April 24, 2003

H. G. Wells, Things To Come, ICANN, and Voltaire

The 1930's were a time of faith in technology.   The world was in dire economic straits.  And from the US to the USSR technology seemed to hold the answer.  One has only to look at the science fiction stories and comics from that period to see the brave new worlds that people thought could come from technology.  (Even the darkest stories - Fritz Lang's Metropolis, Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times - didn't really question the benefits of technology as much as they questioned the unequal distribution of its benefits and its destructive effects on workers.)

In 1933 H.G. Wells wrote a story about how the world might be if the existing power structures - politicians and patricians - were to be replaced by an oligarchy or meritocracy of technologists.  That story eventually became the 1936 film Things To Come [link to poster] [link to review].

This is a film worth seeing.  (The VHS tape versions are often of awful quality, I have heard that the image and sound quality of the DVD version is also poor.)

Things To Come has three parts.

Part I begins with a war - remember this movie came out in 1936, well before WW-II - and this war lasts until 1963, more than 25 years.  During the war nations crumble.  Social order fails.  Petty baronies arise.  Disease is everywhere and the last remnants of technology are fading.  It is a time of despair; hope is gone.

And then, out of the air comes salvation - the United Airmen/Wings over the World.  A small cadre of technologists has preserved civilization (and technology).  The world is saved.

In Part II the world is reconstructed.  Huge machines and engines mine the earth and construct a new civilization.  The landscape above is pristine English countryside.  Below are perfect subterranean cities run with perfect justice and order - by the technologists, of course.

In part III space is about to be explored.  But the old power structures - those evil politicians and patricians - resurface to sow discord and to bring back the causes of "the war".

Things To Come is a paean to technology and technologists.  Things To Come elevates technologists to the highest levels of social wisdom and asserts, with no limitations, that we would be better off if we handed all matters, social, political, economic, aesthetic, and religious, to technologists.

Eventually the ideas of Things To Come fell by the wayside, victims of war and of books, such as Rachel Carson's Silent Spring.  We have learned that technology is not the answer to all things.

But with the rise of the Internet, the idea of technology and technologists as the vanguard of a new and enlightened social order has re-emerged.  The IETF is held as a model society, its methods are held as models for decision-making in any and all contexts, technical or not.

ICANN would fit perfectly into the kind of thinking found in Things To Come - ICANN justifies its existence on the basis of its relationship to technology.  ICANN justifies its social commandments on the basis of that technology.  ICANN invokes the image of technology to excuse itself from well developed mechanisms of public accountability.   ICANN's legacy comes directly from the United Airmen.

It seems apt to confront the ideas of H. G. Wells with those of another writer.

Francois Marie Arouet, better known as Voltaire (1694-1778), rejected dogma and unearned authority.

I believe that Voltaire would have rejected both Things To Come and ICANN on the basis that both are are founded on an expression of the dogmatic claim that technologists deserve authority simply because they are technologists.  Voltaire would have rejected this institutionalization of science and technology as a new kind of perfect and infallible religion.  Voltaire would have said that technocracy is not the best of all possible worlds.

ICANN and its supporters, taking a cue from Doctor Pangloss, however, argues that we should accept ICANN's proclamations affecting social, economic, and business issues simply because we ought to blindly believe that technologists and scientists are better suited to make such decisions than others.

But we know better.  We know that scientists and technologists, worthy as they are in their fields, have as a class no special or unique skills to design and impose social and economic order.

We would be better served if we listened to Voltaire and questioned ICANN's assertions of supremacy simply because ICANN decides matters that are related to, but that are not themselves, of a technical nature.

Posted by karl at April 24, 2003 10:11 PM