Do Systems Enslave or Empower Us?

“The bank is something more than men, I tell you. It’s the monster. Men made it, but they can’t control it.”
The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

The stock market crash and the subsequent collapse of banks across America heavily contributed to the Great Depression, causing thousands of families to be driven out of their homes. In The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck shows us that although individuals may not be ill-intentioned, the systems we create—including the bank—have the potential to do much harm. The metaphor of the bank as a monster that we no longer have control over applies to so many areas of our modern day society—corruption in Wall Street, dependency on fossil fuels, the destabilization of politics around the world, and dominating technology companies—just to name a few.

People, at their core, are not evil. We love and we dream, and we feel strongly toward injustices. Yet, mankind has done terrible, unspeakable things. We have raped, pillaged, and killed millions of people. We have led witch trials and genocides—pointed fingers at the innocent and exalted the criminals.

We do these terrible things—not because we’re evil, but because we allow our greed and conformity to control us. Our ignorance and our inability to break out of the systems that we create is ultimately what leads us to our downfall.

Systems can be great. They help us achieve much more than what a single person can do—and when engineered correctly, can allow us to lead more empowering and fulfilling lives. But systems can also be monsters that creep up on us—and by the time we realize the destruction they’re causing, it’s too late.

Now that I’m at a large technology corporation, I have been thinking deeply about what it means to do “the right thing,” and whether I have any control over this. I’ve met many great people who work at large tech companies, and I’m convinced that they try to do “the right thing”—but I always wonder if the systems that we create cause us to care more about money and recognition than societal benefit. (Or, if our prioritization of money and recognition causes us to create these systems.)

Some of the owner men were kind because they hated what they had to do, and some of them were angry because they hated to be cruel, and some of them were cold because they had long ago found that one could not be an owner unless one were cold. And all of them were caught in something larger than themselves. Some of them hated the mathematics that drove them, and some were afraid, and some worshiped the mathematics because it provided a refuge from thought and from feeling.

What I remember from The Grapes of Wrath, though, was ultimately a message of hope. Humanity will fight on, despite the wretchedness of the systems we create. There will always be people who fight hard for justice, just like there will be people who fight to retain the current system. My only hope is that we don’t create a system that we are unable to defeat. As technology progresses and we create systems that are more powerful than us, who will survive—us, or the system?

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Book Review: Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

*This is the first of many book reviews I hope to write. I want to write book reviews to become a more critical reader and to better connect what I’m reading to my personal experiences and the world at large. These reviews will contain spoilers and are all my personal opinions.*

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I’ll admit, the first time I “read” this book, I listened to it with x1.5 speed for the first ~100 pages and Sparknoted the rest. I didn’t really get into the plot, seeing that I dismissed Raskolnikov as being strange, depraved, narcissistic, and exceedingly arrogant. His theory that some people were just born extraordinary and were thus exempt from all moral justice didn’t appeal to me—I had gone through the nihilistic and egotistic phase in life, and came out realizing that no one person is above another. He was so delusional, and though I understood his motives on a rational level, I never saw his plight in an emotional way.

Despite this terrible initial impression, I chose to do Crime and Punishment as one of my rereads in my English class (mostly because of my guilt for never actually reading the book and partly because I read some raving reviews on Goodreads and was intrigued by how people found value in it).

Senioritis hit me pretty hard, and I finally sat down with a resolve to read the book after coming to terms that I only had three days left to write an essay on it. It was hard to get through the first hundred pages—I know it’s supposed to be a page-turner, but honestly, I was quite bored. Several times, I questioned why I didn’t just choose a shorter, less tedious book to write about (and one that I had already read and had pages of notes on). Raskolnikov got on my nerves and was remarkably two-dimensional for someone who commits murder. The book seemed to try to be deep without really being too philosophical.

It was only in the later half of the book when I started getting really into the novel. As I started reading slower—finally absorbing the book—I began to feel real sympathy for all of the characters: Raskolnikov, Dounia, Sonia, Katerina, Marmeladov, and even Svidrigailov. Raskolnikov’s murders, though the central focus of the novel, weren’t what I found the most interesting—it was the complexity of the side characters and what drove them to do such strange and unexpected things.

I saw Katerina’s dignity as she spent her last rouples on an excessive dinner that was well beyond her means—how she danced on the street and proclaimed her ties to aristocracy. Instead of dismissing her as overly proud and shallow, I pitied and respected her. I saw Marmeladov as a good-for-nothing drunk of a father who let his daughter sell herself to prostitution while he sucked her money away, but I also saw his deep love for his family and respected him for that. I saw the parallels between Raskolnikov and Svidrigailov, and between Sonia, Dounia, and even Lizaveta. I loved and admired Dounia—her strength, her unwavering love and devotion for Raskolnikov, and simple practicality. Though he was a vile man, I even sympathized with the despicable Svidrigailov, and the motivation behind his suicide fascinated me. As I continued reading, I saw the layers of the book and realized that these subplots and characters, interwoven together, were what made this book a powerful masterpiece.

There were so many things I could have written about for my essay, and had I more time, I may have thought more deeply about how poverty affected Katerina or about the role of women in the novel. (Instead, I wrote about similarities and significance of Raskolnikov and Svidrigailov’s dreams—which were interesting in their own right, but not what gripped me when reading the novel.)

In all, though this book was extremely tedious (and had way too many long names), it was worth the effort. It was only when I let my guard down—when I turned off my rationalizing, judgmental brain and started to feel sympathy for the characters—when I actually started to comprehend the greatness of the novel. (Ironically, I suppose that is how Raskolnikov also became redeemed—through abandoning his over-rationalized theory.) This book challenged me in unexpected ways and made me think more deeply about poverty, justice, and morality. I’m thinking of reading this book again—this time letting it wash over me and without an impending deadline for an essay—and I’ll have no doubt that I will grow to appreciate it even more.