Tearing Down the Temple

Reactions to reading the book of Romans

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Sunday, August 28, 2005

Romans 1:18-24. The Unholy City—IX. Parsing is such sweet sorrow

Many years ago, I read the response to someone who had complained of impersonal treatment by some system that had adopted computers in its processing (probably an insurance or credit card company or a government institution—I have no memory of it). Instead of being a name, each person in the system was a number. The response argued that computer systems, with their capacity and detail, were bringing forth a new individualism, i.e., that instead of being one of perhaps twenty James Joneses in the phone book, each James Jones was represented by a unique number in the system, making it impossible for the accounts and concerns of one James Jones to be confused with those of another. Now, of course, we have so much experience with identification numbers, and their advantages and failure modes, that the notion of being reduced to representation by a number hardly registers with us any more.

But the responder made a point that needs to be understood. It is true that the account of each person in an automated system has uniqueness and that this supports the individuality of one’s needs and demands with respect to the system. What it glosses over is the fact that the system makes it possible to treat people like things, things that are subject to formulations and can be manipulated under a suitable set of principles. In the computer business, this set of principles has a name: it is called a “rule-base”, and it is part of the knowledge required to write and execute the program properly.

Now, I am not arguing for the de-automation of society. I do not even oppose automation. Since it makes obvious economic sense to introduce automation that the public will accept, it would be useless to agitate against it, like some suspicious Luddite or back-to-nature advocate. What I warn against is believing the implicit message that the automation of society sends to individuals, namely, that people can be and should be treated as things, either for the purposes of control or disposition.

The formal term for this is objectification, the transformation of personality into object. As a psychological state, it is used to describe certain dissociated people who, under certain circumstances, cannot see others as people. At the end of World War II, the word was associated with the state of mind of concentration camp personnel, especially in the death camps. It is notable that those who objectify others frequently reduce themselves to objects as well and have no formal objection to others seeing them as such. They may not like it, but they can see no injustice in it, because they have lost the means to discern in themselves the humanity to which they are blind in others.

Now it may seem like a great leap of moral distance from a life insurance processing program to the Nazi death camps, and perhaps it is. My belief is that the two are, in fact, far closer than we are comfortable with considering.



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