At first glance, it looks to be any other Fourth of July parade in the faded Kodachrome photos. That is, until subtle details begin to pop: the uniformed marchers handing out pamphlets, the yin-yang emblem adorning banners, the fleet of identical gray automobiles driving in slow procession. “Operation Golden Gate” was the name of a 1948 plan among the followers of a political movement known as Technocracy Inc. to converge on the San Francisco Bay area. These self-described Technocrats gathered from around the country to educate the public in their central belief: that politicians lacked the ability to effectively manage the complexities of the modern world and that the public should delegate decision-making instead to a small group of technological experts.
Some of the Technocrats’ more fanciful proposals included a 16-hour workweek, equal income for all in the form of energy certificates, and the unification of North and Central American nations into the Technate of America. But Technocracy’s iconography — its militaristic marches, insignia, uniforms and salutes — wasn’t about to win any hearts soon after the defeat of fascism in Europe. The 1948 parade through San Francisco, Palo Alto, Santa Clara and San Jose was one of the final public displays of this obscure techno-utopianism that was soon to fizzle out. The Technocrats packed up their cars and headed home after their parade to what would soon be called Silicon Valley.
There, after years of dormancy, the Technocratic ethos appears to have reemerged as the dominant response to concerns as diverse as fake news, data privacy and smartphone addiction. As public grievances mount against the few tech companies determining how we connect with and understand the world around us, concrete proposals for action are coming from those companies themselves, rather than from lawmakers. In the absence of a functioning regulatory apparatus in the United States, Silicon Valley is stepping in to police itself, as if restoring trust in the public sphere were any other kind of scheduled maintenance.
Technocracy Inc. promoted a philosophy that required treating the public as passive users rather than active citizens, and so far, the solutions put forward by the tech industry have taken a similar approach. As a nation trying to understand what has become of democratic consensus in an age of increasing fragmentation, this anti-democratic approach is precisely the opposite of what we need.
Politicians, for their part, have been vocal about tech industry overreach. In the wake of revelations about Cambridge Analytica, Facebook’s data sharing and election hacking, governments around the world are holding hearings on social media and user privacy protections. The coming months will surely see a slow-moving clash between the ideals of representative government and the Technocratic vision of expert management. But in many ways, it feels as if the Technocratic vision has already won.
While the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation recently caused countless sites with poor user protections to go dark across Europe, the legislation took six years to come to fruition. President Barack Obama’s “Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights,” also proposed in 2012, suffered attacks on all sides and never left the drawing board. More recently, April’s Facebook hearings on Capitol Hill have resulted in two overlapping pieces of legislation . But it’s unlikely that either will get traction in a dysfunctional Congress, especially as politicians joke that they can understand only half of what they hear during tech hearings.
Meanwhile, as the public begins to fall out of love with its gadgets, Silicon Valley is rushing to make amends. Former engineers and investors have formed the Center for Humane Technology to “reverse the digital attention crisis.” The San Francisco-based nonprofit Common Sense Media has been airing a public service ad campaign called “Truth About Tech.” Even Facebook has been so willing to humble itself that it modified News Feed to promote “more meaningful social interactions” — and as a result is seeing the first-ever drop in time spent on the now slightly less addictive platform.