The worst dish to bring to Thanksgiving: politics

27 November 2014

On one hand, my mother should have known better. She’s been familiar with my contrarian attitude for 40 years. But after dinner the other night, she’s the one who said to me:

“What do you think about the President’s decision to grant amnesty to all these illegal immigrants?”

On the other hand, I’ve lived in society for 40 years. I know that when people ask a question like that, they want one of two responses:

“I am in favor of it” or “I am not in favor of it” followed by polite conversation.

Possibly the polite response from someone like me is, “I don’t care.” But I’ve been in enough discussions when that isn’t good enough for people who then gang up and try to shame me into “caring.” So I prefer to state a non-aggressionist principle, attempt a humorous retort about how useless all politicians are, and change the subject.

In that way, I marginalize myself. No one takes my non-aggressionst opinions seriously because I don’t want to spend my precious time learning how to refute the minutiae of their opinions. It’s the curse of being a person the core of whose politics is leaving people alone: no one wants to leave you alone.

Here’s a thing I believe about politics: we don’t need policy; we need usable policy. I often hear friends and acquaintances bemoan “do nothing” Congresses or Presidents who aren’t passing laws. I always think: I’d rather them do nothing than pass shitty laws that make things worse.

I do spend a lot of time thinking about how to make work better. I just published a book about the values that I think make work better. I also think a lot about minimizing in relation to: work, tools, personal lives, even writing.

For anything to be usable—from an app’s user interface to a car’s dashboard to a book of information—it must be simple and open. This is not a guiding principle of politicians. Whether they know it or not, they are on the other side of that usability axiom: complex and closed systems create power only for those in charge of the system (not the users) and are tantamount to deception.

I can guarantee my mother doesn’t know what’s actually in the policy that the president announced last week. I definitely don’t. Just like I’d be willing to bet that no one who actually uses the Affordable Care Act has read the 5,000 to 40,000 pages of it. I sure haven’t.

To me there’s no point in taking sides in a political discussion with only two options, neither of which is fully understood by those discussing it. In this way, the complexity of political policy performs its most sinister act: diverting smart people away from probing what actually works (or from simply spending their time enjoying one another’s company, my preferred activity).

Through building a lot of websites, I’ve learned that what works most consistently is less. Whatever it is, less of it always works better and more reliably. The more you add to something, the more confusing it becomes.

I don’t know the particulars of the President’s immigration plan but I believe that what’s gotten us to this point is decades of unusable immigration process. When things become too complex, we route around the complexity. When a website’s shopping checkout process is convoluted, we just abandon the cart and buy elsewhere. When a government bans a highly desired substance, a black market develops. When a country’s legal immigration process isn’t easy to use, immigrants are more likely to skip the paperwork.

For me personally, politics is one of those complex systems that I’ve abandoned. It isn’t usable to me. And because it is in the best interests of the two controlling parties to keep things complicated, taking sides in their dumb debate on how they’d each prefer to complicate it is pointless to me. If anyone wants to talk about improving the user experience of policy, I might be interested.

So this Thanksgiving, I’m going to try another diversionary tactic. If any political subject comes up, I’m going to ask what everyone thinks about the W3C’s recommendation of HTML5. I have a pretty airtight argument that unless they are immigrants or family members of an immigrant receiving temporary amnesty, HTML5 has a greater effect on their lives. (I’m not saying it should, just that that’s the situation.) And unless they’re in the web industry, they probably know nothing about the W3C’s reccomendation. It’s a policy that affects billions (probably?) of people yet only a tiny minority know what it means.

This effort won’t work. They’ll all prefer to call me naive and radical, the contrarian in the family who foolishly believes open borders could work.

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