Over at tggp's blog I was sucked into a fairly pointless discussion about the meaning of "technocrat". That led me to read this article about Robert McNamara, that portrayed his career as somehow paradigmatic of a certain generation of mangers, and did so in a much more sympathetic way than I am used to. (via)
I have a certain idea of McNamara in my head as some kind of monster of rationalism, a bloodless bureaucrat presiding over horrific violence and death without the slightest bit of human compassion softening his considerations. Sort of Eichmann-lite. From this article (and also from Errol Morris's film The Fog of War) he appears to be an altogether more appealing person, a tragic figure who simply was lead astray in his efforts to put his strengths into service. Those strengths were rationality, measurement, and goal-directed action. These talents worked pretty well for him in his career prior to the Kennedy administration, but utterly failed in government, when politics and conflict enter into the picture.
So was Vietnam "blundering efforts to do good", as McNamara would have it, or just another in a long line of evil imperialist actions, as the Chomskyite left would have it? I find myself caught between these two irreconcilable views. Can't it be be both? Can't McNamara be a good man who found himself unknowingly caught up in a bad system? Someone whose worldview left him blind to the effects of his own actions? Thinking along these lines leads to wondering about the nature of evil and if even Hitler was doing good by his own lights.
If McNamara's story is a tragedy of reason, the story of the left since the Vietnam era is a tragedy in the opposite direction. The war and the failure to put a stop to it led large segments of the cultural and political left to be suspicious of reason as such and to abandon it, for new age nostrums or smug deconstructionist pseudo-critique. Essentially, it prompted a new round of romantic reaction to the failures of the modern world, in this case represented by the button-downed rational managers of the postwar military-industrial complex.
In my own career I've been on the fringes of the artificial intelligence field, which had its origins in the same cold war rationalism that McNamara exemplified. The field has also suffered from the failings of narrow instrumental rationalism, which constricted the set of allowable models of intelligence to a very small and boring set. When I was in grad school I was loosely connected to a set of people trying to reform and break away from those limitations. Most of those people, myself included, instead drifted away from AI to pursue other areas (biology, sociology, user interface research, Buddhism...) I now find myself in closer contact with the old-fashioned kind of AI than I have been in years, and remembering why I never could be as enthusiastic about the field as I needed to be to work in it. It's not just the explicit military applications; it's an entire concept of what it means to be intelligent that is just so overwhelmingly wrong that it makes me want to scream. Yet the field chugs on, possibly even making some advances although it's hard to see what they are. The "peripheral" areas of AI, like robotics and vision, tend to make steady visible progress, but the more central areas like planning, reasoning and representation seem to be stuck, working on the same problems they were 20 or 30 years ago.