I grew up in Berkeley, California. For those of you who don’t know what that means, this is the city that designed a college campus layout in the 1960s specifically to deter riots and protests. Or maybe you remember the tree-sitters from a couple years back? The dudes who sat in trees for two years to prevent an oak grove from being cut down? Yep. One of my highschool friends did a photography project senior year about the tree sitters. Oh, Berkeley. Riots in the 1960s famous enough to have their own wiki article, modern day mecca of hippie liberalism. You understand why I chuckle a little bit inside when people seem surprised by the culture of Ithaca. I guess the rabid attitude that includes, among other sentiments, RECYCLE THAT BOTTLE OR I WILL POINTEDLY PULL IT OUT OF THE TRASH IN FRONT OF YOU AND CHUCK YOU INTO MY COMPOST PILE, has never been foreign to me. Heck, I used to be one of those people.
Anyways, I don’t know if this is so much growing up in Berkeley or growing up in the 21st Century, but I seem to always be surrounded by causes. Whether it’s Cornell administration or Wall Street or upper management or the United States government, there is always, always someone yelling — usually quite passionately — that the system is broken. There is always a collection of nameless and faceless politicians, men with vested interest and maliciously uninformed citizens (heretofore referred to as “The Man”) that needs to be taken down, and plenty of people willing to do it.
The great (and I do mean that sarcastically) thing about criticizing administrations and big systems in general is that the same broad, sweeping accusations apply for pretty much all of them. And actually, the critical mass of people required to be subject to these accusations is pretty low. In my experience, the following all-purpose bundle of statements apply to any organization of people larger than three:
It’s ineffective. It’s corrupt. It’s just too big, plus it’s unduly influenced by elements that don’t have the best interests of the constituency at heart. We need to stop it, stop them and give power and influence back to the people who are better human beings.
Define it and them, collect some money and print some flyers (or a satirical parody). Congratulations, you have your own pet cause to champion.
I have this theory that as companies / organizations grow, they always seem to collect some sort of inherent evilness. (Even if one of their informal company mottos explicitly says Don’t Be Evil. O hai, Google crawler). Once something or someone gets some influence, it’s just a matter of time before someone else decides that everything that’s been built is wrong and needs fixing.
I really think the basis of this sentiment is fear. Honestly, there’s something inherently scary about big, complicated systems. As they get big, it gets harder and harder for one person to understand them. In the case of organizations, it takes a lot more emotional investment to understand the people and the culture behind decision-making. If complicated technology is indistinguishable from magic, decision making in complicated organizations is indistinguishable from the whim of a faceless god.
It’s easy to criticize from the outside. Tragically easy. And it’s easy to yell for change — just some change, any change — without feeling the burden to present a rigorous alternative or understanding exactly how or why the system got that way in the first place. Every technology can be understood, and every system — no matter how much momentum it’s gained — can be changed. It just requires a deep understanding of why it’s the way it is in the first place. If you want to tear down, you have to have a solid plan on how to build back up. Otherwise all, that gets created is a bunch of noise.
Deborah Liu is a senior in the College of Engineering. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. First World Problem appears alternate Tuesdays this semester.