Friday, June 02, 2006

Kafka on the Rhine

A leitmotiv in many of Fred Hoyle's novels: an emergency situation threatening the earth and the struggle between scientists who may be able to find the solution in time to avoid utter destruction and bureaucrats (or military) that hinder their efforts by sticking to stupid rules and regulations. This recurrent theme (The black cloud, Rockets in Ursa Major A for Andromeda...)
shows the deep concern and distrust that the scientist feels towards the bureaucratic apparatus that surrounds like a growing fungus the scientific enterprise and threatens to suffocate it.

Relevant Links:
Fred Hoyle

A late spring day somewhere in the Rhine valley, with temperatures barely above freezing and a sky so dark that you need electric lights to be able to read at noon. Suddenly I find myself in the middle of a Kafkian nightmare. It so happens that I have a student somewhere around here, and just as I did with other students in other times and places, I supervised his PhD thesis without being a faculty member at the department where he is enrolled. His thesis was a remarkable story of success: it got published in a good international journal and it landed him with a prestigious job in an ivy league university in the US. So far so good, except for the fact that, when it comes to actually scheduling his thesis defence, a month before his new job is supposed to start, one enters Kafka's castle of bureaucratic horrors. After several days of struggling with an endless number of offices in the university administration, one is forced to reach the conclusion that the student might not be allowed to defend his thesis in due time, despite the fact that several international experts have testified to the high scientific value of the results!

The trouble with bureaucracy is that it is a wall with no face: nobody is accountable, nobody is in charge. There are just some "rules" that are totally unreasonable but whose authorship is unknown and which are designed purely to the purpose of impairing the scientific and technical development of society. Now you might ask why a country that prides itself of advanced technology and the fostering of scientific research has put bureauctrats instead of technically competent people in charge of running its universities. This is a mystery. It seems strange that they would not realize that in this way they risk losing their scientists, who are likely to move towards countries (such as Britain or North America) where they are less likely to be bugged by bureaucratic stupidity.

Currently the government of the country in question has invested a huge amount of money in the attempt to increase the quality of scientific research at its universities, by creating a cluster of a few "elite universities" (or "centers of excellence"). This attempt is clearly doomed to fail unless it also come with a complete cleansing of the administrative apparatus of these universities and the complete overhauling of the current state of bureacractic ruling. There cannot be any scientific excellence where bureucrats rule!

Relevant Links:
Excellence Initiative of the DFG

As for the bureaucrats themselves, the only solution is elimination (of their jobs if not of the people themselves - I do not advocate the use of violence even when seemingly justified). They constitute a completely alien life form (or perhaps a bizarre form of inanimate matter), with which there is absolutely no possibility of communication, since there is no common ground to establish a common language with sentient beings.
A slightly modified version of Max Weber's definition of the bureaucrat serves as a good description of this alien life form:
- It is personally cretin and appointed to its position on the basis of misconduct
- It exercises the authority delegated to it in accordance with impersonal rules, and its loyalty is enlisted on behalf of the faithful execution of meaningless and idiotic duties
- Its appointment and job placement are dependent upon its lack of any whatsoever kind of technical qualification
- Its administrative work is a full-time occupation which produces the complete atrophy of all brain functions
- Its work is rewarded by a regular salary, which amounts to an enormous waste of taxpayer money, and by prospects of advancement in a lifetime career with increasing levels of stupidity
- It must exercise its judgment and its skills, but its duty is to place these at the service of a higher authority, so as to avoid accountability for its own actions and the effects thereof. Ultimately it is responsible only for the impartial execution of assigned tasks and must sacrifice its personal judgment if it runs counter to its official duties.
- Bureaucratic control is the use of rules, regulations, and formal authority to hinder performance.

A couple of years ago I found in a second hand bookstore in Marseille a French translation of the novel "Tale of the Troika" written by the Strugatsky brothers in 1968. If you want to have a go at bureaucratic stupidity this is a must read! A skyscraper that extends beyond sight, with entire societies that exist independently the unexplored upper floors. The main characters are sent to investigate and end up in a magic land of talking bugs ruled by a troika of exceedingly stupid bureaucrats. The setting sounds silly, but the story is developed with fine humor and it is indeed worth reading, especially if you have a good reason to feel mad at your local idiots who rule the world with rubber stamps.

Relevant Links:
Strugatsky Brothers
Tale of the Troika