Stress Testing Everything

There is a product design theory that says f you really want to find out if something will do its normal job well, look for how it works when it’s stressed. Sometimes this is done via extreme users and extreme use situations. Designers will give a new keyboard design to a hardcore computer gamer, or conversely, try a new car design with someone who’s never driven before. To see if the design of your carrot peeler will work well for most people, you give it to seniors or someone with Parkinson’s.

Just plain worn out.

When we lived in France I knew some product engineers for heavy equipment design at Caterpillar. They would drag those things up to the glacier by the ski town of Val d’Isere as they could expose the machines to extreme temperatures and basically try to break them.

I remember as a kid IKEA used to have a similar thing in its giant maze-like stores. Inside a plexiglass case was a chair, or kitchen cabinet, which looked exactly like the ones for sale next to the see-through box. However, inside was a kind of abuse-robot, that mimicked opening and closing a drawer, but did it once every 3 seconds, all day, every day. There was a digital counter and you could see that the thing had already endured the equivalent of several decades of normal use.

This is what it sometimes feels like is happening to us right now.
In many ways we are all the chair -and we’re going to find out just how much we can take before we break.

Similar stress-testing is done by cardiologists who make someone with a heart condition walk on a treadmill to see how their heart can handle a full cardio load, or by regulators trying to see if banks of other institutions can handle theoretical disaster scenarios.

The idea is that if you want to know how well something works, you try to break it. If you want to know how well it will hold up, you stress it out. If you want to see how and when it will bend, or become misshaped, or become a deformed version of itself, you must push it past what it normally would endure. That’s how you find when it will break, and where.

Honestly, it feels right now like the systems we have that in many ways we as societies are being put through a stress test. The COVID pandemic and its responses are pushing us as individuals and collectively as societies, in many instances to the breaking point.

If you hold the unwavering belief that the free market is always right, that government interference only brings inefficiency, there are situations now that push that. What about if entire industries (like air transport) seem to be (or seemed to be when I started writing this) on the verge of collapsing. Should the government jump in and help out those companies when they risk failing? If free-market economics work, then someone’s price gouging on hand sanitizer should not be stopped. Supply and demand working together to arrive at the ‘correct’ price are one of the most fundamental underpinnings of free-market economics. A few months ago there were stories of people buying up all the disinfectant wipes at a Costco and then reselling them at a massive markup out of their car. The general consensus was outrage. So if people shouldn’t be ‘gouging’ prices of Lysol wipes and hand sanitizer and toilet paper when it’s hard to get, why can movie theatres charge more on a weekend or prices of plane tickets around Christmas?

Should responses be controlled at a national level, or left up to local authorities? Some places are seeing widespread coordinated efforts, others where disjointed responses are hampering efforts. Some are seeing centralized control ignore regional differences, and others have local responses that seem apprpriate

to the breaking point…and then a bit more

Just last night we were talking with someone who said they knew three different marriages that have broken up since the start of this pandemic. Seems that both people being at home essentially all the time was a new kind of stress test.

The way we educate kids seems to be stress tested. What is the role of the classroom, of teachers, of elementary education? How can it work if it is forced to fundamentally shift?

Should we be for “our country first”, close our borders in case of problems, and look out for ourselves? What about when we need to coordinate on vaccine development or need international cooperation to solve these complex problems.

Related, we are part of a larger group of people working together as a society – until there is a perceived shortage of something- then I take what I think I need for myself.

I don’t think the stress test is showing that these things: free-market economics, nationalism, individualism etc. are wrong. I think that we’re just seeing their limits in more acute ways than we normally do. In many ways, it’s a good opportunity to see limits and to understand more the benefits and potential shortcomings of all these things that we often don’t question.

I think we’re probably even feeling it in the church. Over the past few centuries, much of the church has focused on “the Sunday morning service” as its raison d’etre, And even more so, “the sermon”, that 20 minutes or so monologue sits at its core for many. Now that most people in the world are streaming these things to their living room, I think we’re starting to feel the deficit in this perspective. In the Bible, the church is described as a body, as a family, as a community. Never as a lecture hall or theatre or living museum.

Some churches follow a style dripping with tradition to lend authority, others have lasers and close-ups of singers with fancy hair to prove cultural relevance. But these things must be losing their impact on almost everyone as they are streamed on a screen from your brunch table.

Honestly, my biggest hope is that at the end of this pandemic, we won’t go back to ‘normal.’ There were so many things that we did just because we did them, and now we are finally in a position to question them. Cities and towns that closed-off downtown streets to cars are realizing that a walkable downtown is actually possible. Flexibility in the way that people work that helps families. New understanding of how our kids are educated. Clearer insight into our very relationships as we spend time together in new ways.

This current season is one of loss – unprecedented loss for many people on the planet. At the very least we owe it to ourselves to learn something from it. So that collectively the giant scar that is left from this pandemic will lead to not just us telling our grandkids stories of ‘how bad it was’ but also “that’s when we learned to…”