Brain Pickings

Bureaucratics: A Global Portrait of Red Tape

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Unless you’ve lived in a country plagued by the kind of institutional inefficiency characteristic of oppressive political regimes (like we have — hello, motherland), you can never fully appreciate the sometimes comic, often tragic, and invariably debilitating magnitude of red tape. Now, thanks to Dutch historian and documentary photographer Jan Banning, you can: In Bureaucratics, he brings a conceptual, typological approach to the dreariest of desk jobs, blending humor and absurdity with an astute portrait of sociopolitical ineptitude.

Bureaucratics [is] the product of an anarchist’s heart, a historian’s mind and an artist’s eye. It is a comparative photographic study of the culture, rituals and symbols of state civil administrations and its servants in eight countries on five continents, selected on the basis of political, historical and cultural considerations.” Jan Banning

The countries represented are Bolivia, China, France, India, Liberia, Russia, the United States, and Yemen. In each, Banning visited dozens, in some cases hundreds, of offices across the spectrum of services and executive levels.

India, bureaucracy, Bihar, 2003. India-15/2003

Suresh Prasad (b. 1947) is assistant clerk of the 'Bihar House' department in The Old Secretariat, Patna, State of Bihar. Monthly salary: 9,000 rupees ($197)

India, bureaucracy, Bihar, 2003. India-01/2003

Ram Prabodh Yadav (b. 1970) is sub-inspector (deputy inspector) of police in Maner Block, Patna district, State of Bihar. Monthly salary: 10,000 rupees ($220)

India, bureaucracy, Bihar, 2003. India-21/2003

Dr. Munni Das (b. 1960) is Block Development Officer in Thakurganj block, an administrative entity within Kishanganj district, State of Bihar. Monthly salary: about 10,000 rupees ($220)

To preserve a maximum degree of authenticity, he kept the visits unannounced, preventing the subjects from tidying up for the interview.

India, Bihar, Bureaucracy, 2003. India-28/2003

Om Prakash (1963) is Block Development Officer (BDO) in Makhdumpur Block (200.000 inhabitants), district Jahanabad, Bihar. Prakash has 45 subordinates and is responsable for public order and the development of his block. As the highest civil servant in Makhdumpur, he has a towel on his chair. The plate behind him contains the names of his predecessors. Monthly salary: 12,000 rupees ($263)

Bolivia, bureaucracy, Potosi, 2005. Bolivia-13/2005

Rodolfo Villca Flores (b. 1958) is chief supervisor of market and sanitary services of the municipality of Betanzos, Cornelio Saavedra province. Previously he worked as a bricklayer, electrician, plumber and handyman. Monthly salary: 1,150 bolivianos ($143)

Bolivia, bureaucracy (police), Potosi, 2005. Bolivia-08/2005

Constantino Aya Viri Castro (b. 1950), previously a construction worker, is a police officer third class for the municipality of Tinguipaya, Tomás Frías province. The police station does not have a phone, car or typewriter. Monthly salary: 800 bolivianos ($100)

Bolivia, bureaucracy (police), 2005

Marlene Abigahit Choque (1982), detective at the the Homicide Department of the Potosi police. The department has only broken typewriters, no computer, no copy machine, not even telephone. It shares a car with the Vice Squad: 'If there is no petrol in the car, we have to buy it from our own money. If the car is gone, we take the bus. We have to pay the tickets ourselves.' The head on the cupboard to the right is used to make witnesses of murder cases show where the bullets went in or out. Monthly salary: 920 bolivianos ($114)

China, bureaucracy, Shandong, 2007. China-09/2007

Wang Ning (b. 1983) works in the Economic Affairs office in Gu Lou community, Yanzhou city, Shandong province. She provides economic assistance to enterprises in her region and is the liaison officer between the government and local enterprises: she helps them get a permit for land use, personnel insurances, environmental permits and taxation registration. There was (at the time) no heating in the room. The maps show regional industrial zones. Wang Ning is not married. She lives at home with her parents. She works from 8.30 to 12 am and from 14 to 16 am. She has no official paid holidays, except the national bank holidays and the weekends. Monthly salary: 2,100 renminbi ($260)

Even the visual narrative of the book exudes the monotony of its subject matter: Shot from the same height, with the same and from the same distance, and framed in an appropriately square format, the 50 subjects may vary greatly in age, appearance and location, but appear somehow homogenous in their shared slavery to paperwork.

France, bureaucracy, Auvergne, 2006. France-05/2006

Maurice Winterstein (b. 1949) works in Clermont-Ferrand for the Commission for the Advancement of Equal Opportunity and Citizenship at the combined administrative offices of the Auvergne region and the Puy-de-Dome department. He also is in charge of the portfolio of religious affairs, Islam in particular. Monthly salary: 1,550 Euro ($2,038). The young lady next to him is Linda Khettabi (b. 1989), an intern pursuing training as a secretary.

France, bureaucracy, Auvergne, 2006. France-16/2006

Roger Vacher (b. 1957) is a narcotics agent with the national police force in Clermont-Ferrand, Puy-de-Dome department, Auvergne region. Monthly salary: 2,200 Euro ($2,893).

Liberia, bureaucracy, 2006. Liberia-04/2006

Major Adolph Dalaney (b. 1940) works in the Reconstruction Room of the Traffic Police at the Liberia National Police Headquarters in the capital Monrovia. Monthly salary: barely 1,000 Liberian dollars ($18). Traffic accident victims at times are willing to pay a little extra if Dalaney's department quickly draws up a favorable report to present to a judge.

Liberia, bureaucracy, 2006. Liberia-19/2006

Warford Weadatu Sr. (b. 1963), a former farmer and mail carrier, now is county commissioner (administrator) for Nyenawliken district, River Gee County. He has no budget and is not expecting any money soon from the poverty-stricken authorities in Monrovia. Monthly salary: 1,110 Liberian dollars ($20), but he hadn't received any salary for the previous year.

Russia, bureaucracy, Siberia, province Tomsk, 2004. Russia-19/2004

Marina Nikolayevna Berezina (b. 1962), a former singer and choir director, is now the secretary to the head of the financial department of Tomsk province's Facility Services. She does not want to reveal her monthly salary.

Russia, bureaucracy, Siberia, province Tomsk, 2004. Russia-23/2004

Sergej Michailovich Osipchuk (b. 1974) is the lone police officer in the village of Oktyabrsky (some 2000 inhabitants), Tomsk province. He does not have a police car or one of his own, not even a bicycle. He does not want to reveal his salary, but informed sources put the monthly salary of an officer of his rank and age at approximately 4,000 rubles ($143).

USA, bureaucracy, Texas, 2007. USA-11/2007

Shane Fenton (b. 1961) is sheriff of Crockett County (about 3000 inhabitants), Texas, and based in Ozona, the county seat. Monthly salary: $3,166

USA, bureaucracy, Texas, 2007. USA-04/2007

Dede McEachern (b. 1969) is director of licensing, Texas Department of Licensing and Regulations, in the state capital, Austin. Monthly salary: $5,833

Yemen, bureaucracy, 2006. Yemen-03/2006

Nadja Ali Gayt (b. 1969) is an adviser at the Ministry of Agriculture s education center for rural women in the district of Manakhah, Sana Governorate. Monthly salary: 28,500 rial ($160)

Yemen, bureaucracy, 2006

Mohammed Mohammed Shams Adeen (about 1950) is manager of the garbage collection service in At-Tawilah, governorate Al-Mahweet. He is responsible for 11 employees and 4 workers paid on a daily basis. Seven of them work in the office, eight (included 4 paid on a daily basis) collect the garbage. The service has two trash trucks and several handcarts. The garbage is being dumped and set on fire in the mountains outside the city. On the wall a letter from the prime minister about a banning order for smoking in public offices and two educational announcements, about Kleenex tissues that ought to be thrown in trash bins and 'don’t cut trees, they are the property of all of us.' Monthly salary: 29.000 Riyals ($163)

Poignant and petrifying in its institutional honesty, Bureaucratics holds up a mirror against humanity’s most ineffectual attempts at self-organization, and at the same time manages to elicit newfound empathy for these very human wardens of the red tape prison.

via GMSV

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5 Must-Read Books on the Psychology of Being Wrong

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What Ronald Reagan has to do with gorilla costumes, Shakespeare and fake pennies.

The intricate mechanisms of the human mind are endlessly fascinating. We’ve previously explored various facets of how the mind works — from how we decide to what makes us happy to why music affects us so deeply — and today we’re turning to when it doesn’t: Here are five fantastic reads on why we err, what it means to be wrong, and how to make cognitive lemonade out of wrongness’s lemons.

BEING WRONG

The pleasure of being right is one of the most universal human addictions and most of us spend an extraordinary amount of effort on avoiding or concealing wrongness. But error, it turns out, isn’t wrong. In fact, it’s not only what makes us human but also what enhances our capacity for empathy, optimism, courage and conviction. In Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error, which we featured as one of the 5 must-read books by TED 2011 speakers, Kathryn Schulz examines wrongology with the rigorous lens of a researcher and the cunning wit of a cultural commentator to reveal how the mind works through the eloquent convergence of cognitive science, social psychology and philosophical inquiry.

However disorienting, difficult, or humbling our mistakes might be, it is ultimately wrongness, not rightness, that can teach us who we are.” ~ Kathryn Schulz

From Shakespeare to Freud, Schulz examines some of history’s greatest thinkers’ perspectives on being wrong and emerges with a compelling counterpoint to our collective cultural aversion to wrongness, arguing instead that error is a precious gift that fuels everything from art to humor to scientific discovery and, perhaps most importantly, a transformative force of personal growth that to be embraced, not extinguished.

To err is to wander, and wandering is the way we discover the world; and, lost in thought, it is also the way we discover ourselves. Being right might be gratifying, but in the end it is static, a mere statement. Being wrong is hard and humbling, and sometimes even dangerous, but in the end it is a journey, and a story.” ~ Kathryn Schulz

WHY WE MAKE MISTAKES

In 2005, Joseph Hallinan wrote a front-page story for The Wall Street Journal, investigating the safety record of anesthesiologists with a dreadful track record in the operating room, letting patients turn blue and suffocate before their eyes. These mistakes, Hallinan found, were often attributed to “human error,” which assumes inevitability. Yet a closer analysis of these anesthesiologists’ process and practice revealed much could be done to avoid these deadliest of errors. So Hallinan spent nearly three years translating the insight from this particular story into the general world of human psychology, where error abounds in a multitude of realms.

Why We Make Mistakes: How We Look Without Seeing, Forget Things in Seconds, and Are All Pretty Sure We Are Way Above Average explores the cognitive mechanisms behind everything from forgetting our passwords to believing we can multitask (which we already know we can’t) to overestimating the impact of various environmental factors on our happiness. It’s essentially a study of human design flaws, examining our propensity for mistakes through a fascinating cross-section of psychology, neuroscience and behavioral economics.

We don’t think our perception is economical; we think it’s perfect. When we look at something, we think we see everything. But we don’t. Same with memory: we might think we remember everything, especially commonly encountered things like the words to the National Anthem, or the details on the surface of a penny—but we don’t. Our brains are wired to give us the most bang for the buck; they strip out all sorts of stuff that seems unimportant at the time. But we don’t know what’s been stripped out. One of the consequences of this is that we tend to be overconfident about the things we think we do know. And overconfidence is a huge cause of human error.” ~ Joseph Hallinan

Can you pick out the real penny? Check your answer here.

THE INVISIBLE GORILLA

In 1999, Harvard researchers Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons conducted a now-iconic selective attention experiment. Chances are, you’ve seen it, as the video made the viral rounds 10 years after the original experiment, but on the off-chance you haven’t, we won’t spoil it for you: Just watch this video in which 6 people — 3 in white shirts and 3 in black — pass basketballs around; you must keep a silent count of the number of passes made by the people in white shirts. Ready?

Now, be honest: Did you notice the gorilla that nonchalantly strolled through the middle of the action at one point? If you answered “yes,” you’re pretty exceptional. Chabris and Simons found that more than half of people didn’t notice it so, astounded, they set out to investigate the curious cognitive glitches that made the gorilla invisible — what is it that makes us so tragicomically susceptible to missing valuable information and misperceiving reality?

Published 11 years after the original experiment, The Invisible Gorilla: And Other Ways Our Intuitions Deceive Us encapsulates Chabris and Simons’ findings on the mechanisms behind this “inattentional blindness” and how they translate into fundamental human behavior. Through six compelling everyday illusions of perception, they swiftly and eloquently debunk conventional wisdom on everything from the accuracy of memory to the correlation between confidence and competence. The book, much to our delight, is written with the subtext of being an antidote to Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking which, for all its praises, is tragically plagued by out-of-context “research,” wishful dot-connecting and other classic Gladwellisms.

MISTAKES WERE MADE (BUT NOT BY ME)

In 1987, Ronald Reagan stood up in front of the nation in the wake of the Iran contra-scandal to deliver his State of the Union address, in which he famously declared, “Mistakes were made.” The phrase became an infamous hallmark of diffusion of responsibility and the failure to own our mistakes, which inspired the title of social psychologists Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson‘s excellent Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts — an ambitious quest to unravel the underpinnings of self-justification and, in the process, make us better human beings.

As fallible human beings, all of us share the impulse to justify ourselves and avoid taking responsibility for any actions that turn out to be harmful, immoral or stupid. Most of us will never be in a position to make decisions affecting the lives and deaths of millions of people, but whether the consequences of our mistakes are trivial or tragic, on a small scale or a national canvas, most of us find it difficult, if not impossible, to say, ‘I was wrong; I made a terrible mistake.’ The higher the stakes — emotional, financial, moral — the greater the difficulty.”

Tavris and Aronson examine the root cause of these self-righteous yet erroneous behaviors: Cognitive dissonance — the mental anguish that results from trying to reconcile two conflicting ideas, such as a belief we hold and a circumstantial fact that contradicts it. In our deep-seated need to see ourselves as honorable, competent and consistent, we often bend reality to confirm this self-perception, which in turn results in a domino effect of errors. Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me) holds up an uncomfortable but profoundly illuminating mirror that not only exposes the engine of self-justification but also offers rich insight into the behavioral tactics that prevent and mediate it.

HOW WE KNOW WHAT ISN’T SO

Written 20 years ago, How We Know What Isn’t So: The Fallibility of Human Reason in Everyday Life by Cornell psychologist Thomas Gilovich is arguably the most important critique on the biases of human reason ever published. It’s as much a throughly researched investigation into the science of mind as it is a compelling — and increasingly timely — treatise on the importance of not letting superstition and sloppy thinking cloud our judgement on a cultural and sociopolitical level.

Gilovich uses classic psychology experiments to extract practical insight and offer a recipe for using logical principles to predict and avoid our natural biases, from seeking confirmatory information to misattributing causality to random events and a wealth in between.

People do not hold questionable beliefs simply because they have not been exposed to the relevant evidence. Nor do people hold questionable beliefs simply because they are stupid or gullible. Quite the contrary. Evolution has given us powerful intellectual tools for processing vast amounts of information with accuracy and dispatch, and our questionable beliefs derive primarily from the misapplication or overutilization of generally valid and effective strategies for knowing. Just as we are subject to perceptual illusions in spite of, and largely because of, our extraordinary perceptual capacities, so too are many of our cognitive shortcomings closely related to, or even an unavoidable cost of, our greatest strengths.” ~ Thomas Gilovich

If this isn’t enough wrongology for you, we’ve compiled a complementary list of additional reading — take a look.

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5 Questions x 8 Interesting People x SXSW 2011

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This year, we went to SXSW and decided to ask 8 of the most interesting people we know — including The New York Times’ David Carr, Behance founder Scott Belsky, and Fast Company’s Alissa Walker — 5 questions about technology, innovation and the information economy. We photographed them with their answers and used projeqt, the wonderful storytelling platform we introduced a few months ago, to share their answers.

The questions:

Go ahead and explore this visual micro-portrait of today’s tech landscape. And we’d love to hear what you — yes, you — would’ve said, so drop us a comment below if you’d like to share your 5 answers.

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