The Rise of the Machines

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.

27 thoughts on “The Rise of the Machines”

  1. Before the Corona event Yuval Noah Harari wrote a book called “Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow”. One of the points he made in this book is that humans have lost control of their own society a while ago and algorithms have been running the show for a while.

    I think he meant AI and automation, but wouldn’t a bureaucracy that decides for us about things such as the proper response to a new virus and the associated risk management qualify as well?

    If you think about it, a large organization is essentially a network of cogs each mindlessly acting according to a set of rules to handle information they hand each other. This could function like a literal computer, with logical gates implemented by said personal giving each other binary feedback in the form of “request denied / accepted”, all connected to each other by who reports to whom like transistors on a mother board.

    If I am right, these human implemented computers could have been with us for as long as large systems of bureaucracy have, dating as far back to the temples of Mesopotamia.

  2. Bakbook – yes, and most bureaucracies only function at all because of the informal connections between people that make things work (what I call “hero culture”). In a bureaucracy which explicitly prevents those informal connections (eg. government bureaucracy) things become kafkaesque immediately. Although I still haven’t read the book, I learned recently that the Chinese epic “Journey to the West” is partly a satire on bureaucracy. I wonder if there’s an ancient mesopotamian comedy which makes fun of bureaucrats.

  3. I don’t think that people view science as a machine. I think they see it as the new Bible. Which is preposterous for all sorts of obvious reasons.

    However, we definitely have gotten to the point where people are being sacrificed for the sake of the machine. The UK is the most explicit about this, with its “save the NHS” slogan. But I think the sentiment is basically the same in quite a few other countries. Here we are: ruining people’s health with lockdowns and shoddy “vaccines” in order to stop the health care system from collapsing. It’s okay if people die at higher rates, as long as they don’t wind up in the ICU for an extended period of time on their way to the morgue.

  4. Irena – yeah, we’ve hit the point now where we’re looking for sacrificial victims to appease the machine gods. I think in most states of Australia now the unvaccinated are not allowed into hospitals unless it’s an emergency making them a convenient scapegoat for the fact that we’ve been underfunding the hospital system for years.

    By the way, you might enjoy this bit of black humour –

  5. Another example of “the machine”: i think this was on New Zealand news. Somebody died in a car accident but was counted as a corona death. Because the situation was so obviously absurd the reporter actually did their job of asking why and it turns out that the WHO requires that anybody who returns a positive test result is counted as a corona death irrespective of the actual cause of death. That’s what happens when bureaucrats follow rules rather than be allowed to follow common sense.

  6. Re: car crash death classified as a corona death

    A personal anecdote from about 30 years ago, if I may. When I was 8 (or was it 9?) years old, my art teacher asked me and another kid to help her organize her locker. Her students’ drawing pads were supposed to be grouped by the class the students were in, except that some kids’ pads ended up in a wrong pile. So, she wanted us to fish those out and put them in a correct pile. And we enthusiastically got to work! We (actually, it was I, but shh, don’t tell anyone 😛 ) came up with a neat algorithm: for each class, take out all drawing pads on which it wasn’t written that the kid was in that class. If it said which class the kid was in, then move the drawing pad to that class’s pile, and otherwise, put it on a separate pile. At the end of the intervention, the largest pile by far was the one with drawing pads with no class written on them. ‘Coz, it turns out, quite a lot of kids just wrote their names and not class. And then, after some time, the teacher saw the results. In a stern voice, she said that we’d left a complete chaos behind us. She also pointed out that I even moved my own sister’s drawing pad to this big classless pile. Well… With hindsight, I suppose we should simply have left everything where it was, unless it specifically said on the drawing pad that the student was in a different class. Sadly, this didn’t occur to me until after the fact. But hey, lesson learned!

    Anyway, watching the authorities deal with corona, I get the feeling that I’m watching my 8-year-old self. Maybe working in a bureaucracy stunts intellectual growth.

  7. Irena – hah. That’s a great example of legibility. The drawing pads were informally organised, which is the normal state of affairs for humans to be in but which doesn’t allow easy identification by an outsider (bureaucrat). The bureaucracy’s first job is to make things legible but this always causes collateral damage which, in your case, was a big pile of “chaos”. Now, imagine those drawing pads are entire villages and even whole countries.

  8. Simon: “Now, imagine those drawing pads are entire villages and even whole countries.”

    Indeed! But what I had in mind in particular was this. You come up with some straightforward rule that’s easy to implement, no ambiguities involved. (A machine could implement it!) For instance: “if the drawing pad does not have the class of the student written on it, then move it to the ‘classless’ pile” or “if a person dies within X days of getting a positive corona PCR test, then count the death as a COVID death.” Both lead to a mess (a huge pile of ‘classless’ drawing pads, or a huge number of COVID-ified death certificates for people who in fact died of a wide variety of causes) and, occasionally, to completely obvious absurdities (my sister’s drawing pad being moved to the ‘classless’ pile, despite the fact that I knew full well which class she was in, or a car accident death being classified as a COVID death). The consequences are a bit different, though. In the case of drawing pads, the poor art teacher probably had to stay late one day to sort out the mess. As for the COVID death inflation, well, we don’t seem to be anywhere close to sorting that one out, do we?

    So, as I said, these public health experts and the bureaucrats implementing their orders remind me of my 8-year-old self. Sadly, there is no teacher to inform them that they’ve made a big mess of things. ‘Coz, y’know, they’re the experts!

  9. Irena – so, you’re saying we’re governed by the equivalent of 8 year old schoolkids without a teacher. That sounds like a fairly accurate description of our politicians (and a sizeable chunk of the population too). 🙂

  10. Simon: “so, you’re saying we’re governed by the equivalent of 8 year old schoolkids without a teacher”

    Yes, that’s exactly what I’m saying. 🙂

  11. Daniel: it reminds me of a segment on Australian tv where they asked an expert how accurate the PCR test was and he answered “we don’t know cos we don’t have a gold standard test”. The truth is out there. It’s just hiding in plain sight.

    Irena – wish we could put an actual 8 year old in charge for a while and see what happens. Might get better results.

  12. @Daniel

    Re: shooting death classified as COVID death

    Let’s see how this works. “Your Honor, members of the jury [do they have juries in NZ?], my client is innocent. As you can see from official documents, the alleged victim died of COVID. Furthermore, my client was fully vaccinated and therefore couldn’t possibly have given this horrible disease to the victim. Hence, my client is not to blame for this person’s death. You must acquit.”

    Heh, it might even work. The world has gone mad enough.

  13. Irena – too little, too late. And he still doesn’t seem to have figured out what’s going on at either a political or psychological level.

  14. Simon, if we only get the help of people who got it more or less right, more or less from the get-go, then the situation is hopeless. There are too few such people. We need people who were originally conned to get mad about it and make life difficult for the technocrats and politicians imposing these restrictions.

  15. Fair enough. What you say is true politically. But intellectually I’ve lost a lot of respect for Peterson.

  16. Irena:

    > Heh, it might even work. The world has gone mad enough.

    Unfortunately I suspect the madness would be the prosecution stating (without evidence) that gunshots are a cause of COVID-19 and thus the murder charge stands. And then the judge would bar any cross-examination of that as misinformation.

    > do they have juries in NZ?

    We do indeed. I was on one once, which convinced me absolutely that they are an atrocious system of justice. But much like democracy, it is just that the alternatives are worse.

  17. @irena
    “I don’t think that people view science as a machine. I think they see it as the new Bible. Which is preposterous for all sorts of obvious reasons”
    I think this has always been the case for most of the population. Ambiguity and uncertainty are intolerable for most.
    James Lovelock of Gaia fame once suggested we should compile a book containing all the scientific wisdom of our age, to preserve it through the coming apocalypse and hand it down to future generations as scripture. A perfectly insane idea, but one a lot of intellectuals would enthusiastically agree with.
    And i think Simon is right too in saying that people treat science as a machine. These days religion and spirituality is seen as a machine too. We simply have only the machine metaphor left to make sense of the world. An impoverished and insufficient way of thinking.

  18. Interesting video the Peterson one. I guess like a lot of celebrities he is just a fairly average person who was in the right place at the right time. A few interesting ideas and wrong about a lot else. The best anyone can hope for.
    Still good to see him catching up with reality. He has his followers. Him being right now is worth more than us nobodies having been right all along.

    Here is one for those with too much time on their hands

  19. Roland: “Interesting video the Peterson one. I guess like a lot of celebrities he is just a fairly average person who was in the right place at the right time. A few interesting ideas and wrong about a lot else.”

    Yes, but you’re missing one ingredient: courage. He was right about some things, he stood up to the mob about them, and he paid a huge personal price. Most people wouldn’t have been able to do that. But of course he’s been wrong about a number of things.

    Roland: “Still good to see him catching up with reality. He has his followers. Him being right now is worth more than us nobodies having been right all along.”

    Exactly. EXACTLY.

    Though lately, I’ve been wondering about this. It’s possible that the madness won’t end by politicians coming to their senses, but by *courts* coming to their senses. We’ll see more and more lawsuits. Judges are people, generally on the older side, and many of them were probably terrified when the “plague” appeared. By now, though, many of them have had the thing and successfully recovered. Or, at the very least, they’ve seen people like them get the disease and successfully recover. Now, they (the judges) may have made some panicky comments to their spouses or what have you, but they haven’t been out there, promoting panic in the media on a daily basis. So, unlike politicians and epidemiologists, judges are in a position to rule against these measures without losing face. Plus, nobody likes it when people encroach on their turf. Think about it. There are some activist judges, sure, but most judges are sticklers for the law and constitution. They probably don’t much like it when politicians, assisted by epidemiologists, destroy the legal and constitutional framework of the country over a minor pandemic. So, that may be our best hope.

  20. I have to disagree here. This will end when the general population comes to their senses. Politicians only can do what we tell them to. There are a fair few politicians who desperately want to end this, but are powerless against the psychotic mob.
    To paraphrase Shakespeare
    The fault, dear Irena, is not in our politicians, But in ourselves, that we are fuckwits.

  21. Roland – as H.L. Mencken once said: democracy is the idea that the public knows what it wants and deserves to get it good and hard.

    We’re getting it good and hard right now.

  22. Roland: “This will end when the general population comes to their senses.”

    I think you’re broadly correct, but I also think that we (those of us who want COVID restrictions to end) actually have a majority by now. Well, I think that’s true at least in countries in which a significant chunk of the population has caught the virus and recovered (so, not necessarily Oz/NZ, sorry…). The problem is that we do have a very vocal hysterical minority, and for the time being, the politicians are listening to them. Of course, the whole narrative is in an advanced stage of collapse. Did the lockdowns work anything like they were supposed to? And the vaccines? No? Well, what now? So, I think that now, the hysterical minority is angry and looking for someone to blame, and they chose the “unvaccinated” for a target. But I think there’s a chance that the courts will ultimately intervene. I suppose we’ll have to wait and see. (Also, how long will we have to wait??)

  23. @irena this is certainly not true here in oz. Literally everyone here aggressively believes the official narrative.
    And they really believe it and defend it in the face of danger. I had a few encouters lately where i was attacked viciously (only verbally so far) by someone who was quite obviously physically no match for me.
    Good to hear things are looking better in Europe. Especially since i think Australia might be a lost cause for a long time. Would be nice to have a saner place to go to. Never expected to move back to Europe, but there you go. Although I have the impression that the german speaking countries are even worse than oz.

  24. @Roland

    Oh, the German speaking countries are hellholes right now. I have no idea what your typical German/Austrian thinks, but the government policy is certifiably crazy.

    But over here in CZ at least, I get the feeling that most people no longer believe that COVID is that big of a threat. An unpleasant disease, yes (I had it last month, and lemme tell ya, it was unpleasant…), but hardly the plague that we were promised. Plus, everyone who wanted a “vaccine” has had one. Even among the hysterical, I wonder how many true believers are left, and how many are just acting hysterical in order to protect their reputation. Think about all the “experts” who’ve been promoting panic and proposing measures that, shall we say, didn’t quite work as advertised. And what are they going to say now? “Umm, sorry, we messed up.” Right. Good luck with that. So, instead, they try to pretend that the sky is falling. But if their measures start failing in courts, repeatedly, then they may just be forced to withdraw into irrelevance, as the general population heaves a sigh of relief.

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