The Power of Habits (excerpt)

Destructive organizational habits can be found within hundreds of industries and at thousands of firms. And almost always, they are the products of thoughtlessness, of leaders who avoid thinking about the culture and so let it develop without guidance…

These organizational habits or routines, are enormously important, because without them, most companies would never get any work done. Routines provide the hundreds of unwritten rules that companies need to operate. But among the most important benefits of routines is that they create truces between potentially warring groups or individuals within an organization. Most of the time, routines and truces work perfectly. Rivalries still exist, of course, but because of institutional habits, they’re kept within bounds and the business thrives.

Charles Duhigg, The Power of Myth

Kinship and AI

The essay, titled “Making Kin with the Machines,” is co-authored by Lewis, Kite, Noelani Arista (University of Hawai‘i atMānoa) and Archer Pechawis.

Chosen out of 260 submissions, it is one of 10 essays published in a special edition of the Journal of Design and Science by MIT Press. One reviewer wrote that it might be the only essay in the collection that opens up truly new ways of thinking about AI.

The essay argues that Indigenous knowledge systems are much better at accommodating the non-human than Western philosophies, because the Indigenous worldview does not place man at the centre of creation. The writers seek a relationship to non-human intelligences — beyond that of merely tools or slaves — as potential partners who exist in a living system of mutual respect.

The essay states that there is currently no consensus on how to approach human relations with AI. Opinions vary widely within the small network of Indigenous scholars, artists, designers, computer programmers and knowledge-holders who consider the topic. Different Indigenous communities approach questions of kinship differently; some disavow kinship with machines entirely.

Concordia’s Jason Edward Lewis wants ethical artificial intelligence with an Indigenous worldview, April 29, 2019, Andy Murdoch

On the same day as I read the above, I listened to an interview with Genevieve Bell, former anthropologist at Intel, and now leads the 3Ai Institute which is working on creating a new applied science to take AI safely to scale. She describes this work starting at the 42 minute mark.

“There’s a connection to anthropology. Want to know what it is?”

“I sure do!”

“It’s a good one. So, there was a mathematician named Norbert Weiner back in 1946, 1947. He organized a series of conferences called the Macy Conference of Cybernetics and cybernetics was a term he coined. And for him, cybernetics meant a dynamic system that included technology, nature, and human beings. So a technical system that included biology, humans, and technology.   A system that included computation, the environment, and humans.”

Wow.”

“Yeah, and in ’46, that is a radical proposition.

It’s radical now.

“Well what’s interesting is that in ’46 he started to curate these conferences and he reached out to someone he had met to help him curate them…”

“Who was an anthropologist!”

“It was Margaret Mead. It was just not any anthropologist. It was Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson.”

The Familiar Strange #32, “Hula Hoops not Bicycles” Genevieve Bell talks Anthropology, Technology & Building the Future (46 minute mark)

Here a space opens for an artistic materialism

Here a space opens for an artistic materialism. Parallel to the Marxist tradition runs an aesthetic one, from Cezanne to Miro and the Bauhaus artist Paul Klee. Crucial to Jorn’s reworking of Marxist thought is his radical revision of the locus and significance of the aesthetic. Art belongs to the infrastructure of society, not to the super-structure. Art is a fundamental kind of social production. Marxism breaks with classical tradition by assigning priority to action rather than contemplation, but its error error is to consider art only as a form of contemplation. Art is action.

Engels wrote that “the economic structure of society always furnishes the real basis, starting from which we can alone work out the ultimate explanation of the whole superstructure of juridical and political institutions as well as of the religious, philosophical and other ideas of a given historical period.” Jorn would agree with this, but with the proviso that aesthetic practice is part of the economic structure, not just one of the “other ideas” within the superstructure. The qualitative practice of art is as much part of the base of the capitalist social formation as its qualitative production process. The ontological failure of capital, its inability to perceive and produce its own reality, stems from the domination of the quantitative over the qualitative process.

Jorn breaks with privileging of science that he finds particularly in Engels. Jorn distinguishes between what he calls a worldview and an attitude to life. Both, he insists, can be materialistic, but they do not always go together. Even when science has a materialistic worldview, it does not necessarily have a materialist attitude to life. It remains Apollonian…
Aesthetic experiment is the necessary complement to scientific experiment, but it is not an imitation of science. While science extends knowledge and expands the material worldview, art creates a way of life by shaping material characteristics according to desire. If science concerns itself with objective truth, then art will search for subjective truth. “Rather an entangled and chaotic truth than a four-square, beautiful symmetrical and finely-chiseled lie.” But, crucially, Jorn sees subjectivity as non-individualistic. The art that matters is a subjective realism that extends beyond the individual and invokes a collective practice: “art, therefore, is not a representation, a mirror, of nature but a direct transformation of nature. Art is experimental social practice which transforms nature into second nature, but without reducing nature to essence or order.

McKenzie Wark, The Beach Beneath the Street: The Everyday Life and Glorious Times of the Situationist International

Reading Foucault is like taking a master class on how the game of scholarship is to be played

Michel Foucault (1926-1984) undermines the romantic theory of authorship by speaking of discourse as a distribution of author functions. For Foucault, a statement is authorized by a particular form of discourse, a regime of truth, a procedure for assigning truth-value to statements. It’s not hard to see why this captivated the minds of academics. It made the procedures in which academics are obsessively drilled the very form of power itself. As if that by which academics are made, the molding of their bodies to desks and texts, that about which they know the most, even more than they know their allotted fields, were the very index of power. Reading Foucault is like taking a master class on how the game of scholarship is to be played, and with the reliable alibi that this knowledge of power, of knowledge as power, is to be used in the interests of resistance to something or other. Détournement on the other hand, turns the tables, upends the game.

The device of détournement restores all the subversive qualities to past critical judgements that have congealed into respectable truths. Détournement makes for a type of communication aware of its inability to enshrine any inherent and definitive certainty. This language is inaccessible in the highest degree to confirmation by any earlier or supra-critical reference point. On the contrary, its internal coherence and its adequacy in respect of the practically possible are what validate the symbolic remnants that it restores. Détournement founds its cause on nothing but its own practice as critique at work in the present. Détournement creates anti-statements. For the Situationalists, the very act of unauthorized appropriation in the truth content of détournement.

Needless to say, the best lines in this chapter are plagiarized. Or rather, they are détourned. (It hardly counts as plagiarism if the text itself gives notice of the offense – or does it?) Moreover, many of these détourned phrases have been corrected, as Lautréamont would say. Plagiarism uploads private property in thought by trying to hide its thefts. Détournement treats all of culture as common property to being with, and openly declares its rights. Moreover, it treats it not as a creative commons, not as the wealth of networks, not as free culture or remix culture; but as an active place of challenge, agency, strategy and conflict. Detournement dissolves the rituals of knowledge in an active remembering that calls collective being into existence. If all property is theft, then all intellectual property is détournement.
Not surprisingly, official discourse has a hard time with this concept. The decline of critical theory in the postwar years is directly correlated to the refusal to confront détournement as the most consistent approach to a knowledge made by all. The meandering stream that runs from the Letterist International to the Situationist International and beyond is the course not taken, and remains a troubling memory for critical thought. The path not taken poses the difficult question: what if one challenged the organization of knowledge itself? What if, rather than knowledge as a representation of another life, it is that other life?

McKenzie Wark, The Beach Beneath the Street: The Everyday Life and Glorious Times of the Situationist International


Ideas as intersections

When I try to think about thinking, for instance retracing where an idea of mine came from, the limitation of English force me to say that “I” produced and “idea.” But none of these things are stable entities, and this grammatical relationship among them is misleading. The “idea” isn’t a finished product with identifiable boundaries that one moment sprung into being — one of the reasons artists so hate the interview question, “So what was your inspiration for this?” Any idea is actually an unstable shifting intersection between myself and whatever I was encountering. By extension, thought doesn’t somehow inside of me, but between what I perceive as me and not-me. Cognitive scientists Francisco J. Varela, Evan Thompson, and Elenaor Rosch back up this intuition with fascinating scientific studies in The Embodied Mind, a book that draws comparisons between moden cognitive science and ancient Buddhist principles. Using examples like the coevolution of vision with certain colors that occur in nature, they fundamentally complicate the idea that perception mere gives information about what’s “out there.” As they put it, “Cognition is not the representation of a pre-given mind but is rather the enactment of a world and a mind.”

Jenny Odell, How to do Nothing, p. 142

Ecology as comfortingly anti-essentialist

I find something comfortingly anti-essentialist in the way ecology works. As someone who is both Asian and white, I am an anomaly or a nonentity from an essentialist point of view. It’s not possive for me to be “native” to anywhere in any obvious sense. But things like the atmospheric river, or even the sight of Western tanagers (a favourite bird) migrating through Oakland in the spring gives me an image of how to be from two places at once. I remember that the sampaguita, while it’s the national flower of the Philippines, actually originated in the Himalayas before being imported in the seventeenth cenutry. I remember that not only is my mother an immigrant, but that there something immigrant about the air I breathe, the water I drink, the carbon in my bones, and the thoughts in my mind.

Jenny Odell, How to Do Nothing.

The Software That Shapes Workers’ Lives vs. Designing Freedom

Sometimes what am I reading becomes more significant when I start reading the words in the context of another work. Today’s example is The Software That Shapes Workers’ Lives by Miriam Posner in the March 12, 2019 issue of The New Yorker. It’s a good read but, personally, I think you need to read Posner’s longer article See No Evil first in order to best appreciate the magnitude of the impact that supply chain management software has had on our world.

A central challenge in supply-chain management is the vast distance—spatial, temporal, and informational—that separates the S.C.M. process from the real world of manufacturing and consumption. Among the distance-based problems planners worry about is the “bullwhip effect.” Suppose a store runs low on diapers. Observing this strong demand, a manager who normally needs fifty cases might put in an order for a hundred, just to be on the safe side. The diaper company, in turn, might order the production of two hundred cases, rather than a hundred, to insure that they have enough stock on hand. Just as a flick of the wrist creates waves which grow as they travel through a whip, so subtle signals sent by consumers can be amplified out of proportion as they travel through the supply chain. This inflation is dangerous for manufacturers—especially those that depend on the razor-thin inventory margins demanded by just-in-time planning—and yet it’s also hard to avoid, since the manufacturing process is so distributed in time and space, with many junctures at which forecasts might grow.

The Software That Shapes Workers’ Lives, Miriam Posner, March 12, 2019, The New Yorker.

While I was reading, The Software That Shapes Workers’ Lives, I was reading another Massey Lecture that proved to be strange and weird counterpoint: Designing Freedom by management cyberneticist Stafford Beer. I was reading the slim book because I have a personal mission to own and read all the Massey Lectures but it appears that his work is still is being discussed on twitter.


Despite the simple figures at the end of most of the chapters, Designing Freedom is not a simple read. I suspect one might to have read Beer’s other works in order to appreciate this distillation of his ideas. As a first introduction, I found it too easy to get lost in Beer’s vocabulary:

Let’s get down to work, and recall where we were. A social institution is not an entity, but a dynamic system. The measure we need to discuss it is the measure of variety. Variety is the number of possible states of the system, and that number grows daily, for every institution, because of an ever-increasing range of possibilities afforded by education, by technology , by communications, by prosperity, and by the way these possibilities interact to generate yet more variety. In order to regulate a system, we have to absorb its variety. If we fail in this, the system becomes unstable. Then, at the best,we cannot control it—as happened with the bobbing ball on our elaborated tennis trainer; at the worst, there is a catastrophic collapse—as happened with the wave. So next to something new. What is it that controls variety? The answer is dead simple: variety. Variety absorbs variety, and nothing else can.

Stafford Beer, Designing Freedom, p. 9

Beer does explain this concept using the example of a person looking to buy a pair of shoes in a department store.

But not for nothing is that store called departmental. There is a shoe salesman, and a cake salesman; that is what organizational structure is for—to carve up the total system variety into subsystems of more reasonably sized variety. The customer who is not clear what commodity, if any, will meet her need, represents variety that cannot be trapped by this departmental arrangement; her variety will be left over, not absorbed, if the store is not careful—and we can see how this means that the situation is out of control. But if the store is careful, it will have an information bureau—which exists precisely to absorb this excess variety.

Let us return to the shoe purchaser; we observe that she is becoming angry .This is because she cannot get any attention. The shoe salesman is dealing with someone else, and four more people are waiting. The other shoe salesmen are similarly occupied. Temporarily, at any rate, the situation is out of control, because at this moment the store has miscalculated the number of shoe salesmen needed to absorb the variety generated by the customer. Well, maybe you remember the concept we need to describe this affair, and its name. The name is relaxation time. Variety is cropping up faster in this system than the system can absorb it, and this is bad from the customer’s point of view. If it happens all the time, it will be bad from the store’s point of view as well: the customer will desert the store, looking for somewhere with a shorter relaxation time. So the temporary instability of service in the store will become permanent, and—at that very moment—incipiently catastrophic. The trouble with our societary institutions, of course, is that the citizen has no alternative but to use them. Only variety can absorb variety. It sounds ridiculous, but the perfect, undefeatable way to run this store is to attach a salesman to each customer on arrival. Then we could forget about those departments, where the shoesalesmen are run off their feet, while the girls in lingerie are manicuring their fingernails, and absorb the customers’ variety as we go along. For, you see, not only do we need variety to absorb variety, but we need exactly the same amount of variety to do it. We were speaking just now of the law of gravity in physics: it is perhaps the dominant law of the physical universe. What we have arrived at in the departmental store is the dominant law of societary systems, the Law of Requisite Variety—named Ashby’s Law after its discoverer.

The example is ridiculous, because we cannot afford to supply requisite variety by this obvious expedient. We cannot give every departmental store customer a salesman, because we cannot afford it; but you may already have noticed that in very superior (and therefore very expensive) special-purpose stores, such as those selling automobiles or hand-made suits, this is exactly what happens.

Stafford Beer, Designing Freedom, p. 9

The above example might be ridiculous but for myself, it was the moment of the most pronounced clarity in this book.

As Beer tackles the systems of bureaucracy, of liberty, of families, and of education with his cybernetic managerial approach, I found myself hoping that I following along and progressively losing confidence that I was. For example, I think I understand what Beer means here but there not enough in the text for me to be really sure:

So: I am hoping that we may approach the final lecture of this series in the following state of mind. The human being is limited by his finite brain from assimilating all possible information, and from recognizing all possible patterns of the world. He is limited by his own finite resources from doing whatever he likes, and by the finite resources of the planet from demanding an end-less growth in material prosperity, for all men. Indeed the pursuit of his own material prosperity, though possible, is not something that the affluent part of the world can any longer maintain as a good, unless it is explicitly willing to declare that it will be done at the expense of the less fortunate.

Then the concept of freedom is not meaningful for any person except within measurable variety constraints:and the extent to which we have lost freedom is due to loss of control over the variety attenuators—education, publishing—and to the centralization of power at the wrong levels of recursion. This freedom could be re-claimed, using the new scientific tools at our disposal, but only if new democratic machinery is established to replace existing bureaucracies. As long as these remain cybernetically organized so as to produce themselves, our societary institutions remain set on courses that lead to catastrophic instability.

Stafford Beer, Designing Freedom, p. 36

When I read Designing Freedom, I always felt very close to discovering something very profound about the current state of our organizations and governments. And while I feel I did gained some insight from this short book, I know there is much more work I would still need to do as a reader to make these connections meaningful to me.

But I do know this: there is some urgency to the matter of using better organizational software if we want to create a better world.

Because if you think that a university would never use software from SAP, you would be wrong.

Speculative Realism and Object-Oriented Ontology (Grad Class)

So the whole point of a library is to be a collection of objects that have no point whatsoever. This is why I think it’s really beyond capitalism; there’s no reason, there’s no utilitarian, self-interest, rational-choice reason to have that great big pile of stuff that nobody looks at. But that’s exactly why libraries are good—not because they contain a treasure trove of stuff you can see, but because they contain a treasure trove of stuff, period, that maybe nobody sees, for a million years.

Speculative Realism and Object-Oriented Ontology Grad Class by Timothy Morton via Robin Sloan, Week 5, some kind of shell of a crab

Belonging vs. Computation

One of the benefits of reading several books at the same time, is that occasionally a chapter that I have just finished from one book will somehow find resonance in another. Today I felt this, despite that James Bridle’s New Dark Age and Adrienne Clarkson’s Belonging are very different books.

From the blurb to New Dark Age:

As the world around us increases in technological complexity, our understanding of it diminishes. Underlying this trend is a single idea: the belief that our existence is understandable through computation, and more data is enough to help us build a better world.

Bridle’s chapter on Computation is exceptional. There is so much I would love to share but I will leave you this excerpt:

To take another example from aviation, consider the experience of being in an airport. An airport is a canonical example of what geographers call ‘code/space‘. Code/spaces describe the interweaving of computation with the built environment and daily experience to a very specific extent: rather than overlaying and augmenting them, computation becomes a crucial component of them, such that the environment and the experience of it actually ceases to function in the absence of code…

That which computation sets out to map and model it eventually takes over. Google sets out to index all human knowledge and becomes the source and the arbiter of that knowledge: it became what people think. Facebook set out to map the connections between people – the social graph – and became the platform for those connections, irrevocably reshaping societal relationships. Like an air control system mistaking a flock of birds for a fleet of bombers, software is unable to distinguish between the model of the world and reality – and, once conditioned, neither are we.

James Bridle, New Dark Age, p.37, 39.

Belonging, on the other hand, is a set of Massey Lectures from journalist and former Governor General of Canada, Adrienne Clarkson that addresses the paradoxes of citizenship. In her first chapter she tells several stories that express how our identity and our sense of belonging are deeply dependent upon each other.

If we remove our sense of belonging to each other, no matter what our material and social conditions are, survival, acquisition, and selfish triumphalism will endure at the cost of our humanity. Under extreme circumstances, each and every one of us is capable of a mentality that brings about the abandonment of children, the lack of cultivation of human relationships, and the deliberate denial of love.

Adrienne Clarkson, Belonging, p. 3.

To bring these two ideas together: Like an air control system mistaking a flock of birds for a fleet of bombers, software is unable to distinguish between the model of the world and reality, and if we let ourselves become conditioned to substitute our standing in social media with our sense of belonging in our social structures, neither will we.

in hindsight, only men could make teen sex comedies

[Roxane] Gay is fascinating on the “goodness” of girls – as a societal requirement, as an often impossible standard; on how often being good is a matter of being “one who knows how to play by the rules and cares to be seen to be playing by the rules”; who knows how to be liked… Above all, on goodness as vulnerability, not least because she knows, in the most visceral way possible, what that can mean. One day, when she was 12, a handsome classmate took her on a bike ride to an abandoned shack in the woods where a pack of other boys, fuelled by drink, were waiting. “There is a before and an after,” she writes, in Hunger. “In the after I was broken, shattered, and silent.”

Roxane Gay: ‘Public discourse rarely allows for nuance. And see where that’s gotten us’, The Guardian, 27 December 2018

GROSS: When you were 13 and you had friends who were girls, did you understand anxieties from a girl’s point of view? For example, something I think you handle really well in the film is how a 13-year-old girl might deal with it if a boy, you know, just a little bit older than her tries to come on to her and to push her sexually to a place that she’s not ready for. It’s so uncomfortable and awkward and embarrassing for a young, inexperienced girl to say no.

BURNHAM: Yeah. You know, honestly, I don’t think I knew that perspective when I was that age. And I think – I mean, I didn’t do anything equivalent to what that boy does in that scene, but, you know, part of the movie for me was trying to go back and investigate that time and realize that there was a whole other population of people experiencing maybe the exact same circumstances I was experiencing from a different perspective.

And even in film, you know, there’s this sort of teen sex comedy which is, you know – in hindsight, only men could make teen sex comedies just, you know, that teen sex would only be comedic. Of course that seems like it’s from a male perspective.

Director Bo Burnham On Growing Up With Anxiety — And An Audience, Fresh Air with Terry Gross, December 27, 2018