Do Systems Enslave or Empower Us?

“The bank is something more than men, I tell you. It’s the monster. Men made it, but they can’t control it.”
The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

The stock market crash and the subsequent collapse of banks across America heavily contributed to the Great Depression, causing thousands of families to be driven out of their homes. In The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck shows us that although individuals may not be ill-intentioned, the systems we create—including the bank—have the potential to do much harm. The metaphor of the bank as a monster that we no longer have control over applies to so many areas of our modern day society—corruption in Wall Street, dependency on fossil fuels, the destabilization of politics around the world, and dominating technology companies—just to name a few.

People, at their core, are not evil. We love and we dream, and we feel strongly toward injustices. Yet, mankind has done terrible, unspeakable things. We have raped, pillaged, and killed millions of people. We have led witch trials and genocides—pointed fingers at the innocent and exalted the criminals.

We do these terrible things—not because we’re evil, but because we allow our greed and conformity to control us. Our ignorance and our inability to break out of the systems that we create is ultimately what leads us to our downfall.

Systems can be great. They help us achieve much more than what a single person can do—and when engineered correctly, can allow us to lead more empowering and fulfilling lives. But systems can also be monsters that creep up on us—and by the time we realize the destruction they’re causing, it’s too late.

Now that I’m at a large technology corporation, I have been thinking deeply about what it means to do “the right thing,” and whether I have any control over this. I’ve met many great people who work at large tech companies, and I’m convinced that they try to do “the right thing”—but I always wonder if the systems that we create cause us to care more about money and recognition than societal benefit. (Or, if our prioritization of money and recognition causes us to create these systems.)

Some of the owner men were kind because they hated what they had to do, and some of them were angry because they hated to be cruel, and some of them were cold because they had long ago found that one could not be an owner unless one were cold. And all of them were caught in something larger than themselves. Some of them hated the mathematics that drove them, and some were afraid, and some worshiped the mathematics because it provided a refuge from thought and from feeling.

What I remember from The Grapes of Wrath, though, was ultimately a message of hope. Humanity will fight on, despite the wretchedness of the systems we create. There will always be people who fight hard for justice, just like there will be people who fight to retain the current system. My only hope is that we don’t create a system that we are unable to defeat. As technology progresses and we create systems that are more powerful than us, who will survive—us, or the system?

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