Monday, November 21, 2011


Some interesting quotes from Postman's Technopoly.  The first quote is actually from C. S. Lewis (Screwtape Letters, x):
I live in the Managerial Age, in a world of "Admin."  The greatest evil is not now done in those sordid "dens of crime" that Dickens loved to paint.  It is not done even in concentration camps and labour camps.  In those we see its final result.  But it is conceived and ordered (moved, seconded, carried, and minuted) in clean, carpeted, warmed, and well-lighted offices, by quiet men with white collars and cut fingernails and smooth-shaven cheeks who do not need to raise their voices.  Hence, naturally enough, my symbol for Hell is something like the bureaucracy of a police state or the office of a thoroughly nasty business concern.
Part of my faith crisis was waking up to the realization that there is no such thing as an enlightened bureaucracy.  They all tell you they are wonderful, and they are all lying.  Some do more and more obvious harm than others, but all are harmful--especially if you believe the crap they always tell you about how they are saving the world.  If the world is saved, it will be at least as much in spite of bureaucracy as because of it (though I am sure any bureaucracy that survives will give itself credit as our savior, or--more insidiously--as his humble instrument).

The second quote is from Postman (85-86):
Bureaucracy has no intellectual, political, or moral theory--except for its implicit assumption that efficiency is the principal aim of all social institutions and that other goods are necessarily less worthy, if not irrelevant.  That is why John Stuart Mill thought bureaucracy a "tyranny" and C. S. Lewis identified it with Hell.  The transformation of bureaucracy from a set of techniques designed to serve social institutions to an autonomous meta-institution that largely serves itself came as a result of several developments in the mid- and late-nineteenth century: rapid industrial growth, improvements in transportation and communication, the extension of government into ever larger realms of public and business affairs, the increasing centralization of governmental structures.  To these were added, in the twentieth century, the information explosion and what we might call the "bureaucracy effect": as techniques for managing information became more necessary, expensive, and complex, the number of people and structures required to manage those techniques grew, and so did the amount of information generated by bureaucratic techniques.  This created the need for bureaucracies to manage and coordinate bureaucracies, then for additional structures and techniques to manage the bureaucracies that coordinated bureaucracies, and so on--until bureaucracy became, to borrow again Karl Kraus's comment on psychoanalysis, the disease for which it purported to be the cure.  Along the way, it ceased to be merely the servant of social institutions and became their master.  Bureaucracy now not only solves problems but creates them.  More important, it defines what our problems are--and they are always, in the bureaucratic view, problems of efficiency.  As Lewis suggests, this makes bureaucracies exceedingly dangerous, because though they were originally designed to process only technical information, they are now commonly employed to address problems of a moral, social, and political nature.  The bureaucracy of the nineteenth century was largely concerned with making transportation, industry, and the distribution of goods more efficient.  Technopoly's bureaucracy has broken loose from such restrictions and now claims sovereignty over all of society's affairs.
The single greatest problem with bureaucracy is that efficiency is not an unmixed blessing.  It inevitably creates fragility (as Nassim Taleb would say), rendering those who rely on it blind to important realities, realities that are inefficient.  (Or, as bureaucrat Boyd K. Packer would say, truths that are not very useful.)  Two more quotes from Postman (88-89):
The role of the expert is to concentrate on one field of knowledge, sift through all that is available, eliminate that which has no bearing on a problem, and use what is left to assist in solving a problem.  This process works fairly well in situations where only a technical solution is required and there is no conflict with human purposes--for example in space rocketry or the construction of a sewer system. It works less well in situations where technical requirements may conflict with human purposes, as in medicine or architecture.  And it is disastrous when applied to situations that cannot be solved by technical means and where efficiency is usually irrelevant, such as in education, law, family life, and problems of personal maladjustment.  I assume I do not need to convince the reader that there are no experts--there can be no experts--in child-rearing and lovemaking and friend-making.  All of this is a figment of the Technopolist's imagination, made plausible by the use of technical machinery [like fancy documents purporting to illustrate the one true family], without which the expert would be totally disarmed and exposed as an intruder and an ignoramus ... There is, for example, no test that can measure a person's intelligence.  Intelligence is a general term used to denote one's capacity to solve real-life problems in a variety of novel contexts.  It is acknowledged by everyone except experts that each person varies greatly in such capacities, from consistently effective to consistently ineffective, depending on the kinds of problems requiring solution.  If, however, we are made to believe that a test can reveal precisely the quantity of intelligence a person has, then, for all institutional purposes, a score on a test becomes his or her intelligence.  The test transforms an abstract and multifaceted meaning into a technical and exact term that leaves out everything of importance.  One might even say that an intelligence test is a tale told by an expert, signifying nothing.
Nonetheless, the expert relies on our believing in the reality of technical machinery, which means we will reify the answers generated by the machinery.  We come to believe that our score is our intelligence, or our capacity for creativity or love or pain.  We come to believe that the results of opinion polls are what people believe, as if our beliefs can be encapsulated in such sentences as "I approve" and "I disapprove."
I see this nonsense playing out all the time in different places.  In education, we mistake scores for learning (and the ability to learn).  In church, we mistake adherence to arbitrary (and even harmful) rules for piety.  In government and business, we mistake sound-bytes for sound policy, and assume that the talking suits whose companies we support actually know what the heck they are doing because they get up on time, clean up nicely, and diligently show us charts decorated with impressive technical jargon.  Everywhere, we trust people to know stuff that they don't really know, even when their incompetence becomes truly dangerous, destroying our ability to function as individuals and as a society.  How am I supposed to become intellectually competent if my chief aim is to get good scores on tests, pleasing masters, colleagues, and students?  How I am supposed to become morally competent if every decision I make has to pass muster with an incoherent book of rules compiled by bureaucrats in Salt Lake City (or Colorado City, or Canterbury, or Rome, or any other major religious center)?  How am I supposed to be financially and politically capable if my actionable resources can be appropriated on a moment's notice to save stupid businesses lucky enough to be "too big to fail"?  In a world where I exist merely as an individual consumer--helpless, needy, and stupid--how am I supposed to do anything worth doing at all?

The worst part of my faith crisis has been my inability to talk coherently about this aspect of it.  I express a disillusion with technology in general, and immediately others (not just Mormons) rush in with their pet technical solution to my lack of faith.

"Yes!  It can be really frustrating dealing with idiots like George Bush and his henchmen.  Vote for Obama and this will all get better ... The reason it isn't better yet is that the evil Republicans still have power."  [If you want the Republican version of this, just change a few words, swapping Obama for Bush, and vice versa, and referencing evil Democrats.]

"Yes!  The church comes with all kinds of people.  Sometimes, inexplicably, they speak as men when we all think that they are speaking for God.  We have to learn to ignore this, have faith that it will all turn out right, and keep exercising our religious freedom to call other people to repentance."

"Yes!  It can be really frustrating dealing with religious bigots like Boyd Packer and his henchmen.  Come to my church and this will all get better ... The reason it isn't better yet is that you are still holding on to icky Mormon ideas instead of embracing true Christianity." [Imagine the face of the Reverend Jeffress here, and maybe someone like Ted Haggard for good measure].

"Yes!  Being an academic is hard sometimes.  Maybe if you went to another workshop, or published a paper, or applied for your 300th job, or worked more diligently on your dissertation, you wouldn't be in this mess."

I have spent much of my life being broken--not politically savvy enough, or righteous enough, or smart enough, or diligent enough, or whatever.  After fifteen years (starting in adolescence, when I became aware of other people as more than entertainment), I am still broken.  But the stupid bureaucracies that push me all over the place are broken too.  They think they know what they are doing.  They think they are wise.  They think they righteous.  They think they deserve the right to put me in my place, humbly enslaving me to the greater good that they represent (but can never represent intelligibly, for some reason: pond scum like me just doesn't get it, I guess).  The difference between them and me, as I see it, is that I admit my limits and refuse to go past them, while they don't.  I try to be morally responsible.  They don't.  I answer for my mistakes.  They don't answer for theirs.  I am interested in changing things in fundamental ways, so that I don't have to rely on them all the time (though I have nothing against their going on without me).  The only change that they welcome is the one that puts them in control of the status quo, where I am comfortably stuck under their thumb.  Their heaven on earth is my hell.

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