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On Relativism and Social Constructions

The key operative precept of post-modernism is that all reality is a social construct. Since no institution or normative behavior stems from natural cause, and there is no objective, external reality, then all institutions and attitudes are just social constructs. They exist only through the agreement of the participants.

Nothing can be sacred, since sanctification comes from outside, by definition.

If nothing is sacred, and institutions have no more reality than a children's amorphous game of ball, they deduce that any construct can be reconstructed through willful choice.

Even if you accept the precept that there is no objective, external (let alone universal) value system, you can still see the fundamental fallacy in this thinking.

Anyone who has ever tried to bring change into a hidebound organization knows that social constructs are far harder to change than any physical or legal structure. You can reorganize units, bring locations together, shuffle management, or get rid of half of the people. Still, underlying social organization will re-emerge as long as there is any vestige of continuity.

Much of the heat energy in the ongoing culture war arises from this inertia. Those who are so tiresomely labelled as "liberal", "progressive", the "Left", the "Cultural Elite", etc. represent a large force of people aimed at deliberately reconstructing every institution in Western life. They have decided, based on their own feelings, bereft of natural or religious law, that any institution observed by men for more than one hundred years cannot be endured. They are organized around the post-modern paradigm--armed with Hayakawa and Chomsky--and don't accept that some hidebound Neanderthals will not welcome forceful re-education.

I suppose that I follow a third way. I can agree that our institutions are social cosntructs. That does not mean that they can, or should be, tampered with lightly. The concept of "natural law" teaches that certain modes of behavior, certain morals, generate a more successful society. Our social institutions--like marriage--have undergone the same forces of competitive pressures and differential reproduction that drive neo-Darwinian evolution. That means the institutions we observe today--such as preserving the integrity of personal property--are the ones that worked.

There is an argument to be made that I'm advocating cultural imperialism. It could perhaps be seen that way, though such is not my intent. Rather, just as we should justifiably be wary of changing our own genetic code, we should be wary of making large changes to our social institutions. We do not know what will result. There are many paths down the mountain, but only one upward. Most random mutations result in death. Even well-planned changes have unintended, sometimes catastrophic, effects.

References

An IKEA Weekend

I've been building a new office in my downstairs space for quite a while now. It's a "weekends" project for someone who doesn't have very many weekends. In early December, I broke down and hired a contractor to install the laminate ("cardboard") flooring, which was the penultimate step in the master plan.

Last comes furniture, then moving in. (Which starts the chain of dominoes, as my eldest gets the bedroom which used to be my office, then my youngest takes her spot, which makes room for the new baby. The challenge is to finish with the hole migration before the new electron gets injected. No, that wasn't a spelling error.)

So this weekend, I had thirty-six boxes of IKEA modular furniture from "Work IKEA" to assemble.

You have time to meditate on many lessons when you are assembling thirty-six boxes of IKEA modular furniture.

For example, I've never seen a company that makes it so difficult to purchase from them. I don't really want to know that the six-shelf bookshelf I picked out from the design software actually comes as three separate SKUs. Just sell me the damn shelf.

I shouldn't have to learn what a "CDO" is in order to pick out a bunch of stuff and have them deliver it on a specific day. I shouldn't have to make three trips into the store because they cannot take my credit card number over the phone.

And can someone please explain why I have to remove items from my delivery order because the local store doesn't have them in stock? In some fields of endeavor, timing is everything, but why should I have to call them every day to find out when the left-handed tabletop comes in, then rush to the store and place my order so the piece can be pulled from inventory?

It makes no sense to me. The whole process was implemented for the convenience of IKEA, not IKEA's customers. They've made a business decision to optimize for cost control rather than customer satisfaction. IKEA is certainly free to make that choice, and they do seem to be making profits, but I'm not likely to choose them for future furniture purchases.

Exposing that much of your internal process to the customer--or end user--is never a good way to win the hearts and minds of your customers.

Most of the assembly went without incident, though I was often perplexed by trying to map the low-level components into the high-level items I designed with. IKEA offers zero-cost software for download to design a floorplan with their lines, but it works at a higher level of abstraction. I was often left wondering which item a particular component was supposed to construct.

The components were very well designed. Each piece can either fit together in only one way, or it is rotationally symmetric so either orientation works. In either case, I, the assembler, am not left with an ambiguous situation, where something might fit but does not work.

The toughest pieces were the desks. Desks can be configured in about eighty-nine different ways. The components are all modular and generally have the same interfaces. I have a lot of flexibility at my disposal, but at the expense of complexity. A significant number of sample configurations helped me understand the complexity of options and pick a reasonable structure, but I can't help but wonder how the experience could be simplified.

The furniture is all assembled now, and the office sits expectantly waiting for its occupant, full of unrealized potential.