(10/26/20) fractal bureaucracy

or, an ode to my old MacBook Air

Hey everyone,

Yesterday, I retired my 2013 MacBook Air. The retirement of my 2015 iPhone 6S will probably happen in the next year or so as well.

The new guy — my 2020 MacBook Pro — is admittedly a vast improvement along many dimensions.

But it was still a very bittersweet moment. It's crazy to say, but over the years, I developed a strong sense of loyalty to and companionship with an inanimate object.

That laptop helped me connect with friends new and old, change life trajectory without any upfront plan, and reimagine myself in the process. I learned to adapt to its aging technical specs. I periodically took care of it, wiping down its chassis, formatting its hard drive, and keeping its software organized.

As the demands of work have exceeded my laptop’s ability to keep up, I reluctantly decided to set it to sail off towards MacBook Valhalla.

It's so weird to feel emotional about this, but there's a morsel of significance here I want to dig into with you this week.

What I’m Thinking About

In (mainstream urban coastal) America, we live in a culture that admires the latest and newest, the transactional and ephemeral, the verbal and semantic, equating these traits with unequivocally better.

I've long wondered why these qualities, while so highly cherished in the culture, feel somewhat rotten to me. Now I think I know why.

The culture is a bureaucracy

The culture is a bureaucracy. Its operating principles are Uniformity, Predictability, and Scale. Its mission is efficiency towards a singular goal.

Uniformity: All parts of the system must behave similarly. If one part breaks down, it must be easily swapped out with a new one.

Predictability: All parts of the systems must do exactly as they are told. If one part acts outside the consensus, it is considered to be mad, deranged, or faulty.

Scale: All parts of the system must be replicable to produce infinitely greater outputs. If one part cannot scale that way, it does not retain value to the system.

For a company, these principles move the corpus swiftly and efficiency towards its singular goal, which is shareholder value maximization.

For a society, the corpus moves towards extreme comfort and certainty, a world in which nothing is unexpected.

These principles work quite well for the construction of a computer. And for any system to make sense, simply tossing these principles out isn’t really an option. They are helpful… up to a point.

Bureaucracy makes things feel big and crowded

But what is the damage caused by the obsessive pursuit of optimizing for these principles? Bureaucracies have a devious way of making things feel bigger and more difficult than they really are.

Extreme uniformity strikes down appreciation. You are unable to stop to smell the proverbial roses.

Extreme predictability strikes down serendipity. You cannot be curious about your environment.

Extreme scale strikes down care. You have no sympathy for objects outside of their utility to you.

The problem with bureaucracy, then, is that it is too self-absorbed to notice what it is doing to itself and to the ecosystem it sits within. It has its own parochial goals, around which the world must rearrange.

In this way, bureaucracy is quite fractal.

Your company can be bureaucratic. Your country can be bureaucratic. Your social media stream can be bureaucratic. You can be bureaucratic.

An Antidote for Bureaucracy

One antidote for bureaucracy is to admire small everyday things with which you have repeat interactions.

I notice my feelings towards everyday objects wax and wane with every encounter. I notice my understanding of them deepen. I notice their craftsmanship (or lack thereof), their new pockmarks, wrinkles, gray hairs, blemishes. I notice these new blemishes within myself.

I notice how haphazardly I have treated objects. I notice how carelessly I have constructed objects. I have unintentionally created the bureaucracy all around me. And I can intentionally repair it.

In The Beauty of Everyday Things, Soetse Yanagi gracefully put it as such:

“We no longer look upon objects as we used to, which is undoubtedly due to their poor quality. In the past, everyday objects were treated with care, with something verging on respect.

While this attitude may in part have been a result of the scarcity of goods in past time, I believe it principally resulted from the honest quality of their workmanship and the fact that the more an object was used, the more its beauty became apparent.

As our constant companions in life, such objects gave birth to a feeling of intimacy and even affection. The relation between people and things then was much deeper than it is today.

When a person could point to what he was wearing and say, ‘This belonged to my grandfather’, it was a source of pride. These days, however, the careless way things are made has robbed us of any feeling of respect or affection. From the viewpoint of social mores, this is a huge loss.”

Noticing everyday objects and relations is hard in a world pushing us to grow bigger, speak louder, move faster, and stay relevant. We can consciously push against these forces — stay small, speak softly, move slowly, and work deeply on things few seem to care much about.

Bullet-Point Summaries

Localism - Joe Norman

This Monday in Brooklyn is a foggy, drizzly affair. Have yourself a great week! I’ll be bugging you same time next Monday.