Modern Confusion: Mistaking Process with Value

Problem-solving through “systems” has confused me and many others about the best ways to advance human well-being.

Embedded in a post about the confusion of modern systems. Rocky surface in foreground of photo that faces southwest across a Smokie Mountain range in western North Carolina

With the sweep of economic specialization over the last 190 years came a whole suite of systems, each designed to address some sort of human issue, problem, or need.

We have the education system, tasked with “educating pupils” and improving their chances of landing favorable jobs. More recently, the system of “social media” is obliged to “connect” us with one another.

Given the spread of these problem-solving systems, many of us are now convinced that if only systems were tweaked or made more efficient; if only they used “evidenced-based approaches” to delivering services; if only…all of us would be better off.

Conferences convene. Workshops organized. Experts consulted. We wait for smart people to discover the next innovation in telecommunications, psychotherapy, biotechnology, geo-engineering, political science, automated vehicles, robotics, teaching methods.

Some advancements will no doubt improve life for scores of people. Others will probably benefit our non-human brethren. Yet what we need is each other, not untouchable, abstract systems. The reason systems persist, I think, is because most of us across the socioeconomic spectrum are confused about what systems actually accomplish.

Systems are good at “counting widgets” or the “means”, rather than the desired “ends.” Think graduation rates, rather than meaningful employment. Think patients served, rather than healthy people. Think traffic flow, rather than safe, enjoyable travel. What systems often can’t tell us is whether and to what extent anyone is actually better off with vs. without them.

But at some level, we all know that our human needs are simple and easily satisfied. We need camaraderie. We need love. We need clean water and healthy food. We need shelter from extreme weather.  We need to feel self-determined.  However, the systems meant to address these needs tend to complicate things. And in the words of Ivan Illich, they mistake process with value.  For example, systems confuse:

  • The process of schooling with educational substance
  • The administration of medical treatment with healing and health
  • Social media with human connection
  • State-provided transportation systems with getting from place to place
  • Social work with community life
  • Support for an entertainment industry with entertainment
  • Centralized food systems with food-based nourishment
  • Police protection with safety

Among other things, this rampant confusion contributes to people’s feelings of helplessness.  Almost anybody living in modern society must rely on the school, their workplace, government- or church-sponsored social outings to satisfy their need for human connection.

We must organize and rally for well-meaning capitalists or NGOs to bring us healthy food options.

We must rely on a the actions of a trained police force to keep us safe and secure in our own communities.

More recently, we privileged people have started chatter about the concept of “equity.” We point out that some places are endowed with quality education and infrastructure and healthcare, diverse entertainment and prepared food options and transportation choice, while other places lack these market- and state-administered services.

Therefore, we argue, “disadvantaged communities” need more efficient, reliable systems of policing, food distribution, housing, schooling, transportation, etc. We speak in the langue of “closing the achievement gap“; of “providing affordable housing.

We often forget  – or don’t realize – that no such disparity exists in vernacular cultures.  In these cultures , community is inherent. Health involves use of common sense. Transportation is human-powered and arranged by humans who live together. Human interaction involves eye contact and touching. Education takes place anywhere, occurring through modeling, discussion, and direct experimentation.  Food is foraged, integrated into rituals of daily living, and openly shared. After all, it’s people – not systems – that directly answer the needs of life.

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