Attack of the Robot Bureaucrats

Via Bookworm, here is a truly appalling story from Minnesota. When the fire alarm went off at Como Park High School, a 14-year-old girl was rousted out of the swimming pool, and–dripping wet and wearing only a swimsuit–directed to go stand outside were the temperature was sub-zero and the wind chill made it much worse. Then, she was not allowed to take refuge in one of the many cars in the parking lot because of a school policy forbidding students from sitting in a faculty member’s car. As Bookworm notes:

Even the lowest intelligence can figure out that the rule’s purpose is to prevent teachers from engaging sexually with children.  The likelihood of a covert sexual contact happening between Kayona and a teacherunder the actual circumstances is ludicrous.  The faculty cars were in full view of the entire school.  There was no chance of illicit sexual congress.

But the whole nature of bureaucratic rules, of course, is to forbid human judgment based on actual context.

Fortunately for Kayona, her fellow students hadn’t had human decency ground out of them by rules: “…fellow students, however, demonstrated a grasp of civilized behavior. Students huddled around her and some frigid classmates [sic], giving her a sweatshirt to put around her feet. A teacher coughed up a jacket.” As the children were keeping Kayona alive, the teachers were workingtheir way through the bureaucracy.  After a freezing ten minutes, an administrator finally gave permission for the soaking wet, freezing Kayla to set in a car in full view of everybody.

As Bookworm notes, this sort of thing is becoming increasingly common. In England in 2009, for example, a man with a broken back lay in 6 inches of water, but paramedics refused to rescue him because they weren’t trained for water rescues. Dozens of similar examples could easily be dredged up.

The behavior of these bureaucrats is very similar to the behavior of a computer program confronted by a situation for which its designers did not explicitly provide. Sometimes the results will be useless, sometimes they will be humorous, often they will be harmful or outright disastrous.

Last year in Sweden, there was rampant rioting that included the torching of many cars.  The government of Sweden didn’t do a very good job of protecting its citizens and their property from this outbreak of barbarism. Government agents did, however, fulfill their duty of issuing parking tickets…to burned-out cars. Link with picture.  In my post The Reductio as Absurdum of Bureaucratic Liberalism, I said…


I’m reminded of an old SF story, “Dumb Waiter,” written by Walter Miller, who is best known for his novel A Canticle for Leibowitz. This story, which dates from 1952, lacks the philosophical depth of Canticle, but seems quite relevant to the events in Sweden. (update: and Minnesota, and …)

In the story, cities have become fully automated—municipal services are provided by robots linked to a central computer system.  But when war erupted–featuring radiological attacks–some of the population was killed, and the others evacuated the cities. In the city that is the focus of the story, there are no people left, but “Central” and its subunits are working fine, doing what they were programmed to do many years earlier.

The radiation levels have died down now, and the city is now habitable, from a radiological standpoint–but the behavior of the automated systems, although designed with benign intent, now makes entry to the city very dangerous.

Mitch, the protagonist, resolves to go into the city, somehow get control of Central, and reprogram it so that it will be an asset rather than a hazard for future human occupants of the city.  The first thing he sees is a robot cop, giving a ticket to a robot car with no human occupants. Shortly thereafter, he himself is stopped for jaywalking by another robot cop, and given a summons to appear in traffic court. He also observes a municipal robot mailing out batches of delinquent utility-bill notices to customers who no longer exist.

Eventually Mitch establishes contact with Central and warns it that a group of men are planning to blow it up in order to have unhindered access to the city for looting…that the war is over, and Central needs to revise its behavior to compensate for the changed situation. The response is that he himself is taken away for interrogation. He hears a woman crying in an adjacent cell—she has been arrested by a robot cop for some reason or other, and her baby was separated from her and is being held in the city nursery.

“They won’t take care of him! They’ll let him die!”

“Don’t scream like that. He’ll be all right.”

“Robots don’t give milk!”

“No, but there are such things as bottles, you know,” he chuckled.

“Are there? ” Her eyes were wide with horror. “And what will they put in the bottles?”

“Why-” He paused. Central certainly wasn’t running any dairy farms.

“Wait’ll they bring you a meal,” she said. “You’ll see.” “Meal?”

“Empty tray,” she hissed. “Empty tray, empty paper cup, paper fork, clean paper napkin. No

Mitch swallowed hard. Central’s logic was sometimes hard to see. The servo-attendant
probably went through the motions of ladling stew from an empty pot and drawing coffee from
empty urn. Of course, there weren’t any truck farmers to keep the city supplied with produce.

Mitch observes that inmates in the surrounding cells have all starved to death while Central and its subunits went through the motions of feeding them.

Mitch and Marta manage to escape, as Central calls in vain for human guards–who don’t exist anymore–to assist its unarmed robots. Eventually, Mitch is able to reach the house of the former mayor, assert (via code-cracking) the mayor’s authority over Central, and gain control of the system.

The behavior of Miller’s automated city-system…feeding people with trays that contain no food, arresting people for minor offenses and putting them into an environment in which a child could see that they would starve, sending out utility bills to nonexistent customers, calling for assistance from personnel who haven’t been around for years or decades…closely models the state to which bureaucracies–ie, robots made of human components–tend naturally to evolve.

And, of course, the human components of those bureaucracies–the individual bureaucrats–can usually feel confident that as long as they follow the rules, they will be personally protected from adverse consequences–no matter how much harm is perpetrated by the bureaucracy’s operations. As the mother of the girl in the Como Park incident commented, if she as an individual parent had made her daughter stand outside in freezing weather, she almost certainly would have been in big legal trouble. But it is quite likely that any consequences for the school’s teachers and administrators, operating as cogs in a machine, will be much less serious than they would have been for an individual parent who did the same thing.

Many Germans in the Nazi era had learned the principal of bureaucratic invulnerability, indeed had learned it so well that they believed it was a postulate never to be challenged–and were no doubt quite surprised when their defense of “only following orders” did not work and they were given a date to meet the hangman.

I expect that most Americans at the time of the Nuremberg Trials would have found it difficult to believe that, in the America of 2014, the practice of following procedures at the expense of humanity and common sense would have become as common in this country as it indeed has.

10 thoughts on “Attack of the Robot Bureaucrats”

  1. Medicine is rapidly approaching that situation. I had dinner last night with a friend who is the charge nurse of the operating room in the hospital I used to use. The administration has laid off the OR secretary for weekends, leaving the charge nurse to answer all calls and do all secretarial work in addition to her role of giving lunch breaks for scrub techs and nurses and scheduling emergency cases. They did 13 cases yesterday and she was exhausted when she finally got out at 7:30 yesterday after 13 hours at work. Years ago, they dismissed the people who used to clean the operating rooms between cases, leaving the nurses to do it in addition to their other duties. She says the operating rooms are dirty now.

    Much of this is in anticipation of Obamacare where they anticipate revenue to drop. The actions they are taking is to dismiss the lower paid employees and leave the higher paid to do the menial jobs. The secretary is actually a skilled job but the salary is much less than that of the nurse who replaces her.

    “The simplest way to explain the behavior of any bureaucratic organization is to assume that it is controlled by a cabal of its enemies .”

    – Robert Conquest.

  2. We get to these points because we’ve forgotten the original deal. There is no list of things that government is supposed to do much less consensus based criteria to measure success in an objective way. No wonder the whole enterprise is rife with rob peter to pay paul shenanigans.

  3. ” There is no list of things that government is supposed to do ”

    Oh, I dunno. “Establish justice, ensure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, secure the blessings of liberty…”

    All that has happened is that the language and definitions of such terms as “justice” and “welfare” have been totally re-defined.

    By the way, what was the 18th century distinction between “insure” and “ensure” such that the federal system was chartered to “INsure” tranquility?

  4. I remember one particularly awful case of bureaucratic behavior from 2003. A 15-year-old student, Brandon, had asthma, so he carried an inhaler. His girlfriend, Andra, was also asthmatic, and used the same medicine. When she forgot her inhaler and had difficulty breathing, Brandon let her use his.

    Caney Creek High School, in Texas, chose to interpret this normal human act as a violation of its “zero-tolerance” policy. They also considered pressing felony drug charges against Brandon, but decided not to take this step. The expulsion, though, was confirmed. This despite the fact that Andra feels that he possibly saved her life–and certainly, at the least, he saved her from a terrifying experience.

    What was the lesson that Brandon learned from this experience? “If I had this to do again, I would do the right thing and ask the nurse before I do it, to keep out of trouble,” Kivi said. So, the lesson taught by this school system is that he should put “keeping out of trouble” ahead of the well-being, and possibly even the life, of a fellow human being.

    See my post about this incident: zero tolerance–zero judgment–zero compassion, and also my follow-on post Philip Queeg Public High School.

  5. A few years back, a troubled man was allowed to drown off the beach in Alameda, CA. The Fire Rescue Team stood by and watched. I believe they even intervened to prevent ‘civilian’ rescue efforts.
    Their claim to innocence? “We do not have water rescue training.”
    This whole thing took several hours as the man was in neck-deep water, and I believe was finally overcome by hypothermia.
    Sad state of affairs.

    N.B. that prosecuting attorneys are regularly protected from mal-practice suits by law. Even when they break the law pursuing their perps.

  6. I am very afraid that if that had been my child, I would have been moved to immediate and serious violence.

    I am not a modern man, and believe that some of the old fashioned ways are best.

  7. Tomw…”prosecuting attorneys are regularly protected from mal-practice suits by law. Even when they break the law pursuing their perps.”

    Glenn Reynolds, who is of course among other things a law professor, has argued that immunity for state officials, including the absolute immunity enjoyed by prosecutors, violates the Titles of Nobility clause in the Constitution.

  8. That story of the HS girl, wet and barefoot and in a swim-suit – turned out to stand in sub-zero temps is just horrifying. It makes me want to scream and shake the school staff – “What were you thinking!”
    So much for the welfare and safety of students.
    A parent who did this to their child would have been reported to the local child protection authorities immediately.
    I’m agreeing seriously with Instapundit – sending your child to a public school is looking like child abuse.

  9. In a way this was bound to happen. After WWII we began to believe our own propaganda. The government can, and will solve all our problems. We must now relearn how to depend on family, friends, neighbors, churches, and communities to get things done properly and with common sense. I helped take care of my Mother when she was very ill, and now help take care of my Father. I did not need a government agency to tell me what to do, and I dare say that most people feel the same way. It has been my experience that government agencies, with the best of intentions, are shackled by impractical bureaucratic rules meant to please everybody and serve no purpose. We are all facing an aging population and few know what to do. I’ll tell you one great secret – the government won’t be there for you.

  10. Really, isn’t the whole liberal project now about our “betters” asserting control over everyone and everything? And this is a logical step along the way–every aspect of life under sanction so that you can’t do anything without violating some rule or other, and then the literal enforcement of those rules to teach you to always follow the rules we set. End state is a population incapable of acting or even thinking (since thinking serves no useful purpose and can lead to actions inconsistent with the rules, it atrophies).

    Just saw where Michelle Obama said, “We nag you because we love you.” As if government laws and regulations enforced at gunpoint are just “nagging.” And as if the word “love” has any meaning in such a context. But, that idiot statement by that idiot person apparently makes it alright.

    If we’re lucky, 30 years from now it’s more like Brave New World than Nineteen Eighty-Four or what Ukraine would have been under Generalplan Ost. But it’s definitely NOT the last part of the Gettysburg Address.

    But this immense denial of reality will ultimately end in catastrophe, because reality cannot be denied forever. We can’t know what kind of catastrophe will hit us first, foreign policy reverses, military defeat, economic deterioration leading to collapse, failure of the public health system leading to plagues, no more babies and demographic collapse… whatever, and the decline may be very long before the denouement, but it is what it is, and what will be, will be.

    I want to write that if things get bad enough people will wake up in time to avoid the ultimate disaster. I want to think that is possible, but it’s hard to see how a whole population that has been trained not to think or act and had all initiative and thinking ability beaten out of them, would respond in such a positive way, rather than passively await their doom.

    Then our children or our children’s children, if there are any, will have to do the best they can with the wreckage we bequeathed them. May God protect and succor and help them.

    Face it, people, Bill Ayers and Oprah Winfrey won. While conservatives worried about marginal tax rates, the left took over the culture (hi, middle and low, all of it), the education system, and everything associated with them. That controls what and how people think… not in every detail, some people can still recognize a bump in the road it it’s as big as Obamacare, but all we can even contemplate at this point are small, marginal course adjustments or pauses on the inevitable path we are on.

Comments are closed.