A Macro-Historical Perspective on Engineering Governance

In Western thought we locate the birth of rationalism with early Greek thinking, when mythical explanations of social artifacts do not suffice anymore. Rationalism can take two perspectives: (a) observatory or retrospective rationalism that seeks to describe and explain why things are happening by linking causes to effects and (b) instrumental rationalism that connects ends with efficient means.

Instrumental rationalism only became pertinent after a radical perspective change took place in the 15th Century: the move from a universal, a-temporal transcendental world view to our human-centered perspective. Instrumental rationality sees our collective challenges and opportunity as a set of engineering problems:  how do we achieve an end by using the fewest means possible (efficiency)? Engineering problems have several attributes that distinguish them from other problems: They assume that there is a unique solution that everyone can agree upon as long as we have solved coordination problems, which are seen standard-setting issues.

So by giving up the world-view of universality and transcendence in the 15th Century, humanity gained the possibility of shaping its own world. And shape we did.

However, as a result of this instrumental rationality revolution, we were confronted with a governance crisis. How could we legitimate authority in society in a world, where authority was not transcendentally predefined. The quick answer offered was the idea of the pre-historical social contract. This rhetorical figure that allowed us to argue that the distribution of authority was fair, because we agreed upon our social structure in the original position: immanent, but a-historical. This rhetorical figure allowed us to assign sovereignty, to delineate the inside from the outside, and to develop the functional differentiation necessary for a continuous efficiency revolution.

With the rise of functionally organized and technologically mediated networks (the web 2.0 revolution), the conditions of possibility of coordination changed in such a way that a form of governance that is organically linked to the idea of instrumental rationality has become possible. Network society emerged as an engineering society based on a culture of “rough consensus and running code.” Requests for Proposals (RFCs) are the procedural principle on which governance is based. Self-selection is becoming an accepted principle for participation in the policy process, expertise in an an engineering culture is defined by merit (outcome) and not position, and political problems are reduced to the creative acts of RFC-writing, the focused and technologically structured deliberation, and accountability comes from peer review of radically transparent processes.

So basically, in 2009, we are starting to have the match-up of instrumentally rational value creation with an engineering governance culture. Questions to ask: Is this the world we want? Can it deal with all collective action problems that we want public governance to be able to deal with? How high are the barriers to participation in such a world? Can we construct media literacy campaigns that will decrease these barriers?

About Philipp

Philipp Müller works in the IT industry and is academic dean of the SMBS. Author of "Machiavelli.net". Proud father of three amazing children. The views expressed in this blog are his own.

19. June 2009 by Philipp
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