Friday, August 31, 2012

Authority and the human psyche part 1: why administrators are evil

Authority is power that is linked to the roles and organizational structure of institutions. Authority is a characteristic of artificial systems of human social control. It is not a feature of the natural world or an emergent property of human social evolution. It is a technological contrivance. 

Our evolved psychology is attuned to relatively simple patterns of dominance such as those seen in other primate social groups, where submission to a more dominant member of the group does not entail any permanent reduction in my autonomy. In fact, at any point I have the choice as to whether I submit or refuse, or simply walk away. And in a society with limited technology, the latter option is almost always a viable one. 

The hierarchically ordered mechanisms for power dispersion in technological society follow a different sort of pattern than the dominance relations to which we have evolved. When presented with the commands of a person in authority, I still have the choice to submit or refuse, but noncompliance almost always represents a threat to my access to resources. And in the densely structured and ubiquitous technological order of modern civilization, the choice to walk away has been for all practical purposes entirely eliminated. 

From a psychological standpoint, I have no way of processing this situation other than in terms of my evolved sensitivities for primate dominance relations. That is, there is a mismatch between my actual situation, embedded in complex systems of impersonal power and authority, and my evolved capacities to interpret and accommodate my situation, based on (intimately personal) group dynamics in a small (largely) egalitarian foraging band.  

The mismatch between our evolved social expectations and our coerced interactions with artificial systems of authority can have a profoundly negative impact on our psychological state. Our psyche is simply not designed to be organized by technology; the role of institutional servomechanism is foreign from the point of view of our authentic human nature—we can do it, but not without experiencing the friction of mismatch.  

Institutions (government agencies, small businesses, multinational corporations, colleges and universities, etc.) are organizational technologies. People employed by institutions—the overwhelming majority of common working folk in the Western World—are forced to maintain a psychological state on the job that mirrors many of the pathological features of a condition psychiatrists call dissociative identity disorder, more colloquially known as split personality. It is not uncommon for there to be conflict between what a person believes or desires in a given situation and what their contrived role within the institutional framework demands that they do. 

This can be particularly true for those employed in middle management. Regardless of the institution in question, the manager’s prime purpose is to reduce and eliminate any threat to efficiency. Human nature is almost always a potential threat to efficiency. Whenever the goals and needs of people are in conflict with the “goals” and “needs” of the institution, it is the manager’s job to see that institutional “goals” and “needs” are met. Human needs are not just relegated to secondary status, they are to be removed from the equation if at all possible. And when not possible, for example, people need to eat and attend to other biological functions, the satisfaction of human needs is systematized in a way that causes the least possible reduction in efficiency (e.g., scheduled and time-restricted lunch and restroom breaks).

Managers are people too, however. But while they are playing their role as manager, their authentic human motives are to be pushed aside. They are gears in the institutional machine. Their job is to see that the machine gets what it must.  It’s nothing personal—literally. This bifurcation of roles, human being versus institutional servomechanism, has the potential to create substantial cognitive dissonance. The military, of course, has had to deal with this situation from the very beginning. The military solution is to simply eliminate the human component entirely. You are a soldier, not a person. You are a mindless unit in the fighting machine and you will do what you are told when you are told and without question. The popularity of PTSD and military suicide suggests that the military solution is not so effective at eliminating the human after all.

Corporate functionaries in middle management do not usually face combat-scale moments of self-doubt. If there is some minor cognitive dissonance that emerges from a conflict between their humanity and their institutional role, it is quickly eliminated by simply reducing their humanity, by blurring their role as manager and their place as a member of the human community. Being a manager is a way of being human, they tell themselves. And so the line between corporate servomechanism and human being is blurred into oblivion.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Reverse adaptation and technological innovation

Human needs are conditioned to accommodate technology, not the other way around.  This is one of the most counterintuitive aspects of our situation.Technology extends human capacities, and by all rights should therefore facilitate the achievement of human purposes. And this in fact may be how things work with simple technologies—tools whose design and operation are entirely transparent. But with the complex and opaque technologies of post-industrial mass society, the tables are turned, and our purposeful activity is shaped to fit the requirements of our technology.  

Technology structures our lives in ways that accommodate its own operative requirements. Langdon Winner called this reverse adaptation. Technologies start out serving specific human ends or addressing a highly circumscribed set of problems. But once they come into being, they shape human thought and activity in ways that conform to the structure and organization of the technology itself. The technological solution becomes a way of reframing the original problem, and features of the original problem that do not correspond to the technological solution are ignored or redefined. 

Reverse adaptation has a ratcheting effect, and leads to a sense irreversibility. The original purpose, once altered to accommodate the technology, becomes something different. We can’t go back to simpler times in the past because the operative purposes of those times no longer exist. Technology has rendered them inert or irrelevant. This extends to far more than just the fact that the adoption of the automobile means that we no longer need blacksmiths and livery stables. Entire domains of potential meaning and purpose fall by the wayside and are replaced. 

The ratcheting effect of reverse adaptation creates an illusion of progress. Our present-day needs and purposes are fitted snuggly to the operation of present-day technology. Surely the fit is better now than it was with the inferior technology of the past. But, of course, the needs and purposes of the past were somewhat different, and aligned just as closely with the operation of the technology of the time.

Take communication technology as an example. Modern communication technology provides us with instantaneous and continuous contact with anyone we choose, regardless of who they are or where they happen to be. As a result, many people of today’s cellular generation don’t give a second thought about the propriety of sending a casual acquaintance a poorly crafted text message about the most inane thought or minor detail of their momentary experience. The content of a message to a distant friend is likely to be considerably different when the only mode of contact is through a currier-delivered letter, perhaps taking weeks to arrive. And the motivation for communication is considerably different as well.  The popularity of text messaging and internet sites like Twitter suggests that our ability to communicate instantaneously is generating a perceived need for instantaneous communication of trivial information—and this blog post is already far too long and involved for anyone whose attention span has become reverse adapted to accommodate the punctate superficiality of the Twitterverse.

The larger social and political institutions of technological society are subject to reverse adaptation as well.  What this means is that the ends that these systems were originally designed to facilitate become transient motives that fall into obscurity as new technology forces their realignment. The ends themselves, because they are constantly in flux, constantly being altered by the presence of new technological means, cease to be a focus at all. "What" and "why" take a back seat to "how." What we are doing and, more importantly why we are doing it become irrelevant, completely overshadowed by the operation of the technology itself. All that matters is whether a new technology performs its designed function, or whether it performs its function faster, more efficiently, or with higher precision than a previous version. What the technology actually does—the ultimate purposes to which it is being directed and the ways in which the whole of society is being affected by pursuing these purposes—is rarely if ever considered. 

As a result of the narrow focus on the "how" of technology, reverse adaptation (along with function drift) can lead to a variety of unintended consequences. In discussing the unintended consequences of technology, Winner points out two interesting features: first they are invariably negative. Positive unintended consequences are taken in stride as expected. That a technological innovation should turn out to provide additional unforeseen advantages is included as part of the motivation for innovation in the first place. The second interesting feature of unintended consequences is that they are not not intended. That is, there is nothing in the original planning, development, or application of the technology in the way of intentionally preventing them. Technologies are born into the world with little or no intentional forethought directed at potential unexpected consequences. It is in fact impossible to imagine specific consequences if they are unexpected.

So, technological innovation involves intentionally creating new technology that is virtually guaranteed to have negative consequences, the specific form and scope of which we have no way to judge beforehand. 

What could possibly go wrong?

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The parental state

No other primate species engages in parenting in the way that humans do. The parent-child attachment process that is necessary for early brain development appears to be largely complete by the time the child is three years old. Parenting of human children for several years beyond weaning is entirely unnecessary from the standpoint of either physiological or psychological development, but it is thought to be necessary in order to sufficiently prepare children to participate in complex human society. 

What extended parenting actual does, however, is instill a perpetual sense of dependency. 

Children are intrinsically motivated to learn—naturally and without any prompting from adults—how to handle the world around them.  What parenting in modern society has to do is counteract the child’s natural programming; children have to learn that that their own abilities are not sufficient. 

In a hunter-gatherer society, children learn very early to be able to provide for their own immediate needs (e.g., for food).  In civilized society, children are taught to be dependent on others for satisfying all of their needs (and even as adults are entirely unable to provide their own food, relying instead on a massive corporate food system).  They are trained through the routines of public school and participation in sports to be "good citizens" and "team players" all the while corporate marketing is presenting them with a materialistic world based on narcissistic hedonism.

What should be conflicting messages, "you are insufficient in yourself and need to rely on others" and "you are an individual entitled to all of the material pleasures of the world that you can get your hands on" are resolved into: "you need to use others in order to get what you want." 

Our immaturity follows us into adulthood and leaves us in need of perpetual parenting. 

Enter the corporate state.  Modern civilization is a society of dependent and self-centered children, and corporate bureaucracies play the role of protective, indulgent—and more than occasionally abusive—parents.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Is paying federal taxes immoral?

Let’s suppose that someone comes to you and asks for $100 so that he can buy a gun and kill someone.  If you give him the money—with full knowledge of his intentions—and he in fact uses it to buy a gun and kills someone, does that make you an accomplice to murder?

What if instead of asking you for $100, he asks you for $50 and gets the other $50 from someone else?  It seems to me that if you answered yes to the question above, then you are just as much an accomplice to murder in this case.  The only real difference is that now there are two of you.  Providing half the money doesn’t somehow make you only half an accomplice any more than it is possible to kill only half a person.

What if instead of asking two people for money to buy his gun, he asks several million, and instead of killing one person, he kills several thousand (or several hundred thousand over the course of a couple decades)?

What if instead of a person, he is a corporate institution called the United States Government?