Each week I take the top voted question from readers and answer it. With 45 votes, this week’s winner was “Why do we accept and perpetuate bad systems?” by Peter Samaur:
Examples – 2 lanes of checkout on a busy day. Automated parking systems that break down with no backup. Sitting in traffic for over an hour each way to get to work. It’s madness yet we accept it as the way things are.
The easy answer is we’re lazy. It takes energy to reject a system, especially if it’s a complex system you do not control. Sitting in traffic is not an active choice, it’s a passive decision that comes with the choices for where to live and work. Like waiting in a long line, it’s far simpler psychologically to plod along with your head down, than to challenge the dozens of people in front of you who may have no objections to lines at all, or worse, diverging ideas for what the alternatives might be. It takes courage to challenge a system and wisdom to improve it, a rare combination.
The depressing answer is some systems are difficult, or impossible, to change. Even if you were sufficiently motivated, problems like traffic operate on a large enough scale, with multiple conflicting objectives, that it might not be solvable. Certainly not without the cooperation of many other people, some of whom benefit from the inefficiencies you find frustrating (e.g. the land developers who profited by overpopulating an area).
For all frustrating systems ask: Who benefits (Cui Bono)? That is the first step to understanding how a system truly works. There are always people who benefit more from a system staying the way it is, and as long as they are in power nothing will change. Any hope of improving a system starts with understanding the reasons forces are actively protecting the status quo.
The stoic answer is that all systems are designed, and all designs are tradeoffs. They are good for some things and bad for others. There is no perfect system, and even if there were, as soon as the world changed in a significant way the same elements that made the system seem perfect would suddenly become a frustration. Gas powered cars seemed a wonderful idea in 1925, before anyone could imagine global warming, rush hour traffic, or fatalities from drivers distracted by text messages on their phones.
The relative answer is: bad compared to what? We naturally take good things for granted since there are evolutionary advantages to constantly seeking to improve one’s situation. But for any bad system, go back in time. What was that system like 10, 20, 50, 100, 500 years ago? In some ways things will seem better, but in many ways that older system will seem worse. It’s better to wait a few minutes in poorly managed checkout lines at the grocery store, than to hunt and gather all day long with little guarantee of having enough to eat.
The positive answer is that many people do reject bad systems. They make sacrifices to give themselves the power to avoid systems they find distasteful. They become self-employed to avoid a long commute. They go shopping on off-hours when the ratio of staff to customers is in their favor. They take a job that pays less, but grants more time with their family. With sufficient motivation and the willingness to make tradeoffs, many modern frustrations can be avoided or minimized.
What “bad” system bothers you the most? Leave a comment.