The Internet and the Big Bureaucracy


We’re currently discussing issues of online privacy as though we had a choice. But we are destined to become naked bureaucrats. And that’s good. Like at all major turning points for the human condition, we win more than we lose.

Hannah Ahrendt, portrait by Fred Stein

In her Human Condition (affiliate link), Hannah Ahrendt forecasts that all forms of government will eventually dissolve into self-sustaining bureaucracies. According to her, we overestimate both the importance of power and the differences between tyranny and democracy because all systems of political order will eventually lead into what she calls ‘the rule of Nobody’.
Reading this, I was reminded of what Max Horkheimer once said about companies: that they’re not primarily pursuing profit, but control.

Crisis of Control?

Looking at the current human condition from the perspective of a politician or a company leader, what you see is a crisis of control. But it’s really only a crisis of centralized control, aka power. Decisions are no longer made but they emerge from distributed networks of experts, interest groups and political ‘project managers’ or ‘moderators’. In the modern lean corporation, which has outsourced all non-core functions, what is left is often just a project management organization. The heroic leaders have mostly been replaced by what Dirk Baecker calls ‘postheroic management‘ (link goes to PDF of a paper in German). The mantra of all organizations, and easily the subject of some 80% of their proceedings, is the process.

“The mantra of all organizations is called process.”

Is it just a metaphorical conclusion to say that the Internet, which works by algorithms (= processes), is the greatest facilitator of the replacement of central control by distributed processes, of power through bureaucracy? I don’t think so. Let me give an example.
I’m subscribed to a German web service called Campact which organizes campaigns for political causes, collects signatories on-line, and submits the petitions to the related parties. Campact’s slogan is “Democracy in Action”. Today, their campaigns are almost consistently left wing (like I am), like actions against the extensions of nuclear power plant licenses, or against social security cuts. Which means Campact is not a neutral aggregator of public political will. But it is easy to imagine such a neutral aggregator. It is just as easy to imagine how government agencies and large businesses would monitor (and try to influence) such services and would begin to systematically include such measured public opinion – that weighs heavier than just polls – in their policy calculus. With more and more such services, the natural tendency would be to automate first steps in the aggregation and analysis, condensing the output in simple scores. The same will happen on my side, with more and more petitions that require my input as a responsible citizen. A personal profile will help preselect campaigns that I’ll likely want to engage myself in, and it may even, after a while, get smart enough to guess my likely vote or at least reduce the options for me to a simple tick of a box or other binary response.
If we’re honest, what I describe here is to a large degree already current practice. Only that it involves much more human work and is more subject to the human factor.

Is Bureaucracy a Good Thing, After All?

Is bureaucracy, which we have all learned to hate, actually a good thing, after all? Well, at least we tend to like bureaucracy that does work for us. Like amazon’s suggestion system. If we define bureaucracy as the ‘rule of rules’ (= the rule of nobody = the rule of everybody), amazon and other web-based systems demonstrate that satisfaction rises when the number of rules is large enough so that the individual doesn’t feel infringed.
Even if bureaucracies get better, or feel better at least, by multiplying the number of rules, we have a serious problem with that when it comes to sanctionable rules of public conduct and interactions, aka the law. We want our legal system to be simple, transparent and understandable for every citizen, derived from and reflective of a shared set of ethical fundamentals. But at the same time we are all aware that our practice of making and enforcing law is always a trade-off. We believe that there’s a right to private property but also a right to be protected from poverty, and we expect them to be balanced out in the legal practice.

“Legal systems are a case of fuzzy logic.”

Therefore, legal systems are a case of fuzzy logic. Is it still unimaginable that algorithm-based systems can help reduce a lot of the complexity in fuzzy tasks and increase the validity of alternative solutions, e.g. by supercrunching scenarios of the mid- and long-term costs and benefits of different rulings for society at large? I think this is not just perfectly imaginable but likely already in infant practice. When you look at something like communal taxes and public service fees, which are now actually city-marketing tools in the competition for talent and commerce, real-time data-crunching systems would likely do a better job at implementing community strategies and civic will than elected political boards do today.

Life in the New Bureaucracy

If the world turns into one big bureaucratic machinery that puts everybody under control and in control at the same time – and just by way of social and technical evolution, not by the will of a big powerful ‘turner’ -, what does that mean for the Human Condition? How does it affect our life?

“Man has to find a new place in the world. Again.”

The first and most important consequence is that man has to find a new place for himself in the world. Again. Humankind has been kicked out of comfortable self-perceptions several times before by scientific evidence; like living in the centre of the universe or being the peak of a divine creation. And it has been said before that the so-called Information Age has another humiliation in store for us. This time our pride as the smartest species in the known universe is the target, as in ‘chess world champion Kasparov beaten by a computer’.

Man vs Machine: 0 - 1

And while we are still trying to sort out what that means for how we see ourselves and our life, it’s already cutting deep into our reality. Computers are killing jobs because every human skill that can be described as an algorithm can be performed by a computer; and often cheaper and more reliably. Our resistance against being replaced by computers is only half-hearted. Because working in a job that can just as well be done by dumb machines is even more humiliating than to learn that they can.

... and proud of it.

The place left for us human beings in this totally bureaucratized, algorithmic world is as the ‘mindful machines’. This is how Dirk Baecker defines it in his ‘Studies about the Next Society’ (amazon link, title only available in German). He borrows the concept of mindfulness from Weick and Sutcliffe‘s work about high reliability organisations but takes it further from there.

We’re the species that can think and act outside the system. Which is not to be misunderstood as a license to “first, break all the rules”. What it means is that we have a unique capacity to handle events that ‘don’t compute’. And what’s more, to create them. Depending on the outcome, they’re either called failure or innovation. This capacity will justify our jobs, because our talents to perform in Taylorized infinite routine loops at six sigma levels of reliability, or to rationally and objectively execute the rules of game theory in marketplaces, and many others have turned out as not so impressive after all, at least comparing with Turing machines.

“Masters of the uncomputable.”

One of those uncomputable areas is described in Clay Shirky’s new book Cognitive Surplus (affiliate link). Many types of interactions and transactions in our life are deliberately loosely defined. This is called ‘incomplete contracts‘ by the authors Shirky quotes (link to abstract of the original paper). The blank spaces in such contracts are usually filled by a shared cultural background. This is not a simple one-by-one deduction, however. Instead, people will come to a spectrum of different interpretations. But the bandwidth of interpretations is quite narrow, and cases of downright misinterpretations are rare. The mindful machines that we are operate on two levels in parallel: the level of rules and the level of the spirit of the rules.

“Footprints in digital dust.”

Another consequence is that we are the sum of our data points and links. While we in Germany discuss about data privacy again – this time the issue is Google Street View -, what becomes more and more evident in our practical life is the inevitability of disclosure. Withholding the data of our lifestream from the bureaucracy is like throwing our passport away. Even though our physical existence is obvious beyond doubt, an empty digital record leads to all kinds of awkward discussions when we try to exercise rights that are tied to our existence as a data cluster. The only non-fatalistic strategy is to actively feed the bureaucracy. We shouldn’t be too worried about giving contradictory input or disclosing misbehavior because, in the face of digital nudity the bureaucracy will develop digital forms of generosity and decency. We’re all caught with our pants down, after all. Like the suspects whose photos a New Jersey police department publishes on Facebook. Yes, SUSPECTS.

“Some of my best friends are machines.”

Kevin Kelly

We have to befriend machines. That’s another effect of our life in the big bureaucracy. Machines are not just media in the network but subjects, too. You don’t even have to go as far as Kevin Kelly in his upcoming book What Technology Wants (amazon pre-order link) who suggests that technology wants to turn human beings into neurons of a giant global brain. You just need to see how the Internet is beginning to branch out into many Internets, Internets for people and ‘Internets of Things’, to conclude that it might be a good idea, sooner or later, to build rapport with machines. If you prefer automated self-service systems over call center voices, you’re already on a good track. Machines are good company, after all: you cannot disappoint them and they will never laugh about you.

David Weinberger (source:

“Drowning in a stream of truths.”

The big bureaucracy shatters our understanding of truth. More than ever, we are pointed to the fact that our media, and our senses, are not to be trusted. The constant stream of data, oscillating around interpolated, fictional centers of meaning; the controls that we have to install against manipulation, fabrication, selection; they will not take the doubts away but make us even more aware of them. Yes, everything is available. In the big bureaucracy, all systems report back all the time. Transparency is the new objectivity, as David Weinberger observed in a seminal blog post. The flipside of transparency, however, is that good old rock solid truth melts away like Dali’s clock. What we consider to be relatively stable in our library of knowledge and conceptions is going to bend in a steady current of new input. Any conclusion or statement that dresses itself as more than a ‘working hypothesis’ will make our alarms ring. Facts change in real-time in front of our eyes. When the flicker slows down, we can try and negotiate a consensus about what is going on. Just remember the Global Warming debate. The complexity of most issues will spare us the duty of even having an opinion about them. Opinions are overrated, just like forecasts. And even the illusion of enlightenment that still defines our Western culture and self-perception cannot be held up if we have to delegate every search for truth back into the system. Transparency – now the next big goal for activists and consumerists – will soon turn into a rhethorical gesture for politicians and corporations in their strategies to build trust.

“My autoresponder doesn’t feel good today.”

But the most immediate impact of the big bureaucracy is on our social lives. Already web pundits like Chris Brogan are seeing a social crash coming. Platforms like Facebook and LinkedIn make the number of active contacts in our ‘social graph’ explode that require a minimum of nurturing. And our expectations of how much mutual attention needs to be paid before we call it a relationship at all have been formed pre-web. This is not a generational effect that will go away when younger people grow up in a web-connected environment. In every human biography, the first and shaping relationships are and will be face-to-face and with virtually no limits on time and attention. Only later do we begin to spread our ‘social butter’ thinner.

But how thin can it be before we stop calling it a relationship? Several interesting posts in German blogs (e.g. about weak links) recently pointed out that we have a certain amount of empathy for people even if we only follow them on Twitter, maybe among hundreds or thousands of others. Like a figure-ground-phenomenon, once they begin to exist as individuals in our universe, we owe them a minimum of compassion. That’s why it’s so different to follow an original Twitter or Facebook voice from within a catastrophe than to follow the news coverage.

Structure of a social graph that Google wants to help organize with GoogleMe (image: Paul Adams at

Unlike money, our social currencies of attention, sympathy, compassion have natural limits in the human physiology. We have decoupled money from the gold standard and it didn’t become completely worthless. Will we find ways to decouple social currencies from human ressources that are acceptable and valuable? We’re busy trying and experimenting. Like with the once popular Facebook apps for comparing lists of each other’s favourite movies, songs, books etc. They’re highly efficient because once I’ve created my own list, I can play with hundreds of friends, one by one, at a minimum cost of time and attention. But the moment everyone had his lists compiled, the game turned into automated machine-to-machine interaction and its value as social currency dropped sharply.

Will we build, install and accept emotionally intelligent autoresponders, for instance? (I wouldn’t be surprised to see it show up in the Gmail Labs any day.) Or do we stick to our Dunbar radius of 150 contacts, plus or minus, that we can have meaningful relationships with? Well, at least we could put aside a lot of quality time for these meaningful relationships if we delegate as much transactional effort as possible to automated systems. From setting up meetings, which Outlook already does on our behalf, to negotiating prices and conditions.

Are We All Bureaucrats?

In the current debate about where to draw a healthy line between public and private life, we still find the shortsighted argument that online networkers are just fishing for attention. Take as an example Norbert Bolz. In a recent essay subtitled “by losing our privacy in the internet society we lose our liberty, too”, he quotes John Dewey’s “people have a desire to be important” as the main motivation to reveal private information online. While it may be true that people want to be important, it is simply irrelevant in the context.

“The unlimited attention span of machines.”

999 out of 1,000 experienced bloggers, Twitterers, LinkedIn self presenters are pretty realistic about the degree of importance that their web activities can earn them. Most of the time they only earn them the attention of machines – machines that count and analyze keyword mentions, links, expressions of liking or disliking. Because the attention span of machines is virtually unlimited, it’s not a scarce ressource that we have to compete for. That’s why throwing your six cents into the pot along with 6,000,000,000 others is still worth the labor. Yes, I can tweet my opinion about net neutrality to the White House. I can do that even though I’m a German citizen. And I should do it because that’s the whole idea of distributed control. But I can’t be sure it will even get noticed by a human recipient and I can’t expect a human response. These are the terms of participation.

“A global polis.”

Jeff Jarvis, maybe the most radical revealer of 'Private Parts' (title of his upcoming book)

Participation in what? How about global citizenship. For the first time in history, it is within the realm of possibilities. While our institutions get weaker and weaker, the people get stronger and stronger. With the means to participate and the ressources to do it in an informed way. Sounds like the ideal of the republic. Sounds too good to be true. The flipside is that public, not private, is the default setting. “Let’s get naked” says Jeff Jarvis (@jeffjarvis) because “in our current cultural obsession with privacy, we risk losing the benefits of publicness”.

Living in private is like going underground. Don’t sign anything, don’t leave a picture, don’t speak, erase your tracks – Norbert Bolz quotes Bertold Brecht’s Reader for City Dwellers as a recipe for ‘digital self defense’. But it’s not self defense but self defiance. If we want a life and a voice and a vote in the republic, we have to get naked.

And yes, in a republic of powerful people and distributed control, we are all bureaucrats. But beyond cold-blooded fairness, in the presence of our naked others we have to exercise something that is exclusive to us, the mindful machines: generosity.


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