Gene Rochlin, who warned of overreliance on technology, dies at 80

Gene I. Rochlin, a physicist-turned-political scientist who studied complex organizations like the military and warned of an overreliance on technology, including computers, died of complications from a stroke on Nov. 25 at Highland Hospital in Oakland.

Gene Rochlin photo

Gene Rochlin in 1990. (UC Berkeley photo by Peg Skorpinski)

A professor emeritus of energy and resources at the University of California, Berkeley, and a resident of Berkeley, Rochlin was 80.

During his long career at UC Berkeley, Rochlin delved into the societal implications of nuclear proliferation, nuclear waste disposal, military weapons systems and the increasingly computerized society of the 1990s.

His 1997 book, Trapped in the Net: The Unanticipated Consequences of Computerization, focused on the vulnerability of people and organizations in the face of increasing computerization, which he argued alienated workers from their jobs, soldiers from the battlefield and the stock market from reality.

“We are being trapped in computer systems and networks in ways we can’t avoid,” he said at the time.

The book won the 1999 Don K. Price Award of the Science, Technology and Environmental Politics Section of the American Political Science Association.

In earlier studies, he analyzed a 1988 tragedy involving the billion-dollar technological marvel, the battleship USS Vincennes, which accidentally shot down an Iranian passenger plane, killing 290 people. His 1990 report concluded that heavy reliance on highly sophisticated technology overrode human judgment and directly led to the tragedy. He later looked at the military’s success with high-tech weapons systems during the 1991 Gulf War in Iraq and found many problems with computerized control systems, which at the time were newly incorporated into missiles and jets.

Rochlin was a principal of the Berkeley High Reliability Organizations Project, a multidisciplinary team that has studied the organizational aspects of safety-critical technical systems, such as those in nuclear power plants and air traffic control systems. His research interests also included the politics and policy of energy and environmental matters, in particular clean energy and issues surrounding nuclear power.

“Among the many sentiments expressed after Gene’s passing, one that echoes through the responses is the intellectually invaluable message of how dangerous it can be to have an overly confident technocratic perspective on systems that are key to our society, but are only understood when a thoughtful mixture of technical, social and community lessons and interactions are brought equally to the table,” said UC Berkeley colleague Daniel Kammen, the Class of ’35 Distinguished Chair in Energy and chair of the Energy and Resources Group.

Rochlin was born in Chicago, Illinois, on May 3, 1938, and obtained three physics degrees from the University of Chicago: a B.A. in 1960, an M.S. in 1961 and a Ph.D. in 1966. He was immediately hired as an assistant professor of physics at UC Berkeley, but after teaching physics at Berkeley for eight years, he retrained in political science as an advanced post-doctoral scholar at MIT and Harvard in 1974 and 1975. He returned to UC Berkeley in 1975 as a member of the Energy and Resources Group, where he remained until his retirement in 2005.

“His own transition from physics to the social and political study of science, complexity and engineered systems mirrored what so many of us find critical and central to the Energy and Resources Group,” Kammen said.

Among his other publications were the books Scientific Technology and Social Change (1974) and Plutonium, Power, and Politics (1979), both of which explored the high-profile and more nuanced aspects of science and society.

Rochlin was a fellow of the American Physical Society and a member of physical science and political science organizations. He also served on the editorial board of several journals.

He was also a tremendous friend and mentor outside the classroom and an invaluable teacher and mentor to generations of ERG and other UC Berkeley students.

“His welcoming informal meetings with students, extensive conversations about career paths and trips to Giants baseball games – especially when the Cubs were in town – showed just how fun and welcoming a role model and friend he was,” Kammen said.

Even in retirement, Rochlin continued to play an inspiring role in the department: he intended to teach a masters seminar last week.

Rochlin was married for 43 years to Anne Middleton, the Florence Green Bixby Professor Emerita of English at UC Berkeley, who passed away in 2016. Though in very different fields, they jointly recruited faculty, mentored Ph.D.s and played influential roles in overall campus academics and strategy, dedicating themselves to the mission of the university until their deaths.

Rochlin is survived by his sister, Ethel Rochlin, sons Dave and Steve, their wives and four grandchildren.

In lieu of flowers, gifts can be made in Rochlin’s memory to the Energy and Resources Group. A memorial fund for student support is being established. To donate, please visit ERG’s giving page.