What do standardized testing in schools, bureaucracy in health care, and the inflexible application of laws have in common?

They are all thoughtless.

Not thoughtless because nobody put intellectual effort into creating these structures. Thoughtless because they give us excuses to avoid using our brains.

We stop thinking because it’s seen as safe, and the view that we codify into law everything that’s right, and that human behavior can be controlled like a computer program.

In the Industrial Revolution, the metaphor of the machine influenced most fields of thought: psychology (the mind as machine), art, school (education as assembly line), science. Our culture relied on machine-like ideas to understand the world.

As we got into the latter part of the last century, the metaphor of the computer took over. Mind-as-computer, replicatable business processes, and bureaucracy by flowchart. To those we add law as computer program. The idea was that a centralized group can codify the steps and processes desired so that any machine – or person – can apply them uniformly. Inflexible on the one hand – albeit often loaded with exceptions – but one person’s rigidity is another’s fairness.

[An aside here on hacking - "hacking" used in the sense of making something your own. Hacking computer programs means changing them to do exactly what you want, and programmers have the power in this realm. The law and bureaucracies are just as open to hacking. The tools are lawyers, politicians and tax accountants, but the outcome is that the law really only applies to those who don't have the means or power to hack it. And like spaghetti-ish computer programs, complex laws are easier to hack, because there's simply more opportunities to exploit.]

What we’re beginning to see now, at least in the scientific arena is a rise in an network/complexity metaphor, which acknowledges that the world is more complicated than we think because multiple interactions and feedback loops cause behavior that goes beyond human intuition to comprehend. And because we can’t possibly plan that far ahead, the metaphor for approaching this complexity is evolution – small steps forward as we search out what works and in what contexts.

Our progress doesn’t mean we throw away all of the previous paradigms. We got mass production and major ideas in science out of the machine model. And we got the the mindset that we can automate much of our rote work, as well as information-based sciences like genomics from the computer metaphor. But as we progress and understand more about the world, it’s time to move on.

I believe we are at cusp of change now. However, the people in power are still stuck in the computer metaphor. They are “fighting the last war”. We are starting to hit a wall now where this idea that we can codify human behavior is running smack into the complexity of the world, and starting to lose.

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