if all that were operated at full capacity, night and day, "its output would be equivalent to the human labor of over five times the present total world population."

In other words, United States' machinery alone could produce five times as much as all the human beings in the world could produce by their own labor.

SO MUCH THE BETTER. The people of the United States NEED five times as much as all the people in the world could produce by their own labor. We need, in good times, and should have in all times, five to eight million new automobiles a year. All the skillsd mechanical labor in the world, fifty years ago, could not have produced our present supply of automobiles. Is that any reason why we should walk instead of riding? Sawing by hand, Mr. Chase tells you, two men can cut out six boards in one day's hard work, while two men with a power gang saw can cut "60.000 feet of boards a day, and the hardest work they do is to press an electric button. Their output would construct four six-room houses."

This country needs MANY six-room houses, and pressing that electric button, as experienced carpenters will tell you, is more pleasant work than sawing out boards by hand.

I love this part so much. I want to vote Anonymous 1933 Editorialist for President. This country needs MANY six-room houses!

The great technocracy threat comes down to this. Men's brains, engineering skill, inventive power advance rapidly. Men's generosity, their desire to help their fellows, advance SLOWLY. Industry, business, civilisation, human happiness are not threatened by machinery, but by HUMAN SELFISHNESS, which is fastened to industry, holding it back like a ball and chain attached to the leg of a prisoner.

Eventually civilisation will end selfishness, lose in interest in mere money accumulation, forever seeking more than it needs. A race that has ended cannibalism, slavery, torture of witnesses, imprisonment for debt will gradually replace SELFISHNESS with ALTRUISM, and there will be then no more "technocracy problem." . Meanwhile, we shall get out of this depression, then into another, and so on, with gradual, steady improvement, and real civilization IN THE END.

I resent that altruism and belief-in-progress got decoupled around the mid-1900s and now the average person who wants to end selfishness also wants to burn Silicon Valley to the ground. If you want to perfect the human race and also have Industry, Business, Civilization, and Human Happiness, you are valid. Super Puritan. But valid.