⨳   20 Aug 2021

Systems Design is Not Enough

What good is thinking ahead in a world built entirely upon rewarding the opposite?

⚐   Christopher Butler is a designer living in Durham, NC.

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Many years ago, I scheduled a physical with a new doctor. It had been years since my last exam, and I figured it was time to finally start acting like an adult and adults get yearly physicals, right?

The experience was exactly what I expected, except for one detail. I was weighed and measured every which way, poked and prodded all over, and had blood drawn for a battery of tests. It’s as if I had said, “give me the regular!” And they said, “comin’ right up!” I was shuffled from one production line to another. The surprise came at the end, as I was lacing my shoes:

Me: Should I go ahead and schedule next year’s appointment?
Doc: That’s not necessary. Come back in a few years.
Me: Oh, really? I thought yearly was kind of the bare minimum. What should…
Doc: Nah, stuff doesn’t really start happening until you’re forty.

Stuff. That one word was doing a lot of work…while also none at all.

On the one hand, after forty-five minutes of procedure during which he’d barely looked up from his clipboard, this was the first bit of off-script, customized expertise I had received from my new doctor. On the other, it wasn’t exactly personal advice. Stuff? What sort of stuff? And this forty business — this is a timeline that applies to everyone? How could that be? Oh, and, come back in a few years? How many, exactly, is a few?

I never had those questions answered, not directly. I’m forty-one now, and as for the stuff, there’s been some; nothing major. But what is clear to me now is how perfectly that brief conversation encapsulates the deep, systemic problems with healthcare, not to mention those found in every corner of organized civilization. It’s not just the rote, machine-like interactions, the one-size-fits-all approach to care, or the lack of eye contact. It’s that the entire system is reactive.

Stuff doesn’t really start happening until you’re forty. Ok, so we can presume that stuff is an abbreviation of stuff you’ll need help with. But why wait for stuff to happen? Is that really what 21st century modern medicine is about — waiting for people to get sick and then throwing chemicals at them?

Here’s something I think about every single time I see my doctor: Neither he nor any of his staff have ever asked me about my lifestyle — not one question in nearly a decade and a half about diet, sleep, or exercise. Once, when my allergies had escalated to a perpetual sore throat, my doctor asked about how often I drink alcohol. When I gave him my answer, it was almost as if he was disappointed to not start going after throat cancer. And that’s the point: without knowledge of what my body experiences for the 364 days of the year I’m not being studied in his lab, my doctor can’t hope to do anything other than react when it starts to fail. He can’t help steer me toward good health. He can only hope to rescue me from the opposite. Shouldn’t medicine be proactive?

Society is One Big Chain-Reaction

Some of you might be thinking that the problem isn’t the system, but that I just have a lousy doctor. While it’s true that my doctor may not be great, I think great doctors — doctors who do make it their business to actually know what’s going on with their patients and practice preventative care — are the exception, not the rule. I think my doctor is fine; he’s a pretty standard cog in the medical machine. It’s the machine itself that is the problem, not the cogs.

But this one machine — modern, western medicine — is a machine that operates within a larger, more complex machinery. It’s one chip on the civilizational motherboard. Fundamental logic is shared across the entire thing. So while it’s easy to complain about how backward “modern medicine” is, the truth is that it is not alone!

Across all modernity is a strange preference for reaction. That civilization persists is fascinating luck given that it is stitched together with systems that are designed to intentionally avoid proaction. Why is this? My best conclusion is that reaction is more a more profitable and powerful way to control people.

Take just one example: My well-being. Most disease and the severity of its effects can be more directly connected to lifestyle than heredity or environmental factors (of that last bit, for now). A doctor that wanted to prevent disease would not only ask about heredity but also lifestyle factors like diet, sleep, and exercise and then, treat accordingly. They would likely prescribe fewer pharmaceuticals, refer fewer patients to specialists, and have fewer incidences of hospitalization. This would be better for people, sure, but what, then, of the money that would no longer flow through a sprawling industry? Fewer pills, fewer funded studies, fewer plastic bottles, fewer paper labels, fewer jobs, etc. etc. etc. Perhaps the cash flow would stabilize, as the dollars that would have been spent on infirmity were instead spent on healthier inputs — on food, farmers, and the systems that connect us with them. But how grim that on this particular balance sheet we have wellness on one side and economy on the other.

But as I say, medicine is not alone in its reactivity.

Take education. We publicly fund schools according to property values and wonder why education and opportunity are so unevenly accessed and experienced. We make credentials a prerequisite of profession, allow those credentials to cost far more than they are worth, and prop up a debt system with exhausted, overworked “professionals” unable to ever see a return on their investment. Our solution to this is not more public funding for higher education, nor even a rethinking of the entire idea of college education (instead of, say, apprenticeships). No, in our system, the solution is just more competition in the marketplace — more for-profit “universities”, more lenders, more debt “products.” All reactions that keep the system at a status quo.

Overlaid upon that system is finance. Our banks will take our money, gladly, and create investment products with it that they then have the audacity to sell back to us — even though our money has already paid for them! Banks have systems and products for when our money doesn’t go far enough — hello, debt! but also, hello, fees and penalties! — but not a one to meaningfully enable account holders to learn, understand, and practice good personal economics. Ah, yes, reactions are quite the gold mine.

Overlaid upon that system is government. Our government proposes to represent us all by assembling representatives chosen by us. This sounds good. But as we have grown in number, an incredibly complex and byzantine system has metastasized around our elected representatives — secretaries, aids, interns, and think tanks, to name a few — ostensibly to help them help us. It is all very expensive. Lobbyists glom onto this system in a bizarrely sanctioned practice of cooperative corruption. But where is the system to help us — the voters — understand what, exactly, we’re doing when we fill in our ballots? Oh, well, that is for the press to handle, evidently. Government can’t get involved in anything that would look like telling voters what to do. Unless, that is, it’s just one step removed, for instance, where privately funded political action committees (PACs) do all the manipulating. Like lobbying, PACs are just another form of money-laundering we don’t prosecute. All told, this is a system of reactions that consolidate power.

Warfare, too, is a system. Over the past week, especially, I’ve thought much of warfare. War is inherently reactive. And yet, it is curious that we call the systems we’ve created for organizing our warfare “Defense,” especially given how infrequently conflict occurs on our soil or even over our “property,” distributed as it may be. It’s a stunning bit of PR. Defense, of course, can be reactive, but it can also be proactive. In our democracy, the reactive systems — those who bear arms — report to the Secretary of Defense, but the proactive systems — those who bear the pen — report to someone else. It is deeply disturbing that we will recruit just about anyone to fight for us, but when it comes to those who do our diplomacy, the prerequisites are extensive, expensive, and exclusive. A soldier needs little more than a body; a diplomat needs generational wealth, credentials, and as distasteful as it should feel to say, breeding.

Imagine what education, finance, government, warfare, and yes, healthcare, would all look like if every reactive mechanism — every logical statement in its programming — was replaced with a proaction. It boggles the mind.

Systems Design Is…Not Enough

As I designer, I find the onslaught of woe sown by modern complexity simultaneously energizing and defeating. I’ll initially feel inspired to roll up my sleeves and do something, but as I look more closely and see how each reaction is connected to an outcome that enriches someone, and how each enriched person is a living resistor to change, and how each act of resistance is itself a reaction that calcifies into its own system, it is exceedingly difficult to maintain any hope that my effort won’t be in vain. But then, I’ll remember that design as I typically conceive of it — as an application of specialized expertise to a contained problem — is not the sort of design to be applied here. Redesigning the thing that prompts the reaction, or redesigning the thing that is the reaction itself are both just the same game of Whack-a-Mole. The entire system needs to be redesigned. But, how possible is that?

As much as systems design is en vogue, a changed system will mean nothing to an unchanged mind. Even the most brilliant designer, given access to see with as high-level a view as possible, and given authority to redraw the lines in whatever way, will fail if even a single mind is set against them. Systems design is the second step; the first is remodeling a collective mind.

But can the “mind” of a society be changed? How can the feelings, thoughts, and beliefs of a people be altered? Changing the mind of one person is hard enough, to say nothing of changing one’s own.

Much has been said of the overview effect — of how seeing a smaller Earth from afar rewires the brain and enables a greater sense of connection to others, empathy for the human condition, and a bigger picture of the common good. Similar effects are experienced by those who survive a near-death experience or experiment with psychedelics. If anything could help to disarm the systematized reactions we call a society, it would be finding a way to package up the overview effect for everyone to experience. Without a change of worldview, systems design will be too limited in scope and its effects will be too short-lived. Elon and Bezos will still build their rockets while their employees suffer under quotas and die of exhaustion. Whether they return from their adventures changed by the overview effect is anyone’s guess. I won’t be waiting.

Proaction is Futurism

The best thing we can do is the thing we do before we are forced to act. When we have choices about what we do, the defining characteristics of an outcome are its unmeasurable inputs — personality, worldview, philosophy, ethics, hopes.

In my times spent lamenting the Reactiverse, I’ve often thought of Leslie Knope, Amy Poeler’s character on the television show, Parks and Recreation. Knope is a small-town, mid-level bureaucrat serving in a peripheral department. In every episode, she contends with resistance to change — to entrenchment that keeps money flowing and certain people happy. Her life as an act of systems design is the entire show. But not once is she depicted as being invited into a room, given time to study every detail, pronounce a diagnosis, and provide a systemic solution. Instead, she practices guerrilla futurism. And nobody knows it.

A running gag of the show is that Knope always has a binder at the ready. A bad thing happened? Leslie’s got a binder for that. There’s a chance to try something new? Leslie’s got a binder for that, too. Even when her friends face critical life decisions, Leslie reveals a binder that has anticipated their very crossroads. But here’s the point: we never see what’s in Leslie’s binders. The show’s message isn’t about the substance of the binders’ contents, it is that they exist at all. Each one is, in the parlance of storytelling, both a deus ex machina and the MacGuffin. How is Leslie always anticipating the thing that surprised everyone else? And how on earth is there this artifact to prove it? Does Leslie sleep?

The binders’ function in the plot doesn’t matter in the end. What they do, over and over again, is evangelize the power of thinking ahead. Of caring enough about the future to think about what could or should be done — reactions! — way before they happen. Wielding the binder at the opportune time is a reaction, yes, but having made it at all is a proaction. One wonders how drastically a future is altered in ways we’ll never know by the creation of binders that are never used. There is Schrödinger power in even an unopened binder.

If there is a future, we will likely owe it to the Leslie Knopes of the world and their binders of proaction. That is, unless we do likewise. We won’t look forward to patting ourselves on the back, of course, but simply enjoying being a part of a future we created.

 

On Screen

I recently discovered the YouTube channel of James Gurney an artist and illustrator who creates wonderful, short videos showing how he paints. What I love about his videos is that they are an incredibly niche nexus of the already niche interests of my household: one part committed DIY aesthetic for Gen-X dad, one part how-I-paint-dinosaurs for our dino-obsessed kiddo, and heaps of earnest, art-is-for-everyone joy for, well, everyone. This guy is immensely talented but obviously prefers being kind and encouraging over boasting. His channel is also thoroughness porn. Gurney stops at nothing to get an image just right. Where one artist might just sketch and paint a dinosaur from existing images of them, he studies and sketches related species to understand their structure; he gets feedback from paleontologists to make sure the curve of a dinosaur egg is just right; he sculpts miniatures and studies how their forms sit in real space and how they cast shadows; he creates primary, secondary, and tertiary sketches; he creates draft paintings with quick media and gets more feedback; and then he meticulously crafts a final oil paintings that will take your breath away. And he films it all and edits down to these perfect, short — but still immersive — clips.

Marcin Wichary’s live loop-talk, Four Laps, is a tour-de-force. I’ve never seen anything like it. And to Marcin’s credit, he did it before Bo Burnham released a similar bit in his most recent special, Inside. Oh, and as for Inside, I liked it, but here’s a hot take: I’d have cut the two most discussed bits (“White Woman’s Instagram” and “sexting”) entirely and think that the oddities (“twitch-streaming-sad-self” and “Jeff Bezos interludes”) are the highlights. But that’s just me.

Circle of the Sun is a gorgeous piece of indigenous culture depicted and a historical artifact in and of itself.

Rear Window has been remastered in 4k on Blu Ray and is worth a re-watch. It’s Hitchock’s best film — as good as the first half of Vertigo but without the second half to muck it up; as meticulous as North By Northwest but without its sprawl and bizarrely clumsy final edit (“Come along, Mrs. Thornhill”).

Heavy Rotation

Loud Numbers is one of those podcasts that reminds you that there are new ideas out there, and that the medium really is the message, and that audio really can be magical again without being passed through the RadioLab-filter. This is my new favorite podcast.

Recent Tabs

The Internet is Rotting! Cancel Prime. Apropos of everything above are Pace Layers. The internet didn’t kill counterculture—you just won’t find it on Instagram. Computers and Creativity. God Knows Where. The World’s First Programmable Organism is a thing I hoped I’d never read. Hail the Maintainers…like Leslie Knope.