Sidelines vs. Goal Lines

In order to score, you’ve got to stay in bounds.

But you’ve also got to move the ball down the field.

It’s the same when you’re driving: you have to stay in your lane, but the only way to reach the destination is to use the gas pedal, too.

The object of the game isn’t to break the rules or win at all costs. But if you’re so fixated on staying inbounds that you’re not actually going anywhere, it might be time to speed things up.

“… as if People Matter”

One of the books that has most profoundly influenced the way I think is E. F. Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful: A Study of Economics as if People Mattered.

In the midst of overlapping and intersecting crises — of health, governance, ecology, economy, and more — the central question is, Are we big enough and strong enough to care for the least of these? Could we possibly be?

The end of Schumacher’s title has been ringing in my head for months as a rule of thumb for how we might spend our money and cast our votes as we seek a way out of this crisis: is this person, this company, this product, this idea acting as if people matter?

If not, how might we find, create, or insist on an alternative?

Group Behavior

Listening to a podcast recently, I was struck by the observation that groups tend to be more immoral than individuals.

After weeks of “nice guy”-ism, we’ve gotten a pretty clear look at how this works when we talk about race, injustice, and history.

Heading into a busy Fourth of July weekend, a quick look at mask-wearing behavior shows the same thing.

Group behavior is the aggregate of a lot of individual choices. And a chinstrap here, an uncovered nose there, or a group of non-mask-wearers who feel healthy and can’t be bothered to protect others from themselves is exactly how we get results that no well-intentioned individual would choose.

Choices Made

Look around at any of the systems that matter these days. Let’s take health care in the United States as an illustrative example.

Unless you’re the CEO of an insurance company (and maybe even if you are), the system we’ve got isn’t the one you’d design if you started from scratch, knowing what you know now.

So how did things get this way, and what does that say about us?

On the one hand, it’s true that our current trajectory was and is determined by past decisions. Once somebody hooked insurance to employment, it was going to really hard to undo. And, as everyone knows, decisions accrete over time (not always how we expect or desire).

On the other hand, people are still making path-determining, value-demonstrating decisions every day. And if we don’t like the path, or the priorities and metrics that are driving them, it’s not impossible to imagine that we could make different decisions.

The Rebirth of Expertise?

“Ideas that spread, win.” — Seth Godin

“On the X-axis is the amount of time that’s passed, and on the Y-axis how much you think you know about something. When you go to university, the curve rises fast: ‘I really know something about this!’ And at a certain point you think, ‘Oh, I know nothing about it,’ and you enter the valley of despair. Then, slowly, the curve rises again, but it will never be as high as it was here, on Mount Bullshit. Who are the people who rule our countr[ies], the people most often invited on talk shows? The people on Mount Bullshit. I think it’s healthy to walk around constantly fearing: am I on it?” — Rutger Bregman [qtd. by Simon Kuper in Lunch with the FT, 29 May 2020]


An ironic thing happened in 2016: a wide swath of American society called BS on Mount Bullshit. But, in exchange, they gave us Peak Bullshit.

People want to believe in expertise, but they also want that expertise to mean something. Medicine keeps our trust by getting incrementally better; the dieting-industrial complex toys with our attention by lurching from fad to fad.

(Yes, medicine gets things wrong. Yes, there are people who can’t or won’t believe in medicine, no matter what. And yes, there are people who pop handfuls of paleo popcorn or whatever without any twinge of irony. But we’re talking mass-market here, not the always-frothy edges.)

Hopefully we can all see by now that the “debate” (or “conversation”) wasn’t nearly big enough or inclusive enough. And yes, hopefully we can admit that a lot of establishment nostrums and social-science expertise weren’t as sound as we thought or wished.

We can’t throw it all out: the answer to squishy science isn’t bad science or anti-factualism.

But we are going to have to get a lot smarter about which ideas spread, how, and why — and how we can widen genuine participation without simply giving every no-goodnik or know-nothing a megaphone we can’t shut off.

And that’s going to require a couple of uncomfortable moves: better marketing from academics and experts of all stripes, and better tolerance for living at the lower peak after Mount Bullshit.

Do you think we could learn to live with somewhat less certainty in exchange for less bullshit?

Don’t you think it would be worth it?

Punctuation

One of the toughest things to find in quaran-time is punctuation.

How do you know when you’re at work? How do you know when you’re not? And what about summer vacation?

This seems to hit everyone in different ways — anyone whose summer plans have been upended, workers stuck at home and trying to stay motivated and put sane boundaries around work, people looking for work and also wanting a break, and on and on.

It’s like reading a book with no punctuation and no end in sight, and it’s difficult.

And it seems we’ll have to create — and coordinate — our own systems of punctuation for the foreseeable future.

A Little Homework

Spend 15 minutes today looking at different countries’ official Covid response website(s).

[Note: the multiple here is best exemplified by the United States, which has at least two top-level sites — neither one of which is very clear on who or what it’s for.]

Start with the “five eyes” — Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States — and venture further if you wish.

What do you notice? Why do you think it is that way?

***

When encountering a website, consider:

  • Who is this for?
  • What is this for? (What one specific action am I supposed to take on this page?)
  • What would it take to break this site? (And what happens when it breaks?)
  • If I didn’t read English (or go to college), what would I understand?

Phase 2 and Beyond (Notes on Going “Back”)

It’s not normal, and it’s not about to be.

In “Eat, Pay, Leave,” Washington City Paper communicates what restaurant owners and workers want diners to know about re-opening.

  • Poignantly, one restaurateur says that all restaurants are new restaurants, no matter how long they’ve been around.
  • Tips: Do pay and tip well. Do wear your mask and follow all city/restaurant policies. Do — above all — have extra patience. And don’t be a jerk.

In “Higher Ed: Enough Already” the suddenly trendy (and reliably insightful) Professor Scott Galloway launches another barb at the “Rolex-ification” of luxury colleges and calls for their rightful and timely return to public service.

What Will You Do Differently This Time?

Will you shepherd your attention for four whole months, keeping your eye on the prize?

Will you have genuine conversations with neighbors near and far — perhaps especially the persuadable, or those whose votes count waaaaay more than the rest of us?

Will you advocate for safe, secure, seamless, and universally accessible mail-in balloting — the single best way to fight Covid and social-network no-goodniks? [Seriously: this has to happen, and that means preparing early. Yes, it’s safe to assume that a bunch of people who are ordinarily disenfranchised might in fact vote if you made it easy. But it’s an even better bet that both Covid and the no-goodniks will be in full swing by October/November. Let’s prepare for the worst of both.]

Will you assume the outcome?

Will you approach the outcome as a final referendum on good and evil, or a definitive, unsurvivable rejection of those whose views you would vote out? [If not, how might you communicate that you’re prepared to live and work together — six feet apart and masks on, please — after November?]