When Things Break

Two weeks ago the temperature in our apartment was in the lower 80’s and the humidity was in the upper 20’s. Two loud fans and a loud, hot dehumidifier made an awful noise.

Saturday morning I discovered a section of wet carpet near the wall between the bathroom and living area in our apartment. When we told the folks in the front office they said they’d just been dealing with a leak four stories directly above us. The fans and dehumidifier were drying out the water that had gotten into the walls and under the carpet. The carpet had been peeled back and the wood trim had been removed. The water also damaged the custom hard wood floor and the entire thing had to be torn up and later replaced. Since I work from home, this led to several days where I tried to spend most of my time hanging out in coffee shops while work crews did their thing.

I couldn’t help but see this in terms of a pretty simple principle I’ve been mulling over for the past few years. Here’s one version of it: the more parts something has the more places it can break, and the more of a mess it is when something does.

This leak damaged six units because they’re right on top of each other. If something like this happened in a single family dwelling it would probably only damage one or two rooms. Our apartment complex has many more units–that’s the entire point. There are of course many advantages of this. It allows many more people to fit on the same block, all with easy access to the streetcar that goes right by it, for example. But the interconnected nature of the complex’s units also means that when something breaks–like the plumbing on a bathtub four stories up–it’s a bigger headache.

Thinking about this takes me back to fieldwork in the state of Paiuí, Brazil in June 2011, a broken ATM, and a long bus ride to Petrolina in the state Pernambuco. This was when I first started thinking about things in terms of “so what if one part breaks?” Later, while back in the U.S. and trying to turn these thoughts into an argument in my dissertation (Zero Hunger: The Politics of anti-Hunger Policy in Brazil), I learned that people had been thinking along these lines for quite some time. I’ll pick up there, soon.

(Grad school taught me the following process: 1 Have an idea, 2 Think my idea is nifty, 3 Realize someone has probably thought of it, or something very similar, already.)

Next post in series: The Broken ATM.

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  1. Pingback: How Cover Oregon fits into my discussion of complexity | Russell Terry

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