Last night, shortly after falling asleep, I had bizarre dreams, dreams likely created out of the post Brian put up, a post largely about whether institutions block social progress or facilitate it.
Dreams aren’t really interesting to read on paper, so I’ll spare you the imagery. But the subject of bloat kept coming up. All that administrative bloat. The word worked its way through dreamscapes seemingly co-authored by Lewis Carroll and Harold Pinter. Bloat, bloat, bloat, bloat, bloat.
I woke up at 1 a.m. One of those startled awakenings where you are so sure something has happened that you have to go online and see.
Something had happened. A campus officer had been shot, fatally, at MIT. I looked at the picture of the poor guy. He got up this morning to do his job, just another day. Surreal and unfathomable.
The internet churned. There were two suspects, they were at large. They were likely related to the marathon bombing. Reddit was on the case though – they had determined that the “white cap” suspect was actually a suicidal missing ex-Brown student. Side by side pictures with the suspect proved it. Reddit identified suspect #2 as Sunil Tripathi, a kid who had gone missing weeks earlier, whose family had been frantically putting the word out in the last month, hoping that someone would find him before he came to harm.
The commenters began to inform his parents of the news via Facebook that their son was most likely the terrorist. They found a person who had predicted Sunil would engage in a “public suicide”. Creepy, prescient! They wondered at the world of bureaucracy so muddled that the FBI hadn’t even connected the missing persons case to the bomber case, whereas the hivemind had solved it in mere hours.
Somewhere along the line a policeman allegedly muttered Sunil’s name over a scanner. It was confirmed! Reddit had been right. The tweets began to link the historic thread. Reddit had beat the FBI.
The name “Sunil Tripathi” trended worldwide on twitter as people linked the thread, the photos, the family’s facebook page. Bloggers blogged. People on Reddit talked about commenting on this “historic post”. They mocked the FBI, saying the entire department should be outsourced to a subreddit. CNN too! They argued (of course) over who had been the first to post the connection.
There was a lot of whuffie to be divvy’d up.
Meanwhile, while cable spun in circles, and Reddit mocked the FBI, tweets from newspaper reporters in the Boston area told a different story. The suspects had not been identified. Police were cautioning people on drawing connections. The local reporters uploaded video from the chaotic scene as they stood in a locked down neighborhood with an armed terrorist running loose.
I think most of you know how it ended. It wasn’t Sunil Tripathi.
Bloat, bloat, bloat, bloat, bloat. The services “bloat” that was the campus officer died a hero, trying to protect his campus. The dinosaurs that were the local newspaper reporters were the true media heroes, being very careful in their analysis while putting themselves in harm’s way to get it exactly right.
Bruce Sterling’s latest SXSW lecture came to mind. I disagreed with much of it, but this struck me:
And in conclusion: how can we get past the wow factor? How can we really inquire with this? How can we treat this with moral seriousness?
I think the first step, really the proper step, is to accept that our hands are not clean. We don’t just play and experiment: we kill.
We have a revolution everywhere that claims there’s nothing to lose, and everything to gain. Which is really just a way of saying you’re accountable, I’m not. Winners don’t play by the rules. Our success are successes and our failures are irrelevant.
But the much-maligned bloat is very often the accountability. When you take accountability for public safety, journalistic truth, graduation rates, compliance with disability legislation, human subjects rules, mail delivery to everyone instead of just urban centers – bloat, bloat, bloat, bloat, bloat. And a lot of that bloat should go, or be streamlined, or updated, or moved from rigid procedure to individual ethical calls. We need to be more nimble and more agile.
But we also need to be aware of why the bloat is there in the first place. Sometimes it encodes the things we most value as a society — our children’s safety, a family’s reputation, success for all. Coming to the table saying you’ve solved our problems by ignoring those values isn’t agile — it’s sociopathic.
I sympathize with both sides of the institutions debate. The price of admission is not about where you stand on that spectrum.
But do you come to this with moral seriousness? Do you take responsibility for who your chosen future might harm? Do you act by an identifiable code and have you spent time thinking through the implications of that code? Are you just spitballing, or do you have the courage of your convictions?
Everyone else can take a walk.