The Manhattan Project Fallacy


Computers and bureaucracy go well together because bureaucratic organization itself might be considered a kind of technology. This is not just metaphorical. The sociologist Max Weber's bureaucratic ideal-type admits the following characteristics:

  • Hierarchy of authority.
  • Impersonality.
  • Codified rules of conduct.
  • Promotion based on achivement.
  • Specialized division of labor.
  • Efficiency.

At least several of these features might be considered computational in nature. Computational sciences often envision complex systems they model or engineer as hierarchal abstractions with specialized rules that allow the system to move from discrete state to discrete state. And both Weber and Herbert Simon suggested that complex social artifacts are also goal-oriented and designed so that their inner composition and organization of behavior is structured to accomplish certain goals given the demands of an external environment. Bureaucracies, lastly, are also assemblages of humans and machines working together to accomplish the aforementioned goals. Thus, technical rationality's problems do not stem solely from hubris. Technical rationality's flaws arise from the pathologies of "rationalization" and its dominance in social life. Weber suggests that an era dominated by rationalization processes will see the dominance of calculation as the motivation and cause of social action (to the detriment of everything else).