Disruption, Chesterton's Fence, and Second-order thinking
A guide to intelligent reform and historical respect.
Hey everyone, welcome to Stuff. I hope you’re enjoying the slow return of the light as much as I am. Go for a sunset walk this week. At least where I am, they’ve been amazing lately.
This week we are looking at Chesterton’s Fence, a fun allegory and the most mature stance from which to approach progress, both personal and cultural. Let’s get into it.
From the (recent) Ages
“There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.”
Source: “The Thing” by G.K. Chesterton 1929
Author and farmer, Joel Salatin on innovating by honoring the past:
“...a host of positive, wonderful cultural norms have existed that I submit provided the foundation for civilization’s sustainability and regeneration…I’m am struck by the sheer abnormality of our situation. I’d like us to think broadly and deeply about how to restore normalcy, to reincorporate those foundations that sustain cultures — by using what we know and what we have in ways that honor and respect those upon whose shoulders we stand. By identifying and honoring historical normalcy, we present a loving legacy to those who have gone before. I think we owe such a gift to them.”
Source: Folks, This Ain’t Normal
We are living through a renaissance of ground-breaking technology. This is more than the steady stream of new gadgets and apps rolling out of the tech centers of the world. Our technology has a two-way relationship with our minds and ideas. New inventions obviously come from the human mind and address some current need (or perhaps just do something nifty). But the tech that we invite into our daily lives also influences our minds and ideas. We grow accustomed to the access to information and enhanced cognitive powers that many devices offer and then we come to it expect them. The expanded abilities and eroding privacy that our technology allows then shape how we see ourselves and the world. This perception then influences our future ideas and “needs” as we develop the next phase of technology. This cycle of creation, adoption, and influence over the next iteration creates a positive feedback loop of ever-increasing technological development. It seems fitting that many new advancements are labeled as “disruptive technology” as we seem to be in a constant state of upheaval and reinvention.
I do not fear these new technologies or new advancements in general, but I am leary of the fact that words like "ground-breaking" and "disruptive" have become synonymous with good. Facebook even explicitly stated this idea with their internal motto (that they supposedly dropped in 2014): move fast and break things. But this new ethos has not remained within the halls — or rather the open pit offices and nap pods — of Silicon Valley. Rapid, disruptive change is now a cultural goal. We have grown desensitized to ideological upheaval and accustomed to shifting customs.
By definition change and progress are disruptive. They upset the current order and introduce new ways of thinking, interacting, and of perceiving ourselves. But disruption and upheaval are inherently destructive processes that often must first break down old things before they can build up anew. This is not necessarily a bad thing and applies beyond the realm of communications technology. There are many old technologies that should go the way of the printing press and many cultural ideas and institutional structures that should go the way of Jim Crow. But lost in our neomania, our striving for ground-breaking social progress, and our love for disruptive technologies is the law of unintended consequences. Rapid change, no matter how positive, will always bring unforeseen, and possibly dire, unintended consequences.
G.K. Chesterton is a writer, philosopher, and amateur theologian from the late 19th and early 20th centuries who, in the above quotation, introduced a concept now known as Chesterton's Fence. He gives the allegory of a fence standing across a road for which no one understands the purpose. Many people would be inclined to dismantle a seemingly useless or obsolete fence, but Chesterton urges that we should do no such thing. Not until we understand the intended boundary or restriction that the fence was built to impose and evaluate this purpose by the relevant standards of today can we ever consider removing it.
Chesterton's Fence is more than a simple lesson to evaluate change — technological, institutional, legal, and personal — for the potential unintended consequences, although it certainly demonstrates the importance of second-ordering thinking. Chesterton reminds us that we can and should look past the immediate implications of any decision to the second-order, downstream effects.
But Chesterton's Fence also gives us a brand new lens through which to view the status quo. No matter how seemingly backward any idea is from our modern sensibilities we must remember that it is most likely in place for a reason and we must include that purpose in our calculus in whether or not to remove it. Addiction treatment specialists teach addicts (and their loved ones) to not only look at what a substance does to them but also ask what the substance does for them. In other words, despite the destruction that alcohol might bring to someone's life, it might also help them feel at ease in social situations, escape the pain of other trauma, or simply be a source of uninhibited fun. By understanding these positive effects of their habit a person can understand what good they will be giving up (or attempting to replace) during their recovery.
While ground-breaking technologies and sweeping cultural changes in the name of social good make us excited, we must also consider what we lose in the exchange. Technology provides amazing access to information and frictionless experiences for purchases, travel, dating, and many other previously messy human endeavors. But to provide this ease and convenience, we must give up much of our freedom and privacy. As we embrace new digital solutions, we also give away our competency, agency, and opportunities for deeper human connection. Rapid cultural change, especially dismantling long-standing institutions in the name of social progress, might be warranted in our quest to provide the most opportunity to the most people, but we must also consider why things stand as they are. Let’s begin with the assumption that the longer an institution has stood, the more likely it is to still provide some benefit. This is obviously not a perfect assumption but it will help us remember Chesterton’s Fence. No matter how antiquated, obsolete, or harmful any idea might seem — be it political, religious, technological, or cultural — we need to understand why it is part of our value landscape in the first place and what good it still provides before we steamroll it in the name of progress.
Thanks for reading this week and remember, life to too short to be normal!
Good take. I think a lot of people on both ends of the political spectrum miss the main point Chesterton was trying to make: that blind progress can unknowingly toss out genuinely good and prosocial ideas/institutions just because they are old and seem antiquated. Not all old things should be disposed of, and not all new things are better than what they displaced!
The flip side of it is that so-called conservatives should be courageous enough to regularly revisit their ideas and update their mental model as needed. Not all old things should be preserved and saved, and we must be able to put them aside when they no longer serve us.