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.