Edward Hadas explains that when the technical thinking, which has done so much good in the modern world, is allowed too much power, it slips into an anti-human technocratic paradigm. Because this way of looking at the world is inherently anti-social, it undermines the common good. Hadas argues that a technocratic approach to health poisoned the response to Covid-19, replacing the bonds of loving care in illness with a technical bureaucracy of life-preservation.
Covid-19 and the technocratic paradigm are big topics, but I have an even greater ambition – to set them both in the context of human nature and of the nature of the modern world. With that in mind, I will start off with the paradigm, which is both distinctly human and distinctly modern.
So, what is this technocrat paradigm? Pope Francis talked about it in his 2015 encyclical Laudato si’. I will get back to his description later, but I want to refine his approach, by differentiating the technocratic paradigm from technical thinking. So, my definition of the paradigm is “an all-encompassing expression of a technical way of thinking”.
The first part of the definition is “all-encompassing”. What do I mean by that? To start, that this paradigm shapes the modern world’s development and use of technology. But it does much more than that. It also strongly influences all modern thinking about solving social problems, and about such individual concerns as travel, education, and healthcare. In what follows, I will focus on healthcare, which is relevant to Covid-19, but I could easily write similar articles about “The technocratic paradigm and…”, dedicated to tourism, entertainment, agriculture or several other important parts of modern life.
The second part of my definition is the all-encompassing thing, “technical way of thinking”. What is that? I will start with some negatives. Technical thinking is not the same as technology – the phones, tyres, CAT scans, jackhammers, and so many other tools and devices that surround us in the modern world. It is also not thinking about these tools, or even thinking about how we construct or use them.
What I mean is, rather, a way of thinking that leads naturally to the construction of and reliance on such tools. This way of thinking also leads to the construction of and reliance on a certain type of organisation of people that works in a certain way: a technical organisation (which is also naturally bureaucratic) with technical goals. It leads away from basing communities on widening circles of love, mutual respect, and shared sacrifices, that is from the Christian understanding of the common good.
That description may still be unclear. To help out, I offer a personal story, about my appendix. It starts with my parents getting divorced when I was 13 years old, leaving me feeling lonely and unappreciated. I decided, for reasons that I cannot fathom, that a case of appendicitis would help my situation.
I desired to become seriously ill, to go to hospital, and – this is the technical-way-of-thinking part – to be healed by science and technology. I carefully studied the symptoms of the disease in my parents’ medical book for household use. I then used all of my young teenage will to acquire those symptoms, which I did after a few months of steady effort.
Now, you do not need to believe that the willpower actually produced the infection, although I am confident of it. What I want you to recognise is that while my choice to express emotional discontent through my body could have been made in any culture at any time, my desire for a specifically technological expression of, and solution to, that discontent was distinctly modern. Without technical thinking, I would not have decided, either consciously or unconsciously, that chemical anaesthesia and steel scalpels could solve the problems of anyone’s soul or heart (and not only because it was the technical thinking that made successful surgery possible).
My appendix was removed successfully – quite possibly saving my life – but the technical approach to medicine and healing did not make me feel less lonely. Licensed professionals making efficient use of chemicals and steel cannot bring families together. In sum, I had asked the technical organisation of medicine to provide a greater good, or perhaps just a different one, than it could actually offer, but this organisation did provide a genuine and significant good: it delayed my death, as my ability to write this article confirms.
In the year after the operation, though, I rejected technology and technical thinking. I was filled with the neo-primitive spirit of 1968, perhaps combined with some unconscious anger at the failure of the appendectomy to bring me inner peace.
Whatever the motivations, I developed a precocious teenage speech about how life was better in the old days, when people lived closer to Nature and before they had so many machines and so many technical-bureaucratic arrangements.
I’m sure the speech would sound silly now, but I would still defend the underlying intuition – that there is something dehumanising about relying on technology to shape our world and solve our problems. This technical way of thinking can really be bad for us.
Why do I say that? Because people flourish best, and perhaps only, when they live and move and have their being* in such domains as worship, love, wisdom, nobility of character, and – dare I say it – in redemptive suffering. The human excellences of all these domains are more undermined than supported by both the isolating comforts that efficient modern technology provides and the attitudes and habits encouraged by the technical thinking that makes these comforts possible.
Let me state this contrast more clearly. People should live in harmony with and gratitude to the rest of creation, but they should not use their technology to live as would-be absolute dictators over it. People should search for truth and beauty, deepen love, and exercise mercy, and that search is harder when we want a world filled with ever more powerful machines and a society of people who often act like ever more efficient machines. People should live as members of communities that are set in particular times and places, but the technical way of thinking substitutes individualistic utilitarian calculations of costs and benefits for the traditions and shared purposes that bring deep and lasting goodness to communities.
My 14-year old self had grasped a sliver of this hard truth, but I had a rude awakening when I gave my anti-technology speech to a female classmate whom I very much wanted to impress – in a quite non-technological mode. She replied with something like, “Well, you probably wouldn’t be alive today without all those hateful technology-types using their fancy tools to cut out your appendix”.
Her little speech, accompanied with a charming if slightly smug smile, was, as they say, “a life-changing moment”. I was rarely at a loss for words, even back then, but I had nothing to say to her. A half-century later, I am no longer speechless. I will divide my understanding of technical thinking into three difficult-to-harmonise parts.
A: It is real
The first part is the affirmation of my claim that technical thinking is a single modern “thing”. It is the way of thinking that both precedes and extends well past all the machines and devices that we call technology. This type of thinking leads us to assume that numerical measurements are essential for the analysis of human actions and societies. Its categories and limits influence how our cities, offices, and houses are designed and arranged. It creates such notions as efficiency of production and labour, signal-to-noise ratios in communications, transaction costs, and career planning. And it leads to a sort of priesthood of professionals in education, management, engineering, and public health.
Not only is technical thinking a thing in our societies, it is a very powerful thing. Indeed, it is so powerful that it tends to create or to be encased in Francis’s technocratic paradigm, a phrase I can now unpack. Techno-cracy is the “rule of technical thinking”, so in a technocracy technical thinking determines the final decision about pretty much anything.
A paradigm is, as I said, all-encompassing. When technocracy becomes a paradigm, the technical thinking so dominates our approach and response to the world that it is impossible even to question its correctness. Opposition to technocracy strikes people stuck in the paradigm as stupid, absurd, or even meaningless.
B: It is bad
The second part of my position is the restatement of my 14-year old speech. Whatever we can say about technical thinking in general, the technocratic paradigm is bad for humanity.
This part of my opposition is in accord with much of what Pope Francis says. As promised, here are his words, including quotations from the early 20th century German philosopher Romano Guardini.
The effects of imposing this …[“epistemological paradigm”] on reality as a whole, human and social, [amount to] … a reductionism which affects every aspect of human and social life.…
Technology tends to absorb everything into its ironclad logic, and those who are surrounded with technology “know full well that … in the most radical sense of the term power is its motive – a lordship over all”. As a result, “man seizes hold of the naked elements of both nature and human nature”.” (Laudato Si’, 107-108, emphasis added)
To paraphrase, as long as we live inside the technocratic paradigm, we cannot stop stiving for power over the world, over other people, and over ourselves. And this craving for power reduces everything about the human experience. The world is reduced to raw material for our desires, other people are reduced to tools and to users of technology, and we are reduced from creatures called to communion, sacrifice and immortality to searchers for individual, transient, and often debased pleasures.
The rise of healthcare is a good example of the technocratic paradigm in action. The rise can be measured – that is what we do when we think technically. When I had my appendectomy, from one in twenty to one in thirty employed people in rich countries worked to take care of the ill. The ratio now ranges from one in seven to one in ten.
Some of these health workers use their technical skills generously and explicitly to promote the overall wellbeing of their patients. However, almost all of them very often practice, more or less willingly, what can be called technocratic medicine. They treat ill human bodies as broken machines, attempt to overpower death, denigrate natural healing, and wilfully remove suffering people from the care of those who love them.
That harsh description of modern medicine is largely borrowed from Ivan Illich, a multinational Catholic priest and social commentator who was famous in some circles in the 1970s. He should, in my opinion, be famous today. His profound and systematic criticisms of some aspects of technocracy, including healthcare, are highly relevant.
Illich’s book Limits to Medicine: Medical Nemesis is built around the notion of iatrogenic, or doctor-caused, illness. He talks about the many varieties of medical mistreatment, but his primary concern is what he calls “cultural iatrogenesis”. He argues that what he calls technocracy and what I would call the technocratic paradigm has poisoned the whole approach of modern societies to being well, being ill, recovering from illness, and eventually dying.
In his words:
Medicalisation constitutes a prolific bureaucratic programme based on the denial of each man’s need to deal with pain, sickness, and death.…Suffering, healing, and dying, which are essentially intransitive activities that culture [formerly] taught each man, are now claimed by technocracy as new areas of policy-making and are treated as malfunctions from which populations ought to be institutionally relieved. (pp. 137-139)
Illich thinks that what he calls the “medicalisation of death” (208), by which death “had lost its dignity” (203, emphasis in original), has made healthcare into “a monolithic world religion” (203) – because dealing with death is one of the central tasks of any religion. He also claims that in the approach to dying there has been a “practical convergence of Christian and medical practice [that] is in stark opposition to the attitude to death in Christian theology.” (209 fn. 62) I will come back to this vision later, when I talk about the cultural response to the Covid-19 pandemic.
3: It is good
The third and final part of my understanding of technical thinking is a restatement of the wisdom of my young friend from long ago: people have good reasons to like this thinking. The technocratic paradigm is bad, but technical thinking has done a great deal of good. I will list some highlights.
The lives of the much enlarged population of the world are typically healthier, longer, and more comfortable than would have been considered possible in any premodern society. Not only did I survive appendicitis, but two hip replacements have made my life more fulfilling.
Then there is the spread of education, that allows more people to make better use of their God-given intellectual capacities. Add in the power to travel easily, communicate instantaneously, and have ready access to almost all the treasures of human knowledge and artistic beauty. Also, governments’ technical-bureaucratic operations help reduce deaths caused by violent crime, sewage, various sorts of pollution, and accidents on the roads and workplaces. These bureaucracies promote helpful commerce and scientific research, including research on viruses.
Such great accomplishments do not exactly validate technical thinking, but Jesus does tell his disciples that a diseased tree cannot bear good fruit. (cf. Matthew 7.18). If that is true, then the modern technical tree must not be totally diseased. Calls to cut down that tree, to abandon technical thinking, are not merely unrealistic. They are mistaken.
My praise of some technical thinking, this third observation, is quite genuine, but so is the second one, my criticism of the technocratic paradigm. The division between the two is conceptually fairly clear. It would be splendid if that thinking-paradigm split could easily be maintained in practice. However, the two are – or at least have been up to now – almost impossible to separate.
As Francis points out, the bad paradigm is so dominant that it takes over, or at least strongly influences, our romantic, family, religious, and social lives, which we may think of as totally non-technical. For example, the technocratic paradigm enters into a courtship when our expressions of attention rely, even in part, on instantaneous and brief text messages and when our emotions are expressed, even in part, by emoticons.
More generally, the technocratic paradigm deeply influences how we modern people structure our work-life balance, how we think about and spend out leisure time, how we approach our education – and our attitudes towards health, illness, and death.
Good, bad, and modern
I am about to argue that the overall Christian response to Covid-19, including the Pope’s, provides evidence of how difficult it is to reject the paradigm. Before I get to that, though, I want to make two quick but very broad points things about the simultaneous goodness and badness of technical thinking.
First, Christians can see that this moral two-sidedness is typical of the human condition. We are good by nature, by created nature. We are also sinful by nature, in our fallen nature. In every aspect of this life, we always aim at some good, and we also always end up doing some evil.
The effects of technical thinking are typical of this two-directional ethical nature. Human domination of creation is good when it is life-protecting and life-enriching. This same domination is bad when it breaks the divinely mandated order of creation. Technical thinking always leads to both the good and the bad.
Second, while the double moral nature of technical thinking is like so much of the human condition, the extreme flowering of this kind of thinking, as seen in the rise of the technocratic paradigm, is distinctly modern. What we call technology is one of the domains which has always been part of human life – people have always been tool-users and creation-dominators – but in the last few centuries this aspect of life has expanded almost beyond premodern recognition.
The modern technical expansion is not unique. In many parts of life modern people do what people have always done, but much more of it. For example, all communities have some sort of government, but modern governments govern more intrusively, intensively, and consistently than anything found in pre-modernity. Something similar can be said about modern historical scholarship, child-rearing, hard scientific knowledge, social sciences, philosophy, theology and entertainments.
The more-ness of modernity is always both good and bad This duality has consistently disappointed generations of propagandists for the modern age, but it is undeniable.
Modernity has brought both greater global cooperation and deadlier weapons, both more knowledge and more confusion, both more attention to love in sexual relations and more tolerance of lust, both more respect for individuals and more manipulation of the masses, both more political respect for the common good and more murderous totalitarian regimes, both more respect for disabled people and less resistance to abortion, both more healthcare and less respect for the arc of life, illness, and death.
Finally, I turn to Covid-19. My basic point here is simple. Everything about the disease and the political and social response has been guided by the technocratic paradigm.
You might wonder how a disease can be technocratic. In one basic way, it cannot. Assuming that the speculation about human genetic engineering of the SARS-CoV-2 virus is baseless, the biology of infection is indeed almost untouched by technology.
However, the identification, diagnosis, and extensive record-keeping that have turned a large number of ill people and a smaller but still significant number of deaths into a particular pandemic disease fits exactly into the technocratic paradigm. This somewhat dehumanising process of labelling and studying requires us to think almost instinctively that we need to turn to and rely on vast amounts of sophisticated technology, a huge reservoir of technical knowledge, and a technically proficient bureaucracy.
Our responses to Covid-19 have indeed relied greatly on technical thinking, stuck inside the technocratic paradigm. I could trace the process in detail: the official declaration of the World Health Organisation, the turn to dehumanising epidemiological models, the focus on not overwhelming hospitals, the politicisation of science and the scientification of politics, the mandating of intrusive and oppressive non-pharmaceutical interventions, the constant references to various statistics, the reliance on sophisticated biological tests to determine wellness, the expectations that everyone should be cured and that the viral threat should be eliminated, and the preference for vaccines over natural immunity to the disease.
I could also discuss how the justifications of all of these choices came from within the technocratic paradigm and how most of them have extended technical thinking into domains where it does not really belong. However, that is an extended discussion that would make for a very long article. I will skip to the conclusion: the technocratic paradigm has framed the problem, the analysis, the policies, and their implementation.
The technocratic paradigm has also provided the standard moral framing of the responses, in ways that Illich anticipated. I will quote an article written early in the pandemic by David Cayley, who worked with and wrote about Illich:
“By the time he died, in 2002, Illich … believed that medicine had so far exceeded the threshold at which it might have eased and complemented the human condition that it was now threatening to abolish this condition altogether. And he had concluded that much of humanity is no longer willing to “bear…[its] rebellious, torn and disoriented flesh” and has instead traded its art of suffering and its art of dying for a few years of life expectancy and the comforts of life in an “artificial creation”.”
Does that description of the technocratic medical ideal explain the willingness to impose so many antisocial anti-Covid restrictions? I think so. Life in a fearful, locked-down and socially distanced society could aptly be described as an ”artificial creation”. Medical rules that isolate the dying from their loved ones and social rules that close churches for months are steps towards “abolishing” what used to be considered the human condition. Such choices can only make sense to people thinking within the technocratic paradigm.
That is my judgement of the response to Covid-19. Pope Francis and most other religious leaders think quite differently. Where I see the technocratic paradigm diminishing human nature, they see the virtue of shared sacrifice. Where I see governments destroying lives in order to add a few years of life expectancy, they see an opportunity for godly men and women to submit to legitimate authorities in the service of public health.
I should say that Francis does seem to blame the pandemic on the technocratic paradigm, but not in the way that I just discussed. I cannot quite follow his logic, but my impression is that he holds abundant global travel responsible. As far as I can tell, this attribution has not stopped him from endorsing the pandemic narrative that has been propagated by governments and by almost all of the media: that there has been a heroic communal response to a great biological challenge.
Although I start my analysis with the same basic framing of modernity as the pope’s, I come – respectfully – to a quite different narrative. Mine starts with the technocratic refusal to accept the limits of human power over life, death, and the world. In my telling of the Covid-19 story, this hubris leads to a systematic attack on the fulness of life and on the common good, an assault on humanity, as I wrote earlier.
Why is it possible to tell such different stories? I have already alluded to what I consider the most persuasive explanation. Just as fish do not recognise water, we modern people cannot easily analyse the full extent of the technocratic paradigm in which we are, so to speak, swimming.
With great effort, a wise person with a deep sense of the limits of all worldly accomplishments can see the limits of paradigm. All the recent popes have all had this supra-technocratic perspective. I try to learn from them and from prophets such as Illich. However, no one can gain enough distance from the technocratic culture to see clearly just how extensively it is shaping our thoughts and actions, both individually and socially. Similarly, no one can firmly divide the good and bad effects of technical thinking.
The quandary again
I have to add that my negative judgement of the technocratic response to Covid-19 needs to be put in the positive context that my friend gave me all those years ago. Even if I and the spirit of Ivan Illich are right about the evils of the medical paradigm in these actions, I do not forget that this way of thinking does much good.
Indeed, I have to recognise that the same technical thinking and practices that led to this assault on humanity around Covid-19 also made possible a safe operation on a potentially fatal infection when I was 13 years old. This was the same technical thinking that allowed Francis to have an apparently successful operation on his digestive system earlier this year, at 84 years old.
I suspect that Illich would be unhappy with the Pope’s operation. He has harsh words for the thinking that leads to complicated treatments of people who are quite old or quite ill. But who among us would criticise the Holy Father for making use of this accomplishment of human ingenuity? Not me.
The quandary is deep. There is a single body of technical thinking, which offers us good things (such as successful surgeries), bad things (such as, in my judgement, anti-Covid lockdowns), and things that are very difficult to judge (such as intensive medical treatments of very old people). It is hard to keep this thinking on the right, fruitful paths, and off the wrong, blindly technocratic ones.
This raises a dreadful possibility. The lockdowns that I despise might be the price we have to pay for the surgeries that I welcome.
I reject that possibility. My Christian hope, for this world as well as the next one, does not allow me to accept such a counsel of near-despair. I believe we should and can do better. We do not need to let the mundane and so often inhumane momentum of technocratic thinking proceed uninhibited.
Still, I should warn you that I can offer no heart-warming conclusion. I will merely make three suggestions.
First, avoid total condemnations of all, or even of most, technical thinking and technology. Such condemnations are seductive in certain circles, including some religious ones. But as I learned from my young friend, technical thinking produces far too much good to justify even near-absolute condemnation.
This suggestion is not offered for merely intellectual reasons. When asked how they want to move forward, anti-technocratic purists can only murmur about living more simply. It is far too late to go down that path, even if the desired destination is genuinely appealing in some ways. One man can get great satisfaction from putting his shoulder to a horse-drawn plough, but a mass return to premodern agriculture would quickly lead to mass starvation.
In other words, purist techno-critics can propose either personally meaningful gestures or devastating revolutionary social and changes, but nothing much in between. Both of these responses are necessarily distractions from what is truly needed: practically helpful opposition and alternatives to noxious developments of the technocratic paradigm.
My second closing suggestion is in some ways the reverse of the first. Just as we should never fully condemn all technocratic arrangements, we should never feel fully comfortable with any of them.
The good life, the full life, the life that is a foretaste of heaven – this life may well be helped by technical thinking and its fruits, but the good life always transcends all technical constraints. Indeed, the technocratic paradigm is exactly a way of thinking that has no space for that beyond, for the virtues of faith, hope, and love, or for the transcendental realities of God, unity, and beauty.
Since it seems that even the most beneficial technical thinking cannot be fully separated from the technocratic paradigm, the fruits of technology and of technical organisation are always, at least a little bit, poisoned.
The bad effects of technical thinking can be seen in many domains, from welfare states to aesthetics. They are certainly present in medicine and public health. As Illich points out, the modern desire to increase life expectancy by reducing all risks inevitably leads to sacrifices of the fullness of life.
That thought brings me back, one final time, to my fundamental quandary. For example, I want governments to discourage the minor fulness of life provided by smoking cigarettes, but I do not want governments to discourage me from hugging my grandchildren. However, the two policies are more closely related than I would like.
My third and last suggestion brings me back to Covid-19. Despite what I see as a morally disastrous response to this disease, I believe that medicine, or more precisely health, is a good domain for finding realistic responses to the technocratic paradigm.
Why? Because individuals and groups are relatively free to pursue non-technocratic paths towards good health, and good deaths.
Consider the contrast. If I want to rely more on my family and less on the government for support in times of poverty or old age, the technocratic systems of taxes and benefits stand in my way. If I want to strengthen commitment to the common good by avoiding dehumanising anonymity in urban and suburban living, I have to find or found countercultural communities. if I want to avoid technocratic indoctrination in education, I need to find or found countercultural schooling.
It is much easier to preserve a non-technocratic approach to health, because our own attitudes and actions can develop the healthcare needed to respect both life and death, even in the midst of the huge technocratic medical complex. Most of the time I can relatively easily avoid the array of doctors, drugs, tests, and hospitalisations. I can fairly easily be trained or train myself in healthy, non-technocratic thinking and acting: not trying to avoid all pain, not expecting easy cures for every ailment, not trying desperately to delay death, and relying primarily on the loving communities of family and friends for care when I am ill.
Of course, full isolation from technocratic medicine is impossible. We may not be able to avoid Covid-19 vaccines, for example. But maybe we shouldn’t want to. We should certainly be grateful for some of the vaccines that technical thinking has produced. We can fairly easily integrate the best of technical medicine and healthcare into a non-technocratic approach to wellness and illness.
There is another reason that health is a good domain for escaping the technocratic paradigm. Unlike premodern alternatives to technocratic agriculture and manufacturing, the best of premodern healthcare is still relevant and readily available.
I am well aware that much premodern medicine was terrible. In particular, doctors mostly did more harm than good until the 20th century. However, the non-expert premodern approach to accompanying the ill has much to recommend it. I am referring to the practice of offering gentle help to the bodies and spirits of basically healthy people as they worked out their natural tendency to heal themselves: what is sometimes known as TLC, tender loving care. It is not just little children who gain from the philosophy of “kiss it better”.
Some illnesses do benefit from more scientific attention, but the best remedies are often relatively simple. When the full panoply of modern medicine can be helpful – think of my appendix and hips, or the pope’s intestines – the tools and techniques can be used and appreciated in full knowledge that they cannot truly save lives. They can only reduce suffering and delay death. In other words, even in these cases it should be relatively easy to step outside the technocratic paradigm.
And Francis is quite right to say that stepping outside of this paradigm is a good thing to try to do. If only such detachment were easier to find, for Christians as for everyone else.
© Edward Hadas
Edward Hadas is author of Counsels of Imperfection: Thinking Through Catholic Social Teaching (The Catholic University of America Press, 2020). He is also a Research Fellow of Blackfriars Hall, Oxford University, a freelance journalist and a trustee of Together for the Common Good.
Some relevant reading:
*[as St Paul puts it (Acts 17.28), quoting the Cretan poet Epimenides]
This is a slightly modified version of a talk given to the Albertus Society in Edinburgh on 4 November 2021 (video here and audio here) and some parts are based on a talk given through the Las Casas Institute of Blackfriars Hall on 4 November 2020.
Also by Edward Hadas: The Assault on Humanity – Catholic social teaching looks at the policy of lockdowns