Waarom het niet werkt

or: the lack of cohesion-awareness.

In The Netherlands we have in our public transport trains the concept of silent compartments (quiet areas). Abundantly signalled in the compartments, the idea is that people are quiet in there, so that you can concentrate on work or just relax. There’s often people who pretend they have not seen the signals, or just because they do not want to acknowledge the concept, and talk or make other loud noises. Understandably this annoys other travellers. However the simple act of asking the perpetrators to be quiet has almost just as often the opposite effect. They become even more angry, and the conflict (as many conflict nowadays seem to do…) often escalates to dangerous levels. I was even suggested by the railway helpdesk, on complaining about this, that my best option would be to move to another compartment…

Another problem that irritates a lot of people is traffic jams. Sometimes they even seem to pop up out of nowhere and disappear just as silently. Of course most really large tailbacks are caused by accidents. What most people do not realise (because of the lack of cohesion-awareness) is that the net time to arrive at your destination can be minimised by a very simple trick: do not drive too fast!

I remember the (then) minister responsible for infrastructure saying she “could not explain speed limits”. I would say that explaining things like that is exactly her responsibility! Research has shown that a speed limit of 70 km/h on our congested roads would result in congestion disappearing and faster net arrival times. How can you not explain that?

As a small child my mother, as many mothers (and fathers) still do, took me to feed the ducks. Old and stale bread in a basket. I loved seeing the birds flock to get the food.

Near my office there is a pond with, surprise, ducks. I guess the ritual is repeated many times each day, only it is not just ducks that get fed. Masses of seagulls appear as well. The escalating problem that city councils face is that all this feeding attracts seagulls. Because of the abundance of food they start nesting on roofs, creating an awful lot of problems with their droppings and all. Most of the food gets spilled however, by sinking in the water, and gets to feed animals you definitely do not want to profligate in your cities and towns like rats! This food extravaganza is a potential cause of many diseases as well.

Complex systems are rife with feedback mechanisms. Most of these are very hard or actually impossible to detect and document. They are so much interwoven that it is impossible to see where one ends and another starts. It is the web of interconnected and interdependent things. However my impression is that not many people pay attention to those interdependencies. Or are even willing to consider that they miss most of them.

A story told by the “granddaughter of Chroestjev” Nina Khrushcheva (in fact she was his great-granddaughter) of a visit by a relative from her niece from Russia, in Vienna where Nina lived. They took a bus, and Nina stamped her ticket in the machine in the bus. Her niece exclaimed: “why do you do that? There is no-one to enforce that!”. That, Nina explained, is the difference between Russia and “the West”. “In Russia you only do something out of fear of getting caught, while I choose to pay for my ticket because I know that is what it costs to maintain that service on a level that, in the end, benefits me and everyone else.”

For Americans the fact that Swedish people actually want to pay taxes is incomprehensible. Their first priority is to minimise the amount they have to pay, and paying no taxes whatsoever is best. A deep and mostly subconscious mistrust of government seems to be behind this. For the Swedes the American attitude feels quite stupid: by paying taxes they are able to create and maintain a high quality of living for all citizens that they see is totally lacking in the United States.

On the last Dutch National Architecture Conference (LAC) I did a short survey in a session I did (called “Embracing the Future”) where the audience consisted of mostly architects. My question was how they responded to the road signs that are sometimes activated telling the drivers to maximise their speeds to 70 km/h. My expectation was that, being architects, they would be more than average inclined to actually comply. In practice we see that most drivers, especially when there does not seem to be a direct need to reduce speed, do not comply and continue driving with 120 km/h or more. I must admit that I was a bit disappointed that it seemed that only a handful raised their hands. The reason I thought they would comply more, is that compliance would, overall, result in more efficient traffic flow and less congestion which, in the end, would also benefit themselves. And architects especially would be an audience appreciating these arguments, or so I thought.

Feitse Boerwinkel
Feitse Boerwinkel

A (Dutch) book from 1966 recently came to my attention, written by the Dutch cultural philosopher Feitse Boerwinkel, called “Inclusive thinking – a different time requires a different way of thinking”. A very small book (only 98 pages) it was maybe the most influential inspiration for a whole cultural and educational reform in The Netherlands, completely in line with the spirit of the time.

Feitse argues for a different way of thinking he calls “inclusive thinking”. I have talked about the shift to sequential thinking that took place over a long period from the classical Greece to the Renaissance. As does Feitse, I think we are now in an era in which we are again shifting our mental mode towards a non-sequential, inclusive, time-transcending way of thinking. The movie “Arrival” depicts an alien species that completely transcended sequential thinking and even tells the story of a language that is completely non-sequential.

Movie poster Arrival

Time-bound thinking is coming to an end. Jan-Peter van der Berg, the Dutch psychiatrist,devoted an entire book on this development, which he traces from the European Middle Ages to the (then: 1970) present: Dieptepsychologie (“Depth Psychology”). In the book he talks about the rise (after the Middle Ages) and fall (in the hippie years) of the subconscious part of our minds as a somehow separate or dissociated part of ourselves.

This development is one we are smack in the middle of, which makes it hard (and for many: impossible) to see. I think the evolution of humankind is mostly a mental one, and the direction in which we are moving is so very interesting.

You might want to read my article “Why software bites back”.

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