We are the System


Qu’une révolution détruise un gouvernement en laissant intacts les modes de pensée qui lui ont donné naissance, on les retrouvera dans le gouvernement suivant. On parle beaucoup de système, mais on ne sait pas de quoi on parle.
Traité du zen et de l’entretien des motocyclettes de Robert M. Pirsig

We ARE the System - poster artwork by @lissnup

We ARE the System!

If a revolution destroys a government, but the systematic
patterns of thought that produced that government are left intact,
then those patterns will repeat themselves. . . . There’s so much talk
about the system. And so little understanding.
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance—Robert Pirsig

Any given day, much of my time is taken up with systems of one kind or another, their attendant problems, and the struggles that ensue.  Today I found myself dealing with the frustration of a tiny but elusive error preventing a simple computer program from executing. At the same time, my anger was aroused when I learned that Twitter suspended the account of someone who had voiced their opinion without malice or death threats. I felt angry because I knew they had not suspended the account of a hateful bigot who suggested religious genocide against Muslims as an appropriate response to the deaths of 3 innocent people in the Boston explosions, before the actual culprits were even identified. I see parallels in these two events because in both cases there are rules are in place to govern behaviour, yet a repetition of the same behaviour seemingly produced different results.

Rules are the framework of all systems, and the application of those rules is operational governance. The computer code which worked just fine on server a but failed on server b was not at fault, neither were the servers. As a programmer, I was working under an assumption, and a reasonably rational one, that server a = server b. Awareness of that assumption, and modifying the code in a very specific way, resolved the difference, and solved the immediate problem. You should note that in this solution, the systems were not changed, but server a ≠ server b. The reason is that the administrators of the systems had applied subtly different methods of operational governance. The way around it was to make a subtle change in behaviour – specifically, in the way the code was presented: behaviour a ≠ behaviour b.

In the case of the Twitter accounts, the same initial behaviour (sending replies that upset the other party) also yielded two different results:  account x was suspended, account y was not. There is only one set of rules published on Twitter; were the rules applied differently? Such situations are not unusual and they often provoke outrage. This is because insisting on a set of rules but then failing to apply them consistently indicates a issue in the operational governance of the system – as applied by its administrators – the outcome of which is inequality. However, when we realise that account y was able to evade censure by deleting the offensive tweet quite quickly – we can see that the issue can be dismissed because there was a subtle but effective difference, and (ultimately) behaviour x ≠ behaviour y. But honestly, no one likes to see patterns like this. They speak to us of petty, nit-picking, jobs-worthy administrators and belligerent, arrogant self-styled elites. They are the nagging whispers of inequality and injustice.

These are tiny examples of how we create systems which exhaust us – with their imperfections, contradictions and inconsistencies. We find ourselves adapting to different scenarios and trying to formulate corresponding sets of behaviours just to obtain the same outcomes.

The most uncomfortable and painful issues occur where impersonal systems of governance collide with human needs and aspirations, where the impersonal crashes into the personal. Such events cannot be avoided, because it is at this intersection that change happens.

In the process of our trial and error approach, we provide feedback to the system, which might then respond by changing the rules! Very often, the change favours the system, and personal aspirations are crushed, while institutional power is increased. For example, people who start out speaking about freedom of choice but are later transformed by an increasingly restrictive security system into prisoners demanding freedom from oppression.

There’s a lot of debate and discussion about “revolutions” these days, but the truth is, a real revolution is incredibly difficult to accomplish. Indeed, so much of everyone’s time and attention is constantly being diverted just dealing with the existing system and its ever-changing rules, there is rarely any opportunity to indulge in critical thinking or to devise solid plans to change the status quo. Higher level goals are pushed further from our grasp as we get caught up in the details of conflict.

This, I think, could be our greatest challenge: to mentally step outside the system, distance ourselves from events at the border, reclaim our ability to think for ourselves, acknowledge our role in creating and sustaining systems – in driving their changes with our feedback, understand what forces are at work, and the ways we surrender our personal power to the impersonal systems we inhabit and nurture.


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