#45: Unpaved Cowpaths

A film I’ve thought about many times on this trip is Lost In Translation. Specifically the passing scenes in the film, the ones where Scarlet Johansson’s character is wandering by herself in Tokyo, observing a traditional wedding or Japanese kids playing rhythm games in the arcade. What they capture so well, these scenes, is a sense of foreignness, of distance, of having a cultural bubble between you and the place you are. Not merely alien but an awareness that you are the alien, the stranger in a strange land, observing norms that haven’t normalized in you. Yet.

I’ve been on the road for two months now, and can slowly start feeling myself untether from my previous life (and it does feel like a long-forgotten life) in New York. A sign perhaps: I’ve been scheming of ways to stay untethered when I do go back a month from now.

And that feeling of strangeness I’m talking about – I’m starting to feel it when I see the photos and updates my friends back home are posting. New norms are seeping in, making the old ones more apparent, like balsamic vinegar being dripped into olive oil. Maybe time will be the emulsifier here, but for the moment everything is still separate and distinct and sometimes silly.

One example: the shared cab and van rides I’ve been taking here, that I’ve written to you about in my past updates. No fixed schedule, leave only when there are enough people. Would never work if you’re in a rush to get somewhere, you might say. But without a formal alternative, I would imagine that it also begets a different attitude toward punctuality. Makes it less of a value. I’ll see you when you get here. It could be that this more casual way of doing things works only in a society where change happens slowly, and roles and jobs are constant. Some might say third-world, or “uncivilized,” but I would argue against a strict relationship between technological advancement and civilization. A more appropriate word would be informal. The systems that make things run in large parts of the third world are more informal.

On long bus and train rides, the drivers will stop and let onboard women who are selling fruit and sandwiches and rice puffs. Sometimes, the passengers themselves are the ones who, while they’re on the way from the middle of Bolivia to the Argentine border, will carry with them snacks and thermoses of coffee to hawk to the other passengers. On one of my buses in Peru, a woman came onboard with an entire barbecue beef neck and a meat cleaver, and was hacking away as the bus jostled left and right down the winding mountain road. It was some of the best barbecue I’ve ever had, and a hell of a lot better than airline food.

There’s a phrase in interface design: “paving the cowpaths” –  taking the most frequently trod trails, the dirt in the grass, and formalizing them, turning them into roads. It’s done to ease movement where movement already exists, smooth the way through the system. But once you pave the cowpaths you have to maintain them. Problems are fixed but others are introduced. The interstate freeway system might have brought us improved commerce, safer transport, spiritual road trips, but it also brought us McDonalds and Walmart and urban sprawl, just as those super-size fries bring us both childhood bliss and type-II diabetes.

Informal systems rely more on trust in other people, whereas formal systems rely more on trust in the built infrastructure of the system itself. What was once a strong interdependence between humans, helped along by flexible tools, becomes a one-way dependence on the tools themselves. And the more time I spend from the distance of societies that have not yet “caught up” with the first world, the more I’m struck by how much fear and hesitation there was and is in my own life, and in the life of others back home. Large parts of that fear, I’m realizing, are regarding systems that have yet to be formalized, or it’s distress from when the formalized systems, which are supposed to be smooth and flawless, don’t work as advertised. What also results from this fear is a pave-happiness, an urge to Skymallify and fix every possible minor annoyance, which only creates further and sometimes greater problems, like building a house to keep out snakes only to attract grizzly bears.

Maybe this is the way the world is going. But while I’m still on the outside and seeing the strange excessiveness of some formal systems, I’m learning to appreciate the strange beauty of some informal ones, and trying to understand how in circumstances where we have a choice, when it’s more appropriate to act, and when it’s better to do nothing.