Data and the stasis quo: models of organization, beyond bottom-up and top-down

It follows that administrative officials, whether of a government or a university or a corporation, should take part in a two-way stream of communication, and not merely one from the top.

Norbert Wiener, On the Human Use of Human Beings, p. 64

This is a point made over half a century ago, but each generation needs to articulate it anew, as though it were a revelation. All of us, of course, claim to recognize its validity. Practice very often refutes this notion, however. Google’s version of this insight is found in the dismissive acronym HiPPO, or the Highest Paid Person’s Opinion. This is what is to be avoided assiduously, the assumption that somebody’s position in an organization’s structure (often termed a hierarchy) is direct influence on the importance of what they say. It is but another version of the appeal to authority, and is fallacious more often than not. There is an excellent Wired article on the dangers of HiPPO here, and their alternative approach via data and the A/B test here.

I wish to move beyond this, and make an observation that reorients the discussion. That is to say that the thought that there is or ever was a top-down model is a fiction because it is predicated on (i) perfect communication, and (ii) total control. This may seem an extreme definition, but top-down is a very precise idea. It says the a dictat from the top is processed down through the hierarchy, and is followed by all. The top-down model does not allow for any discretionary maneuver. By contrast, the alternative of bottom-up does suggest that there are localized behaviours which have a global impact; this is the classic definition of an emergent phenomenon. Again, however, bottom-up is predicated on some sort of organizational altitude, where instead of information being sent down from on high, it now ascends on high. In both examples, top-down and bottom-up, it is the guy at the top who is assumed to be in control. This is the fiction.

In reality, there are always gaps in the flows of information and power, eddies and rapids where there is sometimes more and sometimes less control. The crucial implication of this can be made via analogy to another field. Returning to Wiener:

The greatest opportunity of the criminal in the modern community lies in this position as dishonest broker in the interstices of the law.

One should always, in defining any model, realise that it is going to be innately flawed. The nature of a model is that it is an abstraction, and basically a travesty of the complexity of reality. Or as Alfred Korzybski said “The map is not the territory”. Your model, whatever it is, is imperfect, and there will always be somebody willing to exploit this to their own ends. In the legal realm, this is via crime. In other organizations, it’s via short-cuts. All are examples of efficiencies – they may be inefficient in general, but for the individual, often they offer sufficient returns to justify the risk.

The point here is that such short-cuts are possible, full stop. Use begins to lead theory, as the gap between the two becomes all the more obvious. The question is, with the greater use of data in leading policy in the political realm, and organizational structures elsewhere, are we happy with this situation? Would this not lead to a kind of ongoing “stasis quo”, whereby whatever is the done thing becomes the right thing. Is this not the argument of Thrasymachus in The Republic that might makes right, only that now, the use of force and power resides in the brute numbers of data. The problem with this picture, as I see it, is that it blinds us to the role of ideas and knowledge structures which can find new ways of structuring the data and information into intelligible forms.

The problem with too far a swing away into the realm of data is that we forget that the map, in many ways, is what showed us there was a territory to begin with. The challenge becomes how to articulate this vision in a way which effectively emancipates new realms of data and information, for the purposes of knowledge and ideas. It is the duty of philosophy to rearticulate the argument in the context of these new processes and technologies, to once again make the case for knowledge and ideas, rather than becoming swamped by the the number magic of data, that promises to tell us all we ever wanted. The most important benefits of human intellectual endeavour comes from the realms we didn’t know we didn’t need to know.


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