I believe in individual responsibility as a value, but not as a fact. What I mean is: it’s often good for an individual to take responsibility for their situation. It’s often better to think of ourselves as building and shaping our own lives, rather than to think of ourselves as victims. There is wisdom in the value of taking responsibility.

But as a matter of fact, we are necessarily constrained by the environments we find ourselves in. And the peculiar situation of, say, an American suburban teen, is one where it’s super-hard to take responsibility for redefining social space. If your friends live far away, you see them at school because you are bussed around, but when you’re home there is an app everyone’s on and no way to physically meet up, it seems pretty likely your social options will be limited to those designed by the app’s developers. You could tell this kid to research other apps that might be better social spaces, and to work to relocate all their friends onto the new app. You could tell the kid to develop their own app. You could tell them to convince their parents to move to a place with transit. For various reasons all of these may be impossible for the kid, or they might not even think of them.

Although the teen is a paradigm case, I believe we’re all in this situation to some degree. We make do with the options we have. We make do with the city we’re inside. With the family. And with the social network our friends live in. Only a few of us have the time, capacity, and ideas to create new, better cities, families, and networks. So saying it’s the individual’s responsibility dooms a lot of us.

Thankfully there are people who study how cities can be better for their occupants, and who advocate on behalf of green cities, transit, walkability, and so on. Now it is the same with software.

Stay in touch! human-systems.org

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