(also posted on my Substack)
I previously wrote about some practical game-theoretical (game-practical?) realizations I had while buying a house. Today I want to talk about how bureaucracy is a ritualistic, magical place.
In our home-buying process, every step of the way, there were papers to be signed. Paperwork is how the magic of bureaucracy comes in view. I'm not saying "magic" to mean good or beautiful. I'm referring to the ritualistic nature of bureaucracy.
Everything in our journey was a ritual. When you debate the point of something, people participating in the ritual are confused. On the one hand, they understand that your request makes sense, because you're asking for the same function. On the other hand, you shall not ignore the Ritual!
Let me explain with several examples what I mean by ritual.
The Summoning (of the PDF)
To buy a house and get state subsidies, you have to present an official document to the bank, confirming that the building may indeed be used as a dwelling, i.e. a use permit. It is not necessary that this document is an original, a copy will suffice.
Well, I got to the bank with printouts of photos of this permit. I don't have the original, and the agent simply took photos of it with his phone, and sent these photos to me. I printed them out on paper, and presented them to the bank. Problem: they have to be scans, not photos. "Photos aren't scans", the bank lady said, "They won't be accepted as official". My first impulse was to protest: "But since you don't need originals, what does it matter what form the copy has? Obviously the informational content is what's necessary - what's written in the document, not what device was used to transfer this information. And anyway, scans and photos are literally the exact same thing. Scans are just photos taken in a particular way. How is it important that-", but I stopped myself before saying any of this. There's a particular art to navigating bureaucracy, and arguing about the nature of information and how it represented is Not It, Chief ®. Instead, the Art is to constantly weigh where you can insist on being reasonable, and where you have to suck it up and comply with a dumb request.
What the bank lady actually wanted is a semblance of officiality. Photos simply don't look official, and that's it. To complete the ritual, a conventional way is required, and the most modern of the conventional ways is the offering of a scan. I downloaded the Adobe Scan app, "scanned" the JPEGs, made them look like they were actual scans from a scanning machine, told the lady that I just got the scans (implying that I got them from the agent, not from an app), and sent them via email. She was satisfied. Ritual complete.
The Notary of the Toilet
One of the steps was to notarize a document stating that we don't currently own any real estate. To do so, we went to a notary. My girlfriend knew of one in a nearby mall, so we went there. I'm angry at myself that I didn't take a photo, but I'll try to describe it. So you come into this mall, and there are all these stores, with clothing, tech, sports equipment, food - just the regular stuff you'd expect in a mall. To get to the notary, you go through one of the service doors - those things that hide the inner workings of a mall, the mall's guts. You open that door, and you smell and you *hear* the toilets as they're being flushed. If you don't already know that you're going to see a notary, you'd think you've just walked into a toilet. So you walk through the toilet a bit, and at the end of the hallway, there's a door to the notary. The inside office is actually surprisingly well-furnished, but the outside is a mall favela.
We get in there, we present our ID cards, we sign a statement, the notary stamps it, and then we literally sign our names into a Big Book. The notary didn't verify my statement. She just verified that I signed it. Actually, she didn't do that, because I had a face mask on. So I could have come with anybody's ID card and produced any sort of statement, and it would have been notarized. A weirdly archaic industry, but it still lives because rituals aren't easy to replace.
But what is a signature?
All this reminds me of Pact by John C. McCrae (Wildbow). The main character there finds out about the world of magic, but it turns out that magic is magic only if the surrounding spirits and other practitioners of magic recognize it as magic. In other words, if you do unconventional stuff that doesn't look magic, it's not magic. There's no mechanism that you can game because the mechanism is the look; the form is the content.
Bureaucracy is a world of magic. Things are official if they look official. The more official-looking papers you collect, the stronger the spell. You want to do something that's functionally identical? Tough luck. It has to look the part. For years, this annoyed me. And it still does, but I've come to accept is as a price of doing things I want to do. I am glad that there are people out there building alternative, trustless systems. But until these systems take over, it's Real Wizard Hours.