Wednesday, October 3, 2012

No Parking

We (people) impose order on our environments.  We build dams and levies to reign in our rivers, we carve roads through forests and through mountains of stone, we breed dogs to be friendly and corn to be productive.  Where many of us come together, we lay down laws and put up signs in pursuit of delineating those things that shall be allowed and those that shall not.

Some rules seem somewhat arbitrary on the surface (you may park your car along the street in precisely this spot on these specific days at these few particular hours), but generally derive from some sensible premise (the street cleaning truck cannot clean the street if your car is in the way).  Rules are designed by society to improve on the experience of society; rules and their design are what enable society in the first place.

Where things get complicated, though, in my opinion, is when people expect rules where there are none.

Since we operate almost exclusively within systems and constraints that we ourselves designed, it can be jarring to take a perspective step back and realize that just outside the cone of electric light there are some dark and complicated shadows.

For instance, biology requires that we mate and raise little versions of ourselves to perpetuate the species.  And that's it, the entire evolutionary rule book is that short: make more humans.  There is no naturally provided guidance about whether your kid(s) should go to pre-school or daycare, whether you should let them see you cry, whether you should put their college funding ahead of your retirement savings...  That's not to say that we haven't learned some tips and tricks to optimize "successful outcomes", but it does suggest that the very term "successful outcome" can have widely varying meanings around the world.  And so the rule remains, either individually or in aggregate: make more humans.

I've come to see humans as techno- or systemo-cratic creatures.  We respond well to a "do this and then that will happen" approach, but the actual experience of living in the real world very often turns out to be highly random or variable.  A spouse can internalize all of the best advice about how to be a good spouse and still find themselves divorced.  A parent can navigate the narrow and twisty path of giving enough but not too much attention to their kids and still end up with a "problem child".  A student can study hard, keep their nose clean, hit all their marks, and still fail to find a good job.  If there are actual "rules" to the game of life, they are designed for the statistical mean experience, not for individual data points.

Religious and secular philosophies attempt to glean a set of rules for the human existence from the natural and physical laws we can observe, and/or the "perfect standard" we can imagine, but again those systems seem to address the aggregate experience of the group and not a given individual.

I am feeling that the upshot is that in the case of an individual, rules are not rules but guides, because for an individual there is no guarantee that following rule X (or step, or process, or system) will produce result Y.  Maybe because NTTATS.

I'll think on this a little more, but the general sentiment above came out of a relatively brief conversation I had with my wife and life partner last night, and I wanted to capture the gist of that for further reflection.


  1. I enjoyed this one a lot. What are some more examples of areas in which we expect rules that aren't actually there?

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  3. I don't want too get to far "out there", but I suspect that every kind of law short of gravity is largely socialized and thus "not really there"...

    When I look around, I still tend to see things from my own experience. There was definitely this idea growing up that there was a system or "rules" to getting through life, and it was only later that I realized the nature of the rules meant that they worked often, but not always.

    Same with relationships. Same with personal health. Same with managing your budget.

    Do you have some examples you would like to share?

    1. I'm wondering if it's part of why things can get so bitter on the interwebs sometimes. Maybe the implied social construct of internet behavior rules is so young and so nonuniform that it's very likely you'll interact with someone who's playing by a different set of them.