The non-technical technocratic elite

The anger in this post is targeted primarily at myself but fuelled by finding out some of the best people that could examin my thesis are apparently not experts because they don’t hold a PhD.

Understanding technology

My PhD thesis, now thankfully nearing its completion, casts a large net in its literature review stage. One of the recurring phrases I found in my review, was ‘the technocratic elite’. I find it a fascinating phrase because there are so many philosophers using the term (or something comparable) from about the 30s onwards. At first, I thought it was amazing how the things that they were discussing could be applied to today’s society.

Nowadays when we talk about the technocratic elite, we have a lot to think about, the FAANG might come to mind first, but perhaps we also think of our governments and maybe even unions like the EU. Whatever we think of, they probably didn’t look the same as they did when the terms were coined. Yet, we can see the common themes of  ‘technocratic elite’ everywhere we look in modern society. Most certainly we see these themes more now than then. The technical elite might be the people who make decisions about what society is like simply by designing technology that we use in our every day lives. Maybe we think of the elite as those who have the skills to use technology in a way that gives them an advantage over those who can’t.

After a while, I was less impressed with the philosophers’ predictive powers.  Whenever the technocratic elite is discussed, it always seems to have one thing in common– it’s about those who understand technology and as a result have access to important decisions about it’s deployment or usage. I guess if you wanted to stretch it, you wanted to you could go back further than the 30s, does Plato’s Aristocrazy describes some kind of technocratic elite?

Just to be clear, all the philosophers I read discussed the idea that some aspects of society were been given an understanding of technology that others weren’t, and this understanding led to elitism.

Thoughts on a technocratic elite in HE

“Of course we understand neural networks, everyone does, and we should use them” – shouted a very confident middle management decision-maker in a meeting I was in recently. Directed at a neural-networks expert, who had just told them we should be careful with technologies involving neural networks because we might not understand them.

Recently I have started to believe another technocratic elite exists that I did not read about.   A technocratic elite that strangely enough doesn’t understand technology. They hold the decisions on how technology should be implemented, without actually understanding what the technology is, or does.  Ironically, when making these decisions to apply technology, they are forced to enlist the help of people who do have some understanding in it.

 This elite isn’t exclusive to the vice-chancellors, who want a website that does x. It’s also the academics who have managed to get the word ‘technology’ in their job title without ever really having thought hard about what technology is, and what it means in the context of higher education. How many academics are guilty of wanting technology to enhance the learning experience, are happy to tell other people to make that technology for them, but don’t know what ‘making it for them’ entails. Those who can ‘do’, and perhaps closer to an understanding of the technology are often relegated to being a lowly ‘technician’, being forced to only ‘do’ never ‘think’

It’s almost a reverse in the technocratic elite as described by the philosophers. I seem to regularly come across so many bright people in HE who do have the understanding and the skills to use technology, but that doesn’t necessarily fit the job spec of academic, so they are excluded from the conversations about how should be applied in HE. The doing skills, while valued in other domains are somehow not valued in this one.

This is many not true across the sector, I may be generalising. Maybe my experience of HE is an odd one. But, I do have experience of working with technology both in HE and outside with many organisations, and everywhere else I have worked the philosophers have it correct – that those who understand technology rise to the elite. Yet in HE they get called technicians and stripped of their right to think. Neither scenario is a good one.

There is some irony in this post, I have to admit that in my first job in HE, I was a lowly technician, but the academics allowed me to think, and encouraged me to do research, enrol on a PhD and write rambling nonsense posts like this. Does that attitude still exist? It should! I am very grateful for that experience.

What does understanding technology mean?

The problem with this post is that I don’t know what it means to understand technology. I’m not even going to claim that I do. As a “Technology Enhanced Learning academic”, I am part of this problem.

Next time we tell our technician friend we need a website/app/VR environment/3D model/Virtual Patient/database perhaps we could treat them as the expert and not as our technician underling.  Maybe, if we have ‘technology’ somewhere in our job title, then we shouldn’t ask them to make things we don’t understand ourselves.  Maybe we shouldn’t call them ‘technician friends’.

I read a great post a few weeks ago, which I now an unfortunately not find. The gist of the post was that action becomes before motivation. We have to do something to be inspired, and inspiration comes from the insights gained through action. I believe this to be at the core of the “technocratic elite that doesn’t understand technology”. Are they motivated to apply technology to education because they are playing with it, and have some sort of insight leading to inspiration and motivation? I do not think that is the case, I think they are inspired to make themselves famous.

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