Note: This article contains minor spoilers.
“Life now is so complicated, it’s impossible for anyone to be good enough… These days, just buying a tomato at the grocery store means you are unwittingly supporting toxic pesticides, exploited labour, contributing to global warming. Humans think they’re making one choice, but they’re actually making dozens of choices they don’t even know they’re making.” — Micheal on “The Good Place”
We might look back on this quote from The Good Place as the moment systems thinking entered pop culture. The clip it comes from (below) is certain to take on a memetic quality within the systems change space — you can bet systems practitioners will gleefully open presentations with it to demonstrate hip, modern relevance before moving on to the spaghetti diagrams they rely on currently.
The episode compares two hypothetical “Dougs,” who stand in as foils for the series’ moral lesson about complexity. Doug in simpler times can buy a tomato and earn points for doing good — his tomato helps a farmer and provides nutrition to his children. Things aren’t so simple for Doug in modern times.
Dilemmas like Doug’s are the problems of interest in Systems Thinking, a mental model used by the social impact community in an effort to make society’s most complex problems legible and amenable to thoughtful intervention. Systems thinking is where the work of changing society’s biggest problems becomes professionalised.
That systems thinking is inherently so complex has given its practitioners a certain mystique. To have a claim on how entire societies change is to wield almost magical power. A recent week-long Theory U course (which I’ve written about), was able to charge over $4,000 for attendance.
That is the power of claims to truth.
What The Good Place teaches us is that systems thinking is actually widespread in the general population. The delight experienced by the viewer at Michael’s monologue is contingent upon the experience of living within a complex system. I consider this a folk understanding as it is intuitive and experiential, and true in sentiment if incorrect in the details.
Ironically, the folk understanding of systems thinking is more expansive than the systems practitioners’ view because it paints a world where nobody is outside the system. This stands in contrast to the role of the systems practitioner, whose power derives from a claim to be able to stand outside the system and make it legible.
The folk understanding is reflected in The Good Place, where nobody has been considered “good” in over 500 years. Even those who dedicated their lives to changing the system didn’t make the grade. Rosa Parks, Malcolm X and Stanislav Petrov are all in “the bad place,” alongside you, me, and murderers.
This tells us something about the work we do as systems practitioners. It tells us that ordinary people are pessimistic about our efforts to make real change.
To the migrant, pension recipient and itinerant worker, “the system” is experienced as a grim reality of public transport commutes and frustrating phone calls. Even for the securely employed, it is the congestion of late-night shopping or the exhausting management of children’s screen time. For all those within the system, the sense is that it is managed by some faint corporate aesthetic, foreign linens and distant champagne glass clinks, long rooms and swipe card access panels.
This is an ethnography of the system. It is the cultural backdrop in which the cynicism about changemaking evident in The Good Place finds traction.
To those suffering the most under our systems, systems practitioners must look everything except revolutionary. We are well-dressed, warm and composed. We are there to help and yet we look so much like those who’ve caused so much harm. In many cases we’re working together. We flatter those in power, invent neologisms that make us look smart and them feel stupid, and are quick to dismiss the most ambitious and necessary changemaking efforts as impossible. The clink of the champagne glass is occasionally ours. We drink so fraudulently and self-consciously.
Is it any surprise that we are seen as part of the problem?