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institutions aren't human

Institutions Aren’t Human

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What a strange title. Of course institutions aren’t human, anyone with a brain can see that. And yet somehow, for some strange reason, whenever they deal with institutions, people keep acting as if they’re dealing with human beings. Let’s get into the matter itself and see what the problem is. 

To start off, let me clarify the terms we’ll be working with. When I say institution, I don’t just mean institutions of the state, government entities or agencies, but any corporate body, private, public, religious, secular, instantiated for a specific purpose and governed by procedural rules. By contrast, when I say human, I mean the humble homo sapiens sapiens, sometimes derisively called a shaved ape or a featherless biped. As it’ll become clear, while institutions may indeed consist of, are staffed by and are ultimately designed by featherless bipeds, they are not themselves human.

Of all the objects on the planet, institutions are most like computers. They are set up for a certain purpose and they function on a set of relatively simple commands, which we may even call programs. The people working within them are less human beings and more instruments of the institution’s overall will, which is determined by its charter and by-laws. These workers implement procedure, taking in stimuli from you as a client and producing “output”. The process may seem like decision-making from the outside, but it is nothing of the sort, at least not in by the human being you speak to in the institution. 

In a sense, the process is a form of decision-making, but at a distance and separated from the decision that needs to be made by a period of time, lack of immediacy and in a different place, by a person distant in place and also probably time. For example, when interacting with the American government, you are (or should be, at least) interacting with the decision-making processes of the men who set it up all the way back in the 18th century. 

However, because you’re dealing with a large, ponderous computer, it also functions very much like a computer in that it can only do what it was programmed to do and not much more than that.  In fact, I believe that a lot of people are frustrated with institutions and in fact make their dealings with them harder than they have to be by expecting the institutions to be human. Humans can be bargained with, but institutions aren’t human. We don’t often try to bargain with our computers,so this leads me to believe that we treat institutions as human precisely because we interact with them through humans – the institution’s employees. There’s probably a bit of an IQ and insight barrier to understanding this.

I believe that a large factor in why blacks are disproportionately shot at by police is not only the fact of high black crime rates, but also because when they’re being detained, blacks seem not to understand that they’re dealing with an institution – the police, rather than with a man – the policeman. A man can be bargained with, i. e. be can be persuaded, manipulated, bribed,  begged, intimidated and I suspect that black try to intimidate policemen as they would their fellow ghetto criminals, leading to the policemen coldly and mechanically implementing procedure – i. e. attempting to subdue resisting suspects with gradually escalating degrees of force. Here the policemen are acting as an institution – the police, acting out a series of if-then statements and responding to pre-determined stimuli (facts). This is in stark contrast to a human being. A human being has agency and judgement. Its decision-making process consists not only of observing the facts on the ground, judging them against a prior legal, ethical or moral framework and then issuing a decision, but also of the never-ending give and take of social obligations, positioning, including here the very soft and fuzzy qualities of status, striving, cruelty, pettiness, charity, mercy, boredom and fatigue. The same policeman who’ll brook no resistance to detainment when dealing with criminals and mechanistically implement the guidelines of his department is probably a very human creature in his private life, for example being easily manipulated by the puppy-dog eyes of his daughter into violating the very rules he personally set as a father. 

A good way to look at human judgement processes is to look at judges, who are often in a position where they make decisions on the spot, rather than merely reading a procedural script like workers in institutions. As criminal lawyers can tell you, the harshness of your sentence can depend on whether the judge has had lunch or not. Sentences given before lunch tend to be harsher because judges are crankier. Attractive women are less likely to be judged harshly. A judge can be pleaded with to show clemency or mercy. A judge can be bribed or intimidated, though judges tend to expect these stimuli and respond negatively to them. But crucially, while he’s not 100% free to interpret the law, the judge remains a human being who can be dealt with as a human being. An institution has its procedures and cannot be bargained with. 

In fact, the best way to deal with an institution is to find a way to bypass its procedures and humanise the interaction, i. e. find someone, anyone – who a) has discretionary powers and b) deal with them as you would with any other human being. 

Most of the popular ways to get anything done when dealing with an institution is to humanise it. The great advantage of having connections is that you get to deal with the man in charge, i. e. The man with discretionary powers. Discretionary powers mean fundamentally decision-making powers and powers to bypass the procedural rules governing the institution. Once you’ve gotten hold of the man, you can use your (hopefully existent) social skills in order to get him to align with whatever you’re trying to accomplish. 

Bribery and intimidation are similar to this, but they usually entail enticing the man who staffs the institution to act like a human being, i. e. to make a decision and insert that decision into the procedural flow of the institution. So, if you’re caught speeding and bribe the traffic policeman, you’re suddenly no longer interacting with the police, but are now interacting with the policeman. He can then distort reality, i. e. feed false data into the institutional procedure flow. “I’ll pretend I saw nothing.” Of course, bribery and intimidation usually work on institutions which are already fraying at the seams, e.g. a police force with underpaid cops. 

I guess this brings us to the final point of today’s exploration which is that institutions aren’t human, but they aren’t computers either. When I push a button on my computer, the associated character appears on the screen. If I type out the word “institution”, there’s no way to bargain with any of the constituent parts of a computer and make it display the word “human.” You can’t bribe a semiconductor into making 1 into a 0, but the human beings staffing institutions can be bribed, bargained with, or otherwise influenced into subverting the institutional programming. For this reason, I’ve concluded, programmers and engineers are the profession which least understands government, next to the very unintelligent. While institutions do indeed function on a series of if-then statements, just like computers, there has never been a computer whose individual circuits could be bargained with into interrupting the procedural flow. But tech bros will see procedures and assume they can just program a government like they do a computer, neglecting the fact that a government necessarily consists of very unpredictable, very fuzzy and soft featherless bipeds. 

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