Recently I’ve had a Kafka story stuck in my head. Not the one that everybody knows – the Metamorphosis – even though that it is, in a sense, highly relevant to our current predicament.
As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into an unvaccinated, right-wing conspiracy theorist.
No, the Kafka story that I’ve had in mind is the one that I’ve always found the most memorable of his works: In the Penal Colony (spoiler alert: I’m going to give away the end of the story here so stop reading now if you don’t want to know).
Published in 1919, In the Penal Colony is located on a subtropical island in the colonial period. There is a garrison on the island and the protagonist of the story, a traveller from the mother country, gets roped into witnessing the punishment of a native which is to take place on a giant mechanical contraption that is maintained by the army officer who is the antagonist of the story. The machine is designed to kill its subject in a lengthy and highly technical manner. The officer is extremely proud of the complex and intricate technology of which he is the expert but the traveller finds the whole thing horrendous. There’s a lot of different themes going on in the story but the one which the one which has been on my mind lately is the technological angle. Here is a machine transported from the European culture to a place where it doesn’t belong. The officer believes in the machine as an end in itself. He has lost sight of the fact that the machine should just be the means to the end of justice. At the end to the story, the officer is killed by the machine in a semi-voluntary fashion. He would rather die than admit fault with his contraption. Technically, the story is a tragedy although, in the way that is usual for Kafka, it feels more like a horror.
Western society has been obsessed with machines for a number of centuries. Our modern world runs on machines. The machines are not just the obvious ones made out of nuts and bolts. A bureaucracy is a machine. It runs on rules. Kafka was one of the first to see that a purely “rational” organisation that runs on rules can produce horrific outcomes. The Terminator movies are about a robot becoming more like a human. But Kafka’s stories are about humans behaving like robots and the consequences that follow. That’s a far more horrific proposition.
Back in early April of 2020, I received a pamphlet from my local council in the letterbox. It had information about “covid-19”. It was stated on the pamphlet that the information was from the WHO. Somebody, probably the administrative assistant at the council, had been given the job of taking the information from the WHO and putting it on council stationery. Was the council responsible for the veracity of that information, I wondered? Do they have trained virologists or medical experts checking its accuracy? The answer, of course, is no. The information would have been passed verbatim down through the bureaucratic machine that ran through the state government, back through the federal government and all the way back to the WHO. The system, the machine, had already been set up to run in just such a scenario. All the WHO had to do was kick it into gear. There are legal agreements between governments and the WHO. Bureaucrats are given jobs to liaise with the WHO and other bureaucrats ensure that the communication was passed along the line until eventually it reached my local council and then my letterbox; a big bureaucratic machine that spans the western nations and much of the rest of the world too.
I know how big bureaucratic machines work first hand and I have experienced the Kafkaesque nightmare that can happen when people just follow rules. I’ve seen the gentle and then not-so-gentle pressure exerted on those who question the rules. It’s especially a problem for newcomers who haven’t yet been conditioned not to use that part of the mind that is so active in young children; the part that likes to ask “why?” Fortunately for bureaucracies, the education system has normally weeded out those who like to ask why by the time they begin work. Young children go in one end of the system asking why? all the time and come out the other end never asking why? That’s a shame for them but not for the bureaucracies who need people to be efficient cogs in the machine.
Modern society is built on science and science is all about asking questions. Yet we have a society that actively discourages people from asking questions.
You’re not a doctor. Trust the experts.
People seem to think of science itself like some machine; a machine which spits out “truth” the same way another machine might pour a coffee or vacuum the carpet. In the horrific corona quarantine hotels here in Australia there were robots patrolling the corridors with little cameras attached to them in case any of the inmates got it into their head to break the rules. Meanwhile, the Premier of Victoria at one point said he had a supercomputer running the numbers and used that to justify his lockdown measures. All of this is laughable to those of us who work in science and technology but clearly a majority of the population believes it. We love our machines the way the officer in the Kafka story loved his machine. But with any machine the question has to be asked: are you controlling the machine or is the machine in controlling you? In Kafka’s story the answer was the latter and I fear that’s true of us too.