Sunday, July 23, 2006

Why the language of design must enter law and politics (part two)

/Continued from a previous post.../

In law school, the first class I ever took was called Torts and the Process of Law. We were introduced to the arcana of "legal storytelling" (my term, not theirs) in which episodes of people's lives -- usually horrific, depressing, or bizarre, or some interesting combination of those three -- were boiled down, and their legal essence extracted for infusion into the body of common law. These are anecdotes with teeth: the moral of every legal story is its ratio decidendi, whose binding authority carries on down through years, decades or centuries of later cases. The 01932 case, Donoghue v. Stevenson, is one that stands out in memory. It was a landmark in the development of the tort of negligence, about a ginger ale bottle with a snail in it, which was served to a woman in 01928 and led her to experience a nasty bout of gastroenteritis. The key legal concept here, and countless others since, was that of "duty of care": a person will owe a duty of care not to injure those who it can be reasonably foreseen would be affected by their acts or omissions.

Now, this principle is well and good for products, like snail-containing soda bottles, which have a specific provenance, because any adverse consequences are traceable back to the source. This legal mechanism, the tort of negligence, can serve as useful negative feedback to make amends for and rectify negligently designed products, or manufacturing processes. But what about at a larger scale? What about legal or political systems themselves, and their emergent properties, their systemic consequences? There, it's difficult to hold anyone accountable, even in theory, let alone in a court of law.

Take war, for example. Trying to hold a specific government to account for the massive damage sustained in a military encounter, or the specific consequences for one person, family or even a whole group of people, is one strategy. And it's a strategy that some, understandably, seem very keen to adopt. But, whatever the merits of the argument against (say, the US administration's present entanglements in Iraq) might be; through the macroscope, this rather appears to miss the point, like the drunk who lost his keys in the dark but searched for them under the streetlight because the visibility was better. This government, like many others, is simply acting out what it is in its nature to do. (Of course, the governments themselves in any given conflict blame each other; but it's the logic of the pattern that's the problem, not so much the logic of the participants, which takes on the aura of inevitability once it's in train.) The key is not, then, ultimately to be found under the light of apparent motives, it's in the shadows -- of structure and the broad sweep of history -- where we don't usually think to look. The proximate reasons (of contemporary circumstance) are less significant than the ultimate ones (of big-picture history).

Cambridge law professor Philip Allott once gave an address in 01999, during NATO's bout with Serbia over Kosovo. (The paper, which I believe was called "Kosovo: A psycho-philosophical deduction", was unpublished, and I'm relying on memory of a handout my colleague obtained at the event, so some of the details may be off.) In any case, Allott's analysis of the situation was sobering. Looking past the details of that particular conflict, he was able to see it as "merely" another tragic entry on the extensive, ever-growing list of destructive military engagements dating back centuries, in which the interests of people as people are subjugated to those of an abstract political entity or goal. In short, he regarded Kosovo as a manifest instance, or symptom, of an international system-wide case of macropsychotic behaviour. Now, this concept does not appear to have caught on (I've checked several times, and down to today no variation of this term has never returned a single google hit, though that really ought to change).

To illustrate; George Orwell, in a 01941 essay entitled "The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius" (see this collection, p. 56), may be cited in support of Allott's view of this decidedly odd situation -- in which we humans repeatedly find ourselves -- wherein apparently rational individuals can make decisions which are rational in the narrow context of their circumstances, but whose net effect is a pattern of mutual destruction that is decidedly sick.

As I write, highly civilised human beings are flying overhead, trying to kill me.

They do not feel any enmity against me as an individual, nor I against them. They are "only doing their duty", as the saying goes. Most of them, I have no doubt, are kind-hearted law-abiding men who would never dream of committing murder in private life. On the other hand, if one of them succeeds in blowing me to pieces with a well-placed bomb, he will never sleep any the worse for it. He is serving his country, which has the power to absolve him from evil.

On cannot see the modern world as it is unless one recognises the overwhelming strength of patriotism, national loyalty.
Can we imagine designing a way out of this trap? Seems like a worthy project, I feel. In my opinion, Allott's take on this is compelling, and its implication for the discussion at hand is this: macropsychosis requires macrotherapy. What would that large-scale, systemic solution look like? I don't have a definitive answer to that, but I'm pretty sure it's the right kind of starting point.

Turning to a more current example, at John Rendon's talk for The Long Now Foundation on 15 July, "Long term policy to make the war on terror short", I posed the following question: At some point in the future, the concept of America's national interest, or indeed any national interest, evaporates into absurdity. How can we govern for that timeframe? Rendon's obtuse answer suggested either that what I had asked was unclear, or that he had missed the point (or both). In any case, this to me is one of the design questions that we would do well to apply in our rethinking of the political process; not just in one country, but in any, or all of them. How ought we to govern for the long term?

It is abundantly clear that current political arrangements virtually preclude the consideration of long term consequences. Rendon called it "the tyranny of real time". His presentation (controversial as it may have been, and whatever suspicions motivated vocal interruptions from a handful of audience members) was essentially a plea from a strategic insider for the audience members themselves to explore and encourage governance and policy for the long term, a mindspace that appeared all but impossible to broach, for him and his colleagues, and others like them. Now, the fact that he offered his time, and his neck, to the audience, was admirable -- he was bold and honest enough to identify and attempt to address this structural limitation -- although he may not have done so to the satisfaction of all concerned. I think it's this limitation which encapsulates the essential challenge for redesigning governance; that is, law and politics, in our time.

Stewart Brand, who moderated that discussion with John Rendon, once wrote what can be read as one of the founding statements for the Long Now:

Civilization is revving itself into a pathologically short attention span. The trend might be coming from the acceleration of technology, the short-horizon perspective of market-driven economics, the next-election perspective of democracies, or the distractions of personal multi-tasking. All are on the increase. Some sort of balancing corrective to the short-sightedness is needed-some mechanism or myth which encourages the long view and the taking of long-term responsibility, where 'long-term' is measured at least in centuries. Long Now proposes both a mechanism and a myth.

The Long Now's 10,000-year clock is the mechanism and myth at the heart of a mind bogglingly ambitious attempt to correct, or at least to begin to mitigate, a problem that is admittedly vast in scope -- it's civilisation-wide. It therefore represents the beginnings of a monumental effort to provide cultural reprogramming; macrotherapy. But at some point sooner or later, this species of inspirational culture-level intervention must, it seems to me, get down to brass tacks and lead to a tangible change in system parameters. A Clock of the Long Now is one thing. But can anyone imagine the institutional blueprint for a Politics of the Long Now?

/To be continued in part three.../

No comments: