Theology of technical rationality


‘It’s bloody obvious,’ is my frequent, exasperated response to my long-time interlocutor, critic, sometime editor, second harshest critic, and good friend, Dorothy Uckling. Her counsel? ‘You should explain what you mean when you say… because people won’t understand you.’

The critique about not explaining myself more clearly happens less frequently than it did, but with a still somewhat predictable regularity that tells me I need to pause, sometimes, and consider whether I have assumed the wrong audience, and whether I need to do something about that.

This is likely a problem for any writer. You have to think yourself into your subject, but when you then write about it, you may leave behind more casual observers who did not come along for that immersion, and who may not agree with your conclusions. One of the obstacles working against that apparently simple writerly task is an orthodox tradition in the academy, and the public province of readership, of frowning on self-referential pointers about such journeys, and the unwritten prohibition on any self-assertiveness. ‘Who do you think you are to say such a thing?’

It is one of the dilemmas for critical thinking, which cannot be critical if it is hemmed in by taboos, demands for self-censorship, or fear of censure. This is no different, and perhaps particularly the case, for arguing that there is a phantom phenomenon in contemporary Western societies that can be accurately described as a ‘theology of technical rationality’, even if its practitioners would deny that they are its acolytes.

To explain what I mean by that rubric, I need to explain what is similar between a common form of apparently objective, scientific, rational argument, and its apparent opposite: religious rhetoric.
My own journey in arriving at this terminology starts with a consideration of how many people in the Western world with religious faith define people who do not have faith. They use the term ‘atheism’, a negative denotatuion that assumes an inevitable reductionism: what those without religious faith think of religion has no greater depth than a lack of belief in a god. Moreover, the dismissive adjective suggests some kind of unity and allied cause among those to whom it is applied, possibly with ominous overtones. I’m pretty certain this is facile claptrap, no matter how much it may be popular today to propose such a thing as a movement of militant atheists seeking the overthrow of … god? An entirely unnecessary enterprise.

Nevertheless, there is a degree of reality to even idiotic conspiracy theory. No one doubts that Islamic extremists don’t kill people for imagined blasphemy. And the Islamic extremists aren’t alone. Until quite recently your life could have ended quite abruptly in Norther Ireland for being the wrong kind of Christian. In the USA right now, your life might still end at any moment for reasons known only to the crazed killer’s belief in one of the myriad home-grown and only nominally Christian cults.
More personally, my attitudes to religion, or rather the way it is taught by its spruikers, has been shaped by two experiences.

The first occurred in the 1970s, when religious education was still compulsory in British schools. For a time our instructor, Father O’Herlihy, was a towering cupboard of a man, wearing the black suit and white dog collar of his Roman Catholic faith. I made the mistake, during one of these classes, of suggesting that the story of the Nativity was rubbish, and that the virgin birth was more likely to have been a crafty way by a young woman, married against her will to an old man, to explain away a pregnancy caused by an illicit love affair. The consequence was that O’Herlihy physically picked me up by my shirtfront and hurled me across the room. It was a frightening moment for me to be at the mercy at what seemed to be considerable power and uncontrolled, unreasoning anger in an authority figure. Fortunately the assault did not continue, and led to my exemption from RE classes for the remainder of my servitude in that school. But even when the school admitted criminal liability for the assault, the head master was adamant that I had provoked O’Herlihy by challenging his faith! I knew this to be a shameless dishonesty despite my tender years, seeking to justify repression of my right to interpret an event according to a much more likely explanation than Immaculate Conception, in a circumstance under which I was offered no choice but to listen to nonsense and superstition. I doubt that O’Herlihy was born to assault powerless children, but today I am almost certain that he saw righteousness in it entirely because of the way he had been taught his religion. Because of theology.

The second incident occurred in the later 1980s, while queueing outside a cinema in Perth to get one of the few remaining seats for an early screening of The Last Temptation of Christ. There were Christian demonstrators waving placards and hurling abuse at those queuing. They seemed to be the bland, non-descript fundamentalist variety, but I can’t be sure. One of these demonstrators, a middle-aged man with a florid face and stout build, started to shout at me, standing so close his spittle flew into my face, like those famous photos of drill sergeants intimidating raw recruits. I can’t recall now what he was shouting, but I put out my arm, palm forward to indicate the need for personal space. He responded by punching me in the face. This started a most unseemly melee, requiring police intervention. I have no doubt that it was not faith, conviction, or intellectual commitment that caused the demonstrators to demonstrate, or to resort to a physical form of intimidation. Instead I detect the influence of incitement to action by a sermoniser, couched as conveying the authority of god. Some self-appointed, fraudulent pastor, extorting tithes by preaching sinfulness and hellfire, but also hatred and the righteousness of punching people in the face for the temerity of wanting to see a film deemed blasphemous.

Theology remains the putrefying influence it has always been: the arrogance of a small group purporting to speak for god. Unaware of the arrogance in the proposition that an omniscient creator needs piss-ant people to do that, or even to suppose even people of substance and intellect could get this right.

I have been fortunate, so far, to have been spared the more odious forms of political totalitarianism, but I have certainly studied those forms, and find in them a unifying thread, whether it’s communism or fascism: theology. Not justified ecclesiastically, which is a post-messianic phase of indoctrination, but in the directly messianic sense, usually with a cult leader figure, who is presented as the messiah. If we look at the example of Stalin, an ex-seminarian, he was careful to cultivate himself as the sole arbiter of ‘correctness’ in thought and action; he is, in fact, the direct progenitor of contemporary political correctness. It was his sole power to correctly derive from Marxist-Leninist principles the correct interpretation, and the correct meanings for all things moving forward.

Like religion, Stalinism demanded and relied on blind faith. No critical thought could be admitted, except as evidence of subversion, the modern euphemism for heresy.

Those who rather fatuously argue that the Stalinist Soviet Union is the best example of ‘the evils of atheism’ are rendered witless by semantics, and incapable of simple observation of what is plainly visible. Atheism may have been doctrinally enunciated, but its exact opposite was enforced. Marx as god, Lenin as Jesus, and Stalin as the sole and living saint, doubling as the sainted ‘vicar of Lenin’.

The important point of this observation for the present narrative is the recognition that religions can be secular, and that literalism in most analyses is equivalent to not analysing anything at all.

This was a personal realisation that came to me not as a startling insight, but as the gradual assimilation of many, many pieces of information over years of thinking, writing, and making previously unseen connections between what I had regarded as disparate pieces of information. I suppose you could call that the process of education and getting older. However, it is the organic nature of this realisation that made me believe that most other people must have come to similar conclusions by the time they were adults. Apparently not so. Or, perhaps, some grown people are not accurately described as adults.

Hopefully I have now explained the connection in my thinking between ecclesiastical and secular religion, and my understanding of the term ‘theology’ to relate, among other things, to the development and preaching of ideologies purporting to have a higher authority, usually derived in such a manner that this authority cannot be challenged rationally, and only rarely even by its own rules.

Now comes the harder part. Defining technical rationality in its contemporary context.

To approach this task, I propose three things that may be a little inconvenient for readers.

First, consider Friedrich August von Hayek’s 1983 definition of ‘weasel words’. In the now defunct Salisbury Review, Hayek proposed that prefixing any word with ‘social’ sucks the meaning out of the next word, the way a weasel sucks out the contents of an egg through a small hole in its shell, leaving an apparently intact but actually hollow and fragile crust. Thus, he implied, social justice is in fact not justice at all, but merely a hollow semantic tilt at it. Just as social welfare, conscience, or science are in fact not welfare, conscience or science. It’s a clever rhetorical dismissal of socialism, but it does propose a valid caution. When considering technical rationality, we should not be fooled into thinking that technical rules, including all those associated with the STEM fields, bestow an automatic mantle of rationality. They can be monstrous, irrational, or all other things besides, and they must be assessed to be these things individually, but not by their own logics. Those logics are not automatically anything at all until someone comes along to imbue them with some value or meaning. Rationality, though, stands separate to, and unimpeachable by, any technical rule-set, as a humanist and undefinable set of principles in its own right.

The second proposition is my request that you read the 1973 paper by University of California, Berkley, professors Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber, ‘Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning’ (publicly available from at the time of writing removed from the previous source but available at the Georgia Institute of Technology College of Engineering as at 9 December 2016). The third is to read it without resort to a literalism that constrains its meanings solely to social policy and planning, but to see in it the necessary overlap between what Evgeny Morozov called ‘solutioneering’, and, separately, humanist ambitions for self-determination and liberty from tyranny, including the tyranny of technocratic logics.

I recommend reading the paper directly because it is well-written enough to defy easy summary without missing essence, though I will shortly attempt summary of what I see as the most important points. I will also try to re-frame those points to relate to my conception of humanist ambitions. I see such ambitions as mostly non-technical considerations about the (potential) creativity, ends, joys, liberties, and responsibilities of human life, regardless of, or anterior to, any means to get there.
In powerful narrative strokes (for tenured academics, anyway), Rittel and Webber sketched out the engineering paradigm that still dominates professional practice, and, in my view, anticipated the Silicon Valley incarnation of technocratic imbecility. That paradigm is all about problem solving, and breaks down at a very basic level when you come to question the methods for identifying what is to be considered a problem in the first place, the patronage embedded into proposed solution(s), and the wider consequences of those solutions.

Rittel and Webber don’t offer any formula. In fact their paper demonstrates that the attempt at formulaic resolution of ‘wicked’ problems is a contradiction in a human paradigm in which there is never an absolute yes and no, or 1 and 0, but only better or worse, on an infinite scale.

I was drawn to this paper because it addressed an issue in my professional practice and post-graduate studies that my colleagues and professors seemed to be afraid of even naming: what is the political economy of what we do and preach, and what are the practical consequences of the outcomes? Not just for us, but for people we had not even considered in reaching our professional and academic conclusions.
Such considerations are completely outside the boundaries of technical rationality, which is all about closed models, systems, and rules for process and implementation. But such considerations are the only ones that regard me, and you, as human beings rather than as abstracted resources or numbers in a model.

Do I have a responsibility to consider the consequences of what I do?

I think I most definitely do. Even if you don’t agree, or don’t think you should bear the same responsibilities for your own actions.

But what if I can’t make myself heard about my concerns? What if to demonstrate my concerns about a technical rationality riding roughshod over human concerns I must couch those concerns in terms of technical rationality? That is what I mean by the theology of technical rationality. It is the demand that you talk about things outside the competence, domain, and purview of that rationality as if no subjects could possibly be outside that narrow circle. That demand, of course, immediately reduces almost all human qualities to quantities, turning them into mathematical abstractions that are already devoid of human, humanist dimensions.

In my experience of this techno-theologising, which exists quite prominently in the professions and the academy, its single biggest repository is in the space we call social media. It is the logical granary of such an ideology since it has no cultural or national boundaries, and none that limit, by age or intellect, access, credibility, or credulity. Instead it has its own social classes, which I maintain are still dominated by STEM-oriented young white men. Nerds, who were the overwhelming early adopters at every stage of the internet evolution, and who still appear to be more nimble in navigating between ‘communities’ and technologies. STEM people are quintessentially beholden to technical rationality: their training tells them to be. The falling away of liberal education, as opposed to technical jobs training, has done little to motivate a critical assessment of adopting only a technical rationality rather than a wider, humanist ‘reasoning’ faculty.

I am still working on a separate narrative exposure of Wikipedia as the sharpest focus of this unhealthy state of affairs, but, in summary, the way I see it is that the ‘self-governing’ structure of Wikipedia is based on the technical rationality exercised by the nerds who flourished in the now largely defunct usenet, or user groups. In those groups the resident nerds came up with rules of conduct and orthodoxy that accorded with their own narrow views about logic and socially acceptable parameters. They were of course immune to the irony of nerdy social misfits making judgements about socially acceptable norms!

These rules are today codified at length in the many essays and ‘guides’ for acceptable practice in editing Wikipedia and dealing with other editors. They include, among many, many other things, the implied commandment that any opinion for which there is a citation is more valid than any opinion for which there is not. How many times have you been challenged online: ‘What’s your source on that?’ I can’t think of a more banal response to a social media post, and yet it seems to be a reflexive behaviour in any discussion that strays beyond bad photography, fetish technology, or lolcats.

Wikipedia is also the most widely cited source for any assertion of truth, fact, or objectivity in social media discussion threads, particularly when an author seeks authority or justification for an opinion. I would argue that Wikipedia is now a bigger source for assertions of authority than the Bible or god. Never mind that Wikipedia is more often than not incomplete, inaccurate, or just plain wrong. Never mind that even when it’s right, many people turn its information upside down by imposing unwarranted literal interpretations or silly ideological distortions.

Considering this authority function, it is often surreal to encounter debates citing Wikipedia entries that identify specific forms of discussions as ‘such and such’s law’, and that apparently justify the dismissal of otherwise quite interesting propositions because they run afoul of this or that ‘law’, or because of an implied a priori requirement to obey xyz law! This is contemporary technical rationality, having greater regard to the rules of a closed system than to human reason based on human experience. A rationality not yet abstracted to suit the narrow numbers-base of a technical paradigm. A rationality that is profoundly anti-intellectual, anti-thinking at all, and anti-humanist.

The most bizarre, and yet quite common elaboration of this technical rationality becomes the claim to be acting with reason, and against extremism or bigotry, while enforcing what is effectively a new kind of extremism and bigotry. A rule-set that quite often uncritically embraces neo-Stalinist political correctness and censure of inconvenient or unorthodox points of view.

Try this one: ‘Google is run by a bunch of evil cunts and autistic idiot-children posing as programmers.’ Is there anything in the sentence that denotes its author to be earnestly serious rather than just angry? So why is it almost inevitable that the author will be censured for using an obscenity that is in common use for many purposes other than disparaging female genitalia, or the gender altogether? Why will people argue that Google’s executive management is not evil, when that was plainly not intended to be a literal statement? Why will all sorts of people complain bitterly about an uncharitable attitude towards autistic children, pointing out at length that there is no proof such children are idiots, when nothing of the kind was ever implied? Why will programmers get upset at being labelled this way (unless, of course, they actually take on board that they should be criticised in those terms)? The answer to all these questions is: ‘Technical rationality acts as a total eclipse of human, humanist reason’.

Personally I find it sinister that technical rationalists should adopt the cretinous literalism of religious fundamentalists who insist on the verbatim truth of their holy scriptures, regardless of the fact that what they read are translations, mostly of texts that have been edited and translated multiple times, and whose providence is often highly questionable.

Christopher Hitchens, in one of his many television interviews, recounts a rejection letter from an American publisher who had reviewed George Orwell’s Animal Farm, and advised the author that he regretted he could not publish the work because America did not have a big market for animal stories. What can you say when confronted with such mind-numbing literalist imbecility? Something about technical rationality, I suspect.

Hopefully by now the threads of all three terms, ‘theology’, ‘technical’, and ‘rationality’ have come together to convey at least a glimpse at the meaning I have in mind. A secular religion of tyrannical, anti-humanist demands that human concerns be sidelined to technical logics and the STEM cults of numbers.
However, because I’m a humanist, my meaning is neither fixed nor precise. It depends in every case, and on every occasion, on the precise context of the circumstances. This is quite unlike a technical rule-set, which is fixed, with many ‘correct’ answers determined regardless of context (2+2=4 no matter whether people are starving, the environment is polluted, or a new technology has been invented). This kind of rationality is also easier for the lazy: fixed meanings require no effort to revisit, the way critical thought requires constant re-evaluation.

And let me make quite plain that I don’t reject STEM logics. I merely refuse to accept them as superior to humanist reason, or as a binding substitute for religion and ontological closure, which is the simple-minded quest for certainty. I will brook no argument at all that certainty is always the domain of delusion and religion, because science, the often claimed basis for technical rationality, cannot, by definition, be a closed book without becoming not science.