It’s Time to Start Questioning All Systems, Everywhere
If there is one common theme connecting all the terrifying, life-altering, and tragic events of 2020 thus far, it might be the prevalence of bad systems. All around us, we are seeing that the institutions and structures that surround us and shape every aspect of our lives are insufficient (at best) and dangerous (at worst).
Remember the toilet paper shortages in the early weeks of the COVID pandemic? The problem was exacerbated by an overly specialized toilet paper industry that prized efficiency over functionality.
The never-ending instances of overly forceful police responses toward demonstrations against unjustly violent, racist, reactionary police practices makes clear police agencies value enforcing order over protecting public safety.
I could go on, and on, on….
How to Evaluate a System
In this time of widespread, concurrent, and intersectional crises, we see the need for system change everywhere. But systems are large, complex, and often at least partially invisible.
You can’t change a system until you can fully understand it. You need to think about:
- Who created the system?
- Who is the system intended to serve?
- What purpose does the system serve?
- How do the actual effects of the system compare with the intended outcomes?
Different Kinds of Bad Systems
There are different kinds of bad systems, and systems can be bad for different reasons.
In the case of the toilet paper shortages, the systemic failure was unintentional: in creating totally separate systems for residential and commercial toilet paper, the industry had no way to quickly redistribute supply, so millions of boxes of paper sat unused while grocery shelves remained empty and the public panicked.
I’m willing to assume that the overall purpose of the toilet paper industry is to provide toilet paper for all residential, commercial, and public restrooms: “the people” are everyone who uses toilet paper. The shortage was an unintended consequence of trying to cut costs and automate toilet paper sales and distribution. This bug in the system can (and hopefully will) be fixed by enabling more compatibility and coordination between the distributions and sales channels for residential products and those for commercial products.
In the policing example, however, the system was doing exactly as it was designed to do. The laws, regulations, and practices were created by predominantly middle- and upper-class white men to protect the communities from which these men came. Although touted as a system for “public safety,” the definitions of what constitutes a public threat and who is worthy of protection that lie at the heart of our policing systems were intentionally set up to be malicious and divisive (if you haven’t yet, please watch the documentary 13th on Netflix).
When a system is set up on problematic premise, there is no bug to fix. The system must be dismantled and a new one must be created that rejects dangerous and immoral premises.
See the difference?