Programmed Life Who's in charge here?

Kirby Farrell | May 28, 2016

Kirby Farrell

Kirby Farrell

One afternoon last year local police pulled me over. When I said hello and asked what was wrong (inspection sticker out of date—duh), the cop ignored me and stuck to his script (“Let me see your registration,” etc.). In a crime novel he would have had “steely blue” eyes. He seemed ridiculously grim, as if arresting a murderer. It was partly self-importance—the rapture of a uniform and a badge. But what most struck me was his icily impersonal manner.

Being aggressively impersonal allows you to dominate someone from behind a mask, as if the Law, not you, is making the demands. You’re just doing your heroic duty while the Law commands the other person like a slave.

This is puzzling because impersonal correctness is a management technique used to insure efficiency, objectivity and fairness. If all officers follow the script, there’s less likelihood of abuse, incompetence, or misinterpretation. It’s industrial technology: you write a program and it carries out a particular task as if by magic. In factories this works brilliantly. Machines and workers programmed like machines repeat prescribed steps over and over, producing more stuff at lower cost. In your personal life, a strict program may take you to an otherwise unreachable goal. The right routine can free you to create.

The trouble is, the temptation to perfect the machine can backfire. A speeded-up assembly line is a nightmare. Stories about cyborgs or zombies running amok dramatize fears that programs are reducing people to robots. Worse, speed and the illusion of infallibility can dull inhibitions. With a drone program, you can push a button and kill someone on a video screen, somewhere over the rainbow, and not lose any sleep over it. The association with sinister control and slavery shows up in the idea of brainwashing someone by “programming” them.

If cops or the boss force you into a mechanical script, it can feel as if they’re canceling your identity. It’s especially queasy because scripts and their controllers usually come with implied authority. You feel compelled to obey. Armies take advantage of this characteristic. It’s one reason that some people despise “big government” regulations. Schizophrenics sometimes feel the world as a program subsuming them.

All sorts of programs, from genes to fashions, influence our behavior. From the start we’re taught scripts: the right way to handle a spoon, a car, sex, or grief. You may learn to do things “by the book.” You try to be a “team player” and follow your “fitness program.” And since programs can make the world user friendly, you can’t simply rebel.

At the same time, a program or script always plays out in a context. Usually it takes related scripts such as an encouraging smile, or a trophy that stands for a smile, to make a particular script seem right and personal. When scripts are in conflict, ulcers or even headline calamities may follow.

When a cop stops a black motorist, the cop’s impersonal script can be correct, but never isolated from other scripts. So as the script plays out, fear, loathing, and misunderstanding can be building up to a hair-trigger crisis. After all, one of the ways you compose yourself under stress is to explain yourself to yourself and to the world, yet the program excludes that. And tragically, in a nation of gun addicts, both parties could be armed and on edge.

The ambiguities are staggering. In 2015, “police killed blacks at twice the rate they killed whites.” At the same time, “data collected by the Guardian this year highlighted the wide range of situations encountered by police officers across the US. Of the 1,134 people killed, about one in five [200+] were unarmed but another one in five fired shots of their own at officers before being killed. At least six innocent bystanders were killed by officers during violent incidents; eight police officers were killed by people who subsequently died and appeared in the database.”

These casualties tell us that either police procedure doesn’t always work or officers don’t always follow them. Cops risking death on the job have to manage their own and others’ emergency physiology, not to mention itchy trigger-fingers. Scapegoating simplifies terrifying uncertainty and strengthens an illusion of mastery. But then, personal experience often conflicts with programmed duty, as police dramas regularly show. The popularity of such themes is a sign that audiences can identify with the problem.

The use of cellphones to record questionable police conduct also shows people trying to explore the clash of personal and programmed experience. Consciously or not, people are trying to create a context that can make programmed behavior more real and more accountable by acting as witnesses. The impulse is to make it personal. The need becomes clear when police kill an unarmed “suspect” and then recite a script for a grand jury: “I felt my life was in danger.”

We need to learn to recognize programs, then, because some can enhance your life while others can cripple or kill you. Is your education a canned program? Is your life a bureaucratic gameboard? What can you do to be really yourself?

The dream of the perfect program is like the fantasy of the philosopher’s stone that can turn scrap metal into gold, or the perpetual motion machine that doesn’t use up fuel or belch pollution. Such dreams are spellbinding because they draw on our greed for more life. Who doesn’t want more life? Listen to business guru Warren Bennis advertise a world where machines rule:

“The factory of the future will have only two employees, a man and a dog. The man will be there to feed the dog. The dog will be there to keep the man from touching the equipment.”

This forecast celebrates automation, the perfectly programmed future. The boss is invisible and presumably as everlasting as his perpetual motion machine. No regulations, labor demands, or competition mar the dream. It’s timely, too, since the dog does the work of the post-911 private security sector, threatening the pretty much useless “man.”

Granted, Bennis’s model is supposed to be witty, but it says more than it knows. The model takes for granted that a hostile, invisible autocracy owns and runs things. After the meltdown of 2008, it can also be applied to the “financialization” of the American economy. The factory that once relied on a workforce to manufacture goods such as cars became the unaccountable banking machine now taking 40 percent of all profits. The banking machine facilitated the transfer of production to low-wage countries, the consumption of cheap imports, and the indebtedness of now-underemployed workers struggling with usurious credit card and mortgage debt.

Like Bennis’s machine, the financial complex is perversely autonomous. It doesn’t make things, it owns things and charges fees or mortgage rents to use what you need. The American worker is “there to feed the dog” and guard the magical machinery. In real life the dog is the hugely hungry corporate military, the police, and the private security industry that protect the financial factory around the world.

In economic terms, the system that Bennis describes is “autocyclic”: a fancy word for “self-contained.” A dog gets hungry, and the machinery has to have some kind of fuel to work. But where is the food or fuel going to come from? The worker’s a nobody. He only exists for the machine, and the dog polices him. What looks like a model of everlasting stability is a machine running on cannibal greed. [1]

Perhaps you’re not ready this program.

Even if the dog never bares his fangs, this fantasy growls with hidden conflict. You can imagine the meaningless worker clashing with the police dog or even going postal. This is why the factory is self-contained, barring onlookers with witnessing cell phones. As unrest around the world has shown, cellphones and social media can be used to organize protests. Meanwhile, businesses and police are trying to ban cellphone photos of their actions, and factories making iPhones in China have installed nets to prevent worker suicides. Over the hum of machines you can hear the loudspeaker:

Come on, people. Get with the program.

1. For a more detailed analysis of management controls see The Psychology of Abandon (Leveller’s Press), now also available as an e-book:………

Comments are closed.