Thursday, April 23, 2020

(M:tAs) Guide to the Technocracy

This is it, folks. Red Alert! Flame war potential - 99% This is not a drill!

Although, I think to some degree White Wolf was deliberately stirring the pot. Surely they weren't so naive as to think writing "In a way, science is a religion" wouldn't start a fight (seriously, I was a hair's breadth away from subjecting you all to a rant about metaphysics before I took a step back and remembered the point of this exercise).

But more to the point, the main culprit behind this book's well-deserved reputation for flamebait is its clear dual mandate to both present an unreliable pro-Technocracy narrator and to course-correct away from the Technocracy's earlier depiction as cartoonish supervillains. The fact that there's no obvious way to disentangle these agendas in the text itself means that everyone can bring their own biases to it and find canonical support.

Now, it's pretty clear that when the "Protocols" chapter says, "The Technocracy isn't about power. It' about using that power effectively, for the people that don't have it" that is a self-serving lie. Or at the very least, a comforting story the Technocrats tell themselves to justify how nakedly power-hungry their organization is.

And yet, just a little while later, in a sidebar that is, apparently, out-of-character (it addresses the Storyteller directly), it says, "The objective is to save people, not blow stuff up." And therein lies the confusion.

I doubt very much that we're supposed to take the "You're Already a Technocrat" speech at face value. It presents a false dichotomy between rejecting modern technology and accepting the Technocracy's authoritarian creed. And yet, the argument they make, that there should be someone out there doing something about all these monsters, and that the existence of the laws of physics is on balance a boon to humanity - that's a good pitch. It's almost possible to believe that you're in a story with 101 different types of fantasy monster and humanity's only hope is a group of self-appointed sci-fi warriors. That narrative speaks to people. You can believe that the Technocracy could recruit off of it.

Which leads us to the awkward question of "how much of it is true?"

Not all of it, not by a long shot. The expanded abilities in the character creation chapter include "torture" and "terrorism." And those are only the most mundane of the Technocracy's crimes. They quite definitely brainwash people, perform experiments on helpless innocents, and subvert the world's governments. Everything that's said about the Technocracy's noble motives must be viewed in that context. Ultimately it is about the power.

The way Guide to the Technocracy tries to square the circle is by presenting a corrupt organization made up of idealistic individuals. Mage: the Ascension is actually quite consistent in its faith that individuals are pure until they are corrupted by groups. The "God and the Technocracy" sidebar has perhaps the starkest, least-self aware example of this I've seen so far when it says that the Technocracy tolerates faith in a higher power, but views membership in an organized religion as suspect.

I can't be alone in thinking that it should be the other way around, right? It's such a reflexively 90s-liberal/new age thing to say that it almost has me thinking we should take more of the narration's reasonableness as face value, if only because the authors are including their sincere values as part of the text.

In any event, it asks us to believe that Technocrats can be sincere, at least at the individual/small group level. The aim is to make the conflict at the center of the game more nuanced, but it misses the most critical level of analysis. For all the history sections talk of rival schools of thought and the growing popularity of the theory that the Technocracy followed sleeper history instead of manipulating it, there is no real discussion of the Technocracy's role as an enabler of systems of oppression.

I mean, they were founded by Queen Victoria, for god's sake. But that is merely a historical irony. It's much harder to judge the meaning of lies of omission. The thing where they discuss the American Revolution without mentioning slavery is completely typical, but neither before nor after did it talk about colonialism at all. This is, of course, a classic propaganda technique, but I'm not sure whether it was intentional. I know for a fact that Mage is capable of talking about colonialism, and there have definitely been explicit connections between the Technocracy and European imperialism.  So this could just be a case of the book deliberately not mentioning inconvenient historical facts that make its subject look bad.

However, Guide to the Technocracy's history section is also incredibly sloppy about a couple of things they have no obvious motive to lie about. It gets the timeline of the Sons of Ether and Virtual Adept defections completely wrong. The source of this confusion appears to be a misapprehension that the "Electrodyne Engineers" were the prior incarnation of the Virtual Adepts, when in fact that was the old name for the Sons of Ether. This resulted in the Adepts leaving the Technocracy in the early 1900s, which totally screws up the 20th century timeline.

It's possible that this was done on purpose, because a pro-Technocracy narrator wouldn't want to acknowledge that the rift with the Virtual Adepts came about because of disagreements about who to support in WW2 and the subsequent murder of Alan Turing. But this seems unlikely to me for a couple of reasons. Firstly, Mage has been trying to get away from attributing real-world atrocities to supernatural factions, hence the recent trend in canon to say that WW2 split the factions along national lines (so that American Technocrats supported the Allies, whereas German Technocrats supported the Nazis). Secondly, even if the mangling of the timeline was meant to be in-character obfuscation, who would that narrative be for?

I mean, I've just read every previous Mage book in chronological order and this is still a bit of obscure esoterica. I'm running through the streets screaming, "don't you see? The timeline doesn't add up!" much like one of the doomed World of Darkness conspiracy theorists who have had the misfortune to stumble upon the Technocracy.

Granted, it's unlikely to be the only one who noticed. The White Wolf fandom was known to be . . . intense. But this sort of subtle, indirect worldbuilding is practically guaranteed to cause conflict. If it was intentional then, like I said, this book seems designed for flamebait. The misplacing of the defections is probably just a mistake.

But that takes us back to our original dilemma. How much of the Technocracy's makeover are we supposed to trust, given that we've learned about it from known liars? Ultimately, what a Technocracy book really needs to do is confront the legacy of modernism head-on, both the good and the bad, in an honest and thoughtful way. "Good people working inside a bad system" only really works as a theme if you've got some inkling as to why the system is bad.

Although that's a pretty heavy theme for a casual roleplaying game. Despite the book's occasional suggestions to the contrary, you're probably not playing a Technocrat because you want to be a jack-booted fascist, even if we're just talking about the insensitive 90s sort of "fascist" who's just a super-strict guy who tells people what to do. No, the reason, ultimately, to play a Technocrat is because you want to change the genre of the World of Darkness into either mil-sf or a science fictions conspiracy thriller. That's what the idealist/authoritarian split is meant to accomplish. You're just a guy trying to protect the world using wacky sci-fi gadgets, but your bosses are the Illuminati.

It almost works, but unfortunately, the Technocracy is the one group in Mage: the Ascension that's objectively wrong. I guess, if we're being really precise about it, all of the factions arewrong, but the Technocracy is the only one that ever gets called out about it, the only one where the book says, "the truth is that the Union's agents fool themselves too."

How is that not what everyone does? Is not "fooling oneself" the very definition of "magic comes from belief."

The distinction, as near as I can tell, is that when the Traditions say their magic comes from spirits, or universal forms, or etheric disturbances or what have you, they are at least on the right path by calling their magic "magic" (even when they don't), but when the Technocracy says that their science allows them to create advanced technology, they don't realize that their science is actually magic. You can believe that your powers come from outside yourself. You can even believe that they operate along universal laws. But you can't believe those laws are quantifiable or explicable, because attempting to actually know something is the only surefire way in the Mage universe to ensure that you know nothing.

Either that or it's a cover for the fact that Mage's magic system is actually pretty bad at modelling sci-fi technology. Because the thing is, if Mage is really going to be the game it says it is, then the Technocrats kind of need to not be especially wrong. Oh, they can be wrong about morality, about the costs and benefits of their plans for control, about the danger the Traditions pose to humanity, but they should at least be right about the fact that they are using science. Or, at least, they should be as right as any magical paradigm can be. Because if the stakes of the Ascension war are reality itself, then their beliefs will, eventually, match what's real.

I actually think the issue here is that "science" is used rather mushily here. At the risk of inadvertently starting up the metaphysics rant we narrowly avoided earlier - science is an epistemological process, not a set of doctrines. There is some discussion of the scientific method, but it's not really applied. Instead, "science" is mainly used to mean "things that are scientifically plausible in the real world." So the Technocrats' "belief in science" really means "willful denial of the reality of magic." Hence, they are the only delusional Mage faction.

But if the Technocracy actually believed in the scientific method, then the empirically verifiable facts of mages doing magical things should lead them to pursue a working theory of magic just a little bit more robust than arbitrarily labeling certain things "reality deviants." After all, they don't have access to our world, so they can't actually distinguish between "things people can quite obviously do" and "things people should be able to do." The latter is always going to be formed by observations of the former.

(And I know no one asked, but my resolution to this dilemma was that the Technocracy actually does do real science, but what they study is Paradox. Their hypertech is what they've determined is the "minimally Paradoxical process" to achieve any given result, and they believe that any mage who doesn't do things their way is "polluting the Tellurian," and must be censured, even if their magic is cheaper, faster, or more effective.)

One way to untangle this mess is to claim that the Technocracy doesn't really practice science so much as scientism and that they are only really concerned with the authority that comes from the appearance of science. . .


It's plausible, and it fits in with their role as modernist villains. A lot of shady shit has been done under the color of science - scientific racism, eugenics, cruel human experimentation - and in the World of Darkness, the Technocracy is the likely culprit for these evils. It would certainly help to get them back to their sci-fi horror roots.

It's just, if you take science away from the Technocracy, the only people left in the setting who do anything close are the Order of Hermes, and that doesn't really work (though, the Order's canonical unpopularity does bolster my theory that Mage: the Ascension is all just an elaborate revenge scheme for a poor grade in science class).

I think, though, that I'm just going to chalk this one up to another example of the book grabbing two sides of a contentious debate and saying "now you and them fight!"

Oh, man. 2000 words and I've still only used about half my notes. Let's just go through a few observations real quick.

Technically, the first appearance of the infamous Red Star in Mage was in Tales of Magick: Dark Adventure, but it's addressed head-on here. Clearly, the wheels are in motion to make millennialism a major theme in the Revised World of Darkness.

Speaking of which, Guide to the Technocracy is not technically a Revised book, but I'd be shocked if it wasn't written with Revised compatibility in mind. A couple of noticeable Revised-era ideosyncracies are here - there's talk of a difficulty communicating with Horizon Realms (though no mention of the Avatar Storm . . . yet), and as near as I can tell, it's called "magic" rather than "magick," even in the out-of-character sections.

The sidebar in the character creation chapter that drew parallels between making a WoD character and filling out a standardized test sheet was really cute. I'm just surprised it took this long for someone to do that joke.

Much of the description around Technocratic magic tries to make Technocracy agents sound a lot like talents from the Trinity Continuum. I'd have liked to see that alternate game.

Some of the early-history, Sorcerer's Crusade callbacks suggest a kind of Dynastic Cycle between the Traditions and Technocracy, where each starts out as necessary reformers, gains power until they become corrupt, and are subsequently overthrown. That was my dominant theory of Mage: the Ascension politics for many years, though now I tend to think it overly callous to ignore the suffering that they create along the way.

Overall, I'd say that this book is a bomb dropped in the middle of Mage: the Ascension canon. I have no idea how it was actually meant to be used. I'm not sure which parts are trustworthy descriptions of the WoD reality. And it's shocking in retrospect how many ugly internet arguments revolved around people making selective, but perfectly valid interpretations of this text. I wouldn't say that Guide to the Technocracy actually makes the titular villains sympathetic (nor do I believe it was meant to), but it can quite plausibly allow one to pretend they are sympathetic. And in a game of make-believe like Mage, I'm not sure there's much of a difference.

Ukss Contribution: Exploding buttons - as a weapon, they strike just the right balance between quaintly ridiculous and stuffily aristocratic. Perfect for the witch-spies of Monte Carlo.

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