American Technocracy and the Rhetoric of the Technological Fix

Johnston, S. F. (2016) American Technocracy and the Rhetoric of the Technological Fix. 7th European Society for the History of Science Conference, Prague, Czech Republic, 22-24 Sep 2016. (Unpublished)

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The notion of the ‘technological fix’ had a remarkable rise in popularity and application through the twentieth century. Its claim is that an engineering or technological approach is suitable not merely for tackling technological problems but also as a basis for efficiently diagnosing and resolving social, cultural and political issues. This confidence, or hubris, concerning the relevance of technological solutions to human concerns has ranged from the design of inherently safe streetcars to proposals for remediating climate change. The rise of technocratic movements between the two world wars encouraged analysis of how scientific methods and technological change contributed to the nature of modern societies. In North America, Technocracy Inc promoted the management of society by ‘technocrats’, or engineer-scientists attuned to technological solution-finding.1 From them came ideas that directly challenged conventional political and social authority. This paper analyzes the discourse about technological fixes originated by American technocrats, identifying precursor ideas and exemplars and characterizing the rhetoric that co-evolved with it. It traces the evolution of these ideas from the Great Depression to postwar reformulations. Later enthusiasts, notably chemist and urban planner Richard L. Meier2 and nuclear engineer-physicist Alvin Weinberg3, reframed the notion as a tool to augment, rather than to directly challenge, conventional politics and economics. They argued for the rapid societal progress achievable through technological problem-solving. Expressed as a discussion-point rather than polemic, the concept has been widely disseminated since the mid-1960s. Its engineering and technocratic supporters, on the one hand, and humanist and social-science critics, on the other, have informed wider cultural reflection on the short-term benefits and unintended side-effects of technological solutions, particularly in relation to health and environmental issues. By examining the historical trajectory of faith in the technological fix, this work reopens the central claims to fresh audiences.

Item Type:Conference or Workshop Item
Keywords:Technological fix, technocracy, interwar, Alvin M. Weinberg, Richard L. Meier, technological confidence, expertise, authority.
Glasgow Author(s) Enlighten ID:Johnston, Professor Sean
Authors: Johnston, S. F.
Subjects:C Auxiliary Sciences of History > C Auxiliary sciences of history (General)
E History America > E151 United States (General)
H Social Sciences > H Social Sciences (General)
J Political Science > JA Political science (General)
J Political Science > JC Political theory
College/School:College of Social Sciences > School of Interdisciplinary Studies
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