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NSA: An “Obsessional” Technocracy?

Fifty years ago Erich Fromm warned of an unchallenged dogma of technocracy: u201csomething ought to be done because it is technically possible to do it.u201d

Those who are attracted to the non-alive are the people who prefer ‘law-and-order’ to living structure, bureaucratic to spontaneous methods, gadgets to living beings, repetition to originality… They want to control life because they are afraid of its uncontrollable spontaneity; they would rather kill it than expose themselves to it and merge with the world around them.

— psychoanalyst Erich Fromm1

The hyper-focused obsession with dominance and control is, according to many psychoanalysts, symptomatic of a deep-rooted fear of spontaneous self-expression (notably of repressed emotions), in short, of psychological “freedom” in its most general sense. Conflicted human relations, however ambivalent and nuanced, are reduced to technically-solvable “problems.” Rigidly willful, inflexible, detailed-obsessed, the techno-scientific “control freak” — as we say colloquially — may ultimately fear “the impulses and emotions within…himself. Unconsciously he fears that if they should get out of control, terrible things might happen, murder perhaps. So on the one hand he keeps himself under tight control, and on the other hand he projects this intrapsychic drama on the world and tries to control it.” 2

Such individuals — which psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich once termed “living machines”3 — tend to gravitate to careers in applied science, technology, law enforcement, and, last but not least, the military. Indeed, military training in itself explicitly seeks to transform unique, idiosyncratic human beings into obedient, unthinking subordinates (and potential killers) — standardizing attitudes and conduct within an authoritarian command structure which mirrors, in its grotesque extremity, the hierarchical regimentation of the U.S. workplace.

Gen. Keith Alexander, who holds a master’s degree in systems technology and physics, is by all accounts technically well-versed in the ultimate potentials of the data-retrieval systems he oversees — and has relentlessly sought to expand — as director of the NSA. Former associates and government officials have characterized Alexander as being single-mindedly focused on amassing “big-data” (such as PRISM), and as willfully indifferent to the Fourth Amendment rights of mere human beings called citizens.

Fifty years ago Erich Fromm warned of an unchallenged dogma of technocracy: “something ought to be done because it is technically possible to do it.” More recently, Gen. Alexander reportedly decided: “We have the capability, so let’s use it.”4 (Fortunately, such expedient “logic” has yet to be realized in the case of, say, the hydrogen bomb.) A second technocratic dogma, critiqued by Fromm, is “maximal efficiency and output” – even if the end-results, in real human terms, are degradation, individual dignity and free self-expression.

Moreover, as Fromm and other critics of techno-systems noted, such technical “means” become self-perpetuating, finally eclipsing and subverting any originally useful “end.” Thus, today: technologically-enabled, worldwide surveillance and retrieval/storage of all communications — in short, the death of human privacy — for what? So that a handful of possible “terrorist acts” might be prevented — from threatening our security and freedoms? Nonetheless, the obsessive-compulsive personality, according to psychoanalyst David Shapiro, may exhibit a rigid pattern — of persisting “in a course of action that has become irrelevant or absurd.”5

  1. Erich Fromm, The Revolution of Hope: Toward a Humanized Technology (Bantam, 1968); pps. 33-34, 44-45. []
  2. Abraham Maslow, The Psychology of Science (Harper & Row, 1966), p. 25. Maslow elaborates on the “cognitive pathologies” which defensively distort understanding of reality, by both scientist and “layman” alike. []
  3. Wilhelm Reich, Character Analysis (third edition, Noonday, 1949). Section on “compulsive character” (pps. 193-200). []
  4. Shane Harris, “The Cowboy at the NSA,” Foreign Policy, September 9, 2013. []
  5. David Shapiro, Neurotic Styles (Basic Books, 1965), p. 24. []
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