Institutional frameworks can’t guarantee good quality of life for citizens (life, liberty, pursuit of happiness), but they can easily degrade it.
In addition to a good framework, you need cultural values. The ‘spirit’ of the law. In a way, the objective framework is simply a conduit for the expression of the (subjective?) values. And the leaders play an important part. In politics, Obama and Bush, for different camps in different ways, represent those values (even as, in the non-secular realm, the Pope is spiritual leader of the Catholic church). Part of the President’s job is to motivate and propagate the spirit of the institutions (for both her party and her county).
Something of great interest to me is how values spread in the internet age, and how to include values in the design and distribution of digital tools.
Spider Robinson: Callahan’s Crosstime Saloon, the neighborhood bar you always wanted
Neal Stephenson: Snowcrash, a knight wages the good fight in iconicly visualized cyberspace
David Simon: The Wire, clinical look at how our institutions fail us
Aaron Sorkin: The West Wing, optimistic yet realistic look at how our institutions could work (polical porn for liberals; I love his smart, non-evil conservatives)
I think for example that as a leader curmudgeony old Stallman does a great job of value motivation and propagation. Yeah, you can just download the GNU software. But along with it comes riding the whole kit (and caboodle) of old timey hacker ethics, which takes some effort to ignore.
I compare this to the difference between a mail order gun and a Samurai sword. Any idiot can order a gun; it just comes wrapped in oiled paper. But back in feudal Japan, when you saw a guy walking down the street wearing a Samurai sword, it meant something: the Samurai Code, which came bundled with the hardware.
Finally, to wrap up in odd segue, that’s my favorite thing about Callahan’s Crosstime Saloon: the values (of course, wonderfully integrated with music and amazing characters). Callahan’s is very uptopian. I tended bar and lived in bar culture in my 20’s and 30’s, and believe me Spider is a romantic. No real bar is that cool. Too bad!
So, screw reality.
Read and write about the culture you want to live in, damn skippy (like twitter-following the people you want to be (thanks, BME)). In Live Graphics Nightly I try to do just that, presenting not merely a slightly future technology of performing graphics, but also an idealized culture which is a mashup of old-timey blues traditions and new-timey hacker ethics in the context of live visual art. With all the action taking place in a Spideresque healing bar. Whew!
The beautiful sweet spot for me is when tech supports & synergizes expression — expression of both artistic ideas (performing graphics interfaces so immediate you can feel the pixels between your fingers) and expression of cultural values (camaraderie backstage at the graphics bar, brothers and sisters of the beam well thrown).
Postscript. Maybe the formal structure of institutions is like the physical framework of a musical instrument: good instruments don’t guarantee good musical performances, but bad instruments almost always guarantee bad ones. There are exceptions — benevolent dictator, cigar box guitar — where extraordinary human effort overcomes systemic constraints. But as a rule, for ordinary folk, good frameworks are enablers and make all the difference.
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