Today I felt somewhat like Arthur Dent.

You may know that character from Douglas Adams’ zany sci-fi novel The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Arthur awakens one morning to find his home is about to be demolished to make way for a bypass. When he complains that he didn’t know, the bureaucrat in charge of the wrecking crew responds that the plans have been on display at the planning office for nine months. Of course, “on display” actually means hidden away in a basement. Arthur, apparently, never got the memo.

When it turns out that Arthur’s home in a larger sense—planet Earth—is about to be disintegrated by aliens to make way for a hyperspace bypass, and he again says he didn’t know, the extraterrestrial bureaucrats give a similar answer about plans being on display, but this time in the Alpha Centauri system. As Bones said in one of the old “Star Trek” movies, “The bureaucratic mentality is the only constant in the universe.”

Arthur was expected to know something he couldn’t possibly have known, and that’s why I identified with him this morning as I tried to install a new router and connect, after the installation, to the Internet. The little detail I suppose I was expected to know, and found nowhere in the very sketchy instructions, was that I had to unplug my modem after installation to reset it before I attempted to connect. I had to call my ISP tech support before I was made privy to that little fact.

I’m reminded of the VCR/DVD combo instructions that expected me to intuit the step they left out about programming. But I’m also thinking of the way dysfunctional systems from governments to churches to corporations to families operate. The unreasonable expectation that people should possess knowledge they could not possibly have is the common denominator in them all. There’s always some regulation or a way of behaving or an essential detail of a plan that’s assumed by insiders to be known by all. But of course it’s not, and that’s how dysfunctional systems and people keep their power.

The whole experience with the router has made me all the more determined to communicate clearly, not to assume people know things I might know or have had experiences I have had. I never made a New Year’s resolution, but maybe I just did.

© 2010 Tom Cheatham