Technological promise & the perils of depersonalization

King was not completely alien to the philosophy of the 1960s’ counterculture. Indeed he had inadvertently helped father it. For a long time he had preached that the worst evil was “psychological death”—worse than physical death, than physical suffering. Psychological death took many forms, from the sacred to the profane. It was the death of human personality, of the soul, of the Spirit within. Psychological death was depersonalization, the bitter fruit of racism, exploitation, and militarism, and of the soulless society that bred them.

Depersonalization meant that one’s personality dis-integrated, one’s divine essence severed from the rest of one’s self, from other persons, from society. King saw this most frighteningly in the ghetto. “The depersonalized manipulation of persons as though they were things,” he testified to a Senate hearing, “is as much responsible for the perpetuation of grief and misery in our cities as is the absence of wealth and natural resources.” When people were depersonalized they were turned into things—objects, numbers, commodities, caseloads. The “I-it” relationship replaced the possibility of “I and Thou,” I itself reduced to “it.” Objectification by the society, and worse, by one’s own self. As the hippies and the ghetto dwellers acted out in their arenas, as writers like Ralph Ellison had spelled out in prose, singers like Otis Redding and Simon and Garfunkel cried out in song, alienation was the plague of modern humanity. In Tillich’s simple words, “sin is separation.”

While racism and segregation were the most blatant forms of alienation, and served as metaphors for the larger evil, King also spoke out against more subtle and insidious manifestations. He had come of age in the early Cold War era, when social critics like David Riesman, William H. Whyte, Jr., and Erich Fromm were warning Americans of the dangers of mass conformity. He was familiar with Riesman’s 1950 bestseller, The Lonely Crowd, its thesis that postwar America’s mass-consumption society had replaced an “inner-directed” personality type who “acquires early in life an internalized set of goals,” with an “other-directed” personality in tow to others’ expectations, ruled by peer pressure, loyal to prevailing norms. King himself was split between these two traits, but his inner-directed self increasingly won out.

As far back as May 1956, McCarthyism just past its peak, King questioned the concept of “maladjustment,” which he called “the ringing cry of the new child psychology.” Speaking to an NAACP gathering, he declared “there are some things in our social system to which I am proud to be maladjusted, and to which I suggest that you too ought to be maladjusted”—including segregation, discrimination, exploitation, and the “madness of militarism.” He was drawn to the new field of humanistic psychology, relevant both to his philosophy of personalism and to his pastoral counseling. Besides encouraging “creative maladjustment” to harmful norms and conformism, he spoke about internalized oppression and about subconscious destructive forces in society, a Jungian collective unconscious that needed to be healed through public witness. His political strategy of exposing the brutal underside of segregation in places like Birmingham, St. Augustine, and Selma was a means of healing the repressed id of subconscious racism that he believed all Americans shared.

He understood that science and technology had become a new religion, threatening to extinguish traditional religious faiths. He also saw the technological revolution as the material force behind the emergent “new age” with its seemingly unlimited possibilities. He extolled technology’s capacity to make the world a neighborhood, even while organized religion had failed to make it a “brotherhood.” With all of its promise, however, he saw technology as more a curse than a blessing. Nowhere was he more prophetic than his condemnation of automation and cybernetics, metaphors as well as touchstones of depersonalization.
Critiques of automation and cybernetics set off alarm bells in the mid-twentieth century that stopped tolling by century’s end. Once portrayed as dehumanizing, these wonders of “progress” were later, by force of the Information Revolution, treated as liberating. King worried not only about the millions whose jobs would be replaced by machines—black workers the most vulnerable—but about the psychological deadening inflicted on the remaining workers controlled by technology rather than controlling it. Robotization would not only replace workers with robots robbing their jobs. It would turn them into robots.
He could already see how computers were regimenting the workplace—regimenting minds—in ways that Frederick Taylor’s time and motion engineers could barely have dreamed of. The educated world was adopting a new faith that computer technology would emancipate humans from ignorance and drudgery. King saw the potential for freedom, but he feared a greater danger of psychological enslavement—just at the time when African Americans were throwing off the yoke of mental slavery that had endured for a century after the Civil War.

He did not have to look far to see how modern technologies were depersonalizing people. He took aim at the technology of bureaucracy. Since the 1964 Berkeley revolt, students in the “multiversity” were protesting not only suppression of free speech and complicity with the war machine, but how they were bent, spindled, and mutilated like IBM cards, not educated for life, but trained for the work of death. Young men defied the draft not only because they despised the war, but also because they hated being channeled by the “pressurized guidance” of the Selective Service System, its “club of induction” terrifying registrants into conformity. Most degrading was the welfare bureaucracy, which helped poor families survive physically at the price of psychic servitude, drug-like dependency.

Fighting depersonalization, moreover, must begin at home. King believed that his movement, and any other that was worthy, should set an example and refuse to be complicit in society’s depersonalizing of citizens. Progressive movements had a moral responsibility, he felt, to offer an alternative stance that affirmed people’s humanness while standing up to behavior that depersonalized others, inside or outside the movement. If activists did not strike a balance between asserting their responsibilities and respecting the rights of others, an equilibrium between justice and love, they would depersonalize not only their adversaries but themselves and their allies. They would lose their own humanity, and ultimate effectiveness, in the name of moral correctness. [340-43]

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