Thinking About Technocracy

Where to from here?

Technocracy and me first

with 3 comments

I have a rather academy-laden book called From Higher Aims to Hired Hand:  The Social Transformation of American Business Schools and the Unfulfilled Promise of Management as a Profession.  The author is Rakesh Khurana.  While it is dry, it’s also one of the better books I’ve read in many respects, and I’ve lent it out several times.  It was printed  before the current financial debacle.  It chronicles, in short, the moral fall of the current generation at the hands of business schools and the underlying mentality that is now so pervasive…me first!  I’m sure the author would cringe at my over-simplification of his theme.  Still, I’d say it is well worth the read, particularly for those influenced by historical narratives.

What makes technocracy seem particularly naive in our current age is the incredibly dominant mentality whose rise Khurana neatly plays out in a few hundred pages.  It does seem ludicrous and naive to think anyone is going to listen. 

No, I don’t believe business schools killed us all like Macbeth killed Duncan, and I’m not whining about it, regardless.  However, I do believe that the mentality that became a feedback loop in our society–the notion that a person should loosen to the extreme any ties held to anything social beyond that which contributes to one’s own gain–has become so extreme and corrupting that anything else in its face tends to be greeted as absurd.  And that feedback loop has threatened our end. 

Among  my own colleagues and friends discussions of higher aims and stewardship are often met with cynical laughter.  It’s not that I’m stunningly high-minded.  I mean the very idea that people might contribute in some way that is selfless and constructive without seeking reward is taken to be patently risible again and again.  Even those few people who have achieved something in the current wasteland and then try to give a tiny bit back are targets of derision.  Philanthropy is cool only if it becomes a self-obsessed plaything. 

At some level and at some point the same educational melanoma that business schools implanted in our future must be excised.  How?  I have no idea.  It seems that the collapse and reform which are co-present in a social grid of collaborative communication and rapid learning–the Internet–is one possible vehicle for surgery.  Of course that threatens to make one a fringe member of the loony doomsday sects that are all to common in any age–and which have been empowered by having the Internet at their disposal. 

The difference, maybe, is that (and this is the difference always noted by the insane) the threat this time seems all too real.  We might have gone and done it to ourselves.  Finally.  This isn’t Dr. Strangelove’s ironic immediate death.  This is a slow warehouse of the sapped and primed for agonizing death that we seem to be opting for.  That a person who feels rational is even able to give voice to the consideration seems all too close a reality for comfort.  Maybe that’s my purpose here.  I’m hoping for a mechanics of evidence-based action in governance.


Written by ryanlanham

January 13, 2009 at 4:44 pm

Posted in Crises

3 Responses

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  1. The idea of “me first” really goes against the main way people work. Society works best through cooperation. The idea of “me first” has its roots in John Nash’s prisoner dilemma, which is a product of the paranoid cold war. The interesting thing with that is it failed empirical testing at the time and it has failed every time it has been implemented, from the Vietnam War to Russia to the UK in the 90s; yet we still use it. The only people that go for “me first” are economists and psychopaths! The system then tries to forces us to behave that way.


    January 14, 2009 at 10:30 am

  2. Yes, it is interesting the economics is on its heels for the first time in my memory. Oh, I find much to use in classical economics…much. But I’ve always doubted the theory…no empirical backing and little predictive power. That spells voodoo to me. I’ve been a big follower of behavior economics, Nicholas Taleb’s work, and the work of the so-called post-autistic economists in, mostly Europe. Sure, we should read Adam Smith and the monetarists…Keynes too, but we ought not to act as if they KNOW. It’s political philosophy like most others…subject to constant verification in the face of human events.

    Ryan Lanham

    January 14, 2009 at 2:28 pm

  3. Among my own colleagues and friends discussions of higher aims and stewardship are often met with cynical laughter. It’s not that I’m stunningly high-minded. I mean the very idea that people might contribute in some way that is selfless and constructive without seeking reward is taken to be patently risible again and again.

    Thanks for this heartfelt statement, Ryan. It aligns so well with what I’ve gone through over the last 20+ years … went into management consulting (HR & org design, dev & change) in the mid-80’s in order to try to “do some good”, help “maximize human potential” and all that … gradual disillusionment followed, then quitting from highly-paid role as practice co-leader / senior principal, then independent strategy & org change consulting .. until I decided I couldn’t speak my mind very freely in corporate environments. You pretty much have to adopt the corporate mindset .. anything else “whole-system-ish” is met with masked derision or just plain inattention.

    It will be interesting to see what will happen over the next decade (he said whilst wondering if most of the mid-careerists who obtained MBA’s over the past 15 years will be laid off or have to start into substantive un-learning)

    Jon Husband

    March 2, 2009 at 8:29 am

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