02.07.21

Informatics, Progress, and Technocracy — Part I: “It’s a Technical Problem, Stupid”

Posted in Free/Libre Software, GNU/Linux at 2:46 pm by Guest Editorial Team

By Daniel Cantarín. Original version in Spanish here. Introduction in English here.

Warning

Summary: Part I of Daniel Cantarín’s article “Informática, progreso, y tecnocracia”

This phrase which I’m using as a title for this section is today a legendary meme.

But whatever the iteration, both as a meme or in its original version (as intelligent condensed concept for an electoral campaign), the phrase is coined to install an immediate common sense that purposely replaces a debate with a conclusion.

I hate this phrase. I consider its success to be a mere symptom of a good chunk of our contemporary problems in our world. That, and the popularity of capitalist realism. And it happens to be the case that the economy is at the heart of our era. The whole XX century was organised around the fight over what’s the ultimate economic system for humanity. And we know how that went.

“The whole XX century was organised around the fight over what’s the ultimate economic system for humanity. And we know how that went.”That phrase also introduces the gloom evil of technocracy behind a veil of smart and kinda funny. But, at this point, it is so wrong to find that phrase funny (or worse, correct) as it would be to like confusing Ku Klux Klan members with happy people in some ghost festivity. That phrase is used to impart violence, subdue peoples, and seize a power that belong to others. Let’s check this out, continuing with the economics example, which is today one of the fundamental references of technocracy worldwide.

I believe everyone will agree that we need strict production and distribution plans in times of scarcity in order to avoid resource waste and creepy situations like famines. Right? And I also imagine that everyone would agree that such plans should be a top priority in societal planing. In front of which economics theory certainly has things to say, and they’re all most welcome.

“Whatever the case, that’s how economics theory renews its centrality in society.”However, all of our big modern crises were about speculation and overproduction. And not only that, but at no single moment we stopped to suffer scarcity problems, even when literally we have millions of tons of extra food, and literally have tech that solved every logistical problem. The novelty is that our modern scarcities are synthetic: we now create scarcities where there’s none. Interestingly enough, we actually do that to sustain that “economic system” which generated that overproduction in the first place. But in any case it often happens that, given that it’s a production problem, even by common sense it should be an economic problem. And that’s how everybody quickly comes to some conclusions like these: “well, then the problem is that somebody did a bad economic plan, or perhaps bad implementations”. Or even stuff like, “then we need to change the economic system,” and discussions then veer off towards stuff like capitalism vs communism. Whatever the case, that’s how economics theory renews its centrality in society.

And yet, once again… again and again, economic plans achieve somehow catastrophic systematic failures, at least for wide sectors of world population. And there are a few things we need to take note of and consider about that. The first one is that an absolutely marginal fragment of the world’s population has never stopped getting richer, and in fact gets even more affluent when “economic system” failures happen. In the second place, everyone insists on reaching hypothetical states of purity (in ‘planification’, in execution, in system participants’ honesty, etc) that never get attained/reached, and yet that’s the only place where hope for a better future seems to always be. And the third thing to note is that both capitalism and communism (the two antagonistic big XX century “economic systems”) had similar failures: small privileged sectors of society, with massive groups of people damaged to scandalous and inhumane levels.

“With all that in mind, before we keep on asking anything of relevance and entrust all else to economics, I believe we most likely need to check their credentials.”That way, as it always happens with ideas that pretend to reach too much, sooner than was ever necessary or sooner rather than later they begin to show their obvious problems, and suddenly the previous common sense needs great rational efforts and very well-formed specialists to survive. It’s the case of the economy today: at the same time we’re asked to accept it as some obvious, common sense stuff, specially in times of elections; while we’re also asked at the same time that we keep our opinions about all of this suppressed because we’re not specialists in the matter, and thus we shouldn’t get to babbling bullshit about it. And at the very same time, it happens between specialists that they throw shit to each others, calling others stuff like “ignorant” or “idiot”, when their speculations about what’s going on and what to do just don’t match between or among peers. Of course, no matter who’s speaking or what each person may be saying, economists’ arguments are always defined as “objective”, and they always have “progress” as horizon.

With all that in mind, before we keep on asking anything of relevance and entrust all else to economics, I believe we most likely need to check their credentials.

The trick is to understand that “economic systems” are no such things but cultural orders. It’s absolutely ridiculous to think nowadays (more so today, in 2021) of “economics” as an isolated thing — something truly isolated from geography, biology, history, physics, linguistics, and who knows what else. In fact, nobody talks today about economics when they speak of economics: they talk politics. Nobody says stuff like “communism”, “capitalism”, “socialism”, “free market”, “interventionism” and so on, as if those things (‘old’ stuff) were just some technical production and logistics conditions: everybody uses those terms as flags in an ideological battlefield that insists and persists for centuries (since at least 150 years until now, and the XX century took that up to the level of war).

“And at the same time, we still seem to be forced to ask economists for permission when we try to think about possible future worlds.”And the reason for that is what both “economic systems”, capitalism and communism, have something to say about being human. It happens to be the case that, even when they say different things, they both share the centrality of economics. This way, nobody says something like “I don’t know, let’s try a few decades, and then we evaluate in detail”. No country or state seems to agree on things like “this region should try this system, this other region ought to try this other one, and we can compare experiences”. The idea sounds ridiculous, idealistic in a bad sense, or even alien, no matter that the most basic and elemental use of reason easily allows anybody to consider that as an obvious way to go. And at the same time, we still seem to be forced to ask economists for permission when we try to think about possible future worlds.

What happens is that economics is barely a single component of a much more complex social system. The fantasy that “everything is economical”, or that “economy is the mother of all problems”, is nothing but that: a fantasy. Economics is not more or less important than physics, biology, or sociology, per se; it depends on what are you talking about. Every discipline is a tool for solving problems. But in no way do economics have any objective authority over other components of the system. That’s why it’s in constant and infinite conflict with basically any human action in a modernised society: because everything we do questions the weak points of economics, that again and again gets where it doesn’t belong, and at the same time it doesn’t handle the stuff it should handle.

“Economics as the centre of the social debate is ideology.”All of this stuff about contemporary economics is in fact a pretty general map of what constitutes a technocracy: an ideological bias, manifested in a central bureaucratic area of power, which can only be accessed with curated credentials, and that everyone else submits to. Economics as the centre of the social debate is ideology. The technical qualification as a condition for social debate, is ideology. The need (instead of desirability) for technical terminology, in order to speak about real life conditions, is ideology. And ideology is politics. That’s what both economists and business people do in contemporary societies: politics, and nothing else. And that’s how economics is not only not solving any real problem anywhere in the world, but it’s also generating a deep discredit of politics by taking its place.

In case the reader didn’t figure it out just yet, informatics communities are full of those tecnocratic biases. I invite anybody to go and check out comments in discussions about any IT issue in general.

Of course I could put here an infinite number of examples, especially when it comes to the more heated issues that frequently end up generating decades of flamewars and conflict. But allow me to let slip in just a single, short one, in order to be brief about it in this otherwise very long text. It’s a 2015 article about why somebody considers it a good idea to stop ‘talking shit’ about PHP, and even talking shit in general when it has something to do with others.

Then look at the responses in Reddit, where PHP people are even accused of “anti-intellectualism”, of course calling “objectivity” as credentials for saying such thing.

“And to nobody’s surprise, during the last decade at least, our field began to characterise or gear itself towards creating problems where there weren’t any before, affecting/inflicting entire communities with forced and unwanted changes, creating synthetic scarcities by means of programmed obsolescence (as is the scandalous case with i386 deprecation), submitting all to corporate agendas at breakneck speed as if we had no history, to deny political conditioning at the same time we use grandiloquent titles such as “democratic” or “open”, and so many nasty extra things/stuff.”All of our fields/domains are behaving in that way, since some time ago until now. And to nobody’s surprise, during the last decade at least, our field began to characterise or gear itself towards creating problems where there weren’t any before, affecting/inflicting entire communities with forced and unwanted changes, creating synthetic scarcities by means of programmed obsolescence (as is the scandalous case with i386 deprecation), submitting all to corporate agendas at breakneck speed as if we had no history, to deny political conditioning at the same time we use grandiloquent titles such as “democratic” or “open”, and so many nasty extra things/stuff. And all of this is always done with the flags of objectivity and progress.

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