Machines should work; people should think.
— The Paperwork Explosion, a trippy marketing film for IBM by Jim Henson
If we do not notice that we live in a bureaucratic society, that is because bureaucratic norms and practices have become so all-pervasive that we cannot see them, or, worse, cannot imagine doing things any other way.
Computers have played a crucial role in this narrowing of our social imaginations. Just as the invention of new forms of industrial automation in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries had the paradoxical effect of turning more and more of the world’s population into full-time industrial workers, so has all the software designed to save us from administrative responsibilities turned us into part- or full-time administrators. In the same way that university professors seem to feel it is inevitable they will spend more of their time managing grants, so affluent housewives simply accept that they will spend weeks every year filling out forty-page online forms to get their children into grade schools. We all spend increasing amounts of time punching passwords into our phones to manage bank and credit accounts and learning how to perform jobs once performed by travel agents, brokers, and accountants.
Graeber further elaborates this theme in his book The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy. The book is really just a collection of essays and doesn’t totally hold together, but it’s worth a read.
Ideally, the amount of bureaucracy in the world pre- and post- computer should have been the same but completed more quickly in the computerized world. In reality, however, computers made it practical to centralize the management of things that had been handled informally before. Theoretically, this is good because one innovation in the center can be effortlessly distributed to the periphery, but this benefit comes with the Hayekian cost that the periphery is closer to the ground truth than the center, and there may not be sufficient institutional incentives to transmit the information to the center effectively. The result is a blockage that the center tries to solve by mandating that an ever increasing number of reports be sent to it: a paperwork explosion.