Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Following Orderlies

So, my mother had been hospitalized at the Hackensack University Medical Center after hip replacement surgery late Thursday night, and on Sunday some orderly she doesn't even recognize comes in to tell this 88-year-old Holocaust survivor, "We have orders to move you to another facility in half an hour"! Naturally, she freaked.

In all fairness, there was some discussion on Friday of her moving to Liberty Rehabilitation at the Meadowlands Hospital, on her doctors recommendation, and I had said that would be all right, but you would think that there would be some advance notice on the part of the hospital, and some explanation from one of those physician types.

So they didn't move her on Sunday, pulled the same surprise the next morning, which also elicited a negative response, but less extreme, and I got one of the surgeons to talk to her on the telephone at least, and she made the transfer yesterday afternoon and is comfortably settled in.

What hospitals and the Nazis have in common is bureaucracy, which is one of those invisible technologies that is in many ways a precursor to computer programming--it's the programming of human automatons to behave according to scripted procedures. Bureaucracy is a technology of control, a point driven home in James R. Beniger's outstanding scholarly study The Control Revolution: Technological and Economic Origins of the Information Society (a book we discussed in my graduate class last week). Beniger's argument is that techniques such as bureaucracy and hard technologies such as the telegraph appeared just as industrial societies were becoming so complex that they were in desperate need of some form of control. Thus, the "control revolution" begins in the 19th century, and lays the foundation for the so-called "information society" by the time of the Great Depression. In Beniger's view, control technologies appear just in time to maintain social stability, and even though the control technologies themselves may introduce new forms of destabilization, still more control technologies emerge to control the controllers. This represents a more positive spin than can be found in Jacque Ellul's almost dystopic masterpiece The Technological Society (in which technologies in solving problems create new problems which require new technologies so that technology spawns more technology in geometric progression, we are trapped within the technological society and there appears to be little hope for human freedom). Both Beniger and Ellul provide the basis for Neil Postman's great book Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology (which we discussed in my graduate class last night); Postman's point is that we have ceded control to technology and technique, and he argues that new technologies, while providing some relief as Beniger suggests, are ultimately destabilizing. We are unable to foresee all of the consequences of innovations, because the changes they bring about are ecological (change one element of an interdependent system and this may change another, and then another, in a kind of butterfly effect), but we can count on the fact that there always will be negative, undesirable effects accompanying whatever we think we're getting.

Like the hospital bureacucracy, our technologies and our technological system needs to be mediated by a human, humane, reflective person, an I-Thou to stand between us and the overpowering force of the I-It.

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