Towards the end of Fancis Fukyama’s recent tome, Political Order and Political Decay, Fukuyama makes reference to Frederick Winslow Taylor, a business guru from the turn of the century. Modern Science was being applied to state bureaucracy, and Taylor was at the forefront of what might be termed today as business optimization. ‘[A]dministration,’ Fukuyama explained, ‘was a realm of implementation that could be studied empirically and subjected to scientific analysis….public administration could be turned into a science and protected from the irrationalities of politics.’ (Chapter 41, Political Decay) Reading that piece, I remembered something.
Yevgeny Zamyatin was a writer who George Orwell described as having an ‘intuitive grasp of the irrational side of totalitarianism.’ His best remembered work “We” is a dark satire on a future state that is authoritatian, vicious, mathematical, and strangely devoid of character and soul. On numerous occasions his narrator refers to Taylor (who died only six years prior to the publication of the book), referring to him as ‘the greatest of the ancients’, an asignation dripping with satire. His methods appear in Zamtayin’s dystopia as cherished principles of the One State regime, moving towards mathematical perfection in the administration of society. Clearly, Zamyatin saw what Fukuyama saw, and while Fukuyama acts as a historian and reports the trend dispassionately, Zamyatin as a contemporary of Taylor clearly saw ‘Scientific Management’ as a dangerous thing.
The New York Times and the Guardian have been digging ever deeper into the activities of the US National Security Agency or NSA following the leaking by Edward Snowdon of information about how they were spying both on countries and ordinary people at home. Hot on the heels of the Chelsea Manning and Wikileaksdiplomatic cables episode, there has been a constant flow of stories reporting on nefarious activities of spooks and governments, embarrassing opinions, and the mechanisms by which international diplomacy and spying are conducted, though Wired Magazine had got there first. There are numerous angles to all of this. There is the technology problem, an Orwellian, Kurtzweilian post-humanist dystopia where technology trumps all, and big data and analytics undermines or redefines the essence of who we are and forces a kind of a re-evaluation of existence. There is the human rights problem, the balancing of the right to privacy and – generally speaking – an avoidance of judgement of the individual by the state, with the obligation to secure the state. This issue is complex – if for example we have an ability to know, to predict, to foretell that people are going to do bad things, but we choose not to do that because it would require predicting also which people were going to do not-bad things, and therefore invade their privacy, is that wrong? Many people said after 9/11 ‘why didn’t we see this coming?’ Which leads to the question – if you could know all that was coming, would you want to know?