This article was last modified on May 27, 2006.


Reflections on Robopathology

Upon picking up Lewis Yablonsky’s “Robopaths: People as Machines”, I was immediately intrigued by the idea presented: people are turning into robots because of society. As someone who believes that people are robots (even more literally than Yablonsky himself believes this), I searched online and found little about the book and no new edition since the 1970s. Curiously, I found Yablonsky online as an “expert witness” on street gangs.

I found it a little odd to find someone opposed to technology online, but fired him off a letter. Roughly two days later, on April 30, 2006, I received a short response. “There are no new editions planned. Thanks for your interest in my work.” While not quite the helpful interaction I was looking for, I delved into the book even deeper now that I had a pseudo-personal connection.

And with all apologies to Professor Yablonsky, I found his book to be incredibly lacking. I shall discuss some of the aspects that bothered me here, as well as general thoughts.

Reliance on J. L. Moreno

Psychologist J. L. Moreno (whom I had never heard of until now) figures prominently in “Robopaths”. A little too prominently. Yablonsky dedicates the book to Moreno, and then goes on to either reference him or quote him at length no less than 18 times in the course of 188 pages. Considering the book is about a new topic and not a review of work previously undertaken by Moreno, this constant mentioning seemed excessive.

The book is not about Moreno, but may as well have been. Many of Moreno’s books are referenced and he is mentioned in virtually every chapter on a wide variety of subjects. This gave me the distinct impression that Yablonsky was spending more time piggybacking on Moreno than doing any ground-breaking of his own. On page 18 he even lists Moreno alongside other “creative giants” such as Leonardo da Vinci, Albert Einstein and Bertrand Russell. I highly doubt this.

Perhaps I would have been better off purchasing a Moreno book and learning more about psychodrama (which is a topic wholly unknown to me).

Chain of Command

Robopaths follow the rules and orders even when they seem wrong or pointless, because they are “programmed” to follow a procedure. A soldier who kills civilians will not think of what they are doing as something wrong if told by a superior to do so (Yablonsky refers to the My Lai massacre, but this is just as relevant to the Abu Ghraib scandal today). He even points to a poll where 75% of people think the soldier carrying out these acts should not be punished severely for doing these things.

Society stops short of the next logical step, though. If we agree these acts are wrong, but think the soldier is doing the right thing by following orders (and behaving “within the proper normative social framework”), I would expect society to put blame and pressure on the commanding officers. But this is not done; people do not ask for the superiors to be punished and they seldom are. They are protected by bureaucracy.

Conformity

One of the ways to identify a robopath is by their conformity. They will go out of their way to find a way to blend in and not be noticed as an outsider. Similar tastes, dress styles and beliefs. We might think of people who do not question their religion, or if we are young enough to remember high school this would seem even more apparent.

Not discussed by Yablonsky is the emergence of an anti-conformity conformity. Those individuals who try to escape the herd and become individuals are often only routing themselves into a new herd, a subherd. In my high school we had a non-conformist club where people strived “to be an individual, just like everyone else”.

This also reminds me of the philosopher Georg Hegel, who believed that all things were within the structure of a system. Things in contrast with the given norm only validate the norm and create a new norm in the process (what we now refer to as thesis, antithesis and synthesis). But if robopathology and conformity can be seen from the point of view of Hegel, does this mean that escaping robopathology is impossible and any attempt to do so is already written as a standard scenario leading towards robopathology?

Alienation

A symptom of robopathology is alienation from the inner self, where there is such a disconnect that reliance on the group overshadows the individual creative process. If robopathology encourages losing yourself to the group, I am left to wonder: is there a point where the inner self dies off completely and only groupthink or “hive mentality” is possible? Can we suffocate our inner selves to the point of complete inner death?

Is Deviance a Desired Goal?

If robopathology is now present in the majority of society, this would effectively make it the norm. Any straying from the norm is deviant behavior. Escaping robopathology seems to be a goal Yablonsky encourages – so if the ultimate goal trying to achieve deviance? Or perhaps, make the deviance the norm?

Robopaths and Sociopaths

Yablonsky tries to differentiate between robopaths and sociopaths (or what we would now call people with anti-social personality disorder). To some extent he is successful.

Both sociopaths and robopaths lack “true empathy and compassion” for other people. Neither can feel remorse or guilt. Yablonsky says some sociopaths were misdiagnosed and could probably be considered “arch-robopaths” (which is a term I think only further complicates the distinction).

The difference is that a sociopath does not care about right and wrong, while the robopath follows moral guidelines within the system. A robopath also tends to be more “self-righteous” in their behavior, taking pride in their actions because they are positively reinforced. And while a robopath is a “super-conformist”, the sociopath is “highly impulsive and unpredictable”, their actions unplanned and “guided by hedonistic whims”.

This seems fine and good. Sociopaths are those who stalk and kill people in their homes while robopaths follow orders (such as the Nazis). One is uncontrollable, the other is socially acceptable. But I have two questions, one minor and one major. Minor: how can we say that these killings are the result of robopathology when it seems equally likely that killing is a natural human behavior simply waiting for the authority to let it out? Major: how do we classify robopaths who snap in the office one day and kill several co-workers? They were not sociopathic, but this behavior was clearly not “predictable” or “conformist” in any way…

Negative Effects of the Technocratic State

Yablonsky states that the technocratic state is the primary cause for the increase in drug use, alcohol abuse, mysticism and “super-religions” in our society. No evidence is offered to support this claim. While I accept that it is possible that these things are increased due to the dehumanization of society, I have no reason to believe this to be the source any more than any other factor without at least some correlation given. For all I know, alcohol abuse is not even on the rise.

Yablonsky also argues that the technocratic state is creating a “population bomb that is bound to explode”. As I have discussed in other places, the current line of thinking is that the human population is heading towards a plateau and may actually be shrinking within a century. While at the time of the book’s release populations were increasing exponentially, this has changed. In fact, the increase in technology and the move to cities is precisely what will prevent the population bomb Yablonsky feared. With parents being more educated and business-oriented, the number of children decline. In rural settings (away from technocratic institutions) where children are employed as farm hands, populations run wild.

If the point is not the number of children themselves, but the number of people moving into cities, the fear is still ill-founded. By moving into cities when we did rather than ten or twenty years later, we started the downward curve of population growth earlier and sent less people into the cities than we would have. Also, I feel Yablonsky drastically underestimates the population buffer created by suburbs. While I do dislike urban sprawl, I cannot deny that suburbs keep the cities less congested.

The Point of Concerts

Yablonsky argues, and I agree to some point, that musical concerts are not events with music as the primary focus of the people attending. The music is simply “the backdrop”. He says these events exist to “validate, reinforce, and illuminate the counterculture.” Replace “counterculture” with “subculture” and I would be inclined to agree.

While concerts do exist for the music – certainly we would not attend and pay for a show we did not care for – there is a certain sense of wanting to know there are others like us. People who dress like us, think like us and for those few hours consider us a member of their inner circle. If someone is wearing the right t-shirt or knows the right lyrics, we are the same as they are.

As an experiment, attend a heavy metal concert without any piercings, tattoos, dyed hair or subversive t-shirt. Even if you are a lifelong fan of the band performing, unless you have the most remarkable self-esteem you will feel like the outcast. You have entered a zone that legally you have a right to be in, but consciously you know is a forbidden place. You and them are not of the same mind now. (Referring back to an earlier section on conformity, it is indeed ironic how this group which probably prides itself on anti-conformity would stigmatize you for failing to conform. In essence, they are despising their very ideal.)

Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman

While I have no personal dislike of Rubin or Hoffman, I find it odd that Yablonsky has chosen these two men as the archetypal figures to represent how to fight back against robopathic culture. A large portion of the book focused on these men, their beliefs and their actions. And for those of you who are unaware, these are men who thrived on chaos.

Is this the only way to stop being a machine and start being human – by destroying the framework of society in the most literal sense? Because that is the impression I was left with after reading “Robopaths”. I want to believe that caring more for people and seeing each other as an end rather than a means would be a good start, but I guess not if I am unwilling to burn down my office on the way home.

Am I being a bit reactionary? Yes I am. But when you use people such as those in the Weather Underground and the Symbionese Liberation Army to be examples of your goals, I have to cry havoc. That, to me, is akin to promoting violence, murder and terror.

Conclusion

Does Yablonsky have a valid point? Are we becoming dehumanized in society and becoming more robotic? I think maybe that is for each of us to judge. I can point to cellular telephones or electronic mail or the Internet or large corporations or a thousand other things to show that we do not connect with people on a personal level in the ways we used to.

But do we see people less than we did 100 years ago? I would say certainly not. We probably see more people, and I think what counts is not in the medium or purpose of communication but in the quality. Conversations and friendships are as real now as they ever were. And perhaps even stronger thanks to technology — providing us more free time to spend with friends and family as the work hours continue to shrink.

There is always room for improvement. Corporations certainly can and should treat employees better. More emphasis should be placed on treating people as people and not numbers in a doctor’s office or a courthouse or with their insurance. But people are still human. And I truly believe that the dehumanization is primarily a result of population, not technology. We want to treat others as people and be treated as a person ourselves, but time will not allow this with so many humans around. And as for our minds, I doubt there is any less creativity to be found in society today than ever there was. The idea of people becoming so programmed they make love emotionlessly and on a schedule to me is just absurd.

Maybe Yablonsky was right, but I think a little dose of optimism and a review of the past thirty years would show he may have missed the mark and vastly underestimated humanity.

Sources

Yablonsky, Lewis. Robopaths Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1972.

Also try another article under Miscellaneous
or another one of the writings of Gavin.

2 Responses to “Reflections on Robopathology”

  1. Joseph Says:

    Gavin, society needs your perspective here explained to it in a big way.

  2. George Miler Says:

    The past 30 years underscore Yablonsky’s thesis. When the greed and selfishness books appeared on the self-improvement shelves after the Bicentennial, Jerry Rubin led a stampede to Wall Street that inaugurated the Second Gilded Age and the Reagan Revolution. The other-directed Baby Boomers have shown neither rationality nor responsibility. As America lurches toward becoming the imperium of the West, Russia has entered a new surplus-producing era while two brand new civilizations have appeared in India and China. And a new Islamic Civilization is trying to be born while Americans sit glued to their tubes watching reality TV and lapse further into agonistic primate modes of outlook and behavior (characteristic of a zero-sum mentality). There ought to have been a spontaneous public outcry against this phase change in the West. Instead the hive mind has made its Faustian bargain and this country’s imbecile economic institutions operate unmolested and unprotested.

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