“What’s wrong with these boys? What’s wrong with these boys who, enjoying the highest standard of living the world has ever known, go to school one day ready to murder. Having gunned down as many as their schoolmates as possible, they then hoped to steal a plane and crash it into New York City. What kind of FIENDS are they?
When our children start becoming murderers, we typically don’t wonder what’s wrong with the system that’s turning them INTO murderers, we wonder what’s wrong with THEM. Imagine an assembly line that out of every hundred vehicles turns out one that is horribly defective. Then imagine–instead of examining the assembly line–taking the defective vehicle out and shooting it. Then, when the next one comes along–instead of examining the assembly line–taking THAT one and shooting it. And when the next one comes along–instead of examining the assembly line–taking THAT one out and shooting it.
I was amused last year when, after the Jonesboro massacre, the prosecutor of THOSE boys vowed to go after them so fiercely that he was going to SEND A MESSAGE to the youth of America. And what was the message? WE’RE NOT GOING TO PUT UP WITH THIS SORT OF THING. Understand that? We’re not just going to put up with it!
We’re not going to CHANGE anything–no no, everything’s perfect the way it is. We’re just going to punish the hell out of you. And that’ll send a message. So the NEXT bunch of boys who think of massacring their schoolmates will stop and say, “Wait a second! Hey! What was that message about massacring your schoolmates? Oh, I remember now. If you massacre your schoolmates, they’re going to send you to jail for a thousand years. Or is it two thousand years? Well, I guess if it’s going to be a thousand years, we’d better not massacre our schoolmates. If it were only twenty years or fifty years, then we could go ahead. But a thousand years, wow. I can’t do a thousand years.”
Was that the problem in Columbine–that these boys just had failed to get this message? Were they under the impression that they were just going to get slapped on the wrist for gunning down their classmates and blowing up a school and crashing an airplane into a city block? Did they do all that–or plan to do all that–because they had the mistaken idea that no one would mind?
No, it’s perfectly clear that they were not under any illusion about the consequences of their actions. They expected NOT to survive their adventure.
The question I want to leave with you as designers is this. How have we gone about nurturing children who have so little to live for and so much to hate that they’ll happily throw their lives away if they can murder 500 classmates, blow up a school, and crash an airplane into a city block? Please don’t tell me about violent video games and violent music. Instead, tell me how we’ve gone about nurturing children who WANT violent video games and violent music, who THRIVE on violent video games and violent music.
In general (it can be said with reasonable justification) natural selection works on this principle, “If it doesn’t work, do it LESS.” Any gene that works against reproductive success tends to be eliminated from the gene pool–is found less and less in the gene pool until it finally disappears. Doing less of what doesn’t work is a principle that is practically instinctive to the human designer. But when it comes to our social organizations, the people of our culture follow a very different principle: If it doesn’t work, do it MORE.
I almost always get a laugh with this statement. I’m not sure whether it’s the shock of recognition or if people just think I’m kidding. I’m certainly not kidding. The principle is best seen at work in the institutions dedicated to maintaining the stability of our structures and systems. It’s an anti-evolutionary principle, a principle that keeps anything new from happening. Here are some examples.
If spending a billion dollars doesn’t win the war on drugs, spend two billion. If spending two billion doesn’t work, spend four. Sound familiar?
If hiring a thousand cops doesn’t stop crime in your city, hire 2000. If hiring 2000 doesn’t work, hire 4000.
If sentencing criminals to 10 years doesn’t work, sentence them to 20 years. If 20 years doesn’t work, sentence them to 50–to 500, a thousand!
If building a thousand prisons doesn’t work, build 2000. If building 2000 doesn’t work, build 4000.
If assigning two hours of homework doesn’t work, assign three. If assigning three doesn’t work, assign four.
I became aware of this principle when I was the head of the mathematics department at the Encyclopaedia Britannica Educational Corporation. Someone gave me a white paper that had been put together by the National Association of Teachers of English examining the state of teaching and objectives for the future. In spite of all the themes we give them to write, they said, kids aren’t learning to how to write. So what we have to do is–guess what?–give them MORE THEMES to write. Writing 20 themes a year doesn’t work, so give them 30. And if 30 doesn’t work, give them 40.
If you’re taxpayers, you’ve seen your tax bills for education escalate steadily, year after year, decade after decade, as every year the schools struggle to do more of what doesn’t work. Everyone connected to the system is completely convinced that if spending nine trillion doesn’t work, then you just need to spend ten.
Naturally there were counselors at Columbine High School. But after the massacre, Janet Reno stood up and said, guess what, that we need to push for MORE COUNSELORS. Having counselors didn’t work, so NATURALLY we should have MORE of them, and if one for every hundred kids doesn’t work, then we should have two, and if two doesn’t work, then we should have three.
We have an organizational system that works wonderfully well for products. But we don’t have a system that works wonderfully well for people. That’s the lesson to be learned at Jonesboro and Columbine–and at the places that are going to follow, because these two aren’t the last two, they’re just the first two.
We have a system that works fabulously well for products. But the one we have for people stinks. This is the lesson we’ve got to learn–or the human future on this planet is going to be a very bleak one indeed.
So this is the message I’d like to leave with you. For the sake of the human future, don’t take your designer’s hat off when you leave the office. Don’t limit your work or your thinking to the objects and physical structures that people need and want. Look at everything that’s going on here with designer’s eyes. For the sake of the human future, go after it all like designers.