Technocracy and Plutocracy, or, How Hugo Gernsback Would Follow the Money to the Two Cultures|
Writing late on Friday night, and having realized that most of what I have already written is neither relevant nor helpful to this conference, I will resort to some old and simple words of advice: when attempting to figure out a complex and confusing situation, just follow the money. So, trying to sort out the issues raised by C. P. Snow's "two cultures," and the relationship between that purported dichotomy and science fiction, I propose to follow the money. And when you are talking about following the money and science fiction, the logical place to begin is with Hugo Gernsback.
I have often researched and written about Gernsback, I have dedicated a book to him, and I have argued for Gernsback as an imaginative pioneer whose influence, for better or worse, remains inescapably visible throughout the genre to this day. Yet no defender of Gernsback can deny that the man was definitely interested in making money, and the things he did were often influenced by a desire to make money. Most academics, perhaps hypocritically, would call this a sin.
Still, Gernsback also had a palpable passion for science, and science fiction, that cannot be plausibly attributed purely to mercenary motives. That is why Gernsback's science fiction, and much of the science fiction after Gernsback, has been routinely characterized as "technocratic"—as, for example, in H. Bruce Franklin's Future Perfect; and it is for that reason that one would pick up copies of Gernsback's rare 1933 magazine, Technocracy Review, and expect to find an organ of vigorous advocacy. And certainly, that is what I expected when I first asked the long-suffering employees of UC Riverside's Interlibrary Loan to dig up copies of its two published issues.
Instead, however, the magazine announced and maintained a strictly neutral stance: "Technocracy Review voices no opinion of its own. It aims to publish all opinions whether for or against technocracy." In the original and reprinted articles that it presented, the magazine did follow this policy, and Gernsback's own writings on the subject display at best ambivalence, and at times genuine hostility, towards technocracy.
Well, if Gernsback loved science and scientists, and if technocracy advocated a society dedicated to science and ruled by scientists, why would Gernsback object to it? There are two reasons given by Gernsback in his article in the March, 1933, issue, "Technocracy vs. Science." First, he voiced an objection that paralleled his objection to much of the science fiction published in his day: advocates of technocracy made serious scientific errors. He claimed that "Most of the statements issued by spokesmen of Technocracy are untrue," and he documented many of them in his article, leading to his "suspicion" that "the spokesmen of Technocracy are not well posted in science itself." This leads immediately to a proposal:
Indeed, it would not be a bad idea to start immediately a new cult which I would term SCIENTOCRACY, and the men who head this particular cult would, of course, be SCIENTOCRATS—offering Scientocracy, in opposition to Technocracy, as the direction of the country and its resources by Scientists and not by Technicians.
There is ... a huge difference between the two. The Technician, as a rule, takes the output of the Scientists. The Scientist comes first, the Technician, second .... the scientist is more careful and knows his subject from the ground up, whereas the technologist is not so well versed in the theory.
While the introduction pointedly notes that "The terms Scientocracy and Scientocrats are here used for the first time," Gernsback was once again going to fail in its efforts to get into the dictionary. But Gernsback had a point: the people who so vigorously advocated technocracy in the 1930s were not, generally, distinguished scientists, but rather secondary figures—after all, is there anyone in the room who has ever heard of Gary Scott, briefly famous as the force beyond technocracy?—and, more generally, it is often the case that the most vigorous advocates of science are not well versed in the subject. As John W. Campbell, Jr. put it, "Science is not a sacred cow—but there are a large number of would-be sacred cowherds busily devoting quantities of time, energy and effort to the task of making it one, so they can be sacred cowherds." And, just as fiction riddled with scientific errors in Gernsback's view could not function as persuasive fiction, political and economic theory riddled with scientific errors could not function as persuasive theory.
To understand Gernsback's other misgivings about technocracy, it is necessary to understand the full meaning of the term as it was used in the 1930s. In the midst of the Great Depression, technocracy referred only secondarily to the notion that society needed to be studied and governed scientifically; rather, its focus was what we can now safely describe as the crackpot economic theories of the aforementioned Gary Scott. As Scott would have it, the world's economic troubles stemmed solely from continuing reliance on the outmoded, inefficient, and irrational "price system," assigning a monetary value to objects, a system that was generating to ever-increasing debt and, according to Scott in 1933, was leading the world to a complete economic collapse sometime in the middle of 1934. The only way to stave off disaster was to adopt instead the "energy system," assigning value to objects according to how much energy was needed to produce them. By one plan, a nation would first issue "energy certificates" to its citizens, representing an even division of the amount of energy generated by the entire nation, and the citizens would then spend their energy certificates on objects assigned different energy values depending on how much energy was employed to produce them.
Here, while Gernsback allowed that "the present price system ... is certainly in need of change," he immediately added that "I doubt whether 'energy certificates' are going to be the solution of the problem." His lack of enthusiasm is easily understood: while some schemes proposed providing citizens with "energy certificates" of different value determined in some way by their individual productivity, the most common plan called for each citizen to receive exactly the same amount of energy value—in other words, communism. So to Gernsback, comfortably making a goodly amount of money, technocracy in this sense of the term represented nothing less than someone's hand reaching into his pocket.
Thus, while Gernsback could briefly entertain the notion of placing genuine scientists, and not mere technicians, in control of society, he generally seemed to lack enthusiasm for any radical reforms. To understand Gernsback's ideal political system, one need only turn to his endlessly fascinating Ralph 124C 41+. While one of the world's ten greatest scientists, Ralph does not rule the world; instead, a conventional political figure, the Planet Governor, runs everything. Far from dominating his society, Ralph is in fact ruthlessly controlled by his government, which forbids him to smoke tobacco or do anything that might endanger his health; the poor man at times likens himself to a slave or prisoner. What Ralph does enjoy, however, is access to an endless expense account, since the Planet Governor gives Ralph anything he wants that might eventually lead to a beneficial new invention. In other words, under Gernsback's ideal system, scientists would actually have little power—but would get lots of money. In a sense, Gernsback accurately predicted the relationship between modern science, generously subsidized by, but firmly under the thumb of, other political and economic forces. While the tight relationship between power, money, and science has led many to label contemporary society "technocratic" in one way or another, it must be emphasized that science and scientists are never really in actual control of things.
So, let us ponder the year 1959, and C. P. Snow's "two cultures." Following the money in the twenty years preceding Snow's announcement, one can readily trace steadily growing financial support for the sciences, and flat or decreasing financial support for the humanities. Following the money in the twenty months preceding Snow's announcement, one observes the absolutely galvanizing effects of the October, 1957 launch of Sputnik, an apparent signal that America and the West were losing out to the Soviet Union in the race to scientific advancement, leading to immediate and massive increases in the amounts of money devoted to scientific research and scientific education, and necessarily to corresponding decreases in the amounts of the money devoted to the humanities. It is at precisely this time that C. P. Snow suddenly discovered a growing gap between the sciences and the humanities. This was not, I submit, a coincidence.
Let us suppose that, around this time, someone had asked Hugo Gernsback to weigh in about the gap between the cultures of the sciences and the humanities. In public, no doubt, Gernsback would have offered high-minded generalities; but in the privacy of his palatial home, sipping on a glass of vintage wine, Hugo might have confided to a friend a more cynical analysis of the situation. A gap between the sciences and the humanities? It is simply a case of sibling rivalry, of one Smothers Brother complaining that "Mother always loved you best." It is the gap between growing poverty and growing wealth, between the embittered, disinherited son Esau and the happy, blessed son Jacob. Scientists, getting fat and contented as the grants roll in, become a bit arrogant and look down contemptuously at their poorer colleagues in the humanities; critics and writers feel envious and resentful as they observe their scientific colleagues prosper. Would anyone like to quantify the gap between the two cultures? Compute the average annual salary of a professor of English literature, and compare it to the average annual salary of a professor of engineering, and you will readily conclude that there are indeed two different cultures here.
Just follow the money.
Now, in the context of this reductionist argument about the two cultures gap, can the literature of science fiction do anything to bridge the gap? Gernsback, long ago, explained exactly how science fiction could do exactly that, and if I had not just published a book describing his ideas in extreme detail, I would be devoting this paper to an explication of his theories. Briefly, science fiction would bring science to the humanities by providing, embedded in its entertaining stories, a sound scientific education; science fiction would bring the humanities to science by allowing imaginative writers without formal scientific training to present their valuable ideas to scientists. It is a mutually beneficially relationship between equals, and yes, there's a monetary angle as well, since Gernsback devoted some time to considering exactly how the profits from an amazingly successful invention might be properly divided between the science fiction writer who first proposed it in print and the scientist would actually built it. In effect science says, "okay, you non-specialists, we'll give you a solid background in science, you'll give us some potentially profitable ideas, and we'll both make a killing."
The problem, of course, was that the relationship between the scientific community and those outside the scientific community was not a relationship between equals. Scientists could provide many benefits to society, but they had no need for input from outsiders. Science could ignore the other culture, or the other cultures, because it was the favored child getting all of the money.
For decades after Sputnik, then, the gap between the two cultures was largely a matter of the poor humanities carping about the rich sciences while the sciences magisterially ignored the humanities. In the 1990s, however, the situation has changed. Now, as in the studies cited yesterday by Howard V. Hendrix, one finds scientists engaged in vigorously attacking literary critics and other representatives of the humanities? Why? Just follow the money. In the first place, Sputnik is now long forgotten, the space race is over, science has failed to deliver on many of its promises, and society is no longer quite as willing to provide unlimited support for its myriad endeavors. In the second place, the ever-expanding and ever-more-popular entertainment industry has demonstrated that an effective story may be just as profitable as an effective invention. The Silicon Valley can provide the technology to make amazing special effects or elaborate video games, but it requires skills that are suspiciously humanistic in nature to create popular characters like Luke Skywalker or Donkey Kong, and investments in the humanities perhaps no longer seem as frivolous as they once did. Finally, a lot of the money today is going neither to the sciences nor to the humanities, but rather into fields like microeconomics and business administration—the money is going right back to the money.
And so, staring at a slightly decreasing share of a shrinking pie, science lashes out. In the glory days after Sputnik, no scientist would have cared that a critic in the league of Derrida might earn, merely for writing incomprehensible prose, something like $100,000 a year—chump change. Today, with grants getting harder to come by, the salaries earned by the superstars of postmodernism and deconstruction might be more of a concern. If a scientist can demonstrate that Derrida is an idiot, well, perhaps UC Irvine will fire the bastard and use the money for something more useful, like hiring a new assistant professor of chemistry.
My conclusion? The gap between the two cultures will always exist as long members of one culture feel they are not getting as much money as the other culture, not getting the money that they really deserve to get. And, in the face of these harsh economic truths, what science fiction might do to bridge the gap is, I'm afraid, very little indeed.
A final topic of relevance here is the continually marginalized status of science fiction, complained of innumerable times from the days of Hugo Gernsback right up until January 15, 1999, when Howard Hendrix drifted into this familiar lament. Science fiction, combining literary art and scientific rigor, would seemingly represent the best of both worlds, and a potential meeting ground for those worlds; further, creating successful science fiction would seemingly demand a level of craftsmanship well beyond that of other genres. Why, then, does science fiction get no respect? Scientists, with rare exceptions, do not seem to care very much for it, and most lofty nabobs of the humanities positively despise it. I note in passing that a person attempting to belong to two competing groups at the same time, in almost any field of activity, often ends up being rejected by both groups; you can't be both a Shark and a Jet. It should not be surprising, then, that a form of writing attempting to be both scientific and literary at the same time might be rejected by both science and literature. But there are particular reasons why members of the literary establishment do not like science fiction that are directly related to the naggingly iterative theme of this paper.
Today, many talented science fiction writers make lots of money; not only those who can skillfully churn out mass-market crowd-pleasers, but writers of genuine and inarguable talent, can sell a lot of books. In fields outside of science fiction, this is rare. Writers of sensitive character studies may have to publish their works with university presses or small presses, while their stories end up in little magazines with small circulations and no payments for contributors. What these writers can earn, however, is respect: positions as visiting lecturers or guest speakers, prestigious awards with cash stipends, grants to support themselves while they write their next play or poem cycle, favorable reviews in major magazines that may generate a few more book sales. And since these gestures of respect bestowed by the literary establishment come with their own financial awards, such writers may be able to stay alive and continue their careers even though they sell very few books.
Why don't science fiction earn this kind of respect? In the first place, they don't need it; they support themselves with royalty checks—not honorariums, foundation grants, or cash prizes. People rarely want to give money to people who don't need it. In the second place, whereas the literary writers who play this game quickly learn how to be compliant and agreeable beggars in all their dealings with the cash-dispensing elite, science fiction writers, who don't need the money, cannot be bought. Science fiction writers don't have to be sensitive; they don't have to be politically correct. Science fiction writers, unlike other writers, cannot be bought, cannot be controlled by the literary establishment. Thus, science fiction writers are despised.
A related issue here is that because science fiction writers make more money than other writers of apparently comparable skills, and because scientists for many years made more money than their colleagues in the humanities, the suspicion naturally arose that the science fiction writers were somehow collaborators, quislings, closet representatives of science being paid off for participating in a secret conspiracy against humanistic values. This is the only reason why intelligent critics like Franklin can blandly label the genre of science fiction as "technocratic" when, upon examination, there are very few texts actually produced within the genre that proclaim anything resembling unqualified support for the sciences. Science fiction writers are not controlled by members of the scientific establishment, either. But like the beggar who returns to his old comrades with a brand-new suit, suspicions about their shifting loyalties inexorably arise.
I am painting, quickly and in broad strokes, a distressingly crass and cynical portrait of contemporary intellectual and literary history. The sciences and the humanities were initially driven apart only because of a vast disparity in their respective incomes; for decades, most of the anger came from representatives of the humanities, who felt that scientists were getting too much money; with less money now available, scientists are now expressing anger at representatives of the humanities because they now sometimes seem to be getting too much money; science fiction in itself is unable to do anything to bridge this bitterly mercenary divide; and science fiction, in attempting to belong to both worlds and in achieving financial success well beyond that of other popular genres, only attracts unending hostility for its efforts. When you follow the money, what you find is not always pretty, but more often than not, I contend, what you find is the truth.
That's twelve pages, written in three hours. I hope you feel that you've gotten your money's worth.
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