I sometimes use the term ‘accessible’ in the Microsoft sense.
The mouthful version of ‘accessible’ is something like this: To abstractly describe the character of a human interactive or processed experience when it is tailored to not exceed the limitations of the particular human being to which it is being presented.
So, if you are blind or paralyzed, your disability prevents you from using a computer terminal in the normal way without some assistive technology. If you are confined to a wheelchair, you cannot easily enter a building without a sloped ramp.
And everyone is ‘disabled’ in terms of not having infinitely capable brains or strengths of will. We can only absorb so much information so fast, and we all have limited cognitive potential and capacity to resist detrimental impulse.
The ‘accessible society’ is an ideal where we cease to propagate the common legal fiction of ‘choice, agreement, and contract by notice and informed consent’ and are honest with people that they will only be given the choices that they have the potential to make responsibly for themselves. This is the same kind of custodianship / guardianship relationship we insist upon for the legally incompetent, like children or the senile, and when we admit that all adults are in reality ‘disabled’ and ‘incompetent’ below the libertarian ideal to some degree or another, then it is just enlightened paternalism.
Even if you are smart, but you are not an expert in a complex licensed profession (say, the law), or practiced in some skilled trade (say, auto repair) then sometimes that ‘assistive technology’ is another person, perhaps an agent or ombudsman, who can ‘boil it all down for you’, and ‘bring it down to your level’ as a layman. He presents simple questions to you to establish your preferences and priorities, and then he uses his skills to take care of the rest. It’s a black box to you, and a form of specialization for which we are usually willing to pay. Gains from trade and all that.
The theory of general suffrage in a republic also uses this justification to rationalize how individuals who are incompetent to govern can nevertheless express their preferences and have fiduciary-like representatives of their interests govern on their behalf. Obviously, it doesn’t work this way. Because it can’t.
Part of the problem is presented by the question, “What if you can’t ‘black box’ the mess away?” The principal is required to make certain difficult decisions, but the complexity involved in making a genuine individual choice is irreducible. And what if, furthermore, something is so complicated that there simply are no human agents actually able to navigate the confusing maze?
So, in this sense of ‘accessible’, I mean something like ‘comprehensible’, ‘digestible’, ‘fathomable’, ‘intelligible’, etc.
So, while it might be possible to build manned fighter jets capable of taking turns at 20g, it would be pointless for us to do so because it would turn the pilot’s brains into pulp. In general, nothing should be built that exceeds the potential of the individuals who must wield it. This category includes the governance of organizations.
Perhaps one need not place too much respect in the Democratic ideal that the ordinary citizen should be able, with only a reasonable amount study and research, to understand the nature of his government’s operation. But one should insist that the actual managers of the enterprise be able to understand it.
One would think that such a principle would provide a kind of human-capacity upper-bound on the scope of any collective endeavor. Not every decision is delegable or process scalable. Indeed such limitations have diminished the perceived attractiveness of the integrated corporate conglomerate model after some enthusiasm in the 60′s and 70′s.
In addition, Luttwak has noted that the leadership of large nations are often distracted by time-consuming requirements to personally respond to categories of events perceived by their populations (and media) as rising to the national level of significance. The larger the nation, the more of these types of events, the greater the distraction.
These are all good reasons to favor focus and brevity. Yet USG’s operations has become so plenary and its rules so extensively written by expert bureaucrats that the systemic, big-picture view, indispensable for intelligent management, is often inaccessible even to them.
And so, in what will probably evolve eventually into that hallmark of the blogosphere, the ‘watch’, as in ‘Inaccessible Government Watch’, I present to you some of the latest examples:
More to follow, we can be sure.
How can we make things more accessible? Here’s one clever way from the pre-financial crisis, pre-CFPB real world. Too lazy to google the source at the moment, but I was taught about a regulation concerning a certain key part of Credit Card contracts. The idea was that the agency involved would take the language directly from a bank’s advertised agreement and would then form a kind of focus group which would be a, ahem, ‘cognitively-representative’ sample of the, ahem, ‘most vulnerable’ set of target consumers.
The agency would have these poor, nearly-but-not-quite-incompetent-to-contract individuals read the language of the offer (as if anyone, even smart people, actually did that), and they would then give them a very simple, true-false quiz about the key elements of the offer – the interest rate, delinquency penalty, etc. If the tender minds didn’t do at least a little better than random guessing on the quiz, then the agency wouldn’t permit the bank to advertise the offer in that form. Back to the drawing board!
Of course, this lowest-common denominator approach to accessibility will certainly overprotect more competent and sophisticated adults from entering into higher-risk-higher-reward agreements. Instead of presuming maturity and competence, government can discriminate and only license the most savvy individuals (or some proxy for astuteness, like wealth) to participate in such ventures, much as the SEC already does with its rules governing Accredited Investors.
But in general, the lesson is that when the government really cares about the capacity for something to be understood, it tests for that comprehension and nothing gets past the post without such verification of accessibility.
James Madison on Inaccessibility, Federalist #62:
It will be of little avail to the people, that the laws are made by men of their own choice, if the laws be so voluminous that they cannot be read, or so incoherent that they cannot be understood; if they be repealed or revised before they are promulgated, or undergo such incessant changes that no man, who knows what the law is to-day, can guess what it will be to-morrow. Law is defined to be a rule of action; but how can that be a rule, which is little known, and less fixed?
And people, he’s talking about an era with quills, primitive printing presses, and delivery of correspondence by horse. It didn’t get better with modern IT.