The Sibyl of Cumae, whose famous Sibylline Leaves perished
in a fire in ancient Rome, was said to have gained her powers from Apollo.
The sun-god offered to grant the Sibyl any boon if she would spend the
night with him. She accepted his offer, asking him for as many years of
life as grains of sand she could squeeze within her hand. Apollo granted
this, and the Sibyl, overjoyed at realizing her wish, refused his
advances. Thereupon her wish became a curse; an extended life, but not
extended youth. Over many, many years, her aged form shriveled up so small
that it could fit into a jar. Needing neither food nor drink, as she could
neither die of hunger nor thirst, the jar was hung from a tree.
Occasionally she would spout new oracles while children would watch her
jar and tease, “Sibyl, Sibyl, what do you wish for?” In a faint
whisper, she would reply, “I wish to die.”
The story of the Sibyl of Cumae could well be a parable on modern
medicine, with its respirators and life-support equipment. More broadly,
it hints at the nature of technology itself, its reality vis-à-vis its
promise. If we were to travel back in time a thousand years, and tell the
first person we met of the marvels of our age—of cars and airplanes, of
telephones and computers, of fruits in winter and ice in summer—our
listener would doubtless imagine a world where magic reigned, a world
where humans had become demigods.
Yet few of us who live in the present find our era magical, rather the
opposite. Likewise, most of us don’t find modern society to be
particularly empowering or enriching so much as draining and devoid of
The most affecting moment for me in cinema is the beginning of George
Lucas’s dystopic nightmare THX-1138. The film opens with scenes from the
Buck Roger’s series of the ‘30s, as a narrator excitedly intones,
“Buck Rogers in the 25th century!” And then, the screen goes blank as
the music changes, becoming bleak and ominous. The world of ray-guns and
jet-packs is left behind and we, the viewers, know, without anything being
shown us, the unreality of such innocent imaginings in the face of the
horrors the future might hold.
The film itself is perhaps the finest vision of a technocracy yet
produced. The specifics—society moved underground; robot cops and
drone-like, human workers sustained by behavioral drugs; the complete
erasure of the individual, with even names replaced by numbers; the total
conquest of nature by an arid, lifeless landscape of the
artificial—might vary from what we expect (in fact, almost certainly
does vary from what our bleak future portends), but the concept of a
society almost completely shaped by the demands of technology holds.
The concept of technocracy is ill-understood, even by many individuals who
are knowledgeable in the societal effects of technology. Much of the
literature on technology in relation to human freedom concerns itself with
the powers of the state; whether technology has the power to emancipate
the individual from governmental coercion; or conversely, whether
technology augments state power. Salient examples can be elicited for
either side; say, encryption software for the former, spy satellites for
the latter. The topic is fascinating, but limited. Technology touches our
lives in far more ways than can check or be checked by the state. It
affects our work, our culture, our social relations, even our desires.
Recognizing technology’s breadth is a prerequisite to reaching any
conclusions on its ultimate effects.
Technocracy is defined as “the management of society by technical
experts” (Webster’s 1971). More fundamentally, it is a society which
makes sustaining and, to some extent, advancing a given level of technical
achievement an issue of central importance. It should be noted that,
within a century, it is quite likely that “technical experts” may mean
artificial intelligence systems.
All civilizations have been, to some extent, technocracies. If our
civilization surpasses all others in terms of technical proficiency, it
still affords only the barest glimpse of what may lie ahead.
Science-fiction author Vernor Vinge coined the term “singularity” to
describe the future point at which technological development would
accelerate so rapidly that nothing beyond that point could be reliably
predicted. And the innovation which will give the primary impetus to a
post-singularity future—nanotechnology—is only a few decades away from