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Permanent Stopgaps

“Any child in Holland will shudder at the thought of a leak in the dyke! The boy understood the danger at a glance […] Quick as a flash, he saw his duty. […] His chubby little finger was thrust in, almost before he knew it. The flowing was stopped ! […] This was all very well at first, but […] Our little hero began to tremble with cold and dread. […] If he drew away that tiny finger, the angry waters, grown angrier still, would rush forth, and never stop until they had swept over the town. […] He was not certain now that he could draw his finger away, even if he wished to.”

—Mary Mapes Dodge, “Lesson 62. — The Hero of Haarlem,”

Hans Brinker, Or, The Silver Skates (1866)

Paris was buzzing with excitement. People from all over the world began to flock to the French capital for what would become the fourth of eight grand events in the city. It was 1889, and as the crowds looked up from the World’s Fair entrance on the Champs de Mars, they saw a peculiar structure. The iron-lattice tower was unlike anything people had seen before. Fortunately for many of the city’s disgruntled residence, the eyesore was planned to be temporary.

Exactly one hundred years later in 1989, long after the Eiffel Tower had become a permanent Parisian icon and one of the world’s most visited monuments, an American composer was finishing a piece of throwaway music. It was whimsical score, not to be taken seriously, written for a television show that probably wouldn’t last more than three episodes. Yet over thirty years later, Danny Elfman’s song lives on as one of the most recognizable tunes in popular culture. The theme song of The Simpsons, alongside the longest running sitcom in history, has outlasted all expectations. 


Anything can be a stopgap measure—rules, music, purchases, construction, verbal ticks, furniture placement, adaptations—anything. It’s a matter of intention (to be temporary, to fill a need until a long-term solution is found). And to the dismay of designers everywhere, our world is mostly made of stopgaps; it is not designed (nor is it feasible to be).* There are several reasons for this. 

One obvious but important point is that real-time decisions can rarely be made with design principles in mind. It takes a concerted effort to analyze a problem, consider the alternatives, and implement a creative solution. There are simply too many decisions (often unconscious) to regularly employ the design process. 

Also, “good enough for now” is often good enough for later. Stopgaps that work last. The economy works, although not always smoothly. Organizational and biological adaptations work. But they aren’t always elegant. The sheer volume of temporary measures creates a high probability for at least some of them to work as well as (if not better than) designed solutions. 

Another reason stopgaps persist is that it often takes less effort to maintain the status quo than to revise or reverse it. Once a decision is made, momentum takes over. It’s a case of path dependence meeting path of least resistance. This is especially true in Law, a field that prides itself on rigorous methodology and intention, which is still riddled with legal anachronisms (outdated laws that persist despite being irrelevant or in desperate need of revision). 

When faced with an imperfect and often inept world, I’m comforted with this thought: Our world is a patchwork of stopgaps, and, considering, it works surprisingly well. The elegance of our world is that it works at all, despite being filled with inelegant solutions. But that’s not to say everyone gets a free pass. Be careful what you nonchalantly do; it might just work.


* That is to say, most solutions are intended to be temporary with those that work outlasting those that don’t. Philosophically, however, when one considers a long enough time horizon, everything is a stopgap measure, as “nothing lasts forever” (although, one could argue that intention may disqualify that conclusion depending on the definition’s semantics).

† Admittedly, it’s a stretch to claim that legal anachronisms are an example of stopgaps, since laws are typically passed with specific intention. Instead, the point here is to highlight the power of momentum, which often carries measures well beyond their intended purpose.

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