‘Broken Window Syndrome …’

'Broken window ...'! Image courtesy of digitalart / FreeDigitalPhotos.net
‘Broken window …’!
Image courtesy of digitalart / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

“Consider a building with a few broken windows. If the windows are not repaired, the tendency is for vandals to break a few more windows. Eventually, they may even break into the building, and if it’s unoccupied, perhaps become squatters or light fires inside.

Or consider a pavement. Some litter accumulates. Soon, more litter accumulates. Eventually, people even start leaving bags of refuse from take-out restaurants there or even break into cars.” 

James A Wilson & George L Kelling, The Atlantic Monthly, March 1982

The theory was propounded by the two Social Scientists and has found much application in understanding societal dynamics to prevent criminal behavior. But I can associate it to be the difference between ‘Order’ and ‘Chaos’. Being a Science graduate, I can even say that it reminds me that in an isolated system, the natural course of events takes the system to a more disordered (higher multiplicity, higher entropy) state.

My father would have never known about the theory but would have surely subscribed to the theory – discipline and ‘following-the-rules’ was what drove his routine in the bureaucratic maze of the Government department he worked for. He really took pride in being part of the larger organization and was happy to be called a ‘Government Servant’. Norm based progression and respect for hierarchy was deeply ingrained in him. He felt that one must be ever prepared to slog it out to achieve success and recognition in his work place. He never ever considered leaving his job and did not have the remotest of idea of seeking a career or pursuing his passions. At the end of it, he was a very satisfied with his position in life and happily spent a lifetime poring over Army accounts.

He looked at jobs in the private sector with a lot of suspicion and had no patience for youngsters who kept switching jobs. So it was with great reluctance that he agreed to let my brother to leave his job as a ‘Supervisor’ in a paper mill to pursue a brighter future as a ‘Medical Representative’ with an MNC pharmaceutical company. The job also entailed my brother moving to a different city. Fortune favored by brother and he made a real success of the opportunity.

It was to my advantage that by the time I graduated my father had retired from his job and relied a lot more on my elder brother’s advice. Things had improved financially as well and this helped me pursue my post-graduate degree in Management. I even left my home town just to pursue my dreams – my brother’s support helped to convince my father that it will improve my prospects.

Two years went by and my father was critically ill by the time I completed my course. He was much relieved to learn that I had been selected, through a campus interview, for a job with a ‘Tata’ company, the premier business house in India.  In his vivid imagination, he visualized that his son will draw a higher first month salary than the last one he drew at the end of his service. He was also comforted by the belief that his son had found a lifetime vocation that will keep him engaged in the pursuit of ‘climbing-the rungs’ of  the hallowed ‘Tata Corporate Hierarchy’.

I switched my first job within the first year itself. My father had passed away by then and he never saw the choices I made subsequently. Subsequently while I have changed my company only once, I have always been moving cities and roles. Rarely have I spent more than two years in the same role or city – I just cannot see myself doing the same job role for many years even though it would have meant a more stable life. The fun seems to be in being on the move, meeting new people, seeing new places and learning new things at work. I do wonder at times on how my father would have viewed this – think he may have gently reproached me for not settling down and ‘ordered’ my life.

But I find it more engaging to traipse along a bit like a hippy. And so chaos need not always be negative and a ‘ordered surface’ need not reflect the true reality of the situation. Stasis can create anachronisms and rightfully the youth have very little patience for nice little routines. And yet there is an immense appeal in the simple work ethic that my father imbibed and taught us. He seemed to be echoing J K Galbraith who famously said, “There is no ethic more ethical than the work ethic”.

Often my role involves me in trying to simplify things and to remove the effort for its own sake. But change seems to scare most of us and acceptance is often hard to come by. I get many sermons against short circuiting any procedure. The standard refrain goes, ‘Anything less than the full effort seems immoral.’ Imagine the angst it causes among the old generation as the Organization tries to move faster, higher and stronger to secure its future in the era of Schumpeterian destruction.

I got a real sense of this disconnect when I showed my friend’s mother a cool way to listen to all her favorite songs on the internet – there is no real need to stick to her old song collection. Somehow she was not much amused with the digital revolution and turned away by saying that she did not like the ‘sound’ of it. My amused friend provided me the perspective – her song collection had been her ‘hobby horse’ for decades, she had scrimped and saved to add to it and later on enjoyed hunting out old recordings that were not readily available. No wonder she would not want someone to simply turn it all into an ordinary list of songs by applying less than a day’s work for the task.

It makes a lot of sense if you can appreciate the generational change involved as well. My father would have never dreamt of opening a Fixed Deposit online through Internet Banking. He would have invariably made a visit to the Bank branch, spent some time over a cup of chai with the Officer who was also a family friend and felt comfortable only on receiving the FD receipt in Original couched in a plastic ‘see-through’ cover. Similarly I am not comfortable with the idea of using ‘mobile phones’ to access my Bank account – am far too comfortable in accessing it on my laptop using a secure internet connection. And ‘Bitcoin’ makes no sense to me at all. Guess I would not need to wait for long to see my 6-year-old daughter grow up and show me that I too have become an old fogey …


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