The Machine in the White House

Originally posted on The Fifth Floor


* This post was originally published on 10-30-12 on my standalone blog The Off Button.Please disregard the out-of-date election references, I think the main argument still rings true to current events.

I’ve been noticing that, in the run-up to next month’s election, the candidates haven’t been talking about technology as much as they did during the last time around. While Obama kept up the rhetorical support for science and technology throughout his tenure, he’s been suffering attacks for his support of Solyndra (and other high-tech green start-ups), so ramping down the use of technology as a “keyword” for economic development might be a smart response to this policy failure. Personally, I’m a fan of a lot of what Obama stands for, but academically, I’m skeptical about much of his exuberant praise for technology and innovation as a magic bullet for economic growth.

Konstantin Kakaes recently reflected on the tendency of politicians to over-promise and under-deliver in their technology rhetoric on the fantastic Future Tense blog. Kakaes chalks this up to a lack of science and engineering training in our country’s political elites. This argument rings of C.P. Snow’s famous Two Cultures argument in 1959 (Kakaes quotes Snow in the article, and is undoubtedly aware of this similarity), where Snow critiqued the British education system for valorizing the study of the humanities and de-valuing science and engineering, creating a class of elites who were unprepared for a Post-WWII world where this kind of knowledge was becoming more and more important.

I think the lack of science/technology expertise is important, but not the most interesting thing at work in the invocation of “technology” in presidential rhetoric. Earlier on in Obama’s presidency, I noticed a striking convergence of opinion on the relationship between innovation in technology and economic growth.

In a recent nationwide poll, Americans ranked technology companies as having a more positive effect on the way “things are going today” than churches & religious organizations, colleges & universities, and (not surprisingly) Congress.  Even critics of Obama’s technology policy have affirmed the role of technology as an agent of change and a potential force for economic growth (Brooks 2011Thiel 2011Stephenson 2009). This convergence in opinion between the President, his critics, and the public signals shared underlying assumptions about the way technology works in society, and the power it has to propel us from the gloomy present into a much brighter future.

The current recession is not the only time that technology has become the subject of political discourse and policy prescriptions. At the height of the Great Depression, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his administration debated the merits of technology to encourage economic growth. F.D.R. and Obama were both facing down catastrophic economic crises during their presidencies, and they both expressed unbridled optimism for the role of technology in pulling us out of economic trouble. This similarity was too good to not dig a little deeper…so, my sociology instincts kicked in and I started sifting through some digital archives.

What I was hoping to find was evidence of what technology scholars call “technological determinism,” or the belief that technology automatically leads to social and economic progress. I was not disappointed…both Obama and F.D.R. put a lot of faith in technology to solve their respective financial problems. But, while each President made several direct references to “progress” in their discussion of technology and economic growth, the relationship between technology and society was more often framed by stories about our shared past and hopes for the future.

While each of the Presidents used the past and future to frame their explanations of technological policy in a way that emphasized a common past and pointed toward an optimistic view of the future, there were striking differences. Overall, Obama addressed technology more often than F.D.R. (in 50% of his total speeches, compared to F.D.R.’s 14.2%). Obama framed his policy in terms of the future much more often than the past (54.7% of the mentions of technology were connected with the future, while 32.1% of them involved the past). In contrast, F.D.R. was more likely to frame his technological policy in terms of the past than the future (46.7% of the references to technology involved the past, compared to 33.3% involving the future).

F.D.R was more likely to reference the past in explaining the necessity of his proposed policies, most often drawing a difference between the “good days” and the ways that the present situation had led the U.S. astray from long-held sacred values, like freedom. For example:

F.D.R’s 1936 speech at the DNC:

  •  In 1776 we sought freedom from the tyranny of a political autocracy…it was to win freedom from the tyranny of political autocracy that the American Revolution was fought….Since that struggle, however, man’s inventive genius released new forces in our land which reordered the lives of our people. The age of machinery, of railroads; of steam and electricity; the telegraph and the radio; mass production, mass distribution—all of these combined to bring forward a new civilization and with it a new problem for those who sought to remain free.

F.D.R. framed his policy as an adjustment to the largely external changes that technological development had imposed onto the economic landscape of the U.S. and also illustrates his understanding of the problems that these developments could bring.  Obama does not reference the ways in which technology has changed the U.S., but the ways in which it could improve our economy, if we are able to implement his proposed policies. For example:

Obama’s 2011 State of the Union:

  •  Thirty years ago, we couldn’t know that something called the Internet would lead to an economic revolution. What we can do – what America does better than anyone – is spark the creativity and imagination of our people. We are the nation that put cars in driveways and computers in offices; the nation of Edison and the Wright brothers; of Google and Facebook. In America, innovation doesn’t just change our lives. It’s how we make a living.

So – what’s the point? Why does it matter that F.D.R. talks about technology in terms of the past and Obama the future? This is a consequential difference. The difference between Obama and F.D.R.’s political rhetoric has an important effect on their policies to govern the relationship between technology and society, and furthermore, what that relationship should look like.

F.D.R.’s acknowledgement of the problems that come along with technological development is noticeably absent in Obama’s rhetoric. This is not surprising given their different ideas about how technological development happens. For F.D.R., technological development was something the government could only hope to control and perhaps mitigate some of its worst effects, so his rhetoric expressed the tension between the benefits and costs of this autonomous, external force. Obama’s view of technological development emphasizes the necessity of public investment in technology in order to reach the heights of past achievements, so the acknowledgment of technology’s possibly negative effects is largely moot, because it’s under human control.

These two Presidents are important because they represent different epochs of America’s relationship with technology. Those in F.D.R’s administration were old enough to remember the jarring and displacing experience of industrialization in the late 1800s, while few of those in Obama’s administration are old enough to remember the horrific consequences of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  Living through the consequences of technological change shapes the way we think about the relationship between technology and society. The brash and confident words of Presidents (and Presidential candidates) may decide the fate of elections, but Obama’s comparative arrogance is a dangerous precedent, especially in a time when Americans are hungry for economic recovery and the Oval Office is up for grabs.


obama and computers

obama and computers