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  1. Dear Alexandra Argamakova,

    Any discussion of Karl Popper’s Piecemeal Social Engineering is worth pursuing, as you carefully explain in your essay. Popper’s critique seems to have targeted the so-call left and right alike: whether utopian or otherwise, ideologues on all sides of the debate over social (and economic and political) institutions dehumanize the people they claim to support and protect by “engineering” their lives. Your own critical examination of the term and its uses and misuses over the past century carries forward the concerns already articulated by Popper, but with a twist.

    Before I get to your (and Adam Riggio’s) twist, let me just emphasize one important point about the “piecemeal” adjective of “social engineering.” Popper was concerned with wholesale changes (revolution) for two reasons: first, their outcomes are inherently unknown (unpredictable in “scientific” terms), and second, even with the best of outcomes (in a utilitarian sense) such transformations always exact dear human costs (people get hurt or even die). His recommendation, and I believe it to be so for any future so-called social engineers, was to take it slow and correct mistakes as new data emerge. This, as we recall, was also his “trial and error” methodology of proposing hypotheses and subjecting them to critical testing (falsifications). In this sense, piecemeal social engineering is reformist in character and not revolutionary, taking small steps on the road of improving the human condition.

    The twist I have in mind is informed by your (and Riggio’s) references and citations insofar as the digital age has changed the material conditions under which the very discussion of piecemeal social engineering must be discussed. I would recommend to add Shoshana Zuboff’s “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future ” (2019) as a critical Marxist analysis not only of the effects of high-tech corporations, but also of the engineering of human desires (and their eventual, predetermined satisfaction). This kind of report on the material and psycho-social conditions of contemporary American culture plays right into your way of thinking insofar as it focuses on the engineering part of the equation, admittedly more algorithmically sophisticated than anything we have experienced before. One relevant question would be: is this a difference in degree or in kind? That is, has “surveillance capitalism” merely pushed the engineering envelope farther than anything known to humanity so far (but remains within the classical framework of capitalist exploitation), or has it in fact transformed the very framework of algorithmic power and control? What frightens Zuboff echoes what concerns you even when the language used is different: can we rescue humanity in the age of technoscience? Corporate America is looking for more opportunities to exploit behavioral surplus just as it did in earlier ages; this fact is not in dispute.

    What remains worthy of continued discussion in this context is whether academics and intellectuals should merely lament the situation or come up with ingenious strategies to ward off wholesale exploitation. Appealing to utopian visions that require a revolution, reminds us Popper, the witness to 20th-century atrocities, may be attractive but foolhardy; perhaps piecemeal reforms can accomplish more with less human costs. As I reflect on the past four Trumpian years in the United States, it is tempting to espouse a mini-revolution that would cleanse some of the neoliberal and corrupt practices we have endured. Reforms may do little to remedy the widening gaps of wealth and income inequalities.


    Raphael Sassower, Philosophy
    University of Colorado, Colorado Springs

    • Dear Raphael Sassower,

      Popper proposes scientific projection instead of speculative ideological constructions, more gradual approach instead of wholesale engineering, problem-focused method vs. system design, and, finally, peaceful, collaborative engineering instead of social confrontation and struggles between classes and groups of people.

      “Digital” Popper might aim to distributed and diversified Internet against centralized and controled by state data processing. But digital means make scientific those statements and predictions that were questionable before. This is the reason to rethink the admited scale for democratic social planning on cybernatic basement. In the same time, I have to notice the existence of tension between the possible governability and democratic liberties here.

      Still, it is early to be pessimistic or optimistic in relation to technoscience and technological, post-industrial society. I prefer to analyze it in terms of risks and benefits for humanity, in order to foresee and direct the emerging twists in the nature of social relations.

      Reforms and collaboration on social issues seem to be preferable instead of conflicts and destructions. Marxist theory states that peaceful reformation is not always achievable, especially for essential and structural problems (of capitalism). Then, the wind of change takes away everything. The intensions must matter after all – whether we aim to solve problems discursively or by conflics. What is presupposed by our “plan”? Marx saw social relations as class struggles. He told “all history is a history of class struggle”. He overlooked – social relations can be seen as supporting, too. Perhaps, it explain partly why Marxism worked well for revenge, but worse for engineering the social order.

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