Relearning Some Basic Lessons from Institutional Failure in the Age of Stupidity

This week, Lee is desperately seeking lessons and positive signals of change amidst the debris of 2020 ;-)

Happy New Year \o/

Welcome to 2021, which is definitely going to be better than 2020 - I mean, no way it could be crazier, right? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

*checks news*

Oh, I see … :(

This newsletter is about business, not politics, but if you believe one purpose of business is to help advance our societies, provide for peoples’ needs, and offer a peaceful legal forum for competing ideas (as I do), then I guess there are times when you cannot ignore the crossing of the streams.

For four years, we have watched some extraordinary political events unfolding in both the US (Trump) and the UK (Brexit). Asked to identify the common causal factor in each case, people tend to blame a culture of lying in politics, a lack of media responsibility, and perhaps specifically the role of social media in dividing and radicalising people. But I think if we zoom out a little, there are also some more general lessons for organisations of all kinds, especially businesses, in a period of great uncertainty and change.

Social media fuels the age of stupidity

First, on social media, Jay Rosen of NYU has been studying the way the internet has changed the way we communicate for a long time. Like many others who were part of the early, hopeful period of social media (broadly between 2001 and when the Facebook virus broke out of colleges and into society during 2004-5), he regrets not predicting the many deeply negative outcomes that stemmed from enabling people to create their own networks, their own truths and (as the political commentator Bruno Maçães writes), their own sustainable unreality.

I take a few basic lessons from what Jay describes in the above thread, including:

  • we need trustful communities, where people are accountable for their actions, not open anonymous forums;

  • friction is not always a bad thing and sometimes good fences make good neighbours;

  • the route to scale is by aggregating small groups that function well, not by aiming for a kind of global community scale that is unprecedented in human history; and,

  • advertising models are the original sin of social media, and adtech is both a psychological and economic exploit that does way more harm than good.

People are easy to hack

We are just not mentally equipped to cope with weaponised manipulation in large-scale groups. Perhaps one lesson here for organisations is to think carefully about the appropriate level of scale and intimacy (and accountability) for different endeavours, rather than default to big, open spaces if you want meaningful collaboration to happen.

I am playing Cyberpunk 2077 at the moment (hey it works fine on new gen hardware!), and in each encounter, you can hack other people’s cyberware to confuse them or avoid detection. It reminds me how easily hackable our (relatively recently acquired) consciousness and behaviours really are, and how this makes us easy prey for cults, advertising, anti-vaxxer stupidity and other exploits. As Danah Boyd put it in her excellent talk You Think You Want Media Literacy… Do You?, perhaps one key role for educators and learning is “to develop antibodies to help people not be deceived.” 

It is easy to stir up a mob or to stoke fears and base motives to sell a product or to manipulate a vote, as the last four years have shown. But if the long term cost and damage is so much greater than what you gain in the short-term, then everybody loses - even you. The point about democracy is not winning, but allowing different views about how to progress to emerge, and then using an aggregate mechanism to choose the least bad option. It is messy and imperfect, but it more or less works if we value the views (and lives) of our fellow humans.

It might all seem like fun and games when you can trigger your opponents and mobilise support by lying and radicalising certain groups, but some genies can’t be put back in the bottle.

Facebook’s own research last year noted “Our algorithms exploit the human brain’s attraction to divisiveness .. If left unchecked,” it warned. Facebook would feed users “more and more divisive content in an effort to gain user attention & increase time on the platform.” Unforgivably, Facebook executives subsequently blocked remedial action to address this problem, according to the Wall Street Journal.

One of the individuals who stormed the Capitol in Washington yesterday used a monetised YouTube account that carries advertising by the Calm meditation app:

Institutions Need ‘Bad Actor’ Defences

Thinking about management, we have all experienced the bad bosses, the manipulators, energy-suckers who gaslight a subordinate, make them feel unworthy but use their work to further their own career. The system they work in often incentivises this behaviour as a route to advancement. But it is not just bad people who behave like this. If you give people permission to step outside the ethical boundaries they learned as a child, and if they can see others doing the same, then they will often follow. This is how mobs work.

Yes, we all have a responsibility to think about our impact on others, but leaders especially have a duty to uphold decent values. But, in fact, today’s managers are no more likely than anyone else to behave ethically or responsibly, and yet as we have seen in politics, our outdated institutions assume the opposite. We need to update our assumptions and legislate for bad actors.

From corporate failures where managers sacrificed the common good to maximise their own value extraction, through to the US Senators whose first response to early briefings about the pandemic was to engage in insider trading by dumping stock before it crashed, we all know unfairness or cheating when we see it, even if it is often legal and shrugged off as perks of the job.

In the US, remarkably, its institutions look like they will survive the descent of a major party into lunacy, conspiracy theories and mob violence. But in the UK, the country’s paper-thin state institutions assume the good faith of leaders, which is why the dynamics unleashed by the Brexit vote were able to do permanent, long-term damage that some fear could break up the nation itself. Arguably, it is also why the country best-prepared for a pandemic turned out to be the worst affected in Europe, led by a government of campaigners, ideologues and newspaper columnists, rather than serious (or even moderately competent) people.

This is why it is important to codify our organisational values in the very structures and processes that comprise them, and to build in checks, balances and dampeners against runaway failure or capture by bad actors. Somewhat counter-intuitively, this is one area in which I think algorithmic management can have a positive effect on ensuring compliance, rather than enforcing rules after the fact.

As people involved in the transformation of organisations and institutions to meet the challenges of the digital world, you might think that we are into disruption for its own sake as an unalloyed good. But in fact, the physician’s mantra ‘Primum non nocere’ is a sensible place to start from. I also agree with Ivan Krastev, who in his recent interview with Deutsche Welle, suggesting the pandemic marks the delayed beginning of the Twenty-First Century, implied we need to constantly balance our individualism with our responsibilities to each other, after this wave of populism burns itself out.

The Kids are Alright!

Finally, to end on a hopeful note, I loved this piece from the Verge about teens sharing their Notion wikis and work systems on TiKTok. This does not surprise me at all, as I am very optimistic about the values and maturity of many current teenagers amidst the carnage their elders have created for them. Maybe enterprise software will finally be cool! ;-) But also, as somebody who has to drag email- and meeting-addicted stakeholders kicking and screaming into the world of online collaboration and productive work systems, I am desperate for more energetic allies to carry the torch forwards!