A Little on [Regular] Technocracy and Why Liberal Arts Major Rule

I got my first BA in English Literature (with minors in Creative Writing, Japanese, and Philosophy); and while I was pursuing my second round of BAs several years later, I had the pleasure of working on a communications strategy and program design for a state humanities council. It’s an understatement to say I’m partial to humanities and liberal arts-based education.

As a political scientist and as someone who values clear thinking in what I read and in what I write, I have nothing against STEM education either. I mean, this is a blog about technology as much as it is Things Political. With those things alone I have the S and the T from STEM. And if we can count one semester of Methodology and and one semester of Statistics as Mathematics, I’m rocking 3 of 4. But enough about me. I’m here to direct you to this article by Virginia Postrel which is as good a defense of liberal arts and humanities education as I’ve seen, even given a few months of looking for just such a thing when I worked at the humanities council.

What struck me though was this line (emphasis added):

The argument that public policy should herd students into Stem fields is as wrong-headed as the notion that industrial policy should drive investment into manufacturing or “green” industries. It’s just the old technocratic central planning impulse in a new guise.

It is true that all the famous figures who have had the “technocrat” placard hung on their neck have been die-hard central planners–many of them economists from Harvard, Oxford, or the London School of Economics, but I think there’s a way to think about technocracy that doesn’t only include the Porfirio Diazes of the world.

I like to think of “technocracy” as a positivist enterprise in that it claims there are things we can know about the world through observation. The universe of observation is the political world, specifically policy-making. I think the tendency is to over-emphasize the strength of the facts that are found and derive from their discovery that a single “correct” policy can be written and effectively executed, thus the move toward centralization.

But America’s first technocrat, James Madison, did not believe this at all. Or, at least he believed it, but implemented his vision in a way very different from the technocrats of the mid- to late 19th century. Madison’s two big contributions to the world of self-governance as federalism and elite competition. In both he recognizes that, although “correct answers” are discoverable, “correct answers” may differ between different groups and that the best way to find them is to pit them against one another, both in the realm of public discourse and in the realm of side-by-side implementation. That is to say that his conclusion was that there was a “right way” and that way was to try lots of things and see what sticks. It isn’t fool-proof or full-proof but it is a technocratic solution that discourages centralization in its base form. It’s a recommendation very similar to the one Postrel promotes in the essay linked above.

Although this blog won’t spend a lot of time dwelling on abstract concepts like “federalism” as technology, the fact is, for a constructivist like me, ideas are things and are just as worthy of the title as “technology” as is a shovel or an iPad. I recognize the desire to move away from the technocrats that touted eugenics and Prohibition and who currently advocate for centrally planned education policy, but I think there’s something to be said for recognizing that there are things we can know about the world and that we can use those facts to design policies that effectively achieve what they set out to achieve. And I think the term technocrat needs to be rescued from what it has become by focusing on the social value created by new technologies, ideal and material, and the way those technologies can improve the way we govern ourselves.

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Social Media in Scholarship and the Classroom

Every year the Institute for the Theory and Practice of International Relations releases the results of its Teach Research and International Policy (TRIP) survey. The report is a good view of what’s going on in the field, what students are being taught, in what ways, and in a very generic sense, by whom. I found the page below fascinating.

I wrote a paper last year on the international intervention in Libya. As a result of the newness of the campaign I didn’t have a lot I could reference from academic sources. I was able to pull material on Responsibility to Protect (R2P), and of course some general information on interventions and historical facts about Libya, but just nothing on the Libyan intervention itself in the peer-reviewed journals.

I was however able to get a lot of commentary from notable academics like Michael Walzer, Stephen Walt and Charli Carpenter…from blogs and online journals. I would guess a full quarter of the references in the paper were to such sources. I don’t think that this is necessarily the vanguard of new academia. The arguments I used to support my claim were old and very well established in the traditional tree-bound literature. I was only seeking Libya-specific corroboration and the only place I could find it was online.

Which is all to say, my own habits notwithstanding, I am a little surprised to see that so many professors are citing blogs and Facebook content in their academic work. Over 3% of professors are citing Tweets!

Another big story here is the use of Wikileaks. Second only to blog content, Wikileaks documents have been cited in academic work by nearly 15% of those surveyed.

Read the full survey here. [PDF]


As I’ve already mentioned, Italy’s new “technocratic” leadership was one of the inspirations for starting this blog. So how is Italia faring in its new technocracy? Not so tech-savvy, I have to say. The story’s a little old now, but it’s worth reading NPR’s hyperfast version of it so you can see how it was that Italy almost appointed someone with experience into a cabinet post, and then, luckily, corrected their decision. (And yes, you read that correctly, no typos).

South Korea at Night

The contrast here is stark. It makes me think it’s a fake. Hell! It makes me wish, on behalf of the citizens of North Korea, that it was a fake. Nevertheless, if you want to know what kind of difference leadership can make, then compare this satellite photo of the Korean peninsula at night. The bottom is the Miracle on the Han River, South Korea. Above it, the Hermit Kingdom of North Korea.


Or compare their GDPs:

Here’s WaPo’s Brad Plumer [whom the chart is via]

Back in 1970, the two countries were roughly comparable — in fact, AEI’s Nicholas Eberstadt argues that, at the time of Mao Zedong’s death, North Korea’s workers were more productive and better educated than China’s. But, as you can see from the graph below (culled from this exhaustive dataset of historical statistics), North and South Korea’s economies diverged wildly around 1976.

In the early 1970s, North Korea’s economy ground to a halt, barely growing at all until Kim Il Sung’s death. Then, after Kim Jong Il took over in 1994, the economy worsened noticeably, per capita incomes fell, and the country became dependent on emergency U.N. food aid to stave off further famines. North Korea became, as Eberstadt puts it, “the world’s first and only industrialized economy to lose the capacity to feed itself.” (That said, there’s evidence that North Korea was growing weakly in the last few years of Kim Jong Il’s rule).


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Who Do You Think are the Best Thinkers

Every year Foreign Policy magazine produces a list of the top 100 global thinkers. Not an easy task, I assume. Even in the age of twitter the world is pretty big place. Actually social media probably makes a task like picking the best thinkers even harder because there’s so much more intellectual detritus clouding out the real stars in the egghead universe.

The list does a pretty good job of being international and interdisciplinarian. But no list is without it’s problems. I, for example, would like to see a lot less ties with two, three, or four people sharing a single numbered slot. (Twitter and Facebook CEOs, for example tie for “Changing the way we do almost everything.”) And I’m not necessarily in favor of putting high-profile poor thinkers on the list just because their bad ideas were popular or influential. Why Dick Cheney and Condoleeza Rice make the list (in a tie) because they “made the world we live in today” is beyond me. The world we live in today, in many significant ways, well, #itblowsalot, to borrow and tweak a phrase. And I happen to know a couple of professors of mine that would roll their eyes at the inclusion of #94–author of an excellent novel, but a second-rate Chomsky in her political writing.

I first discovered the list myself a handful of years ago and used it to help me find books that would make me smarter or streamline my own thinking or, better still, improve my problem-solving skills by widening my creative horizons. I’d half-hoped that now, five years later, I would be able to recognize most of the names on the list because I’m so much more entrenched in the community of people who think or act globally. But alas, I know about as many people this time around as last time. The only difference now is that my exposure to the works of those I recognize is deeper. I’m not just familiar with the names this time around, sometimes I’ve read or even own their books. I’m not saying that to brag. Trust me, having read The World is Flat hasn’t made me any smarter.

Actually I bring it up, not as a criticism of the list, but as a criticism to myself today and especially the self I was five years ago. It’s poison to think that one day we will have read all the right things, or talked to all the right people and that we will then be able to churn out works so brilliant they escape damning critique. In one specific way, this year’s list drives that point home clearer than previous years’. The reason I don’t know who a lot of those people are is because they aren’t writers per se, or academics. They’re not really “thinkers” in the way we typically understand that term. They’re doers. The first several names on the list are the activists behind the Arab Spring revolts/revolutions. And that’s an important point.

Machiavelli (but Plato before him) distinguish men of action from men of thought. The “philosopher-king” is necessary, but unfortunately it is an impossible creation. Philosophers never act because better, more precise, more full knowledge–the kind of knowledge on which actions should be based–is just around the corner, up ahead, and out of reach. Politics demands action, but so does marketing, pharmaceuticals, and road-building.

And so does writing your thesis (slacker).

All of us have to balance these conflicting modes of thinking and doing. And it’s probably true that most of us tilt one way or the other. But so long as any thinker does at all, he should encourage himself to do more. And so long as any doer thinks, he should probably think more too. Not to wax to Aristotelian, but achieving a balance here would be better for everyone. That’s the goal of a true “technocracy,” right? To place in political power thinking men of action, the enlightened dictators, but elected this time around. Not Alexander the Great but some bespectacled graduate of the London School of Economics with a taste for spreading liberty to the masses along with roads, hospitals, and schools. But if that balance is ultimately unachievable in aggregate, it’s good that we have a world of thinkers to advise a world of doers. As long as we don’t consider the Dick Cheney’s of the world in a class with the former.

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Visualizing the Collapsing Eurozone

This isn’t narrowly about political science or “governance” which are key themes of this blog, but it is about the broader political economy. It’s also about the Eurozone which in part, because it generated articles and blogs with headlines like “Greece’s new technocrats must win legitimacy,” “We are all technocrats now” and “It’s a bird! It’s a plane!…It’s Technocratic Government!” served as inspiration for this blog’s title. But most importantly it’s about visualization, its goals, its methods, and its effects, which is something I hope to spend a lot more time learning how to do in the next few years.

So check out The New York Times‘ visualization of the complicated Eurozone crisis (print version below; nice interactive version at the NYTimes website)

Then check out the BBC’s very savvy circular model which I adore.

Then check out the comments at The Why Axis where I ran across both vizs.

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ARMs, Intel, and Mitochondria

Delivered without a comment, a brief essay about processors, their evolution and pictures of the Red Queen.

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Twittering Kansas Teen Unrepentent

Sam Brownback official portrait
Governor Brownback's staff wants you to know that stick and stones, as well as words, can be hurtful, and that Emma Sullivan is just garden variety, mean-old Internet bully.

You may have already heard of 18-year old Emma Sullivan, the Kansas high school senior who attended a Youth in Government event and afterward tweeted the following to her 65 followers:

“Just made mean comments at gov. brownback and told him he sucked, in person #heblowsalot,”

Governor Brownback’s staff informed the YiG program. No one is reporting what it was they said or asked for but the repurcussions of the communication have been reported. A lot.

Basically Sullivan was scolded at school and told to write an apology to the Governor. The prinicpal even gave her talking points to include in her letter. Sullivan has refused to submit the letter and in the meantime Sullivan’s twitter following has grown to 6000.

It’s hard to say how often posts here will just be admonishing lectures on how to properly handle politician’s PR in the social media age, but, it must be said, this is a gargantuan failure on the part of Brownback’s staff and I assume someone, maybe someone obscure, will lose their job over it–and they probably should.

What did Brownback’s staff hope to achieve by tattling on Sullivan’s immature tweet to 65 friends? Did they hope that YiG would be more vigilant in the future in preventing mouthy teenagers from attending events? Were they hoping for a written apology? An apologetic tweet?

Oh, did I mention that Sullivan didn’t actually make any offending remarks at the event? Because she didn’t. The tweet, she says, was just a joke to her friends who had been discussing what they would say to Brownback if given the chance.

All we really know about the staff’s intention is that Brownback’s spokesperson, Sherriene Jones-Sontag has said that it takes mutual respect “to really have a constructive dialog” and that Sullivan’s tweet wasn’t respectful.

Well, boohoo. It was a tweet.

It’s true that the tweet wasn’t respectful, but so what? Twitter, for all the things it is good for, is not the forum for any serious kind of “dialogue” respectful or otherwise. If Sullivan had wanted a respectful dialogue, maybe she would have said something in person. If Brownback had wanted to start one after the fact, he certainly could have located Sullivan in person and done so.

And what kind of level of respect was Sullivan accorded? Her tweet was immature and insulting, so maybe she was treated with the level of respect she deserved, but, as we all know, two wrongs don’t make a right. One does not mandate that an adult write a letter of apology and also complain about people not being “respected.” An apology, as Sullivan has noted, should be sincere or not done at all; to command an apology is to infantalize her, to disrespect her opinion, or simply to cast her as someone who could have their feelings, opinions, or actions dictated to. Jones-Sontag seems to have confused “respect” with “honor” and she feels that her employer wasn’t treated with the right amount of deference–a level of deference, by the way, that neither he nor any elected officials deserves. Brownback works for Sullivan and the other citizens of Kansas, not the other way around. And, as a public persona, and as a politician he has volunteered himself for ridicule. It’s part of his job and, however crude the ridicule, it is constitutionally protected. His staff has made it look like he is thin skinned whiner. That’s bad PR for anybody, but especially for a Republican in today’s GOP field which loves to don the artifacts of hyper-masculine professions like ranchers and fighter pilots.

Brownback got more than he deserved when Sullivan started paying enough attention to his policies to form an opinion about them. A good PR team, if they wanted to engage Sullivan for some reason, should have thanked her for paying attention and asked her what it was specifically that made her think “he blows a lot.” Such a move would have reminded Sullivan that her Twitter account was searchable and that it was a tool for potentially reaching out to her elected representatives. It would also have let Sullivan know that her voice mattered and that Brownback’s crew was listening…not in a creepy gestapo sense, but in a responsive elected official way.

There’s no telling how Sullivan would have responded to such an invitation to dialog but given her actual restraint during the YiG event, I suspect it would have gone better than what has since transpired.

Of course, Brownback’s PR staff could have just ignored her, which, all things considered would have been a second best option to what they chose to do. What they’ve done instead is highlight that Brownback is not particularly tech savvy, that he’s sensitive to the remarks of teenagers, that he’s paternailistic and perhaps authoritarian. It may play well among some of his conservative plainsland voters, but not all of them.

In baseball they call these unforced errors.

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Where Nudity is Still Protest

In this country PETA frequently makes headlines for putting naked to near-naked girls in cages pretending to be tigers or what have you as a means of protesting the circus and other forms of animal exploitation.

I have no problems with PETA as an awareness raising group and conversation starter, but let’s be honest, the nakedness used by the group is nothing more innovative as “sex sells,” a concept that stretches as far back in time as does sex.

But in some parts of the world that “the personal is political” is a concept that still carries a lot of heft. Not to disparage in anyway the feminists in the first world, the work remains yet unfinished here; but, there’s just no denying that some countries just aren’t as far along the path toward equality, let alone liberty.

Take for example the uproar caused by a handful of tame, amateur nudes self-released by Egyptian activist Aliaa Magda Elmahdy. (You’ll have to click over to her site to see them.)

Elmahdy used a simple digital camera, a blogspot-hosted website, and twitter to highlight the continuing injustices of a post-Arab Spring Egypt. Sure, Egypt, as one upset commenter has noted, is still discussing what a “civil society” really means, and so perhaps Elmahdy is premature in fighting for gender equality. But the old protest saying couldn’t be more apt for an Egypt with a blank slate to write their political future upon: If not now, when?

Photo from the Washington Post's Lifestyle section

In any case, what can’t really be denied is that to create a protest that Americans are talking about in their hometowns, all Elmahdy needed was enough cash for a camera and a mountain of intestinal fortitude.

Erik Loomis and Matt Yglesias among others have noted that Twitter and the other social media tools shouldn’t be considered catalysts of the Arab Spring or OWS or other movements, and they are right to do so. It is easy to fall prey to the lure of novelty. But in folding social media up with other forms of communication, we shouldn’t overlook the unique characteristics that make social media powerful not just in terms of organizing protests but in other areas as well, like awareness raising. I think this was probably more true during the Green Wave when protesters in Iran had few other options to get their stories out than through Twitter. But it’s true here too. In the 50s, in order to use nudity to spark even a nationwide conversation, let alone an international one, Elmahdy would have had to connect with a like-minded publisher who was, despite his profit motive and fear of reprisal, willing to promote her and her cause.

Elmahdy’s is a particularly important move now, because so many in this country view our own revolution so positively that we tend to see all revolutions as binary. If Nasser was bad and is overthrown, things will definitely be better with him gone. This is just simply not necessarily the case. Political scientists and reporters have never been purely optimistic about Egypt’s outlook, and political observers of the upcoming elections there are even more pessimistic now.

It may well be that Elmahdy’s voice will be much quieter in the Egypt to come and so it’s important that we remember that beneath whatever sheen of civil order the next government manages to project, people like her will still be there hoping, and fighting for real change.

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Blog Generics

I hadn’t actually planned on launching Hightechnocracy as soon as I did, but when the need for a blog that combined two disparate blogging worlds I followed presented itself, I felt I couldn’t wait. But that has led to what can only be called an ironic cluster of failures. For a blog that wants to showcase exactly what changes technology is wreaking in the political science world, the theme I’ve chose has a series of horrible shortcoming that I don’t know how to address….yet. I’ll either figure it out when I have some free time (*snicker) or I will have to change themes (likely).

I also haven’t had time to explain exactly what the goal of this blog is and I haven’t posted anything like what I expect the meat of the blog will consist of. So at this early stage, it’s probably hard to tell just yet what my “point” is. That will come, implicitly over time, and explicitly in an About page in the next few days.

I should also quickly note, until I can find time to write about it, that the banner is from the excellent work of Daniel Maliniak at the University of California, San Diego and Ryan M. Powers at the University of Wisconsin, Madison visualizing the International Relations academic universe. You can go to their website to see it for yourself and read about what they’ve done.

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