I’m not anti-government. I’m pro civilization. But I’m also an anarchist, of a sort. I think institutions should be dissolved and reformed regularly. What really happens is that institutions add bits and pieces over time, in response to things that happen, as solutions to interim problems, until finally the bits and pieces take over and nobody can move.
Do you know the The Gormenghast trilogy?
In this amazing story by Mervyn Peake …
… a doomed lord, a scheming underling, an ancient royal family plagued by madness and intrigue – these are the denizens of ancient, sprawling, tumbledown Gormenghast Castle. Within its vast halls and serpentine corridors, the members of the Groan dynasty and their master Lord Sepulchrave grow increasingly out of touch with a changing world as they pass their days in unending devotion to meaningless rituals and arcane traditions. Meanwhile, an ambitious kitchen boy named Steerpike rises by devious means to the post of Master of the Ritual while he maneuvers to bring down the Groans.
A subtext of the story is that over time, in the kingdom of Gormeghast, ritual after ritual has been added to the daily life of the royal family, to the extent that there is barely enough time in the day for the Lord to do anything but serve those rituals, and in fact, the Master of the Ritual is ultimately in charge. This fantastical depiction of a fantasy kingdom is the future of all institutions that are not occasionally rebuilt.
There are other elements to this problem. Consider technology. Back when the Year 2000 problem happened, people learned that a good portion of the critical computing technology, such as that used in banking, was based on mainframe computers using ancient programming languages like cobol, where values were hard coded rather than represented as variables, and data was stored on ancient media. That is actually a good thing in a way, because those systems were proven to work. Shifting a system to the most current and advanced technologies virtually guarantees unforeseen bugs and opportunities for exploits by nefarious crackers. In critical technology, traditional and proven is good. But there are limits. In the video below Rachel Maddow points out that key data used in the US nuclear defense systems are stored on 8 inch floppies. Where do they even get those floppies?
In a way this seems the opposite of adding rituals over time, but it actually isn’t. It can create new rituals, and stupid rituals.
The intersection of ancient technologies that were once new and modern context that demands new rules (such as documentation of communications or transactions) results in bizarre outcomes even more troubling than the use of 8 inch floppies to hold the data needed to run and control the nuclear arsenal.
By now I’m sure you know that we’re talking about emails. Rachel also talks about the official government method of dealing with emails.
When you get an email, or send an email, you print out a copy of it and put it in a box. All of the emails. There are no exceptions.
If everyone printed out every email, there would be about six billion emails printed out, at least one page, often many more, per email. I estimate that if this policy was generally applied across all email uses, 2 or 3% of all paper use would be dedicated to this purpose, not counting storage boxes.
How do State Department officials and employees handle this problem? Simple. They ignore it. But how many things do we do, especially in the government, and other institutions, can’t be, ignored, and thus serve as glue poured into the precision gear boxes of our administrative institutions? A lot of them, I suspect.
Check it out:
(Image above from the Gormenghast website.)