Rules, Rules, Rules: or, How I Learned to Love Having to Sign Here, and Here, and Initial There


Last month the NBA on TNT crew was discussing advanced statistics and their role in evaluating basketball. Ever opinionated, Charles Barkley announced, “I’ve always believed analytics were crap. They’re just some crap that some people who are really smart made up to try to get in the game ’cause they had no talent.” In an era of increasingly refined metrics, when sports executives delve deeper into the data to find an edge, Barkley had planted his Luddite flag.

Barkley’s argument may seem regressive, but it’s indicative of our general distrust for organizational hierarchy and decision-making. In his new collection of essays, The Utopia of Rules, David Graeber (pictured) examines our love-hate relationship with bureaucracy. Like many of us, Graeber wonders whether we’re actually becoming better organized or just devoting more and more time to filling out of forms. His writing is both academically dense and sprinkled with references to pop culture, allowing many different kinds of readers to access his way of thinking.

Utopia_of_Rules_largeIn the second essay in the book, “Of Flying Cars and the Declining Rate of Profit,” Graeber asks a question similar to one I raised in a piece about Back to the Future Part II—namely, despite several decades’ worth of futuristic science fiction, why have we not yet invented flying cars, teleportation or even a simple hoverboard? As you may expect, Graeber lays the blame for stagnation at the feet of bureaucracy. Specifically, he argues that the ever-increasing committee time, paperwork and run-of-the-mill drudgery we put scientists through discourages out-of-the-box thinking. As a result, our top research scientists routinely come up with ideas that are simple rehashes of things that already work. As one physicist claims, “Original ideas are the kiss of death for a proposal, because they have not yet been proved to work.”

Bureaucracy in its ideal form is a perfect meritocracy. But, while waiting in one line to get a form in order to wait in another line at the DMV, I think we can all agree that the ideal is a long way from reality. And yet, it seems to me that attacking bureaucracy in the year 2015 may be a quixotic gesture. Just as Barkley rages against the way an increasing majority of sports teams do business, our complaints are but droplets in a sea of paperwork. I remember being surprised at the amount of forms I had to fill out when starting a teaching job. The secretary looked at my pile, smiled wryly and said, “Welcome to the New York City Department of Education.”

Graeber softens the blow when discussing the development of language, perhaps because it hinges on breaking the rules. Despite our best efforts to follow proper grammar and syntax, there’s not a language on record that hasn’t changed immensely over the course of just a few decades. Even with my red pen dutifully marking every foul on student papers, I know that no amount of bureaucratic rule will stem the tide of language evolution. So next time you’re filling out a useless form, take solace that this is just a beta version of the amazing, cutting-edge form you’ll be filling out sometime in the near future.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia