Sunday, October 19, 2008

Rules Schmules

There is a joke among business consultants that when you go into an organization, figure out if they are a top down organization where decisions flow from above, or a bottoms up organization where individual units have a great deal of autonomy. If a business is top down you recommend it become more bottoms up so that individual units can understand and respond to the marketplace more quickly. If it is bottoms up you recommend that it become more top down to avoid chaotic redundancy and lack of focus.

There is a lot of truth in this. There is no ideal organization. Every organizational structure has problems. Over time, organizations tend to oscillate between structures based on the current set of problems. The same is true in other aspects of life. Should dictionaries be descriptive or prescriptive? How much freedom should parents allow their children?

This note is about the balance between individual freedom and enforced order. Based on what I see in the United States, I think the pendulum has swung too far toward order and it is time to move toward more freedom of action. I think the current situation is largely based on unreasonable fears combined with a desire to make the world safer for ourselves and our children. The end result is not a safer society, but a society with less freedom and more rigidity of thought.

I think the current situation is based on widespread misunderstanding of humans and their capabilities. As a species we are remarkable in our ability to exist in social groups and to flexibly react to each other and the environment. Despite the fact that we are capable of unspeakable cruelty, on the whole we are extremely kind and cooperative with each other. We are also protective, particularly of the most vulnerable among us. I do not deny the atrocities and cruelty, the scams, the sociopathic behavior of both individuals and groups. I merely say that these are anomalies. Bad behavior makes the news and becomes a focus of our thoughts precisely because it is uncommon in a stable society like the US.

As individuals we also misunderstand risk and emotionally overreact to perceived danger. Lately Hans Monderman has been in the news. For example, Wired Magazine. Monderman was a Dutch traffic engineer who died in January 2008. Monderman improved safety by removing traffic controls. That's right, he removed speed limit and other traffic signs and signals to make the roads safer. At a busy intersection there is nothing to segregate pedestrian, bicycle, auto and truck traffic. He has a stunt to prove his point to reporters. I have seen several separate reports on this, but from the wired article:

We drive on to another project Monderman designed, this one in the nearby village of Oosterwolde. What was once a conventional road junction with traffic lights has been turned into something resembling a public square that mixes cars, pedestrians, and cyclists. About 5,000 cars pass through the square each day, with no serious accidents since the redesign in 1999. "To my mind, there is one crucial test of a design such as this," Monderman says. "Here, I will show you." With that, Monderman tucks his hands behind his back and begins to walk into the square - backward - straight into traffic, without being able to see oncoming vehicles. A stream of motorists, bicyclists, and pedestrians ease around him, instinctively yielding to a man with the courage of his convictions.

From the International Tribune.

"Who has the right of way?" he asked rhetorically. "I don't care. People here have to find their own way, negotiate for themselves, use their own brains."

When asked, people who use these uncontrolled intersections say they are not safe, despite the statistics to the contrary. The fact that people do not feel as safe, as controlled, leads them to be more careful. Take off the explicit controls and people use their own judgment to behave in ways that increase safety rather than the perception of safety.

We have allowed our fears to distort our behavior and our society in ways that I find unacceptable. One example of this is the way we treat our children. As a seven or eight year old child I had large amounts of time that were unsupervised. My mother had a bell to call us in for dinner. As long as I was within earshot of the bell at that time, I could do what I wanted. When I got my first bicycle at about the age of seven, my world expanded and I was allowed to roam at will as long as I was home at designated times. Because our family was a large tribe I had more freedom than most, but I was not alone. At Halloween groups of children, without parental accompaniment, roamed miles from their homes to scour the best neighborhoods for candy. Neighborhood children organized their own games without supervision.

The United States has changed, but it has not become less safe. I do not believe that the rate of child kidnapping or abuse by strangers has increased. There is more traffic, but I do not believe that our neighborhoods present more dangers. What has changed is the level of fear. We have institutionalized the belief that the world is unsafe and children cannot be trusted to operate without constant supervision. As a result, elementary school children are not allowed to walk a quarter mile to school by themselves. Because parents believe that children can never be left alone, activities outside of school are supervised and, as a result, expensive. The constant supervision also diminishes the development of conflict resolution skills. I am not saying that adults should not look out for children. To the contrary, each of us has a responsibility to keep everyone around us safe, especially the young and defenseless. The world is unsafe. Children do not understand much of what is going on around them. But it is safe enough and we are here to help them.

The same attitudes and fears have helped turn children into incipient economic units. The current school debates focus on more time in school and more controlled school environments. This regimentation devalues the children and, in the long run, will hurt us economically. The genius of the American economy is our flexibility and inventiveness. As we become more regimented, as children's education become more standardized, I believe we lose that flexibility and inventiveness.

I recognize that I am neither typical nor a role model. In a sense that is my point. Few of us are typical. Only a few people think I am stupid or incompetent. I do well in a field that requires both constant education and inventiveness. I consider myself to be reasonably well educated. I also didn't do homework until I entered the university. Homework was assigned, I just never did it. My grades through high school were spotty, but performance on tests seemed to overrule the bad homework grades. As far as I know, no one ever considered holding me back. Based on college entrance tests, I was admitted to the university after my junior year in high school.

In junior high school instead doing my homework, I was reading a book a day. I read all the science fiction, "boy in the country", and biographies in the school library. In high school I was reading the daily newspaper, two to three weekly news magazines, and several monthly magazines including Scientific American and the Atlantic Monthly (it used to be a monthly). I also studied mathematics on my own. Had I spent more supervised time in school or had more structured after school activities, I would not have had time to get my real education. Looking back, I think I could have benefited from better schools. By better schools I mean those populated by more educated, and flexible teachers. I do not believe I would have benefited by more structure or more hours in school.

As a society we seem to have grown more and more rule bound. By rule bound I mean respecting and enforcing rules without looking at the sense of the situation. I have always followed Bob Dylan's dictum "To live outside the law you must be honest". A simple example from my masters swim group. We rent lanes at one of the pools in town. In addition to the pool life guards, we provide our own coach on the deck. The lifeguards and pool administration have recently gotten upset because some of our swimmers did not enter the pool feet first as the rules require. This is an experienced group of swimmers, many of them competitive. In my several years of swimming with the group, I have not seen a dangerous entry into the pool. The lifeguards either have no idea what is dangerous, have no idea why the rule exists, or are simply complaining about infractions for the sake of the rule itself.

As Monderman's practical experiments with traffic show us, posting and enforcing rules does not always make us safer. We are at our best when we take the time and effort to understand and respond to the particular circumstances in which we find ourselves.

Rules are a means to an end, not the end itself. The valid reasons behind the rules should be obeyed and enforced. If a rule is about safety and you are in a position to enforce, enforce safety not the rule. This is not a slide down a slippery slope toward anarchy. It is a slide down the slope toward respect and humanity. As with all things, you must do this intelligently and with awareness of your own limitations. Don't let your like or dislike of a person cause you to abuse your power and selectively enforce the rules.

If you are in a position to make rules, make sure that you are addressing a real problem, not the perception of a problem. Do not make rules in the mistaken belief that you can enforce conflict out of existence (the homeowners association fallacy). In work environments, try not to rigidly enforce standard practice at the expense of better solutions.

In our day to day lives each of us should remember the old saying, "People who like sausage and respect the law should never watch either of them being made". Rigid order is both impossible and overrated. Do the right thing. Help and protect those around you. This has nothing to do with rules, it has to do with humanity.


sf said...

I agree with you intellectually, to an extent, but find it difficult to not worry (yes I do realize that worry is pointless) over kids, even grown-up ones. But (aaaghh cross that out, read as However,) partly it's their own dahdedahdedahdedah attitude toward life. And things DO happen, when I think oh everything's fine and the next thing I know Silver is off on a wild goose chase, unconscious at the hospital and his bike is wrecked, or in Rwanda.
Also, the sitch is a little different when there are crazy people involved.
So whatever, you think I'm overprotective, I think you're damn lucky nothing worse ever did happen to you.
But, I mean however, I am happy that nothing did.

Jofish said...

Chasing geese, wild or tame, is how we grow and develope as human beings. But guess what? So is worrying about goose chasers. I know that as a child not following the rules, I faired much better than as an adult who doesn't. I look back on a scarey crazy childhood with fondness and humor. I look back on a scarey and crazy adulthood with some sorrow and remorse. The interesting part of it for me is that as a child I had no real belief in, or understanding of (god). As an adult I have a VERY strong belief and understanding of (god) albeit probably non conforming to many "conforming RULES of structured religions." Therefore my current way of seeing things actually supports Collin's way of thinking although I think to an even greater degree because of faith that I aquired in a very difficult adulthood, rather than a super crazy youth. Love Jofish

hopalong said...

I agree with you very much, although I struggle with the opposite -- namely, trusting people and being as open as my ideals. Giving help without worrying I'll be taken advantage of, taking people in without worrying that my family will be hurt. Addictive personalities ("junkie personalities," as my mom calls them) kind of ruin everything I would normally like to think about people.

I'm a firm believer in the rule of law, but I don't think that really conflicts with this -- (because I mean rule of law rather than rule of flimsy regulations, rule of opinion, etc); and laws should be open to question and change.

I think (to address your post more squarely) that there's a certain helmet dynamic -- those studies they've done where they find kids who are over-careful about wearing helmets tend to have more accidents since they haven't learned their own physical limitations. Drivers who've had a small accident are more careful -- I know I am.

Michael G. said...

Grandma Gerety said "never make a rule you will not go out of your way to enforce; it breeds disrespect." I worry about our system when legislators make unenforceable rules to send messages. Wow.