It Is A Greater Wonder That Things Work At All

While I was caught in traffic this morning I had plenty of time to think and ponder on how things work in a city.  I saw the usual signs of poor traffic, even early in the morning.  I saw the traffic pile in from WA-500 to I-5, the slow traffic north of the river, the lack of access across the Columbia into Oregon, vehicles slowed by the cloudy weather and intermittent showers, drivers rushing to change lanes in order to gain a slight and momentary advantage within the traffic or to move into or out of an exit-only lane at the last minute, disabled vehicles on the side of the road that led people to slow down further.  It would be easy to think of such a scene, as common as it is, and think of immense failure [1].  Yet I did not think of failure at all.  In fact, the opposite was true.  I saw that despite the fact that cars were changing lanes somewhat recklessly in less than ideal conditions, that there were no accidents.  Despite the fact that so many of the vehicles were built by companies looking for designed obsolescence, most of the cars were working reasonably well.  There were only a few disabled cars, after all.  Despite the fact that the transportation infrastructure of the area was poorly designed, we were still moving around, however slowly.

It is no wonder in this world that so much is broken.  Indeed, much about our world is designed to fail.  We live in societies where business and political and military elites either design or ruin political and societal systems for their own benefit, including the justice system.  We live in cities that refuse to admit that they are in fact big cities and need to plan accordingly, and in a society that refuses to invest in infrastructure, so of course our cities are broken.  We live in families broken by sin, by abuse and divorce and addiction, so it is little wonder that so many people and their relationships are broken.  In such a context, it makes little sense to complain that so much is broken.  On the contrary, such a context makes it clear that what we need to do is be thankful that so much works at all, and even so well under the circumstances.  In light of all that is wrong, it is a wonder that there is so much that is so right even with the effects and consequences and repercussions of sin and error.  Perhaps it might not seem that there is much to appreciate, but there is when we take a look at the way things are compared with how badly they could be.

When I was a child, one of the books in my collection, by a gentleman named David Macaulay, was called The Way Things Work.  The book featured delightful and wacky pictures of gears and levers and pulleys to show the simple mechanical parts that help our world work as it does, and in addition to that there were whimsical pictures of angels and Rube Goldbergesque contraptions and mammoths and the like.  It was amazing given the primitive state of understanding in the pictures that any of those machines worked at all, and yet our world works.  Indeed, the rudiments of machinery have been known for thousands of years, although there have been periods of gaps in knowledge where much that was known was forgotten, and presumed never to have existed at all, and until ancient machines were found it was thought that the ancient world’s commitment to slavery had given them little incentive to create technology on the level of our own society, when what was shown is that technology exists within the context of a society that can create enough of a surplus and have a stable enough government and a base of knowledge that can be built on.  And based on how chaotic human history has been, how full of oppression, how full of deliberate ignorance, it is amazing that we have had prolonged periods to build knowledge, even where so much of that knowledge has been based, as it often is, on faulty and mistaken foundations.

Our expectations of the systems around us would be more moderate, and we would be a lot more grateful for their performance, if we kept it in better mind that the world and its systems is run by flawed beings like ourselves.  Try as we might to find beings of a higher order of competence than we ourselves are, we will look in vain.  To be sure, some systems run worse than others, both in terms of efficiency and in terms of their ability to work in ways that serve the better interests of mankind.  Systems themselves work no better than the people in charge and the people involved in their day-to-day operation.  If we want intelligent institutions and intelligent systems, they not only need to be well-designed, but they need to be operated with a sense of honor and care for others, and they need to be operated by people with both passion and skill for what they are doing.  So long as we disregard others, and so long as we fail to understand how what we do is part of a larger whole in which we are an important part, no matter how small or how seemingly invisible, then we will continue to see much that is broken and failing in our own worlds, and we ourselves will be a part of the problem rather than a part of the solution, for as long as those conditions last.

[1] See, for example:


About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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9 Responses to It Is A Greater Wonder That Things Work At All

  1. Imaobong says:

    I see so much sense in this
    It really is a wonder.
    One man’s lapse somehow finds it way to affect another, and we really are all just part of one huge puzzle.

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