"We shape our buildings, and afterward our buildings shape us."
With this quote from 1943, Winston Churchill advocated for the reconstruction of the House of Commons to its original state. Today, this statement stands as strongly as ever, but it extends beyond mere bricks and mortar. It casts its shadow over algorithms, democracy, neoliberalism and all the systems that intertwine with out lives.
Systems do not emerge from thin air, nor do they exist without purpose. Initially, they are often crafted by people to provide stability and structure. However, over time these systems gradually start to live a life of their own and influence the people that are a part of them. A telling example of this are algorithms on social media platforms, which create carefully curated echo chambers in which consumers exclusively receive content that affirms their presupposed ideologies, however radical they may be. Another example may be that politicians bend to the will of the discontent masses, leaving uncomfortable truths untouched.
Therefore, it is of absolute necessity to analyze these systems more closely. How do they erode individual and communal autonomy? Do they influence our inner motivations? And conversely, how do people affect systems? What drives us to engage in these systems? Are we capable of staying in control, or are we merely products of the systems we are a part of?
Upon closer examination of the human motivation, we realize that external factors always play a crucial role. For instance, which study program one choices depends greatly on what parents expect from them, and some people choose their life partners on the basis of financial security. On the other hand, there are internal drivers that are deeply rooted in our egos and subconscious. These internal drivers move activists to protest for the most unconventional causes and prompt remote-working “snowflakes” to collectively move to Bali. Are these aspects of human motivation two aspects of the same coin or can they also be in conflict with each other? When do our core values yield to external pressure, causing us to make compromises and make “a pact with the devil” to achieve our goals?
Additionally, we must question the notion that systems are mere puppets of human decision-making and motivation. With the rise of advanced algorithms and technologies, many systems are no longer subject to human puppetry; they dance to their own digital tune. But how can we uphold public values such as privacy and collective moral conscience, when systems are increasingly controlled by bits and bytes? Or do certain ends simply justify the infringement of these values?
When we note that technology increasingly takes over human jobs, that certain algorithms discriminate, or that international political turmoil increases our energy bill, we sometimes get overwhelmed with a feeling of powerlessness against these systems. However, it is crucial to realize that we are not always trapped in the structures created by “others”. It is important that we acknowledge our own agency, challenge the status quo and unleash ourselves in order to truly make progress.
Perhaps, we should acknowledge that true progress does not start with reshaping the system, but that a better world really starts with yourself.
On the 45th Veerstichting Symposium on june 13 and 14, we will reconsider Churchill’s proposition: do we shape the system, or does the system shape us?