The Engineers and the Political System

THE COMPLAINT that “we don’t build things anymore” is one of the oldest ideas in Trumpism. It’s also one of the few ideas to generate a policy with genuine bipartisan support in the president’s painful first year in office. Health care and the politics of engagement with Nazis may have left Washington more divided than ever, but who’s going to say no to infrastructure spending? The bridges are crumbling, and everyone loves a bridge. Donald Trump wants America to rediscover its vocation as a nation of builders, and even his bitterest enemies are in on the racket. It’s not hard to understand the appeal of this macho revivalist fantasy. It fits the times. STEM is the hottest acronym in education, and the heroes of modern American business are all engineers of one variety or another. Meanwhile a new hegemonic rival has emerged across the Pacific, crudely caricatured as a nation of number-crunchers and builder-doers. The United States must keep pace, which means: more engineers, better engineers, more and better statisticians and scientists. Amid the West’s near-decade of failed experimentation with monetary policy, China’s rise has fed the idea that the road to durable growth will be dressed with new Parthenons. If they can do it, why can’t we?

Engineers enjoy a prestige in China that connects them to political power far more directly than in the United States. Steel mills and highways have provided China’s ticket to prosperity over the last three decades, and the professionals who design and build them have controlled the levers of political power as well. Xi Jinping is an engineer, as were Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin before him. America, by contrast, has historically been governed by lawyers. That remains true today: there are 218 lawyers in Congress and 208 former businesspeople, according to the Congressional Research Service, but only eight engineers. (Science is even more severely underrepresented, with just three members in the House.) It’s unlikely that that balance will tilt meaningfully in favor of STEM-ers in the near term. But in another sense, the growing cultural capital of the engineers will inevitably translate to political power, whatever its form.

The engineering profession today is broad, much broader than it was in 1921 when Thorstein Veblen published The Engineers and the Price System, his classic pamphlet on industrial sabotage and government by technocrats. Engineering has outgrown the four traditional branches (chemical, civil, electrical, mechanical) to include all the professions in which the laws of mathematics and science are applied to real-world problems. If math and science are the pure academic research branches of STEM, tech and engineering are its practical heart. The hackers and dreamers of Silicon Valley are all — if not by formal training, then by intellectual disposition — engineers. Interaction with the political world has grown in line with the profession’s expanding intellectual boundaries. As politicians of all stripes clamber to board the Silicon Valley rocket ship, the projects of the engineering profession, especially in consumer tech, are themselves now participants in the political process. Today’s engineers don’t just furnish the infrastructure of everyday life; they also build our most dynamic arenas of public debate (Google, Facebook, Twitter). In a way that was never the case for previous generations, engineering today is politics, and politics engineering. Power is coming for the engineers, but are the engineers ready for power?

It’s useful to reflect on Veblen’s work as the engineers enjoy this latest moment under the political sun. No American social critic has thought more carefully about the relationship between engineering and political power. Veblen used The Engineers and the Price System to outline a critique of financial capitalism that doubled as a call to arms for engineers to take control of the reins of government. In very basic form, his argument was that as capitalism had grown more complex, a class of financial managers had begun to exert control over businesses to the detriment of the engineers responsible for production. The job of these managers, in Veblen’s portrait, was to manipulate supply in order to juice profits. But engineering know-how was the indispensable alloy of production. This IP gave the engineers power. And engineers, Veblen argued, growing “uneasily ‘class-conscious’” as the “all-pervading mismanagement of industry” became plain, were “beginning to draw together and ask themselves, ‘What about it?’”. What about it indeed: Veblen predicted that engineers, formerly awestruck lieutenants of finance, would seize control of the country’s industrial system, ushering in a new era of planned economic management whose guiding principle would be the common good rather than private profit.

Alongside Wyndham Lewis’s 1931 portrayal of Hitler as a “celibate inhabitant of a modest Alpine chalet” more interested in vegetarianism than war, Veblen’s portrait of this approaching “soviet of technicians” — a political grouping as much as an economic one — ranks as one of the more comically inaccurate predictions of the interwar period. We all know what happened instead. Engineers did indeed throw off their habitual reserve and deference, but not in a spirit of class consciousness; they became dutiful capitalists themselves. The collapse of Veblen’s divide between the “financial managers” and the “industrial experts” led not to socialism but the birth of a new class of business-savvy engineer — what today we might call the “entrepreneur.”

But Veblen’s book was influential in other ways. It helped shape a certain idea of the engineer that took root throughout the 1920s: the engineer as a dispassionate problem solver, above the fray of ordinary commerce and politics, the engineer as capitalism’s savior. This carried over into the political domain and explains, at least in part, the rapture that greeted the election of Herbert Hoover, a mining engineer turned millionaire businessman and wartime humanitarian hero, as president in 1928. “The whole country was a vast, expectant gallery, its eyes focused on Washington,” wrote The New York Times a year later. “We had summoned a great engineer to solve our problems for us. […] The modern technical mind was for the first time at the head of a government. […] Almost with the air of giving genius its chance, we waited for the performance to begin.”

The performance, of course, would turn out to be a dud. Hoover’s great failing was his inflexibility. In Silicon Valley parlance, he failed to pivot: faced with a rapidly deteriorating economy, he stuck hard to his guiding political mantra of self-reliance and private-sector giving. By the time he overcame his aversion to federal intervention in the economy, it was all too late: output was shot, and so were his chances of reelection in 1932. Historians still argue over Hoover’s management of the economy through the early years of the Depression — a new biography by Kenneth Whyte argues for the reappraisal of his record as a policy maker — but they all agree on one thing: in the realm of human relations, Hoover was a dead squid. Here was a man who spoke only in “chill monosyllables,” as a contemporary observer put it, a man so rigid in his ways he went fly-fishing in a double-breasted blue serge suit. An engineer, Hoover once said at a campaign rally, could manufacture a waterfall much more beautiful than nature ever had. His listeners were appalled. Hoover himself did nothing to dispel the notion that he was more machine than man; on the contrary, he made it the setting stone of his brand. “It has been no part of mine to build castles of the future,” he remarked in 1928, “but rather to measure the experiments, the actions and the progress of men through the cold and uninspiring microscope of fact, statistics, and performance.”

Chastened perhaps by their one humiliation in the White House, the engineers have not sought the highest office since. Hoover’s defeat marked the end of the first great flirtation between politics and engineering. For all the friendliness of these STEM-heady times, however, it’s unclear whether the engineers are now ready to stake another claim on political power. Peter Thiel, clammy and vampiric, had his hand held by President Trump, but as a profession the engineers have mostly sat the new president’s first 10 months in office out. (Thiel, it’s worth clarifying, is not an engineer, though he claims to speak for the engineering elite of Silicon Valley.) Of the current crop of celebrity-engineers, it’s Mark Zuckerberg whose engagement with the political world appears most meaningful. Partly this is by accident, since Facebook inadvertently became a central actor in the 2016 presidential election, but it’s also by design. Since the beginning of the year Zuckerberg has been on a tightly choreographed listening tour across the United States. He has rejected suggestions he’s using the tour as a platform to run for office in 2020 as emphatically as he’s refused to develop opinions on any of the public policy issues he’s confronted along the way. This is one education of a political naïf which contains, to date, no discernible narrative arc.

Zuckerberg has documented his travels, along with his thoughts on the news of each day, on his own Facebook page. Even on issues on which he’s taken a strong stance, such as immigration and refugee policy, Zuckerberg strains for an increasingly elusive political center ground. The day after the deadliest shooting in US history, he wrote: “It’s hard to imagine the loss from the shooting in Las Vegas. It’s hard to imagine why we don’t make it much harder for anyone to do this.” On climate change and energy policy, he hedged even harder: “I believe stopping climate change is one of the most important challenges of our generation. Given that, I think it’s even more important to learn about our energy industry, even if it’s controversial. Regardless of your views on energy, I think you’ll find the community around this fascinating.” If Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty were “tremendously excited with life” and after “girls, visions, everything” on their famous road trip, Zuckerberg is tremendously excited to not piss anyone off on his. Shucks, he seems to say on each stop throughout the country; let’s hear both sides of the argument out. Epistemologically, this is not far removed from Trump’s own “on many sides” apology for the Nazis demonstrating in Charlottesville. Did we ever think it would be otherwise? Zuckerberg’s political road trip has been every bit as disingenuously neutral as we should have expected from the man who thinks Facebook, the playpen of white supremacists, Russian disinformationists, and Pizzagate truthers, is “bringing the world closer together.”

There’s a simple way to explain these contradictions away: Zuckerberg is a businessman, not a politician, and his first priority is to his shareholders. This ignores, of course, the political nature of the company he runs. Zuckerberg can pretend he is above politics, a technocrat weighing both sides and implementing solutions through the cold and uninspiring microscope of facts, but politics will find a way to catch up with him eventually. The recent appearance by his company’s top lawyer before Congress to explain how Russian-sponsored election ads reached 126 million Facebook users during the 2016 campaign offered a stark illustration of social media’s politicization. But what was most telling about that appearance was that it was Facebook’s lawyer, rather than the CEO, who was dispatched to DC to face the music. When the major TV networks were called to the carpet in the aftermath of the 2000 election, they sent their CEOs. However seriously Facebook might say it’s taking the role it played in influencing the election — and it’s arguable the company is not even saying that — Zuckerberg plainly considers himself above the fray, the impartial administrator of a cool tech gadget or, worse, a morally heroic guardian of free speech.

It’s possible, of course, that he simply doesn’t care. Zuckerberg’s willed blindness to Facebook’s role as a political actor is of a piece with his tin ear for human relations. In a recent Facebook Live post, Zuckerberg demonstrated a new app his company has been developing by taking viewers on a virtual reality tour of hurricane-struck Puerto Rico. Against a backdrop of flooded streets and ruined homes, Zuckerberg grinned and high-fived with Facebook’s head of social VR. “We’re on a bridge here, it’s flooded,” he told his 97 million followers at one point. “One of the things that’s really magical about virtual reality is you can get the feeling that you’re really in a place.” Responding to criticisms of the stunt, Zuckerberg began his apology: “One of the most powerful features of VR is empathy.” Empathy, in other words, comes from putting a box over your head that makes it impossible to see other humans. Okay, Mark. Whatever you say.

The caricature of the awkward genius engineer, skilled in solving well-defined problems but utterly lost amid human complexity and ambiguity and emotion, has proved remarkably resilient over the decades. Veblen painted the engineers as a “fantastic brotherhood of overspecialized cranks.” Hoover wore his inability to empathize with pride, casting it in quasi-mystical terms as a vestment of his profession. Subsequent generations of engineers have enthusiastically signed on to the stereotype that they’re cold automatons with no regard for human feeling; as one of the engineers interviewed for a 1991 NASA report on the Apollo program said, “I related to things.”

The cliché fits Zuckerberg as snugly as one of his custom-made $400 Brunello Cucinelli T-shirts. Years of experience have done nothing for his ability as an orator. In product launches and Facebook Live riffs straight to camera, delivered in that familiar vocoder counter-tenor, there’s an unchanging style to the Zuckerbergian sentence: it begins with a programmatic smile, races through four or five words of world-embracing banality, gets stuck, short of breath, grinds and lurches forward again, all syncopation and no beat. It’s like watching a machine learn to be happy. That might be enough to get the crowds going in Silicon Valley, but it’s hard to see Zuckerberg prospering amid the retail hug-and-handle of national political competition. Bloodless technocrats occasionally fare well in municipal politics (see Bloomberg, Michael) but the national stage needs its political performers to show emotional intelligence, or at least — here comes the necessary Trump-mandated qualification — a flair for the theatrical. Zuckerberg has neither.

It’s instructive to look at Zuckerberg’s foray into the public sphere, however “apolitical” he may portray it, within the context of Veblen, Hoover, and the first failed marriage between the engineers and power. You don’t have to look hard to find, in Zuckerberg’s missteps, traces of the very things Veblen mischaracterized about engineers — their greed and lack of fealty to the public good. Zuckerberg also gets wrong what the engineer-president got wrong in power — an overweening belief in the power of numbers to move minds, in the disavowal of feelings. Shared by all three figures is a basic failure to understand the political process: the body politic is not a machine, and the complexity of power in human society is different from the complexity of computers. It’s perhaps unfair to make an example of Zuckerberg (“not all engineers,” et cetera) but if his experience is any indication, the engineers are as far from taking political power today as they ever have been in the decades since Hoover shuffled out of the White House, a crying wreck.

In another sense, though, they have made power come to them. The language of engineering, and software engineering in particular, has become the default language of entrepreneurship. Whereas in the past the vocabularies of law or finance or management consulting were the guiding idiomatic template for capitalism, to “do” business today you have to think, at least at some level, like an engineer: setting a problem, defining its rules and properties, applying logic, prototyping and testing solutions, iterating, testing again, and continuing on the virtuous engineering feedback loop until perfection is at hand. The principles of technocratic efficiency and rule-by-expert that both Veblen and Hoover supported, albeit in different ways and to different ends, are now the mood music of modern capitalism. Fact, statistics, and performance have won the day. We’re all data-driven now; intellectual authority comes from mastery of the numbers.

Zuckerberg is both the beneficiary and the expression of this historical movement. The Facebook founder’s lack of empathy is not, as the engineering cliché would have it, a function of super-intelligence: an inability to see things within context and from the perspective of others is in many senses the essence of stupidity. But the engineers, collectively, have come to dominate the conversation about what it means to be “smart.” Intelligence today inheres in their type of intelligence: data-focused, quantitative, rationalistic, and feeling-free. If you’re not STEM, you’re dirt — or useful only as a vassal for the refinement of engineering projects, which is much the same thing. On the historical evidence, this engineer’s form of intelligence is wholly unsuited to solving the most complex problems of government; tech smarts do not port easily to politics. However violently Silicon Valley pushes the story that it’s here to fix things for all of us, building an algorithm and coming up with intelligent ways to improve society are not the same thing. The triumph of the engineers is that they’ve managed to convince so many people otherwise.

This victory is more than simply economic or mechanical; engineering has also come to permeate the language of politics itself. Zuckerberg’s doe-eyed both-sidesism is the latest expression of the idea, nourished through the Clinton years and the height of the evidence-based policy movement, that facts offer the surest solution to knotty political problems. This is, we already know, a temple built on sand, ignoring as it does the intractably political nature of politics; hence the failure of “figures” and “facts” and “evidence” to do anything to shift positions on gun reform or voter fraud. But it’s a temple with enduring bipartisan appeal, and the engineers have come along at the right moment to give it a fresh lick of paint. If thinking like an engineer is the new way to do business, engineerialism, in politics, is the new centrism — rule by experts remarketed for the innovation age. It might be generations before a Veblenian technocrat calls the White House home, but no presidency can match the power engineers already have — a power to define progress, a power without check.


Aaron Timms is a Brooklyn-based writer. His writing has appeared in the Guardian, The Outline, The Daily Beast, and The Week. He tweets at @aarontimms.