Feb 222012

A big part of the reason I like community organizing, beyond the social and cultural aspects, is that it allows me to design systems. Beyond their cleverness and elegance, systems are great at automating routine things and I find this useful in a number of ways in my life.

When I’m working on a book, I have a number of words I write per week — 5000. I break this down further into 4 sessions of 1250 words each. Each session takes 3-4 hours. I can then schedule four 4 hour sessions a week and no longer have to think about it. I don’t waste mental energy on wondering if I’m writing enough. I know at this rate I’ll have a novel-length draft in six months. I often move the sessions around in the week, but pretty much always have my 5000 words done by the end of the week, often by Friday. I don’t presume that that particular system will work for everyone, but I do feel that some system will work for most people: and that it can allay feelings of guilt and angst. It’s a matter of designing a few and playtesting them.

If you find yourself mired in questions like “Should I even bother?” or “Am I good enough?” it’s because you’re giving yourself too much choice: if you can commit to making an overriding decision at the beginning of the project it’s easier to ignore these questions throughout the project itself. Because, let’s face it, over a six month project you’re bound to feel negative at some point and you shouldn’t let it derail you.

Veganism, for me, is a systemic approach for expressing my discomfort with the hypocritical way we love animals until they’re too delicious. Rather than making a million tiny decisions weighing the consequences of my consumer choices, I have made a single, fairly substantial one. How do you want to allocate your brain’s processing power?

I’ve talked quite a bit about how agenda books offload a lot of stress and mental energy onto a tool in Time Management for Anarchists, but that’s another system.

I imagine I’ve lost a few people already with my machine metaphors and quantification. Ah well. Some of you are saying, “Systems ARE great! Until they’re driving tanks over us?”

Of course most systems are chock full of power dynamics, but just because most computers run Windows doesn’t mean yours can’t run Linux. Autonomous systems are a way of getting shit done without a hierarchy, because the system itself has a kind of abstract authority. If you’ve built a system that has a track record of success or of producing good stuff, then people will often trust it.

Personally, I’m always uncomfortable in a role of authority, but I like helping people make stuff. I’m currently rethinking a process of gamemaking education where instead of being led by a teacher or coordinator, that role rotates from person to person with each session. The real learning comes from making the game, and to be guided away from making obvious mistakes by teachers actually deprives you of a more memorable object lesson, and sometimes deprives you of happy accidents that are creatively enriching.

I mean, when you walk you don’t think about each and every footfall, do you? You’re daydreaming, scheming, ignorant of the efficient meat machinery below your brainstem. Embrace automata!


Matt Hammill did the illustration.

  4 Responses to “Hating The System While Loving Systems”

  1. Jim, you continue to amaze and enrapture me! xox
    If I wasn’t slightly tipsy I would write something more intelligent, but there you go.

  2. And, yes, the “enrapture” thing was deliberate.

  3. Ha! Thanks Heather.

  4. Your gamemaking education idea makes me think of popular education (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Popular_education) which we used before I volunteered overseas.

    It also makes me think of http://www.hackerschool.com/ which has been quite successful.

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