Modern Civilization is Not That Free After All

A few days ago I shared the story of how Tucker Patterson, a terminally ill toddler, achieved his wish of skating and playing ice hockey with his family. Although he ended up in the Air Canada Centre and got to meet several Maple Leaf superstars, it was only because his family’s initial request to use the local facility in Flamborough, near Hamilton, was denied. According to the Star:

On Jan. 17, his mother, Kari Patterson, called up a Flamborough ice rink to ask if they were able to accommodate Tucker and his wheelchair during their afternoon public skate. They were told “No.”

“I was angry,” Kari told the Hamilton Spectator. “It’s something we can do as a family … we’re limited in what we can do together.”

The city’s recreation manager later said that the employee who’d refused the Pattersons misunderstood the facility’s policy.

Just like Kari, you might be feeling angry. My initial emotion was also indignation – why would anyone deny a dying child?

Of course, the explanation is probably not that the employee was particularly stone-hearted or vicious. It’s probably not like the person who refused Kari’s request was an inherently bad person.

The official explanation is interesting, and worth repeating here:

‘The city’s recreation manager later said that the employeee who’d refused the Pattersons misunderstood the facility policy.’

So the official stance is that it was employee incompetence.

An easy enough explanation. I have a different theory, though. I believe that this blunder was a failure of the system; a fundamentally flawed system that relies not on human wisdom but on the appropriate execution of rules.

Let me explain this system before discussing my theory regarding the Patterson denial.

So we’re all familiar with this system – in every workplace, there’s things we can do, and things we cannot. A security guard is not allowed to let strangers into an office building. A volunteer at a hospital is not allowed to give advice to patients sitting in the waiting area. Potentially, a stranger asking to enter a private office at 9pm could be a miscreant capable of almost anything – stealing confidential information, sabotaging work, and the list goes on. Similarly, a volunteer at a public hospital might tell a patient with H1N1 that she just has the common cold and does not need medical attention. Both would be disasters.

But what is the probability of such disasters, especially when the security guard and volunteer both possess and exercise common sense – or as Aristotle put it, practical wisdom?

Barry Schwartz delivered a brilliant, brilliant lecture at TED last year on the loss of practical wisdom in modern civilization. (Video embedded at the end of the post.) He talked about how rules cripple individual decision making and effectively make people less HUMAN and more ROBOTIC. When people do not have the freedom to exercise common sense, they will make choices that may seem stupid in hindsight. We must, however, always remember the context of one’s actions in order to judge them, and the modern day context is this:

Times are tough. Things aren’t getting any cheaper, but jobs are increasingly harder to hold on to in modern day Civilization. In order to get and keep a job, you have to do your work well, and you can usually only prove that through quantifying it. The System understands this and thus has a set of rules whereby if you abide by each Rule, you get to have numbers backing you up everywhere. You have the Book, and as long as you play by the Book, you almost never get fired, because you didn’t break any Rule.

Now, why do we have these Rules? Well, because ‘common sense is not so common’! Because people’s judgment cannot be trusted, because people often make mistakes, because – perish the thought – they are HUMANS! Since humans have proven to be infinitely fallible in the past, and since human error accounts for so much grief and misery and death and destruction, Civilization has decided to take them out of the equation. There is no need for humans to think, because thinking can be dangerous!

Let’s return to Flamborough. You’re working a lowly job as a customer service associate at the community centre and you receive a call from a lady who’s asking if her little son, who is on a wheelchair, can skate with the public sometime soon. Now the rules you have are very specific: nothing but skates are allowed on the rink. The rules are quite simple:

Family Skate: Adults 18 years + and children up to a limit of 5 children per adult can enjoy skating at your local arena. No additional equipment permitted.

Now, given the information you have, knowing that this is a public skate program and that there will be other people participating in the activity this weekend, knowing also that this child is on a wheelchair which could potentially harm others or himself, knowing that you have no power to grant special, ‘out of the box’ privileges…do you take the risk and say yes?

It might seem obvious to us after the media hullabaloo and after knowing the specifics of Tucker’s situation – but perhaps back then things weren’t so clear. And it’s perfectly possible that the employee did not want to risk his/her job. I think the employee just took the ‘safety-first’ option, which is what we’re all trained and instructed to do. However, ‘safety-first’ does not always mean it is the best option. As Barry Schwartz puts it: rules prevent disaster, but they also assure mediocrity.

There’s an idiom in Urdu that aptly describes this situation: lakeer ke fakeer. Literally, "beggars of the line." What it translates to, and what it means, is "at mercy of the rules". I should add that it’s a derogatory term – someone who is a ‘lakeer ka fakeer’ usually lacks good judgment and is either stupid or incompetent. That’s not how the System is here, but by and large, people are constricted by rules and procedures.

Practical wisdom, as Aristotle defined it, is the combination of moral will, and moral skill. It is knowing when and how to make the exception of every rule-and it requires a) time, b) permission, and c) authority.



By and large, employees here are expected and almost forced to follow specific instructions when carrying out their work. No one likes it, but it spares one from thinking and simplifies matters in the effort to reduce risk. Unfortunately it also simplifies the mind and makes people dumber, I believe. Anyone who’s talked to customer service knows what I’m talking about.

"Why was I charged $5 for making a call if weekends are free?"
"Sir, the rule is that…."

I had the same experience interacting with universities – ask admissions counselors for advice, and in return you get the FAQs copy pasted in the reply. That is literally what happens. A student calls an art college to find out the admission requirements and whether she’s eligible, and she’s told to go to the website because ‘it has more information.’ What the person on the other end, advising a web visit, does not seem to realize is that the student probably obtained the number THROUGH the website and has probably ALREADY gone through a poorly designed but visually appealing information dump that helps only cookie-cutter cases.

We don’t live in a world of cookie-cutter solutions. We live in the world of context. Generalizations are 20th century – case-by-case,focused, personalized service is the way to go now. Mass production was replaced by mass customization years ago. Diversity today is not what diversity was in the ’60s. The old thinking paradigm must change – predefined systems are by definition outdated in most areas of implementation.

Let’s put the thinking caps back on.

Here’s a scenario to chew on. Please post responses in the comments.

James is a janitor at an office building. One night, he gets a visitor who says that he works in the building and has forgotten an important file in his office. He has a meeting in another city tomorrow morning and the last flight departs in one hour. What do you think James should do?

The answers I receive will be the basis for a future blog post; I already have received some rather interesting feedback. Please add your own!

(Additional request: please add your ethnic background.)

As promised, here’s Barry Schwarz on the loss of practical wisdom. I cannot recommend this talk enough. The lemonade story should, in particular, be extremely interesting.




  1. “does not seem to realize is that the student probably obtained the number THROUGH the website and has probably ALREADY gone through a poorly designed but visually appealing information dump that helps only cookie-cutter cases”
    I have experienced this so many times…

    I love this post. It makes a lot of “real” sense.

  2. I wrote a reply, and it got deleted and I am not typing it again. =P

    And as for James, he wouldn’t really bother as long as the visitor is suave and talks his way through. Its important for the visitor to get things done, so he should be more convincing with his case, rather than relying on a janitor (who would be least bothered) to take a decision for him.

    So if the visitor is relying on the janitor to make the decision. He’s stupid.

    And when you’ve got thousands of candidates applying to a university, all of them have stupid dumb questions, and if you go on and cater to everyone’s issues in a personalized manner; then you need to have an army of admissions staff just to respond to dumb queries, which means that the cost component would increase drastically, thereby affecting the tuition fee you pay. So its your decision, do you want personalized service, or low tuition fee.

    And I agree with Sheena, that the lady should’ve asked for the manager.

    I’ve got more to say, but too lazy to type again.

    And my ethnicity: human (philosophical, indeed =P).

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