Sunday, June 20, 2010

The Nineteenth-Century Origins of the "Techno-Moron"

By my records it has been over three years since I invoked the pejorative colloquialism "techno-moron." At the time I was railing against the "Innovation America" initiative, which had been established by the National Governors Association and may have provided me with my first incentive to view innovation-centered thinking as "the new Kool-Aid." As I saw the matter, the toxic nature of the Kool-Aid was similar to that of Homer's addictive lotus plants; but, while the latter banished all thoughts of home (and therefore identity) from the eaters' minds, the former could drive out any rational thinking about consequences. I may have dropped the colloquialism, but I find that I cannot say enough about the neglect of consequences in prevailing decision making. Last week, for example, I got onto a roll on this theme with back-to-back posts entitled "Reckless Innovative Minds?" and "Reckless Innovative Journalism?"

I thus took some comfort when I discovered that Friedrich Hayek had documented the origins of this intellectual myopia in a 1941 paper entitled "The Counter-Revolution of Science." He associated those origins with the impact of the French Revolution on the rise of positivism. His view of French society in the early nineteenth century uses language far more polite than my more colloquial rhetoric; and, as a result, his text is probably more effectively acerbic. Nevertheless, we can see from this paragraph that he is targeting a class of individuals who are flourishing just as much today as they did in the period he examined:

Thus a whole generation grew up to whom that great storehouse of social wisdom, the only form indeed in which an understanding of the social processes achieved by the greatest minds is transmitted, the great literature of all ages, was a closed book. For the first time in history that new type appeared which as the product of the German Realschule and of similar institutions was to become so important and influential a figure in the later nineteenth and twentieth century: the technical specialist who was regarded as educated because he had passed through difficult schools but who had little or no knowledge about society, its life, growth and problems and its values, which only the study of history, literature and languages can give.

In other words it is through such neglected issues as "knowledge about society, its life, growth and problems and its values" that we become sensitized to the relevance of the simple precept that all actions have consequences. One may aspire to "positive" truths; but only the most abstract of those truths are eternal (and most of them were documented in Principia Mathematica). Indeed, I suggested in my very first blog post that any "specialized truth" has a "half-life," based on the effects of those aforementioned neglected issues; and, if Homer's lotus obscured all thoughts of home, the Kool-Aid of innovation-centered thinking dulls our awareness of the "rate of decay" of those truths. Hayek has is own punch line for this state of affairs. However, rather than saving it for a parting shot, he uses it as his opening sentence:

Never will man penetrate deeper into error than when he is continuing on a road which has led him to great success.

Hayek's lesson is that it was ever thus, so we should not be surprised that it still is!

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