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Posted by gustav at 04:02PM, Monday, December 09th, 2002
Self-Replicating Social Systems
Or, on the Nature of Society, and the Endless Struggle between Good and Evil
I've been thinking a lot lately about the notion of social systems which can perpetuate themselves without any sort of conscious oversight. There are a lot of social systems which individuals, organisations, corporations, or other sorts of oligarchies maintain consciously: schools; governments; advisory boards; rock bands; and militias are all ready examples. I'm not talking about something as concrete and discrete as these examples. What I have in mind is the idea that a little oligarchy in some such group as those above can set up a system that will persist, at least in the classes and sorts of relationships it sets up, indefinitely -- long after the founders are dead; even long after everyone has forgotten exactly how or why those founders set the thing up in the first place.
I had been thinking about this because of a sort of awakening I've had gradually over the last few years of living in the Northeast of the U.S. I've been presented with a lot of incontrovertible evidence that any sort of government on a scale large enough to run a country tends to favor a certain unpleasant, usually immoral kind of person. Frank Herbert summed this up as "power attracts the corruptible." There are differences in the degree to which this occurs -- dictators, of course, are said corruptible personified, whereas republics seem to degenerate after brief heydays -- Rome and the U.S. lately are good examples; communism is little different than the dictatorial end of the republican spectrum (although it's tough to point to a true communist state, rather than a communist dictatorship); socialism seems to slow the process down a bit relative to alternatives, though not without succumbing to the same problems. At any rate, the people who effect their own rises to power always seem to be out to screw over anyone they can, without compassion for those who are crushed, without remorse for personal injuries they cause, and with sneering contempt for rules, which, they believe, never were meant to apply to *them* (but of course apply to their enemies).
This tendency for governments to end up run by the socially and economically strong is itself the most broad of the sorts of tendencies in social systems I'm talking about. It's remarkable to me that, even though the basic purpose of all forms of government is to protect the weak from the strong, governments tend, over time, to become tools of the strong, defeating their very purpose. Which is to say that Ken Lay is a modern day Gengis Khan. It's also as good a reason as any to be an anarchist. The only difference between boardroom pension-fund robbery and a neighborhood hoodlum wearing safety pins in his ears while throwing a trash can through plate glass storefronts is in the social reactions that each causes -- and of course, in a mind-boggling difference of the scale of the crime.
As a smaller-scale example, I recently read that article in Harper's about the American public school system. While the article was lamentably light on figures and examples of precisely how the public school system fails (and such examples are hardly difficult to find -- I could make a fairly large list from my own three years' exposure), it did a decent job of outlining the philosophy of the system's creators -- which basically aligns with what I've been saying about public schools for the last ten years or so. The premise is that public schools were created to turn out obedient menials -- fodder for mill work, or office work, or the military, or HTML markup, or whatever the mindless grunt-work of the era is -- who aren't equipped to think and ask questions of their so-called superiors. Meanwhile, said superiors are trained in an entirely separate sphere (and here the article glossed over a lot -- presumably it referred to places like my unpleasant alma mater, Phillips Exeter, and the equivalent selection of training grounds for the privileged and senators' sons -- Andover, Deerfield, Choate, Eton, etc.). In these training grounds for the next generations of leaders, youngsters are allowed to think and analyze, and are trained to be as competitive and viciously immoral -- basically as Ken Lay-like -- as possible. Here, only the strong prosper -- those capable of manipulating, or blackmailing, or pressuring, or backslapping and cajoling their way to the top. Meanwhile, back in JFK Junior High, the plebes are further disaffected by their trainers encouraging divisiveness in the ranks -- separating students on the basis of age, standardized test scores, gender, race, socioeconomic class, sexual orientation, physical handicap, criminal record, and anything else convenient and remotely allowable -- and encouraging hatred between all of these tiny divisions. This system of contempt for difference is working admirably, as events like the Columbine massacre readily demonstrate. But I think you'd be hard-pressed to find anyone running the public schools these days who would admit to these being their goals. The beast has been started. Even the people who think they control it have no idea of its operational parameters -- and yet it succeeds. It keeps existing, growing, feeding itself, like some terrifying and malignant societal Id.
This notion of government-endorsed early social role-training is certainly borne out by my experiences in the workplace. The least desirable trait East Coast companies look for in employees seems to be a brain -- or rather, the ability to analyze situations, and point out ways operations could be improved, and more efficient ways to implement orders from on high. Managers particularly loathe these actions when an employee performs them without explicit prompting. This never made sense to me: obviously, better efficiency and cheaper operations are desirable in any business. Maybe one could forgive antipathy for employees who advocate such things in cushy government jobs where performance is a non-issue, but outside that, if a worker can save her company money, it's in her employers' short-term interest to listen to her. The only explanation that I can think of, other than pure irrationality, is that the resistance to these bright young workers may be because employees who can point out these things also tend to be the ones smart enough to know when they're getting screwed. Since screwing the weak is the name of the game, businesses can't have that. (Anecdotally, I'll mention that at the last company of which I was a regular, full-time employee, I was the only person to accurately predict the round of layoffs in which I, and most of the other long-term development staff, was axed. Despite previous evidence to the contrary, my coworkers assumed there would be no further layoffs. I was also the most disliked software developer, despite, or perhaps because of, accurately calling major product development decisions months in advance of when management belatedly made them.) Meanwhile, the same people who will fire you for thinking without permission are all the while talking about how much they need employees who can think outside the box and who are independent problem-solvers, willing to tackle issues without supervision. Managers in general are towering hypocrites, their actions almost the exact opposite of the feel-good bizspeek they spout -- but they truly seem oblivious to this, to believe their lies even as they utter them. They grease the wheels of oppression, but are themselves without any comprehension of the mechanism by which they achieve this.
Similarly, I look at many of the complex software systems in use in large corporations, and see infuriating, needless complexity -- systems which are toweringly difficult to understand, and have so many component parts that it's almost impossible for anyone to maintain them. These are the systems which have risen to prominence, whether they're large customer relations management products, or content-management, or help-desk tracking, or things like N-tiered Model-View-Controller Java EJB architectures. Places I've worked have taught me that there are alternatives -- smaller, cleaner, simpler, and easier pieces of software, that will do a better job for less. Why would anyone buy the more complex option? I notice that the simple software doesn't keep as many high-priced consulting and customization firms in business, just as Macintoshes keep far fewer help-desk corporations in business than do Windows PCs. Study after study finds the overall IT costs of Macs lower, while employee productivity is higher, yet they maintain a fractional market share in the industry. The people in my experience most likely to refer to them as toys are the ones who make their livings keeping people's computers in operating condition -- and the managers responsible for making uninformed decisions. Someone somewhere once realized the economic implications of complexity in IT, but most of the people making decisions now don't seem to understand why that someone made the recommendation he did -- and the decision-makers are unwilling to hear logic.
I admit that a profitable industry that employs lots of people has sprung up around maintaining complex systems. I also maintain that people could be better employed, in every sense of that word, if those systems were not in widespread use. I also maintain that, without Microsoft Outlook, most everyone's life would be more pleasant. I'd also have approximately 75% fewer junk emails every day.
What I wonder is if there are any similar unconscious systems that can work for -- for want of a better word --good. There has of course always been a resistance, as it were, whether it's learned pupils of Aristotle, enlightenment poets, pamphleteers, and playwrights (Lessing, Goethe, Schiller, Voltaire), brave ladies in 1940s occupied France, imprisoned homosexuals in McCarthy's Hollywood, or the Electronic Frontier Foundation, or even proponents of good design like Bill Campbell or Bruce Tognazzini. But such laudable resisters have been brave outcasts, and the organisations supporting them have always struggled against the prevailing currents of the societies to which they belong, often beset by internal conflict (witness the often dramatic conflagrations over the operations of organisations such as the Mattachine Society in the pre-Stonewall gay rights movement.) Whilst there is certainly dissent and argument at the most benign of PTA meetings, these never threaten the existence of the public schools as a whole; dissent never seems to threaten the Republican Party's quest for world domination. While the resistance is often a fecund soil for art and the expression and transmission of new memes, it seems largely incapable of setting up the sort of unconscious, unaware, obscured self-propagation that comes so easily to those systems maintained by the thirst for power.
Why? Is this really just the nature of the universe? Can we change it?
Maybe it's just a problem of perception. It's clear that the powers that be usually have some sway over the dissemination of information -- Fox News is one of the pundits where the high priests of the current government preach, not just to the choir, but to the naive, the uninformed, and the unopinionated as well, telling them how wacky and extremist is anyone not as stultifyingly to the right of center as the current presidential administration. The result is that, for example, multiple friends of mine, who really should know better, and who are to the left of him, claim that Howard Dean is a wacko, out there, leftist, socialist, lunatic fringe presidential candidate. This of a guy considerably to the right of Ted Kennedy, mind you. And, for another example, people like me, temporarily or not, drop out of the business rat race because it sickens us and seems so hopeless and useless, struggling against "superiors" just to inefficiently produce goods in no way useful for the sustenance or betterment of society. Maybe the problem isn't exactly as it appears -- perhaps the resistance is stronger than anyone lets it be known, with those in power constantly struggling to tell us that it doesn't exist, or that it is extremist, or doesn't represent you the average voter -- all to make you feel isolated and so far from the rest of humanity that you might as well abandon your goals. Those who know better may tend to get disgusted with the whole thing and either step down from positions where they could shout the message of the resistance from the rooftops, or abstain from attaining them in the first place. It's all reminiscent of how the public schools segregate and reinforce prejudice and bigotry.
People have been horrified that the end of the world is around the corner for as long as there's been history, and yet civilisation persists. Anyone can see the devastation we cause in the natural world, from violent weather-pattern changes, to deforestation, to rampant suburban development, to mighty rivers removed from the face of the earth in the name of irrigation -- yet even in the urban blight of Somerville, wildflowers manage to force up through the toxic waste on railroad tracks disused for a couple years. Still, the result of the silence and isolation is that we let the evil men seize control of the world, again and again -- and the best of people are made to live their lives feeling isolated, and fearing the imminent destruction of all that they find beautiful, whether by belching factories, or book-burners, or secret police. What can we do to take the world back by our means -- peaceful, honest, respectful of difference, and respectful of Truth -- and make our victory persist when our memes are no longer in circulation?
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