One of the main projects of the natural sciences is to try to formalise complex physical systems in such a way that they can be used to make predictions about the future. For example, if you apply a force of x N to an object of mass y kg on a frictionless surface in a vacuum, the object in question will achieve a certain acceleration (x/y), and this will happen with predictable regularity. The discovery of such laws is one of the great aims of science, and some of the highest triumphs of the scientific age can be expressed in these terms.
In the natural sciences, the word “singularity” is used to refer to a point in a physical system after which the behaviour of the system cannot possibly be predicted. Stephen Hawking describes a singularity like a point in space-time where what follows “will not depend on anything that may have happened before.”
I feel like this accurately describes certain bureaucratic experiences I have encountered. Let’s take doing one’s taxes as an example. I feel like every year at tax time, something surprising and terrible happens, and I can never predict what. A year ago, I went in to get my taxes done by someone, and I figured I would get a generous amount of money back, as I did the year before. My personal financial situation didn’t change very drastically, I was still a student, and so I figured that at the least I would break even.
That didn’t turn out to be the case. I had to go to my financial institution and send a hefty cheque to the government. The explanation offered by the person doing my taxes was something along the lines of, “Well, you made a bit more money in the year previous, which triggered a whole lot of tax benefits, which resulted in a refund.”
I accepted that explanation, even though it doesn’t make too much sense on the surface. I would have thought that people who make more money would have to pay more tax, but that might just be me being naïve. These days, I’m convinced that there really is no way to predict beforehand what will happen, come tax-time. I’m pretty sure that even if you were to somehow produce a micro-physical duplicate of myself, with an identical financial history, we would both come out of the accountant’s office with a different result on our taxes.
So this year, I’m going into it entirely agnostic about what the outcome will be. If anyone asks if I’m expecting a big tax refund, I will explain to them that no one can know what will happen on the other side of the singularity that is doing one’s taxes.
Here are some other things that also constitute bureaucratic singularities:
- Certain kinds of academic evaluations
- Requests for student financial aid
- University admissions procedures
Can you think of any other ones?