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  • Writer's pictureAdam Schneider

The Cookie Tray

COVID-19 mask revolts and evidence of the limits of human altruism.

11 July 2020

During my time at the NSA, I worked for 1.5 years in a cyber-security operations center. I was the "mission manager" for my watch team, which meant that the mission-related cells, such as the analysis, collections, and mitigations cells, reported to me. As such, I sat at the back of the operations center, which was a large room with TV screens across the front wall and many groups of desks on the "floor." My desk in the back was on an elevated platform, so I had the ability to look over people's shoulders to see what they were watching on YouTube. In the center of the room, just a few feet from the steps that led to my platform, was a large table. The conference phone sat on that table. Its primary use, though, was to hold food. Everyone gains weight on the Ops Floor.

Employees from other parts of NSA would bring leftovers, like cake, from their office parties, and we would always eat it. Also, almost every shift, someone would bring cookies from the grocery store. The cookies that they chose were not brand name cookies, but were the fresh store-made kind that came in a clear plastic tray.

Day after day, I sat on my elevated platform and watched as employees walked to the table and grabbed a cookie or three, until eventually someone grabbed the last one. Most of the time, by which I mean more than half of the time, the person taking the last cookie left the now-empty cookie tray sitting on the table for someone else to throw away. Of course, there was a trash can only a few feet away. Yet, most of the time, the various employees did not have it in themselves to walk those extra few feet to discard the trash. The offenders were a diverse group from across the watch team. It wasn't just a few of the same persons. Some persons would throw it away sometimes, and then leave it there at other times.

When anyone tells me that "we," the whole of our society, must sacrifice—even a little—to improve our society's overall well-being, I tell them about the cookie tray. If humans are not willing to make the small sacrifice needed to walk a extra few feet and throw away an article of trash—WHEN THEIR BOSS IS SITTING RIGHT THERE WATCHING THEM!—then it is irrational to expect that persons will be willing to make the real sacrifices needed to "end poverty," achieve "world peace," and to "stop global warming." Am I too jaded?

For six years, from the age of 14 until 20, I worked at a Putt-Putt Golf Course. This is how I paid for college (and everything else) until I joined the Navy. Our main enemy there was cigarette butts on the golf course. We had receptacles at every mini-golf hole, and yet, persons overwhelmingly tossed their butts onto the ground, rather than walking no more than 10 steps to the nearest receptacle.

I was not surprised in the least when persons revolted against the use of masks during the COVID-19 epidemic. I do not expect most people to make a small sacrifice in wearing an annoying mask, even if it could mean saving their own life, the life of a family member, or the life of a stranger. It is irrational to conclude otherwise about human behavior. I wish that reality was different, but it isn't.

If we can't make the simple sacrifices needed to toss an empty cookie tray into the garbage, we will never make the difficult sacrifices needed to solve real problems, like poverty. Ideologies that are based on such an assumption are inconsistent with reality, and therefore are irrational and doomed to fail. A constructive path toward improving human society cannot follow the path of such ideology.


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