Summer Rerun: Attack of the Robot Bureaucrats

(rerun inspired by this story)

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 lotbecause 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.


11 thoughts on “Summer Rerun: Attack of the Robot Bureaucrats”

  1. “an administrator finally gave permission …”: I don’t think my school had an administrator. The Rector had a secretary though. And there was janitor.

  2. Rules exist to protect bureaucrats not children or the public since we “followed the policy.”

    This also exists in the military though war changes everything

    As an elected school board member, the first question asked is “what’s the policy and did we follow it?”

    It’s never did we exercise good judgment

    Removing judgment is not good policy and these examples illustrate the ridiculous

  3. Thought some more about this..for the same reason bureaucrats like the job security afforded by policy, corporations like the legal immunity veil from regulations, e.g., “our cars and trucks comply with all safety and environmental regulations.” And not one iota beyond them of course.

    In a perverted way, regulations stymie innovation and the best from the private sector. The Left believes of course that without the heavy hand of government, we’d all be poisoned and killed otherwise.

  4. The attack on professional autonomy seems to happen everywhere, presumably abetted by those frightened of responsibility.

    Still David’s link did provide one joy. ‘New York Magazine asks: “They couldn’t have just pretended to lose the class rabbit or something?”’ I like the idea that a class of 13 year olds would have a class rabbit. I picture it on a leash, being marched from Science lessons, to French, to History, to Maths. Perhaps it would join the boys on the rugby pitch or the girls on the hockey pitch. Or would that mean that the class would need two rabbits? And who would get to take them home to eat when the school breaks up? Maybe they could be raffled.

  5. Once again, this topic brings up Anthony Daniels’ essay “The Uses of Corruption.”

    Admittedly, corruption is a strange kind of virtue: but so is honesty in pursuit of useless or harmful ends. Corruption is generally held to be a vice, and viewed in the abstract, it is. But bad behavior can sometimes have good effects, and good behavior bad effects.

    Where administration is light and bureaucracy small, bureaucratic honesty is an incomparable virtue; but where these are heavy and large, as in all modern European states, Britain and Italy not least among them, they burden and obstruct the inventive and energetic. Where bureaucrats are honest, no one can cut through their Laocoönian coils: their procedures, no matter how onerous, antiquated, or bloody-minded, must be endured patiently. Such bureaucrats can neither be hurried in their deliberations nor made to see common sense. Indeed, the very absurdity or pedantry of these deliberations is for them the guarantee of their own fair-mindedness, impartiality, and disinterest. To treat all people with equal contempt and indifference is the bureaucrat’s idea of equity.

    Written in 2001 but ever green.

  6. That day everyone received an excellent lesson in the limitations of law, expertise, and authority. If only that lesson could be repeated every month.

  7. “It’s policy…” is the protective armor used by officials to protect them from the repercussions of misbehavior and stupidity.
    Lois Lerner, the EPA ‘protector’ who decreed mine environmental ‘policy’ and turned a rive orange… All continued to be paid, and were subject to nothing that would threaten their livelihood nor employment. They ‘kept their job’, were not imprisoned, nor even sanctioned even after their stupidity and complicity in evading legal responsibility was exposed.

    Policy is the magic word that defends from anything effecting their comfort and sinecure. It is also the atherosclerosis to the processes of improvement, development, and invention. It does not allow for change, and as long is it is ensconced and protected by ‘the powers’, its effect will remain operative. It does not reward anything except compliance with it.
    Perhaps all ‘policy’ should have an expiration date.

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