Saturday, December 16, 2006

The Beauty of Bureacracy

Nothing in life is guaranteed. We all know that. Will plans work out? Will everything we hope to achieve actually be realized? Everyone has these doubts. Or at least I know I do.

But there is one thing guaranteed in life. Bureaucracy.

I have never been some where that did not have some form of bureaucracy involve in getting there, being there, leaving or staying. Of course I am thinking of India, where I sit and write. But I can think of a million other examples from everywhere else around the world. It's hard to conceive of a world without bureaucracy. Everything from paying taxes, airline tickets, paying electricity and phone bills, to international travel, visas, and government permits.

What if every time you got on a plane or train, no one asked for a ticket. What if you paid cash, and walked away. You never had to make a reservation, no paper record was ever made? Of course it seems as though the world would fall apart. Nothing would function.

Is there a way to get rid of bureaucracy? Or at least to get rid of paperwork? What would happen if all paper transactions became entirely digital? There are of course several ways in which this could happen. At present the most likely seems to be embedded RFID chips in various forms of identification, such as passports, drivers licences and credit cards. Recently there has been a huge outcry from the technology community over the security or rather lack of security with RFID chips. Not only can individuals be tracked using RFID, but the chips themselves can be hacked to access personal information. Therefore not only is it an open floodgate for identity theft by those who know how, but also a means for pan-surveillance, a sort of 21st century version of Jeremy Bentham's Panopticon. Panopticon on Wikipedia.
Bentham's orginal Panopticon text.
Also, see this story on RFID in passports in the Washington Post.

As frustrated as I am with paperwork, paper pushing, form filling, and blue ink, I think I prefer this form. It is a human system. Because it is a human system it is slow, flawed, and frustrating. It is subject to prejudice, among other human weaknesses, but it has it's beauty too. It certainly doesn't facilitate the kind of surveillance that would come from a paperless bureaucracy based on RFID. It also means that sometime, if you have a problem, someone can fight for you, someone can intervene on your behalf, and take care of things.

Bureaucracy's greatest flaw is it's greatest beauty. The problems of cronyism and corruption, of the influence of money over bureaucracy and the hearts of the people who make up a bureaucracy make it what it is. Bureaucrats can be heartless, and unwilling to help. In some places, and for some people, the greasing of palms can be the only way to get something done. Bureaucracy is certainly in most cases, in most countries around the world, a game in which the cards are stacked against the poor.

Corruption in bureaucracy could perhaps be called the largest problem of the last 100 years. News articles abound about the disaster of Hurricane Katrina, corruption in various governments around the world, corruption in American politics. A search of the BBC News website shows more articles on the subject of corruption than the search engine can return in one go. They suggest I narrow my search.

I am not the only person in the world who wonders what the solution is, or if one can be found. It seems to me that many people think that the digital solution is the best. Perhaps mathematically that is true. It would certainly be the most efficient for time and money, since a computer (however large or small) can do the work of hundreds of (mere) humans.

But as a human, despite the flaws of other humans, I think prefer to subject myself to a human system of bureaucracy than a digitalized one. However, the fear I have is not one in which computers become self aware and take over the earth, like in the movie The Terminator.

The problem is that with digital bureaucracy is still run by humans, and the potential for a secret puppeteer is even greater than with the current human/paper system. If we don't like the idea of government wiretapping home phones, or secretly reading our email, then the idea of an more efficient, and complete record keeping system, of someone tracking your every move is not at all appealing.

If you were ever afraid of the wizard behind the curtain in The Wizard of Oz be afraid now. The secret of a digital bureaucracy is not that there is some kind of machine running the world without prejudice, rather that it will be an even more rigid system designed and run by the same flawed humans. It will be harder to get help if you need it, and whatever injustices and prejudices currently exist will only become more permanently entrenched.

Should you need to reach a representative in government, or call someone at the IRS to correct an error, you will now be routed to a call center somewhere in Asia, or perhaps on the new moon base, where the person on the other end of the line will be very friendly, and kind, and completely unable to help you.

For a fun and interesting fictional/sci-fi exploration of the idea of pervasive digital surveillance read The Traveller by John Twelve Hawks.

For a more intellectual read on the history of surveillance, bureaucracy and punishment, check out the section on panopticism Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison by Michel Foucault.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hi Gwyn,
I just saw a list somewhere (Ann Arbor News, perhaps) that said that people in India were the most willing of those anywhere to take a bribe. That just adds to the joys of bureaucracy that we have always found when traveling in India. (When we lived in Spain, the Spanish customs folks would almost faint if offered a bribe and be sorely offended.)
It is great reading your blog.
Hope all is well from you.
Greetings from Emerson School, too.
Linda L.