Hello! – If this is your first visit, Start Here

Welcome to Stretching Biology.

Climate change is threatening our civilization. I mean, really threatening our civilization, perhaps even our continued existence on this, our only planet.

*And a note for my friends who don’t believe in global warming, the main theme of this blog will focus on the problem that locks our planetary web of human activity in its present pattern no matter what problem we face. That problem is bureaucratic inflexibility.

Bureaucracy – this system of organizing our human activities that has proven so useful in providing reliable, predictable services and obligations for the last 400 years or so – has now reached a point where it could also engulf us all in its constrictions, paralyzing our ability to survive as a species in a rapidly changing environment – an environment that we ourselves are responsible for changing ever-more rapidly and profoundly. So I hope you can hold your nose and read on anyway to get at the underlying discussion of a problem we share, regardless of our varying faith in climate scientists.*

I chose the term ‘Stretching Biology’ to indicate that these multinational corporations and government leviathans that we humans have formed to exploit the earth and bring comfort to our dwellings may be a form of life in their own right. And this form of life is worth observing and analyzing the way a biologist learns about the forms of life that we already recognize.

I think sociologists have neglected to ask what really enables them to survive and maintain themselves continuously over decades. Furthermore how are their metabolisms different from individual humans and other individual organisms?

So although this inquiry is starting from a point of view that the large, bureaucratic organizations around us may contribute to the climate threat, and certainly they have been sources of other intractable problems such as war, famine,  unhappiness, and frustration over the last 3 centuries and counting, it will do no good  merely to whine about them. Humans have complained about bureaucracies for hundreds of years now. Complaining hasn’t solved the problem.

For at the same time we notice rising sea levels, warmer temperatures, and disappearing top soils, and as we also complain about corporate greed,  bureaucratic paralysis and the uninterrupted growth of government, we also overlook some positive aspects of bureaucracies that are equally important.

One is, of course, that, while we normally link government agencies with the term ‘bureaucracies,’  corporate bureaucracies have also grown steadily over the decades. But since we don’t call them bureaucratic when they grow, we tend to overlook the paralysis that accompanies that development in the private sector. You have only to remember Kodak and DEC in the past or think of Sears-K-Mart’s slow death in the present to understand what I mean.

The other aspect is that government bureaucracies, to turn the coin over and look at its other, positive side, also provide stability – giving us reliable laws, contracts, regulation of our economies, education, statistics, and confidence in all the standards of safety, quality, sanitation, clean food, etc.,  that make our lives safe and predictable.

Because of government bureaucracies, you can count on a contract remaining useful 30 years from now. By the same token bureaucratic, corporate organizations give us reliable, predictable, safe (more or less) products, services, and jobs at prices and wages that are more or less affordable to many people.

What will do some good in these pages, I hope, is to examine these corporate and government entities and their worldwide ecosystem scientifically, as if they were living systems. Which indeed they may be, as independent of us individual humans as is my body from the cells in my liver or a maple tree from its leaves.

Important? Our ability, we humans, to understand and eventually to control our own organizations will determine whether we can turn the ship away from its present course without throwing the passengers over the side. Given the power of bureaucracies – in both the guises of multinational corporations and of governments awash in armaments – to determine our fate, nothing could be more important – to us humans, at least.

If I can compose the bits accurately and write them so they interest you, I will engage you in this experiment to see if we can gradually expand biology to include sociology – or at least some of its sub-fields such as politics, public administration, and economics – having to do with large, living organizations and the management of bureaucracies.

I believe it can be done. I believe that sociology – even political science and organizational systems, in which I was trained – must accord with physics and biology. It can be no other way. The real issue is discovering the right questions and the approaches that yield the right answers, answers that fit into the framework established by the harder sciences.

So – let’s see if I can do that. I invite you to read on and make your own conclusions.

And subscribe because you might be surprised to see what comes next.

1. Who Chooses the Future, People or Organizations?

Are We Headed for Self-Destruction?

Human life on this earth has, to put it mildly, reached a turning point.

Within a few decades we will choose whether to continue inexorably drawing down the earth’s resources to the bitter end, as both our population and our induced appetite for newer and faster apparatus sucks out the earth’s resources, or to find ways to ease our demands on the earth and thereby continue to live in some form of civilization for an extended time.

Our present course, focused on Take-Make-Waste, is taking us – I almost said straight – through unpredictable twists and turns toward a future where mirages may likely turn to real disappointments.

For example, the end of cheap petroleum energy looks like it has been postponed by new drilling technology, but the postponement will only be temporary as demand continues to grow exponentially. The replacement of key metals in some applications by plastics seems to stretch the lives of our mines, but demands for other key raw materials will also grow into bottlenecks.

Increased Information and Limits to Complexity

And the vast increase in information capacity enables, for the time being, at least, a corresponding increase in complexity – but how much complexity can it enable till we reach an edge of chaos? Things seen through the lens on my iPhone seem rosy enough, but the long-term course of humanity – beyond the temporary fixes – is nevertheless far from clear.

Who Acts – Individuals or Organizations?

One important aspect of this picture is normally left unconscious and murky. That is who the ‘we’ are in this prediction. Article after article castigates ‘us’ for doing nothing, and cries that ‘we’ should act differently; ‘we’ should stop polluting or eating meat or consuming products; ‘we’ need to end global warming.

But that phrasing overlooks a clear fact: no one of us wants such a gloomy outcome. No single person wants to create the destruction of our civilization. The ‘we’ that is driving the bus toward the precipice isn’t a ‘we’ in the sense of being a large number of individuals who can change anything without mediation.

Masses vs. Organizations

A mass movement does not make the kinds of decisions required to turn the vehicle – not even to choose which is the right direction to steer the bus. Besides, a mass movement is a rare and powerful thing, very hard to start and often, once started, uncontrollable – and its success depends as much on luck as it does on timing and skill.

Added to that: the successful mass movement soon turns itself into a large, bureaucratic organization with its own interests, one of which – in those that survive, it is the most important one – is staying in control. Michels’ Iron Law of Oligarchy1 is the most stable, predictable effect in political science: that the revolutionaries necessarily develop a vested interest in remaining in power that outweighs the goals of the revolution itself.

Organizations Get Results over Time

Looking for the driver of the bus, we – again, I use the word with caution – have to recognize that the drivers who are steering our present course consist inevitably of large, mostly bureaucratic organizations that seem to continue on their courses independent of any one person, any collection of persons, or even any single generation. The organization enables them to persist in their purposes over time.

General Motors, for example, makes specific plans to go on making automobiles for decades into the future. They may change the engines from gas-guzzlers to electric, but the purpose of General Motors is to make and sell cars, trucks, and busses. The purpose of Royal Dutch Shell, as the President of its US subsidiary once told me personally, is to make sure there is gasoline in every service station in New Jersey [and all the other states they serve] every day, no matter what.

Industrial Development and Environment

Contrast that continuing purpose with the truth about our future. Global warming, the latest environmental challenge, combined with disappearing forests, animal and plant species, topsoil and fresh water, and natural resources such as minerals and mining reserves, is the product of institutional industrial development.

 

Industrial development in turn – factories, railroads, steamships, mining, airlines, computers and chips, for example – are the work of large, often multinational  corporations, organizations that exist apart from individual humans. These activities were born from large concentrations of money, originally assembled in the 17th century by kings and privy councils in Holland, France and England, and have brought forth large extractions of materials from the earth. They lie behind the growth of population, of extraction, of over-farming, of expanding markets, of commercialism, and even of waste.

They are licensed and protected by giant government agencies, military as well as civilian, so that they can continue their growth. And they constitute the web of continuing life on our planet; their stability creates the stability of our lives as well.

Corporations and Governments: Effective Control

They, and not ‘we’ – you and I and our families and friends – are the actors that are challenging our existence; they are the actors who will either change the direction of the bus or drive it (and us with it) over the cliff, necessarily sacrificing long-term benefits to the commons to gain short-term results on the stock market or in corporate returns.

These organized entities have been phenomenally successful over the last 500-odd years in increasing our ability to wrest resources from the earth and convert them into human comfort, health, and possessions – and yes, waste.

Along the way they have even learned to convince all of us more or less continuously to want to buy even more of the things they produce, even if we don’t need them. The idea of doing with less is never mentioned in their advertising, which is what we call their propaganda. All around the earth they now hold a monopoly on the organized expression of desire, the advertising.

Describe and Analyze without Condemning

I state the obvious here without any intention of condemning these organizations. They are no more guilty than a tiger is guilty of eating meat. That’s just what tigers do.2

What I want to do is to explore with as little prejudice as possible the workings of such large organizations, their strengths and weaknesses, and their limitations.

Above all I will ask: can we influence them to change course en masse in a way that would enable human civilization to persist another thousand years or so? And if so, how?

___________________________

 

2. People and the Machine – Can Individuals Effect Change?

Any time we think about how to change something as fundamental as the core organizational principles by which we humans conduct our business around the world, we have to focus on how large governmental  and corporate organizations hold together and survive. They are the effective actors in our world. What do we do about bureaucracies?

Institutions: Coherence and Inertia

Governments, corporations, political parties, banks, non-profit non-government organizations – all the  organizations of human activities in our century – share certain fundamental characteristics that on the one hand give them coherence and enable them to act as economic, political entities but on the other hand endanger them and us when great change is required.

In order to produce our food, safeguard our daily lives, provide for what the U.S. Declaration of Independence calls “the domestic tranquility’ and thereby safeguard laws and contracts and currencies – but most of all, in order to keep the world from falling into grave economic depression – the organizations of the world must continue to operate in predictable ways, continue to maintain stable economic conditions, and even continue to grow.

Environmental Limits Following Centuries of Unlimited Horizons

After nearly 500 years of development and growth, however, the environmental challenges these multinational mammoths have created through their very success, summed up in resource depletion, pollution, and global warming, demand a fundamental change in the logic of our economics.

Over these last few centuries that logic has been simple and compelling: grow or collapse. Economists from all schools from Lenin to Keynes have agreed on that principle. Now, however, we simply cannot continue to grow. Human life depends on finding another way. 1

Organizational Principles are Universal – Communism and Capitalism? Same Results

And there lies one arresting question. The failure of the Soviet Union and the conversion of China have shown that the solutions offered by traditional Communism were ineffectual. But the organizational principles – the economic structures – of state socialism and of multinational capitalism were similar; only the ownership was different. When workers entered their factories in both systems, they had to show up on time, take orders from foremen, and work for a limited wage. The question is: if capitalism is also leading us to destruction, is there another way? And if there might be one, how could we effect the changeover? I wish I could answer that question now, but I can’t.

Searching for the Fundamental Characteristics of All Organizations

What I can and will do, I hope, is more limited. I can only seek to outline the structures of action in human systems and suggest the fundamental characteristics of all such systems – and then systems of systems. And that may give us insights into how to approach changing them – at least what not to do – the actions that would likely prove futile in the light of what we learn.

Illustration – One Man’s  Attempt to Change a System

I’ll begin by reminding you of some of the past attempts to change both political and economic versions of the bureaucratic organizations that dominate our lives around the world.

In June 1979 the world outside China was glued to the news as a film and photo captured the attention of people around the world. The main square in Beijing was filled with thousands of angry students and supporting civilians. They were demonstrating against government policies, crying for a reform in economic opportunities.

The People’s Liberation Army brought in reinforcements from outside the city. They moved ominously toward Tien An Men Square, the huge open plaza at the center of Beijing in front of the Forbidden City and the seat of both the Communist Party and the Government of China. And in fact they did move into the square and shoot down an unknown number of students and other protesters in a bloody show of power that they have been trying to live down ever since.

At the height of the drama, a single man stood in Tian An Men Square in front of a line of armored tanks advancing on the crowd to inflict further casualties on the sea of people gathered there. When the lead tank swerved to avoid him, he danced in front of it and kept dancing back and forth to keep it from going around him, apparently without regard for his own life.

 

His courage inspired people everywhere, and although he remains anonymous to this day, his image has been burned into the collective consciousness of all of us. For a moment the tanks did stop.

For that one instant his courage was rewarded: the military might of one enormous, powerful government organization ground to a halt before one determined human being. He clambered up on the lead tank as if to speak to the commander, and then either friends or police (No record exists about which it was.) dragged him down from the turret and off the road, and the tanks resumed their murderous progress into the square.

It would be easy to single out the Chinese regime as cruel and oppressive and to condemn them out of hand. Easy condemnation, however, would be a cop-out.

Tank Man, as he has come to be known in English, symbolized the single individual standing up to the military, the bureaucracy, and the corporation – call it the big organization.

He was a hero for all of us surrounded by and living in an industrial web of national and local governments, multi-national corporations, and global non-governmental organizations, all of which, although made up of individual humans, are organized. Their structure as organizations exists in part to resist threats by mere individual citizens and to maintain their normal structures of routines and attain their goals no matter what any individual does.

Are We Americans or Europeans Somehow Different ?

We have seen similar events in the United States. In June 1970 student demonstrators protesting the Vietnam War at two universities were shot by American National Guardsmen. Like the TianAn Men massacre, the tragedy at Kent State also occurred as angry and disillusioned students took to the streets and disrupted the normal life of the institutions in which they were enrolled in order to persuade them to change policies. After the shots rang out, American troops stood by and watched the wounded youth bleed to death. I won’t compare their attitudes with the Chinese soldiers, who at least negotiated with Tank Man before rumbling on.

Organizations Have Their Own Interests – Different From Any One Person

I won’t compare the actions of the Chinese tankers with the American reservists because I am using both of these cases to illustrate a larger principle, which is universal and ultimately more important: that corporate and state interests are not the same as our individual human interests, and they seldom yield to the humans whose lives they affect. Why is this? What are the interests of governments, despite their contents of individual humans, that overshadow human life? Why do they not hold human interests at their cores?

But wait! It’s not only governments that are obdurate. Corporations also resist human attempts to change their policies. Giant corporations have also created similar tragedies when people were protesting their policies. Sometimes they are as fatal as the Kent State demonstrations.

We can look back only 100 years to 1907, for example, coal miners in southern Colorado attempted a strike for shorter hours, higher pay, adequate safety measures, and above all, the right to organize a union. It ended badly as the National Guard troops, who were originally sent in to bring about peace, sided with the copper company guards and began firing on the miners and their families, killing several.

Although Standard Oil CEO and founder, John D. Rockefeller, attempted for decades afterward to erase the bad publicity for his steel-coal combine,  he never granted the miners the right to organize a union.

The reasons for the tragedy lay mostly in the evil heart of John D. Rockefeller – but not entirely; they also stemmed from the threat the miners posed to the deepest springs of corporate organization, central control, and the need to preserve the organization’s power and integrity at all costs.

The list of people resisting corporations goes on. Most recently it has included farmers and consumer demonstrating against genetically modified crops in several countries, including the United States.

Some have actually been successful, as was the one pictured here from Madhya Pradesh in India in 2008, where farmers, who are pictured in a mock funeral procession for GMOs, succeeded in convincing their legislature to ban the introduction of what they saw as dangerous – and expensive – GMO seeds that would force them to stop saving seeds from each crop and eventually lead to widespread bankruptcy.

Farmers in North Dakota in the US have not been so successful, by the way. They were, for example, unable to stop the state legislature from banning seed saving in order to protect Monsanto’s monopoly on seeds and the accompanying insecticide and weed-killer sales.)

 

Most other such attempts to resist destructive corporate practices, in fact, like the farmers in North Dakota, have not been as inspiring. Many citizens in many countries have turned out in significant numbers to urge the energy mining corporations to stop the practice of hydraulic fracturing (fracking) to increase the yield of petroleum or natural gas from rock formations under their communities.

Nearly all such movements have failed. [The only exception I have been able to find in the US occurred in upstate New York, where the state supreme court held that a village could bar fracking under the ground the town is located on.] The usual course is failure, as in this photo, also from the United States, of demonstrations in 2012.

Provoking Organizational Opposition in Response

This separation of corporate interests from those of ordinary people is now worldwide; it has been reflected incidentally in the increase in number and size of multinational environmental organizations. The multiplicity of ordinary people beginning to organize against the corporate destruction of their land has also been noted recently and described in hopeful detail.2

The superiority of state and corporate interests over any individual , nevertheless, is so pervasive that we only notice it in moments of crisis, those turning points when changes in the world demand rapid, significant change in the institutions, but they obdurately resist change. As they normally do.

We are saved from complete disillusion, however, by the rarity of these occasions. For the most part we continue our lives in a sea of multinational institutions – from Walmart to Toyota to the US Army – so complete that, like fish perceiving their surrounding water – we omit them from our consciousness. We live this way, for the most part in and out of the big box stores, shopping centers and malls that surround us.

We Must Limit Growth – We Require Endless Growth

The most obvious issue of all, of course, is the need to adjust to the limitations on growth posed by environmental limits.3

Our whole global network of commercial exchange, however, rests on the structural principle built into our capitalist system, which is that every economy must grow forever in order to avoid recessions and widespread hardships.

That principle, which has deep roots in our experience over the last 300 years, legitimizes the continuous repetition of the assumption that more goods and services, more comfort, and higher incomes will lead to widespread happiness, just as it justifies asserting again and again that when companies make money, everyone benefits – the old trickle-down theory.

And so far that assumption has not changed – we have been unable to change it – in the face of the present dire crisis, which threatens our civilization, a crisis of a kind that commercial and government bureaucracies cannot comprehend.

Individual people can, but the organizations that have created the crisis are slow or even helpless to address it or to change their roles in continuously creating it.

And for those of us worried about our environment and sustainability in the 21st century, that’s a deep flaw. Mostly our consciousnesses cannot comprehend it.

I write this without condemnation; I am not intent on painting corporations and governments as villains. I have known personally some of the captains of industry from my college days, and I know that most of them are not evil, regardless of the evil outcomes they create.

Then the Fruitful Question is How do Organizations Really Work?

Despite my vivid introduction to the topic, I am, rather, interested in asking the question as evenly, as fairly, as I can: what is it about large human organizations that determines that over and over their interests diverge from those of the people they affect – or even employ – and that the organizations find it so difficult to adjust their actions to fulfill the needs of these people.

What are the conditions that even drive them to go on creating their own  long-run destruction as well as ours.?

This is a serious question, beyond the simple issues of right and wrong, and I intend to explore the answer seriously, investigating the nature of the organizations the way a biologist would investigate the nature of a species or of a colony of individuals.

Some 75 years ago, the great physicist Erwin Schrodinger’s 1943 lectures on “What is Life?” posed a series of questions about how physical entities could create the opposite of entropy and pass on their basic attributes in the process we call living and reproducing.  That is the spirit in which I plan to explore the characteristics of large human organizations, which nowadays usually take the form of bureaucracies.

So come with me while I first tease apart some of the basics. We’ll get to the more interesting stuff once we have delineated the elements that are important to know if we are to ask the right questions.

3. How About From Within – Organizational Change or Paralysis?

Can Companies Change from the Inside?

In the world that counts, that is to say in the struggle within organizations between constancy and wholesale change, the question that counts, even more than the experiences of people trying to change corporations through protest and appeal to justice, is this: can corporations that face major challenges change on their own?

What has been the fate of companies faced with, for example, technological or market advances that required fundamental changes in the ways they had heretofore operated? What are their chances of surviving and changing to meet new circumstances?

I ask this question because although the world faces some drastic changes in climate, water availability, species extinction, soil erosion, etc. over the next few decades, our survival as humans depends on the ability of our organizations to transform their purposes, their finances, their practices of extraction, production and marketing, and their legal obligations to maximize profits for shareholders above all else. Oh, and did I mention the demands of Wall Street for quarterly results? Corporations in the United States, at least, must set and meet quarterly goals, or else. Or else what? Or else investors lose faith in them, their stocks diminish in value, and their abilities to borrow and finance further activities is limited.

So our survival as a species could hinge on how flexible corporations (and government agencies and non-profits as well) can be in the face of requirements that they change. Naomi Klein summed up our dilemma, expressing the problem posed by global warming, in her book title, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate.1

An Organization Challenged to Change: Kodak and the Digital Camera

So let’s explore an  example of a major corporation that sailed onto the shoals of technological change in its field. One educational example is Kodak, the American company that for much of the 20th century dominated the market for popular cameras and, more important for its business model, for film. Their business model was basically the same as the safety razor: offer the tool cheaply and then provide the replacement feature, which must be bought over and over in order to continue operating the tool, at high margins.

So Kodak, the great provider of cameras, was actually at its core a chemical company that survived by applying sensitive coatings to film and marketing its product around the world. What happened when it drifted into the next generation of photography, digital pictures? Short answer: it ran aground.

Longer answer: Kodak was, in fact, the company where digital photography was invented. In 1975 a Kodak engineer named Steve Sasson invented a radically new kind of camera. About the size of a toaster, it recorded images digitally on an internal screen instead of on film. Although it achieved a resolution that would be laughable now, some 10 bytes (0.001 Mb), it was the beginning of the revolution. Kodak manufactured and sold a few of them at something like $4,000 each.

But its whole company structure was built around making and marketing film. No crude electronic gadget-camera would threaten their commitment to manufacturing and selling film.

The company had pioneered roll film and, by providing the Brownie at $1.00 to make the film easy to use, had made family photographs a vital record of nearly everyone’s life, at least in North America and Europe. But as a company it could not think about or conceive of – did not have a process or structure for thinking that far from their baseline –  popularizing film-less photography. (That’s what the hapless Sasson had called it in his original presentation to company decision-makers.) After all, in 1976, a few months after Sasson’s invention, Kodak sold 90% of the photographic film in the United States and 85% of the cameras.2

Although perceptive individual employees championed the new approach, they could not move the management to embrace it. The company, with its huge investment in equipment, training, and marketing as well as its tradition of perceiving events in a framework based on that investment and nearly 100 years of developing routines and adding new ones onto the old ones, literally  had no ability – to be technical in system terms, it had no receptors in its system boundaries – to perceive as a company the potential in digital photography.

Although individuals could perceive the potential and threat, the company as institution had no receptors capable of translating the incoming signals into useful information.

Gradually they began developing one after other companies had entered the market. But they then received a second blow, one that was even more unexpected. They were completely blindsided by this stronger but less predictable change in their environment.

The iPhone: A Second Whammy

Just when the company executives did develop the necessary frame for perceiving digital photography, they were hit by this second shift: the iPhone was released.  Kodak executives could perceive that second digital change regime even less than the digital revolution, although it would engulf them. That second wave was brought about by smart phones because they enabled an unpredictable switch in popular behavior from sharing photographs printed on paper to sharing them electronically: posting a photo by the click of a phone on Twitter, Instagram or Facebook. No more prints, snapshots, or photo albums. Just snap, click, and post. Who knew?

Nor still later could they imagine, despite selling $5.7 billion worth of digital cameras in 2005, how to change their considerable investment in film and paper production facilities around the world into alternative, profitable activities or how to treat their tens of thousands of employees around the world who had become so proficient at making and coating roll film. They went on trying to sell printers that would produce pictures on paper.

Kodak, wrote a team from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania,

…saw the future and simply couldn’t figure out what to do. Kodak’s Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing… culminates the company’s 30-year slide from innovation giant to aging behemoth crippled by its own legacy.

Adapting to technological change can be especially challenging for established companies like Kodak, Wharton experts say, because entrenched leadership often finds it difficult to break old patterns that once spelled success.[Note]“What’s Wrong with this Picture? Kodak’s 30-year Slide into Bankruptcy,” Knowledge at Wharton, February 1, 2012, downloaded 7/17/17 from <http://knowledge.wharton.upenn.edu/article/whats-wrong-with-this-picture-kodaks-30-year-slide-into-bankruptcy/>[/note]

Even though film’s market share was declining, the profit margins were still high and digital seemed an expensive, risky bet. “It would have been difficult to just give [film technology] up,” says [Robert] Shanebrook, who worked at Kodak from 1969 to 2003 and has documented the process in his book, Making Kodak Film.

“It meant abandonment of the entire capital structure.” Kodak’s core competency was being a vertically integrated chemical manufacturer, he adds, whereas, “’The core competency of being a digital camera manufacturer is electronic…. Trying to convert from being a chemical company to making digital cameras — which are like computers more than anything else — you wouldn’t expect [Kodak’s expertise] to be there.’3

A Few Principles of Inertia

In a fascinating article in the Harvard Business Review,4 Donald Sull developed a more general model that synthesizes the experience of many companies that have failed to respond to changing demands, changed conditions, in their environments.

There is a myth that they are often paralyzed by a disruption in their business conditions, he asserts, like a deer in the headlights. The problem normally is that although the best ones are keenly aware of the changes around them and launch searches for effective responses, they base their searches for alternatives on the routines and perceptual frameworks that have enabled them to be successful, and they use their own internal routines to judge what innovations in thinking and production, as expressed in organizational structure and investment choices, will work.

“The problem is not an inability to take action but an inability to take appropriate action,” Sull writes.

There can be many reasons for the problem—ranging from managerial stubbornness to sheer incompetence—but one of the most common is a condition that I call active inertia. Inertia is usually associated with inaction—picture a billiard ball at rest on a table—but physicists also use the term to describe a moving object’s tendency to persist in its current trajectory. Active inertia is an organization’s tendency to follow established patterns of behavior—even in response to dramatic environmental shifts. Stuck in the modes of thinking and working that brought success in the past, market leaders simply accelerate all their tried-and-true activities. In trying to dig themselves out of a hole, they just deepen it.

Active Inertia – Driving Straight Even When the Road Curves

Sull describes four hallmarks of active inertia, reasons a company may persist in reproducing the routines that have made it successful – and may be unable either to devise new routines or to pick effective ones from other sources. These four hallmarks include:

  1. Strategic frames are the mental models—the mind-sets—that shape how managers see the world.
  2. Processes harden into routines. “Fixing on a single process frees people’s time and energy for other tasks,” he writes. “It leads to increased productivity, as employees gain experience performing the process. And it also provides the operational predictability necessary to coordinate the activities of a complex organization.”
  3. Relationships become shackles. “…limiting their flexibility and leading them into active inertia.” with customers, employees, and distributors. [Not to mention, I add, with shareholders.]
  4. Values harden into dogmas. “A company’s values are the set of deeply held beliefs that unify and inspire its people. Values define how employees see both themselves and their employers.”

Have there been successful transitions? Yes, but many fewer, and they have been exceptions to the rule.

Sull  describes some companies that have avoided active inertia. Each one has succeeded, he concludes, by launching a careful inquiry, not into what’s wrong or what can we do, but rather – without tearing apart the fabric of the company’s ongoing operation – into the question “What hinders us?”

Using this approach, BF Goodyear, for example, survived and changed when radial tires revolutionized the tire industry – whereas Firestone failed. As another example, IBM survived the transition to networks from mainframes by carefully selecting the elements in their mix that would change – and conserving other core company values.

For our purpose in this series, what is important is not that some companies actually have adjusted successfully to new circumstances and requirements but that the challenge to established routines is so great that we point out the survivors as curiosities and rare examples to learn from. Let me point out how rare.

The Exceptions Have Been Few

Jim Collins, in an article that summarized his book Great by Choice (with Morten T. Hansen), asked:

Why do some companies thrive in uncertainty, even chaos, and others do not? When buffeted by tumultuous events, when hit by big, fast-moving forces that we can neither predict nor control, what distinguishes those who perform exceptionally well from those who underperform or worse?

Collins and Hansen initially surveyed a list of 20,400 companies and from them they could identify only seven that met all their tests. You can read the details of their findings in the book Great by Choice 5 or follow up on their web site at jimcollins.com.6

What interests me here is the extremely small number of successful companies from the extremely large number of businesses in their sample. Seven out of 20,000? That’s 0.035% of the companies they surveyed.

I know, I know. He did not include many companies, perhaps measured in the low 100’s, that have survived and succeed over many decades through sequences of challenges of less dramatic impact than digital photography.

We can list companies in the United States like General Electric, General Motors, Ford, Aetna Insurance, Phillip Morris, and IBM, in Japan the descendants of the original zaibatsu-keiretsu with names like Mitsubishi, Mitsui, and Sumitomo, and similar long-lived corporations in Europe and India; many have survived much longer than average through changes in technologies, laws, governments, leadership, and markets.

They nevertheless, I would argue, constitute a minority of bureaucratic corporate entities, and to a great extent have shielded themselves against change by their size and their ability to control their environments through a variety of means rather than through their ability to change core perceptions and adopt new internal routines under changing circumstances.

The great majority of corporations and government agencies have been unable to change on their own the fundamental routines and processes by which they operate, even when threatened by massive changes in their environments. Their success at doing business in ways that have become entrenched over decades have nearly always determined the frameworks through which they have perceived changes in their environments and the resulting changing demands on their resources.

This conclusion matches my conclusions about the difficulty of inspiring change in large organizations from the outside. With only limited exceptions, neither public outcry nor technological leaps forward can lead mighty corporations and governments to drink at the trough of thorough reform.

So – is it any wonder that we need to ask why? The answer could determine the fate of humanity. And you don’t have to believe in global warming to believe that seems self-evident, but if you do believe in global warming, as I do, you will be scared, as Time Magazine once suggested, very scared.

In my next few entries, I will return to this exploration of why organizations don’t change, for the explanation touched on here, the active inertia, will lead us into exploring routines, the information they contain, and the limits imposed by structures of information.  There the subject gets both interesting and, I hope, surprising.

First, though I’ll take a short detour through the myth that individuals can change them. Remember The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit?

4. Framing the Question

Over and over environmental writers have called on us to change the way we live, called on us to use less, urged us to change our values. Here is an example from the writings of one of the distinguished leaders in environmental thinking, Lester Brown:

Fortunately, there is a consensus emerging among scientists on the broad outlines of the changes needed. If economic progress is to be sustained, we need to replace the fossil-fuel-based, automobile-centered, throwaway economy with a new economic model.

“… If we do not act quickly to reverse the trends, these seemingly isolated events will come more and more frequently, accumulating and combining to determine our future.”1

That plea and its equally desperate cry in the wilderness, so to speak, was echoed a few years later by Naomi Klein, who wrote eloquently but futilely

…rather than responding with alarm and doing everything in our power to change course, large parts of humanity are, quite consciously, continuing down the same road. Only, like the passengers aboard Flight 3935 [which was famously stuck in the melting tarmac on the runway in D.C.’s Reagan Airport in 2012 and had to be towed out by a large tractor], aided by a more powerful, dirtier engine.

What is wrong with us? (Emphasis is mine, not hers.)2

And over and over, nothing has changed; we have achieved very little in the way of slowing climate change, despite widespread acknowledgment that humans are changing the climate and something needs to be done.

That’s because we individual people have little leverage; we can’t organize consistently over years and years, create budgets and campaigns to defeat the protesters, pay top fees to lawyers and PR firms or dominate the media with messages about our glamorous products and our benign intentions.

Only the organizations that are the effective actors in a world system can do those things – and for the most part they seem helpless to change, too entangled in their own routines for doing things and for perceiving things. It seems that they cannot escape the accumulation of their own assumptions, an official mythology from previous centuries, when fossil fuels and fresh air were abundant, about how the world works – and will work forever.

And grow forever.

My purpose here is not to condemn unjust national governments or evil corporations.

I have grounds to condemn them, God knows. I know how they work.  After completing a master’s degree in Chinese politics and history at the East Asian Institute at Columbia University, I served as an American diplomat in the US State Department. Perhaps because I had studied revolutions in Asia, perhaps because as Executive Assistant to the Ambassador in Taipei, I had read the cables coming from our embassy in Saigon, I left the State Department to return to a university for graduate school, where I participated in demonstrations against the American war in Vietnam much like the ones pictured here.

In 1970 at Stanford, for example, I was active in the student strike against the invasion of Cambodia, which we called ‘The April 3 Movement.’ I experienced first hand the cost of participating in a movement that was not considered legitimate by university, corporate and government elites.

Then and later in my first teaching post, I participated in modestly successful protests against the war and the policies of those elites.  And partially as a result, I was eased out of teaching in my field of international relations. I am aware that those elites have their own interests that they safeguard with vigor.

But simply condemning government and corporate bureaucracy is the easy way out. When we do that we achieve nothing – although sometimes we get to feel righteous.

If we want to achieve any real change, everyone who wants to participate in fruitful inquiry on these questions must go beyond protesting and bitterness. This is not about condemning big business or big government or war mongers. That has been done – with no effect.

I recite my own experiences here to establish that I am no apologist for big business and government. I have protested all my adult life. Partially as a result of repeated protesting, I see that we must get beyond the knee-jerk reactions to bad policies and discover how to ask the right questions about what bureaucracies do to stay together in coherent patterns of action and why those patterns are so resistant to change.

This is, then, the start of an inquiry into why those elites were unable and unwilling to consider responding to the voices of the citizens who were affected by their decisions.

Suppose that instead of shaking our fists impotently at evil capitalists and warmongers, we look deeper into the problem. Suppose we ask why decision-makers in both corporations and governments, many of whom actually do harbor human emotions and care about our planet, nevertheless refuse so often to respond to people who ask for changes. Suppose that we seek to discover what is it that we are really dealing with?

What if this unwillingness to change and do the right things were a problem not in morality but in biology or some subset of physics, a result of the human condition or the laws of the universe at work on our planet?

If the pattern is universal and persistent, surely there must be something in the structure or the processes of the bureaucracies – or organizations of any sort – of a certain size and complexity that drives them to repeat this kind of decision in the face of this kind of opposition and even the solid evidence that they are destroying the world around them – and around us.

Whether I consider that pattern of not caring a deep flaw in the system or a basic strength is less important at this point than examining why this pattern is so universal? Why are elites around the world, the 1% if you will, unable or unwilling to respond to our voices – and to the prospect of limitations on our earth’s capacity to support life?

If, as the newspapers report, 80% of the US public believes that global warming is real and threatens our way of life, why do governments and corporations fail to respond?

So that is where I will take you if you choose to continue. And I will ask further, when I have suggested some answers, how we can know whether or not the answers I suggest are true?

I will ask that in the sense that the great entomologist. Edward O. Wilson, asked the same question about human sociability – and then insisted that the answers in this endeavor, as the answers in all science, must be consistent with the laws of physics and chemistry as well as with our understanding of human history. I hope you will read along and explore this frontier with me.

The question gains urgency, of course, in the light of our environmental condition. We must approach our inquiry with care to get it right, for we may not have the luxury to repeat it very many times.

At the start, then, rather than asking why the corporations and governments keep on taking and using up the earth’s resources at such a rapid and growing rate, we can learn more by asking why they do not – or cannot – stop.

And we cannot ask with any assumptions about good or bad. Instead, to gain any useful knowledge, we must ask this question with an open mind about the answers that we find. Like good biologists, we must seek patterns in the behavior of our subjects and infer from their common behaviors the principles that lie behind their actions.

Then we can ask further questions or construct hypotheses about those patterns, doing our human best to avoid letting our prejudices get in the way. Perhaps in that process we can gain insights that in the long run will enable change of the right kind – before it’s too late.

Framing the task like that I am setting out to explore several disciplines in both the physical and the social sciences and to combine their findings in ways that will, I hope, enable us to reach a new understand of our bureaucratic subjects and lead us to ask even more powerful questions. Ultimately I hope our new understanding will enable humans to take effective, powerful action where and when it is needed, doing the least harm possible and achieving the greatest results possible.

What is it then about large organizations – yes, bureaucracies – that makes them so resistant to change, even when they can foresee that continuing along their present paths will lead to destruction for everyone? Why can’t they stop?

_____________________________________

Footnote of personal interest: Some 10 years ago I found myself at a reception face to face with the then-president of Shell Oil USA. We had both drunk a little wine, and I figured I would never have the chance to ask someone in his position the question that was on my mind. So I just asked him outright, “What is your understanding of global warming?”

“Oh,” he replied, “I know it’s real. But my job is to ensure that there is a full supply of gasoline in every service station in New Jersey every day.”

I have always regarded that as a peculiarly American variation on the Eichmann defense – I was only following orders. But more of that later on.

5. Climate and Corporate Man, Part 1

We’re all The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit.

Am I the only person who is fascinated by what it is about large organizations that makes them so impervious to the need for change, if and when the need arises? We’ve seen that demands for change, either by demonstrators outside the fence or by significant inside changes in technologies, or new market conditions, sources of raw materials, usually fail to result in positive changes in organizational policies.

Yet paradoxically only organizations that operate on a grand scale can create  effective responses to the problems of survival on our planet. Where else can we look – or how else  can we devise questions that will open up the possibility of finding useful answers to this paradox?

From Changing my Light Bulbs to Asking the Right Questions

In looking at the great changes in global policies that would be required to end global warming, for example, we individuals are normally urged to change our ways, as if we were engaged in a collection of individual moral struggles. We need to do better than that. As if any of us – or even all of us – could simply translate our moral convictions into global action.

One of the teaching principles of political science is insisting that students ask “How do you get from good wishes – e.g., ‘We ought to pass a law !’ – to political action?” That is perhaps the main question political scientists ask, especially when teaching undergraduates – what are the processes of creating laws out of demands or policies out of changing circumstances.

At this point, if we are to get at new and effective questions, it’s important to establish the difference between individuals on the one hand – the ‘we’ that the popular press calls upon to fight off climate change – and on the other hand corporations and government agencies that create for themselves an existence above and apart from any given human participant.

What’s So Special About Bureaucracies, Government or Corporate?

They live as entities with their own interests, their own structures of memory and information, their own metabolism transforming energy and materials into structure and growth, and their own values that normally no one person can influence fundamentally. They constitute a system with its own processes based on its sources of energy, information, and materials and its own existence apart from any one human. In social science we would say that they are a distinct level of analysis from the individual.

And, as I hope I have convinced you, they exhibit a powerful inertia to maintain the patterns by which they continuously re-create their patterns of action, their structures.

I will present here some of the evidence that in this context individuals are only subsystems of the overarching corporate or bureaucratic systems. We have many examples of descriptions of how people are subservient to their employers, from the evil of the Nazi regime to the satire of Parkinson’s Law.

The Power of Being the Employer

But they all point to the same conclusion: the company or agency that employs the person dictates for the most part what the person does, for better or for worse. Here I begin an inquiry into the effectiveness of the individual in taking responsibility for change. Here are some historical looks. Unfortunately my illustrations are mostly on the worse side.

“Today we ought to add to these terms the latest and perhaps most formidable form of such dominion, bureaucracy or the rule by an intricate system of bureaux in which no men, neither one nor the best, neither the few nor the many, can be held responsible and which could be properly called the rule by Nobody.”
                                                                                                       ― Hannah Arendt1

Hannah Arendt was mesmerized by the bureaucratic nature of human organizations. In particular she returned again and again to the question of the ordinary person, who is fated to hold a job – always either carrying out the purpose of an organization the person works for (the state or the company) or unemployed – lost and powerless, alone and isolated, a rock in the stream of social history.

Obsessed with the Nazi experience, which was her main example, Arendt examined again and again the circumstances in which ordinary Germans, among whom she had grown up as a Jew, were pressed to the extreme of murdering millions of people.

Where Lies Guilt and Responsibility?

What was the responsibility, what was the guilt of the individual who participated in those organizational programs that were devised to kill hundreds of thousands – perhaps millions – of people a year? What were the moral implications for a commandant of a concentration camp for striving merely to fulfill his quota of deaths efficiently and at lowest cost?

Here I am looking at the same issue that the Tank Man confronted only now from the opposite side, this time from the viewpoint of the tank commander himself, inside the lead machine in the column as it advanced irrevocably along the great ChangAn Street that bisects Beijing north from south and leads on into Tian An Men Square, where in front of the Forbidden City, the symbol of Chinese liberation, he followed his orders and fired into the protesters.

The same cliché applies to him as to Adolph Eichmann – “I was only following orders.” And insofar as any of us earn a living in a corporation or government agency, it applies to us all. All of us employees, even in universities, are in the deepest sense only following orders.2

The Fate of Hippies

An analogous, if less dramatic story emerged from the great anti-war and hippie movements in the United States in the 1960’s, as I experienced them – and as Hannah Arendt did as well. Coursing through the campuses of great universities and the streets of San Francisco, Berkeley, Chicago, and other cultural centers, thousands of young and not-so-young people cursed the military-industrial complex (a system of massive systems) that perpetuated war and required devotion of its participants to producing the implements of war – and simultaneously urged individuals into constant, increasing purchases of consumer goods.

But a few years later, with the end of the Vietnam War, a peculiar thing happened – well, maybe not so peculiar: the students disappeared as a political movement, and when in 1980, a recession set in, their next wave of action was more like private panic.

The wild-haired hippies had, in a biological, social sense, done what nature intended: they had mated, married, born children, and turned into families. Like honeybees or ants, they needed nests and permanent colonies – places to live and jobs that would pay for their homes and feed their children.

Some of the people I knew then, having cut their hair, went to work in software development, some in publishing, some as teachers, physicians or attorneys, and some sold real estate or insurance. Many took jobs in construction or on production lines.

I notice that many of their employers were large corporations such as Bechtel, IBM, or Merrill Lynch, or universities, and even the small companies they may have worked for depended on large corporations either to buy their products or to supply them from the world-scale network that brought them in from overseas – or both.

Once employed and engaged in family life, whatever their private beliefs from those days of protesting against the system, they necessarily changed. They grew concerned with getting to work on time, making the car payments, keeping their jobs and even developing careers – and eventually with getting their children into college.

Interest rates on home mortgages became more vital in their lives than an imperialist foreign policy or corporate domination of the political process. The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, a figure of ridicule during the days of protest when the movement was everything, became the norm as they quietly returned to order their lives and provided incomes, medical insurance, and retirement plans for children they loved. For the most part they were – and are – proud of what they produce, as they should be.

These organizations have a positive side; they do produce appliances, insurance plans, vehicles and equipment, software and innovative knowledge that is of positive value to mankind.

But in some ways they are not so positive. I’ll explore the darker side of the inescapable Faustian story we all create for ourselves in my next entry.

6. Climate and the Corporate Man, Part 2

The Nazis in Their Grey Suits were Also Nice Family Men, After All.

To be an adult human and a parent is to be at the mercy of work, family, and home – and therefor at the mercy of one’s job.

The commitment of us ordinary persons to individual concerns such as raising children, securing a dwelling, providing food and clothing to a family is precisely the condition Hannah Arendt found among the Germans who committed such terrible crimes in World War Two.  And by extension we can infer that similar conditions governed the thousands of Cambodians who carried out the will of the Khmer Rouge and more recently the marauding Hutu of Burundi and the Serbs in Croatia and Montenegro.

In our own country we have never, as far as I know, asked about the guilt of the guards around the Japanese internment camps of World War Two. We accept them unthinkingly as mere employees of the US Government who were doing their jobs.

So it is not the individuals we turn to to find why these things happened. Arendt observed how in these extraordinary moral situations, ordinary people whose morals were unquestioned, but who needed to work, turned into monsters, either actual or potential.

Basing my argument on her work and others, I’ll make my case  in this entry for why we can not expect large numbers of individuals to create the changes needed to avoid global warming or the other forms of environmental disaster that loom over our civilization.

In Arendt’s essays we glimpse the power of organizations to determine that people do even the most reprehensible acts. it may seem that the leap between just going to work at your job and turning into a monster is far-fetched. I suspect that it is not so far after all. We all need our jobs to go on living as we expect to live.

The horizon where personal responsibility shades into organizational guilt lies closer than most of us want to think.

People have been convinced to commit atrocities when  their jobs demanded them. They have performed outrageous acts as required to fulfill their roles, to keep their jobs or be promoted, and to go on supporting their families. Arendt uncovered the potential for evil that lurks in every career employee caught up in the workings of a bureaucratic organization – and who of us is not?

If organizations can elicit such obedience, how can we expect ordinary people to overrule their employers or other organizations and set out on their own to change the fate of the world? Abandon their families? Not likely.

Here is how Arendt describes the gradual transformation of the typical German father into an SS man who could commit murder as a routine act. She ascribes this to the dedication of the ‘family man’ to supporting those around him engaged in the same project:

“We had been so accustomed to admire or gently ridicule the family man’s kind concern and earnest concentration on the welfare of his family, his solemn determination to make life easy for his wife and children, that we hardly noticed how the devoted paterfamilias, worried about nothing so much as his security, was transformed under the pressure of the chaotic conditions of our time into an involuntary adventurer who, for all his industry and care could never be certain what the next day would bring. … It became clear that for the sake of his pension, his life insurance, the security of his wife and children, such a man was ready to sacrifice his beliefs, his honor, and his dignity. It needed only the Satanic genius of Himmler [Commander of the SS in Nazi Germany and later organizer and commander of the death camps] to discover that after such degradation he was entirely prepared to do literally anything when the ante was raised and the bare existence of his family was threatened. The only condition he put was that he should be fully exempted from responsibility for his acts. Thus that very person, the average German, whom the Nazis notwithstanding years of the most furious propaganda could not induce to kill a Jew on his own account (not even when they made it quite clear that such a murder would go unpunished), now serves the machine of destruction without opposition. In contrast to the earlier units of the SS men and Gestapo, Himmler’s over-all organization relies not on fanatics, nor on congenital murderers, nor on sadists; it relies entirely on the normality of jobholders and family men.”1

What were they Thinking? They Were Supporting Their Families.

I used to read aloud to students in my international politics classes a passage from a wonderful essay that Arendt published in PM in 1944 as WWII drew to its close. It illustrated the dilemma shared by every employee, more or less helpless to protest in this world of bureaucratic organizations, which are the living entities that actually determine the patterns of our individual careers.

In the essay, she reproduced an interview with a former guard in a German death camp. This soldier had a wife and children, and if he had not accepted his assignment as paymaster in the camp, he would have been sent to the Russian front, where, he believed, he would likely have died and left his wife penniless, his children orphans. The reporter, an American, asked the questions:

Q: Did you kill people in the camp?

A: Yes.

Q: Did you poison them with gas?

A: Yes.

Q: Did you bury them alive?

A: It sometimes happened.

Q: Were the victims picked from all over Europe?

A: I suppose so.

Q: Did you personally help kill people?

A: Absolutely not. I was only the paymaster in the camp.

Q: What did you think of what was going on?

A: It was bad at first, but we got used to it.

Q: Do you know the Russians will hang you?

(Bursting into tears) Why should they? What have I done?2

Remember the Satire that came next in the 50’s- Unconscious of the Irony?

Arendt wrote this in the 1940s. Whether by coincidence or historical trend, the next decade begat an era when writers in England and the United State were turning to the same dilemmas and foibles of corporate bureaucrats but in a civilian setting. A rush of creativity emerged, also discovering and publicizing the effects of the organization on its employees, but in a satirical vein.

A few years later, this resulted in a series of books and dramas examining life in the American corporate world. Many of them became light-hearted best-sellers or popular plays: for example, The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, The Silent Generation (which was based incidentally on interviews with some of my classmates in college in 1956-57), the Broadway musical “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying,” and G. Northcoat Parkinson’s famous essay, Parkinson’s Law, in which he proposed that every bureaucrat would be promoted one level above his competence. And for all I know, similar literature appeared in several other countries around the world as well.

This theme was not new, of course; the Europeans had worked this vein for decades before World War One with The Good Soldier Schweik, and the many works of Kafka.

But until Arendt, no one had associated that tradition with the relentless killing machine of the Nazi super-organization, which by the end was populated by Serbs, Ukrainians, Bulgarians, Poles, and other Europeans, some of whom sympathized with the Nazis’ anti-semitic rationale, and some whom merely needed work in what one might say was an early manifestation of the modern giant multi-national organization.

My point in bringing up Arendt’s work in the same discussion with this larger tradition of concern with bureaucratic demands on the individual – The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit – is to highlight the limited choices available to individual people who need to support families, pay the mortgage or rent, and provide stable lives to those they love. The choices at any one time are to keep one’s job or to face recrimination and dismissal – a dilemma that confronts nearly all of us.

Should Faust be  the Governing Myth for Our Society?

Even when the corporation or agency is engaged in benign activities, one must choose between, on the one hand, carrying out whatever policies the corporation or the state where one works orders one to carry out and, on the other hand, losing a place in the drama of the society’s history. That includes earning a living. The Faustian bargain – trading one’s soul to the devil in return for success – may be the underlying myth of life in 20th century industrialized nations.

There have been Heroes who were Exceptions – and their Fates

There have been exceptions, of course. But not many. Tank Man was one. The Vietnamese monk, Thích Quảng Đức, who set himself in fire in Saigon in 1962 to begin the overthrow of the Ngo Dihn Diem regime was another. Tarek el-Tayeb Mohamed Bouazizi, the fruit seller in the marketplace in Tunisia who immolated himself to launch the Arab Spring in 2011 was another. And we can count the many Tibetans, monks, nuns and lay people who have lit themselves with the fatal gasoline to protest Chinese mis-administration in Tibet and neighboring Qinghai Province.

Perhaps even more relevant, to Americans at least, are the heroes who have protested against multinational corporations such as Monsanto and Climax Mining – not to mention builders of oil pipelines such as at Standing Rock. The pipeline companies and the state of North Dakota demanded the same unwavering support from their employees as the Nazis and the Cambodians under Pol Pot, even support of policies that resulted in multiple deaths.

Cases such as the famous auto accident that killed Karen Silkwood as she amassed evidence of wrong-doing in plutonium production by Kerr-McGee in 1972 come to mind. So does Crystal Lee Sutton, who was fired and sent to jail for union organizing in a J.P. Stevens plant in North Carolina. And in case you haven’t guessed my own point of view, I’ll even include the songs about heroes of the earlier union movement such as Joe Hill, the IWW organizer and song writer who was executed by firing squad on a trumped up murder charge after leading a strike in the copper mines in Utah in 1915.

I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night
Alive as you or me.
Says I, but Joe, you’re ten years dead
I never died, says he,
I never died, says he.

And standing there as big as life
And smiling with his eyes
Joe says, What they forgot to kill
Went on to organize,
Went on to organize.3

These exceptions to the rule point up the fate of those who eschew the obedience that is required of the bulk of the employees whose careers would be spoiled by refusing to follow orders or by opposing the decisions of superiors.

The Exceptions Prove the Power of the Faustian Myth

We celebrate these heroes because they are so rare. Most of us live in a sometimes uneasy agreement with our employers: that we will follow company policy, say what is approved by the executives upstairs, defend the company’s interests, and devote most of our waking hours to the advancement of those interests. We keep our bargains with our employers, whether corporate or governmental, for the most part, just hoping that we will never be required to support such blatant evil as that prescribed by Himmler (or Pol Pot or Slobodan Milosevic) and described by Arendt. And for the most part our employers only demand that we support the latest sales contest or machine parts for a new model of the product.

But the potential never disappears completely. And we employees, even in normal times, are. for example, careful about exercising our freedom of speech. We  are cautious about the letters to the editor we write or where and when we dare to stand up to speak in a meeting. Someone from the office might find out, after all, and take offense.

That brings me to the next stage of inquiry, moving on from this depressing description of our bargains with organizations to the real question I want to investigate: how the typical large organization maintains its existence – what it does to stay alive, we might say. I hope that I have demonstrated that we – you and I – cannot stop the organizations in which we are participants from careening us off the edge of the environmental precipice.

As I promised there, we cannot ask with any assumptions about good or bad [despite having dipped into the moral issues in this entry for illustrative purposes]. Instead, to gain any useful knowledge, we must ask this question keeping an open mind about the answers that we find. Like good biologists, we must seek patterns in the behavior of our subjects and infer from their common behaviors the principles that lie behind their actions.

7. Turning the Corner: What Should We Ask that Hasn’t Been Asked Before?

Who or What Does Make a Difference?

If individuals are not responsible for corporate actions, if the Man in the Grey Flannel Suit couldn’t change the purpose of his ad agency, if the concentration camp guard could only contribute to the killing and couldn’t stop it, then we need to move on to look at something else. We need to try and name whatever can make the difference. If we, through our individual or even group moral actions, can’t change the course of our wild ride toward the cliff, who or what can?

I have pointed toward the large organizations where many of us go to work – the companies, ad agencies, armies, and national and state agencies, for example – as the effective actors in reducing environmental damage. So now I have to ask: what is the most informative way to approach them? What questions can we ask about organizations to which we don’t already know the answers – we or social scientists who have studied them?

One approach would be to start with the question we ordinary people ask so many times, usually while shaking our heads in unison at some blunder on the part of a public agency or a corporation caught in the headlights of a scandal. The best, most precise way it has been posed in my experience was by economist Robert Gibbons:

“What makes an organization seem less rational than its members?”1

What indeed makes an organization less intelligent that the people who work in it? And the question doesn’t end there. It raises a paradox, for in some ways organizations are superior to individuals. They are, after all, able to accomplish important things that we individuals could not dream of doing on our own. Case in point: inventing and manufacturing computers.

So I feel a need to expand the conversation to include the opposite but related question that Gibbons also posed further along in his discussion.

“… That is, instead of asking, ‘What makes an organization seem less rational than its members?’ one might instead … ‘What makes an organization seem at the same time less and more rational than its members?’ (i.e., “How can an organization orchestrate the acquisition and communication of information and the allocation of decision-making among its members so as to produce a tolerable outcome when the members are boundedly rational?”). 2

Since I am starting from the urgency that I feel about avoiding the end of civilization, my basic question really seeks to know how large organizations work so as to be both less intelligent than the people who make them up and more rational than all of us gathered together in a room? And then I’ll shamelessly use whatever we discover in answering those question to approach the one that really matters: are there ways in between their extremes of clumsiness and high achievement that enable them to change quickly?

But framing the argument is not simple. Since March and Simon in the 1960s, most social scientists have focused on the political analysis of how decisions are made – in both government and private firms. That path has failed to yield the answers we need. Decisions are made by political negotiations among individuals or groups that manage an organization, often based on information that is collected and analyzed in routines.

But, as we have seen the in managers and committees are often constrained  in their decisions by the work of the organization. Stray far from the traditional mission, and the organization casts you out. There are other reasons as well, and I’ll bring some of them up further along.

At this beginning stage, I believe, we will discover more if we focus instead on the day-to-day operations of organizations, and with the routines with which they carry on their operations.

In the next entry I’ll dive into that.

8. Routines? My Job, Fractals and Algorithms

I love my job, she said. Nothing is Routine. Every day is completely new.

Except it isn’t. What normally is true about a job that is full of surprises is that the person doing it has developed routines for dealing with the unexpected. So while every day is completely new, or while the harried manager experiences putting out fires all day long, in fact they both have ways of organizing their approaches to new problems or fires that they habitually use to get their problems solved and their fires under control. I guarantee it.

We all do.

We just do our jobs, which usually means following the routines that we have been instructed to carry out based on a skill that we have developed and mixed with the personal traits we bring to the performance (or in other words, doing what we were hired to do and adding our personal styles).

How I Experienced Corporate Routines

I keep thinking back to my first job in a multinational corporation. Over one summer vacation in college, I landed a job with Weyerhaeuser Timber Company. It was in a logging camp in the woods near Mt. St.  Helens, Washington – this was before the volcano erupted. There the company was logging a timber stand and building its own road further into the forest.

We were on the swing shift; we took over at 4:00 each afternoon from the day shift, and we kept at it till midnight, when we got into a timber cruiser – what in those days they called a ‘crummy truck’ – and returned to logging camp to sleep, eat prodigious meals, and prepare to head back out the next afternoon.

As the new guy and a college boy, I was assigned to the least skilled task, which was on the rock crusher. My job was to operate the loader hole under the hopper. When a dump truck came in to haul a load of gravel out to the construction site, I would fill it by pulling on a rod attached to the opener at the bottom of the hopper and letting the gravel flow into the truck bed.

Once I donned my hard hat each afternoon, I had three responsibilities, each laid out in a routine:

(1) when a dump truck came in, to open the hopper and load the truck full of gravel (but not too full lest it spill rocks on the way to the dump site at the end of the new road),

(2) if no trucks came for a while and the hopper filled up, to signal to the operator of the crusher to stop the machinery; that was to prevent an overflow, to keep rocks from falling down and hitting me and others in the head, and

(3) when each loaded truck headed out, to record the load and its time out.

There was a fourth routine to be invoked in case the hopper plugged up with mud; that was to poke a steel rod up into it from the bottom and loosen the mud till the gravel flowed freely – without getting hit by a rock. I was instructed in this arcane knowledge by the foreman, a kindly and capable man who looked out for me and the rest of the crew and kept the whole show running.

You could call the routine I was given, inasmuch as I was the only person performing it, an assignment that became like a personal habit. But really it was my job. You would call it a habit only because that sequence of tasks was my individual routine, my one-person assignment. Social scientists seek to distinguish among levels of analysis – individual, group, or organization, and this was individual. But we’ll get to that later.

Compounding the Routines in One Corner of the Woods

Obviously I was not alone out there under the lights in the woods. First in line from me there was the crusher operator, an ex-con from Chehalis whom I knew only as ‘Apeshit’ – until the day we went into town together to date some girls and, in passing, I was going to meet his mother. As we drove into town I had to ask him his real name, which he revealed was ‘Sonny.’ (When I met his mother, in fact, I passed the test: I remembered to call him by his real name on cue, and she smiled broadly at her son who now was bringing home college boys.)

So, aside from our rare encounters with local girls, Sonny and I were tied together by the twin routines of crushing rocks into gravel and pouring the gravel into the trucks. His personal routine started when the local truck bearing a load of big rocks from the quarry drove up the ramp to the crusher that would turn boulders into gravel. When Sonny had guided the truck into place, the driver would pull the control handle, tilt his bed up, and dump his load into the top of the crusher.

Sonny would then jump into the operator’s seat, start the crusher and begin making the gravel that cascaded into the top of the hopper – always on the lookout for my signal to stop when the hopper was full. When he stopped that crusher, I remember vividly, the silence would seem to explode outward into the night and forest, and in that sudden silence he would step out onto the ladder that led up to the operator’s cab and shout his favorite obscenity into the suddenly quiet, black night. (No, I’m not going to quote it here.)

Beyond the crusher was the quarry. There the man upon whom all our lives depended – known as the powder monkey – and his helper drilled holes into the cliff face, loaded them carefully with dynamite, capped the dynamite sticks when the charge was ready, and following a carefully rehearsed protocol to make sure everyone was safely away from the area, blew the face off the cliff to create several truck loads of rock.

Then he would sit down to plan out his next blast before he and the powder monkey’s helper (the other college boy on the show) went back to place the hydraulic drills against the cliff face and start drilling again. The powder monkey’s routines were complex as well as arcane, encompassing the knowledge of where to set his charge, how much dynamite to use, and the safety requirements, upon which all our lives depended. Following them to the letter was the only way to guarantee that no one suffered grievous wounds. Both his skill and his devotion to discipline were valued and honored by every person on the job. His was a set of stringent routines.

Between him and the truck that hauled the rocks to the crusher was the most skilled man there, the shovel operator. He sat proudly in his cab pulling levers, manipulating a giant wheel and rotating the cab, simultaneously raising or lowering the shovel on the end of its long and extendable arm, and opening and closing its giant mouth to pick a load and place it in the truck bed. His coordinated movements, which he had practiced for so long that he didn’t have to think about them, would remind you of a helicopter pilot or a ballerina in a brilliant performance.  His routines were practiced and precise, and he could place just the right load in a 9-yard dump truck bed from a scattered pile of boulders in minutes.

Role and Team – and Social Science

So here we have a team of workers, typical in one essential way of workers in many industries, and that way was that each one contributed his skills in a routine or habit that interacted with the routines of the others, a pattern that was noted 100 years ago by the American pragmatist, George Herbert Mead,1 Mead used the example of a baseball team with 9 players, each of them at a given position with special responsibilities and skills, from pitcher to center field, all  interacting in a greater pattern, a single combined team routine made up of the contributions of each member – like Tinkers to Evers to Chance.

On the road crew the same principle was at work: each of us performed a specific set of actions at the right time in response to the actions of the person before and after him in the chain. And each trusted that the one before him and the one after him in the chain to do his job right and to hand the rocks or information over prepared for him to take the next step. That combination made a second-order routine – a routine of routines.

And Compounding the Compounded

This gang working out there in the woods each night was part of a larger set of combinations of routines that made up the logging show in that neck of the woods on that slope of Mt. St. Helens. Beyond us in those woods was the main site where loggers were cutting trees, bucking them to the loading site, loading the massive trucks, and hauling them out to the mill.

And beyond them were the timber cruisers who surveyed the forest and determined where and which trees to cut, the manager and staff of the entire tree farm who planned harvest rates and monitored the health of the forest (until Mt. St. Helens took it all out with one giant blast some 25 years later), the teams who replanted the clear cuts, the cooks who bought and cooked the prodigious amounts of food all these people consumed at four meals a day, and the camp maintenance crews who took care of the cabins and amenities, such as they were.

All these groups meshed their 2nd order routines to make up a set of third-order routine for operating the entire network, and with those interacting routines they managed to grow, maintain, harvest and replant over decades an entire tree farm so large that they never even bought license plates for the log trucks: despite driving thousands of miles a year, those trucks never left Weyerhaeuser property to drive on public roads.

And beyond them in fourth, fifth, and more layers of routines were the people in the sawmill headquarters in Longview who received and processed our logs and planned future operations, meshing third-order routines in a fourth level, plus the people at higher levels who recorded the board feet of the trees cut, bought and repaired  the trucks and heavy equipment, tracked the markets, took orders from buyers, counted the logs into the mill, ran and repaired the dry kilns, saws, conveyors, and planes in the mill, loaded trucks for shipment of lumber, tracked inventory and deliveries, and all the other details required to run a lumber production.

How Far Does it Go?

At this point I would not dare to specify how many layers of routines that coordinated sub-routines I am describing.  That was just one region in a local forest that was completely owned by the company.  Beyond that, Weyerhaeuser was logging timber and running sawmills in several areas of Oregon and Washington on their own land and national forests –  and on beyond, in other countries from Indonesia to Brazil they were logging vast quantities of timber.

And above them all stood the corporate headquarters in Tacoma that coordinated all these interacting routines of routines, piled on one another in uncounted layers – the departmental routines of legal, financial, accounting, marketing, internal communications, research and development, human resources, and all the other executive functions that tied together the routines of the whole corporation and pumped money, like blood in the body, to every cell in every organ out there.

What Do These All Add Up To?

So now I am alluding to a number of layers of routines beyond my calculation, then and now, and the whole description is getting messy. But I hope two things are obvious.

First, what we have here is a hierarchy of interlocking routines guiding and tracking and supporting the routines of the segments under them, uncounted layers of routines above and below other linked or subordinate routines, all more or less coordinated and striving to keep the company, or at least their corner of it, going every day around the world.

And second, that the structure they formed resembled a pattern that in physical systems we call fractals. The routine at each layer resembles the layers above and below it in structure – that is, in its constituent parts.

Fractals and Algorithms

Each routine reveals a pattern for which I want to use the term algorithm. Loosely speaking, an algorithm begins when a trigger condition is met, one that shows up in the description of the operation as ‘when’ or ‘if.’ That trigger condition requires a succeeding sequence of acts. That is, it requires an agent, whether an individual, a group, a department, or a division of the organization, to perform a more or less fixed set of steps: A, B, C,.. etc. Of course it admits to variations – e.g., “If/when step B yields result 1, then perform variation 1 of step C, if not, then perform C variation 2 or even 3 –  and then continue to step D or switch paths and begin E or F.”

Notice that in describing my own job on the crusher, each of the three responsibilities started with ‘When X happened…’ and continued with the steps I would then perform. That formula, “If/when… Perform Sequence A, B. C…,” is the fractal that is common to every level of routines all the way from the work gang to the CEO.

I’ll begin discussing the importance of routines in my next entry. You can imagine where I am heading with this. What chance has the man in the grey flannel suit or the prison guard – or for that matter, the truck driver, or even the vice president of operations –  to make things better by trying to change a pattern of interactions performed by hundreds or even thousands of people, a combination of routines that is so complex that no one person can be aware of them all, and all of them based on stacks of algorithms, the form of information that constitutes the universal pattern of action in life forms?

I joke thatif I had known I was part of such a complex information/organizational pattern when I headed into the woods, I might have been awestruck. As it was, I was just fascinated by the way the whole team out there in the woods on the swing shift, making gravel for a road, working together into the night, formed a culture, and built mutual respect for one another by performing what I later discovered were algorithms.

By the way, I never saw either the road we were building or the actual logging operation.

9. What’s So Important About Information? Instructions and Stacks of Contexts

Originally I though this entry would be short. But it is vital to our understanding, so I’ll have to make it longer than I had hoped.

Suppose that you accept my generalization: that the fractal pattern of routines and on top of them, routines for coordinating routines, the hierarchy that I experienced in Weyerhaeuser, is representative of large governments and corporations where most of us go to work most days. And suppose further that you accept that the process that selects a given routine moves from “if…” to “then do [a specific sequence.]” Then we need to explore the implications.

To influence organizations we work in (not just Weyerhaeuser, which is necessarily acutely aware of its environmental connections), to change their collective courses away from environmental disaster, we will have to understand more about the principles that govern their metabolisms, how they create and maintain their structures.

A New Way to Talk About Organizations – As Information

To understand their structures and the underlying principles by which they carry on day-to-day, we need to adopt a new way of looking at human organizations. And the core of that new approach is to see them as hierarchies of algorithms governing routines.

Before I began this blog I had read a great deal about organizations. I knew about spans of control, about dysfunctional relations between competing departments, and about introducing lean manufacturing, the Toyota method. I knew about the basic structural-functional premises, corporate cultures, and how executives take on roles. I wrote my Ph.D. dissertation, after all, on the management of information in the State Department.

But one day I realized that the common thread through everything that humans do when we go to work in organizations is communicating. We exchange information. Granted we do many other things too – build roads and cut logs, for example – or bend things, use tools, melt or freeze things, move things from here to there, get them out and put them away, open and close apertures, measure and inspect, start and stop machines, and so on.

But the core activity that no one seems to have focused on in the mainstream of organizational study is the central issue in the action of all these bodies: the way that communication directs and structures everything in an organization – our orders, our grievances, our operating procedures, our sales, our reports, our accounting, our blueprints, our owners’ manuals, our histories, laws, and even our hopes and dreams – our visions. They are all forms of information.

If we want to gain insight into the metabolism of human organizations, it seems to me, we might benefit by exploring how the information guides and structures the actions of organizations.

Information Creates Reality – by Agreement

Of course we already do track one kind of information, i.e., money, very closely. We raise and destroy empires with it. If you are one of those who haven’t yet considered that money is merely information, here’s a chance to think about it in a new way: the most common form in which money appears in our civilization is as a line on a computer screen; it also appears as numbers in ledgers, in written notes torn from checkbooks, and as currency printed on pieces of paper and stamped on coins. Granted, it symbolizes other things – work done, promises for the future, or profits from an initiative, for example – but symbols are information that represents something else. The core word here is information.

That’s really all money is – numbers on a screen or a sheet of paper. Yet we strive for it, covet it, commit suicide for lack of it and murder to get it. We starve, go without medicine, and freeze to death on the streets for lack of it. Governments rise and fall on their budget surpluses and deficits. Our personal life chances are governed by its possession through generations, and our judgment of success or failure depends on our ability to increase the right numbers that represent money, which in turn represents other values.

We treat money as if it were a reality of its own. We do that for a reason: it is. So prevalent is our collective belief in it that a reality is created by agreement. Our agreement to the story of money makes reality of it.

In fact, we humans make reality by agreement over a range of discrete subjects as if they were real. Thus we have entire traditions of law, history, engineering, anthropology, mathematics, for example, and art.  We speak of culture, and for the most part we fail to notice that it consists among other things of patterns of communication, assumptions that form a context, and rules that direct proper actions, forbid improper (immoral) acts, and determine inclusion and exclusion in the social body we call “our people.”

The results: these traditions, our cultures – our communications  of information in these categories – do take on a reality that no amount of denial can remove. You can’t, for example, simply deny the law without suffering the consequences that are spelled out in the law. You can’t arbitrarily decide to be Pakistani or Native American or German – or American – at least without going through an arcane process. You just are.

Entering the Early Stage of Investigating Information’s Effects

Despite its power to create reality, whether money or culture or another realm,  only a few social scientists and philosophers have examined information and communication with enough care to begin teasing out its essential qualities, and they are IMHO only in the early, primitive stages.

We are in roughly the same stage of discovering how information works and how to analyze it as our forbears were when Leibniz and later Young, Kelvin, Joule and others began seriously experimenting with energy, realizing that a single concept referred to many apparently distinct phenomena – heat, motion, electricity, light, etc. – and that it could be transferred from one medium to another.

I don’t claim to have insights into the concept of information that no one else has ever conceived. I do, however, know some of the basic first steps – for example, how a few, more or less isolated, observers have treated it to reveal things in their fields that could prove to be useful insights into my search for analogous patterns in the ways that organizations work.

Gregory Bateson, for example, elaborated on Russel and Whitehead’s theory of logical types as they showed up in schizophrenia and paradox. 1 But no one has yet thought to ask how that discovery might yield insight into the actions of a large corporation or an army maneuvering on a battlefield. I suspect it might be illuminating to think that way.

By the same token, Luciano Floridi, a philosopher at Oxford, has distinguished three patterns in the way information is used and, based on that distinction, opened the possibility of discovering how life itself is created from information. But he has not yet taken that analysis further to apply it to human organizations. I’ll return to that further down in this entry.

Biology – Based on Information

It’s different in biology. Beginning with a set of lectures by the quantum physicist, Erwin Schrodinger, in 1944, 2  Information took center stage in biology. One way or another, Schrodinger’s questions about information patterns in living cells and their twin processes of growth and reproduction, started a process that culminated in the discovery of DNA by Watson, Crick and Franklin. It was they who finally observed how accurate information was coded and stored for passage from one generation to the next as well as how the stored information is used by the organism to recreate in itself the structures of living things – the cells, organs, and behaviors of viable life.

So here I propose to begin exploring that same question in organizations made up of humans. What can we say about information, beginning with routines of action, that will illuminate how organizations live, work, and reproduce, maintaining and changing their patterns day after day through years, decades, even centuries of linked human effort?

Learning More about Information and Patterns of Information

I believe that’s how they really work, that the core of an organization is the information. Of course thinking that way will require a stretch of your mind. So I’ll begin by linking together some of the things we already know or suppose about various forms of information, based on some of the ways scientists and philosophers have thought about it.

Not how information is passed from one person to another. Not how it is stored in the files that give their name to bureaucracies – our bureaus. Not how it is used as a political weapon or to gain advantage over an opponent. Not even how corporations create such wickedly effective advertising. And especially not how it occurs in nature in non-linguistic forms.

What I want to explore first, rather, are the fundamental principles of information and an aspect that has rarely been mentioned or studied: the categories and structures inherent in information.  Perhaps I should refer to it as structures of epistomology – that’s the word that Bateson used. The topic after all is limited for the most part to the information and the manipulations of information made possible by the human invention of language. For it is language and the ability to create and change descriptions, meanings, and contexts that sets human organizational work apart from the colonies of other living creatures such as ants, bees, prairie dogs, and great apes.

This is not the place to rehash a primer on the mathematical theory of information (MTI). Shannon’s formula for entropy, the question of how much uncertainty a symbol resolves, and the separation of noise from information -these three aspects of his work – are less relevant here than the varieties of information and the structures inherent in communication that make up our living world.  3

This is, rather, a step into much more profound and mysterious aspects of information than those questions. For in my view, information indeed structures all our actions, from drawing on memories and stored records to communicating patterns of action and summaries of patterns right on up through nested levels of organization.

I first want to expand our appreciation of how those occur.  Then I want to begin exploring how  communication among groups coordinating work necessarily forms a hierarchy – of contents as well as of commands.

Hierarchy and Pattern – The Basis for All Existence

Necessarily forms hierarchies – did I say that? Yes. To understand organizational action requires us to understand how information works in but also among groups, how it builds layers upon layers of reports up and guidance down (to use the common metaphor of up-down instead of the more accurate periphery to center and back), how past actions, memories, files, laws, regulations, customs, etc. set limits on present action, and how information, on the one hand, depends on energy but, on the other, also structures the flow of energy into future patterns of actions that are both coherent and effective at maintaining life and organization.

Quantum physicists report that the concept of information that structures energy patterns may be as important in determining everything in the universe as is the concept of energy itself. (Famously in the phrase coined by John Wheeler, “It from Bit.”)

But scientists have not yet explored information as fully as they have energy. Some have tried, especially in computer development, to fashion laws or principles of information that would be analogous to the laws of energy. That seems like it would be easy to do, since the equations derived from Shannon’s Law (MTI) fit so well with Boltzmann’s earlier equations about entropy.

But consider that a star of quantum mechanics such as Wheeler considers that information might be the structure of everything. It is easy then to imagine that it is at least the pattern that guides all action and all coherence.

When Wheeler framed his famous “It from bit” statement, he meant, as I understand it, that ultimately all matter, every thing in existence, every instance of reality that we perceive consists of particles/waves interacting, that they actually may come into existence only when they encounter other particles/waves that detect their existence in a sort of mutual dance; in other words everything in our universe exists only through the relationships, the communications and recognition that occurs between waves of probabilities; that the fundamental building blocks of matter in our universe go in and out of existence based on communicating with one another. (My technical friends, please forgive my sloppy wording here. I’m doing my best to get it right, and my excuse is that no one, as Feynman said, really understands quantum mechanics anyway. So just bear with me. Remember, I was an English major.)

But in any case, we can be certain that the principle holds on the scale of human life – that the communication and storage of information, the interaction of tasks, orders, histories, cultures, perceptions, and memories/files is the stuff that human organizations are made of. Information is the fundamental element of which human organizations are made.

Even in basic industries such as mining and manufacturing, the physical stuff – matter ranging from raw material to finished products – is secondary to the information that creates and maintains the existence of the organization from moment to moment – relationships, reports, directives, action routines, schedules, maintenance procedures, shipping documents, money, conferences, accounting – even goal-setting and planning.

Floridi and Varieties of Information

I cannot overstate the sense of importance of this topic. I’ll focus in my next entries on those two aspects of information that I have mentioned, for I think they  warrant our attention: first, the distinction among functions of information and second, the structures inherent in information as it forms logical types and hierarchies.

A few years ago Luciano Floridi wrote a very short book on the principles of information that he called, fittingly, Information: a Very Short Introduction.  4

There Floridi drew a distinction among three varieties of information: Environmental, Semantic, and Instructional.  The combination of the three, culminating in the instructional, will give us a critical insight into how organizations operate, like all life, based on algorithms. In my next few entries we’ll look at the implications of that.