Saturday, December 08, 2007

On Procedurality

I've been thinking a lot about procedurality lately, and an incident today showed the relevance of these theoretical speculations in the world of lived experience as well.

First, some background: I live in a house that is between two hospitals on the east-west axis, between two churches on the north-south axis, and around the corner from a funeral home. As a result, it's a neighborhood in which property is not only slightly more affordable in pricey Santa Monica but also one in which elderly people are often seen wandering around on the sidewalks lost. The disoriented senior citizen problem has become particularly noticeable since one of the hospitals has been undergoing construction and has closed down its reception area, along with its main entrance.

Today, I led a man back to his wife's hospital room. She was 91, and he was 88. He had gone outside to smoke, since the rules of the hospital dictated that visitors smoke far from the building and its ventilation systems, but he couldn't find his way back to the right structure after he had finished his cigarette. To make matters worse he was apparently experiencing some side effects from the medication he was taking, which only contributed to his confusion and inability to navigate. By the time he encountered me on my morning walk, he was blocks from the hospital after an hour going in circles or in the wrong direction. Since I was one of the few people not wearing an iPod or talking into a cell phone, he approached me for help, albeit hesitantly.

What astonished me was that it soon became clear that merely leading him back to the front door of the hospital wouldn't be enough to get him back to where he wanted to go, since his journey would still involve negotiating a maze of corridors and blocked off construction areas. None of the half-dozen or so people on the hospital staff milling around the entrance seemed able to help: the security guard had to stay by the door and couldn't walk us far enough into the building to make his directions clear, and a quintet of wheelchair pushers told me they would only respond to instructions from the nurses' stations on the floors above. Eventually I got him back to the right place.

As I walked back onto the street, I thought about the fact that hospitals were highly procedural places. There were rules for everything from the moment a patient is signed in on a sheet on a clipboard to the moment that he or she is wheeled out the door. In some ways, I understand these kinds of environments; the university I work at has its own systems of seemingly Byzantine regulations and multiple decision trees. If Johnny fails Course X, then he can't take Course Y and must take Course Z. Yet, when people don't fit neatly into an if-then statement, what are they supposed to do?

If anything, the procedural character of our society is becoming more obvious. Stanford Law School Professor Lawrence Lessig identifies four forces of regulation in his book Code 2.0: the law, the market, social norms, and architectures of control. Anxieties about litigation, cost-cutting and downsizing in response to globalization, the constraints of Web 2.0 forms of sociality, and zealous protectionism of private property of all kinds -- including intellectual property -- only intensifies this focus on articulating procedures and then monitoring compliance with them.

In Persuasive Games, Ian Bogost argues that we can never really get outside procedurality, just as we can never get outside of ideology. When a company seems to be making an exception to the rules for a dissatisfied customer, stakeholders there are only following another procedure, which is designed to foster business and limit bad PR. Bogost is known for being fascinated with the procedures involved in shopping, travel, and public safety, as games he has created, such as lXtreme Xmas Shopping, Airport Security, and Food Import Folly show.

Recently, when Mark Marino came to my digital rhetoric class, he talked about his interest in "breaking" systems, which Noah Wardrip-Fruin has described as the best way to figure out how they work. One of Marino's joys in playing with the ELIZA system created by Joseph Weizenbaum, he said, was trying to input data into the simulation that would "cause it to say silly things." Marino admitted, however, that he would also try to "break" the system when dealing with a customer service representative at a call center, by finding the words that would disrupt the script that the person was reading back to him. He talked about the moral ambiguities involved when you are "breaking a person" not "breaking a system."

So what would be the programmatic solution that would correct the procedures that are causing old people to be out wandering in the street? City workers could just paint lines on the sidewalks in different colors with arrows, as they often do inside hospitals themselves to help visitors find high traffic destinations in times of crisis. St. John's Hospital could be one color, and Santa Monica Hospital could be another. That wouldn't do much for property values, but at least the neighborhood would be more colorful.

Or -- in the absence of minders and security cameras -- perhaps more elderly people should carry cell phones, preferably with GPS orienting gear, so they can reach a doctor, nurse, or loved one whenever they stray.

Yet, that seems a little cold to me. The gentleman I walked to his destination is not the only injured or lost person that I've escorted since I've lived here when I saw a need, and I tend to think that part of being civic-minded is helping those who need help, if for no other reason than we are all going to get old one day.

The man kept commenting on how surprising it was that in this day and age I was willing to go out of my way for a stranger, even though good deeds of this kind take remarkably little time and aren't particularly noble if you are just programmed to do them. He kept saying that I was behaving just as a boy scout would. He told me that the Boy Scouts of America was an organization with which he had apparently been affiliated with for forty years. I had, in fact, been a girl scout and now had kids in scouting, but isn't that also its own kind of pre-configured procedurality in that there are clearly defined paths to success and badges to earn and rules to follow?

My solution would just be to rebuild the reception area staffed with volunteers and restore the procedure that had been in place for decades. Until then then those who fall off the decision tree will keep showing up in my neighborhood.

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Blogger Grant Wythoff said...

I'm sure you've seen it already, but McKenzie Wark's book Gamer Theory does incredibly interesting things with procedurality. Various types of procedures in the real world are mentioned throughout, construed as games. He says, "what is distinctive about games is that they produce for the gamer an intuitive relation to the algorithm." His dedication of the book to "organic intellectuals" I suspect has something to do with this intuitive way of playing through and discovering the 'code' of certain procedures. Whether this offers an intuitive glimpse of alternate procedures or codes, I'm not sure.

I really enjoy your blog, by the way.

8:14 AM  

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