Second System Syndrome

In software development, there’s a common error that occurs as a system evolves. The first version is lean and focused on a small initial set of capabilities. Lessons are learned during development, features are added, and bugs are found. At some point, the development team begins to feel that their first version contained too many compromises, and that it would be better just to start over from scratch with new ideas. Competent at managing the existing system, but forgetting some of the challenges of its implementation, the team determines that they’re equipped to start again — armed with the lessons of the past and newer technology and skills.

Invariably, this second system proves way more difficult than the first. While its true that the first system had some real issues, its users are unable to sacrifice features they use at the alter of a clean slate. The relatively short history of software is full of the fall-out: The new version is less capable, users complain. The new version has new and different bugs to work around, customers get frustrated. “The new versions sucks — why couldn’t you just improve the old one?!”

I first learned of the “de-fund the police” movement in a Facebook discussion a couple days before it started trending — and I was alarmed. In the wake of almost continuous police brutality hitting the news, I understand the reflex, but the position that police departments should go away seemed extreme to me. Upon probing the post, I found there’s a little more nuance to the position. Depending on who you’re talking to, “de-fund” might mean “reduce funding” or “fund alternate community supports.” But it might also mean “get rid of all police.”

I have just two thoughts in response:

When bad people make it into the police force, we should have mechanisms to deal with them — but we shouldn’t be surprised: the human race is made up entirely of broken people who will be involved in any system we build! Humanism’s only hope is that we can muster enough good behavior from the human condition to out-weight our flawed natures.

Of course, I don’t believe that humanism is the answer. I believe that part of the situation we’re in is that truth has become relative. We tolerate an extreme right and an extreme left because we’ve all agreed that people can have their “own” truth. We reject absolute truth, but acquiesce to extreme relative truths. There is an Absolute Truth that is not subject to the Public Safety Officers Procedural Bill of Rights, or to your opinion, or to mine. And without that Absolute, any human system will fail.

I despair though, that the Christian Church — the hands and feet of Jesus who are supposed to be carrying that Truth — has become so focused on advocating a political viewpoint, or an immoral President, or some imagined prophecy, that no one is really interested in what we have to say any more. Others are doing a better job of being salt and light, and we are not hearing the pain that our systems are causing.

I saw a viewpoint on Twitter the other day that makes some sense to me. It suggested that as Christians, who should be in a posture of humbly listening right now, maybe we need a different set of leaders. Maybe those who have been last among us for so long should be first for awhile, so we can hear of Jesus work through the cross that they have been carrying. Let’s not throw out the systems we built. Let us with humility, and repentance for where we have failed to excise the sin in our camp, ask the people who are most impacted by the problems to lead us in fixing them.

Update: obviously my viewpoint on this amounts to an opinion. I don’t have first-hand experience with either policing, or being a victim of white-on-black racism. This article, from someone with both experiences, is well worth reading.

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