Organizations and Long-Term Design

I just want to juxtapose two recent readings by Charlie Stross and Timothy Burke on organizations and institutions. Burke sets up the problem as the key issue of the twenty-first century.

but it really seems to me that the political problem of the 21st Century is not a problem of markets or capitalism, not of the state, not of ideologies or religions, but of institutions and organizations. Loosely speaking, what doesn’t work about government as a whole is also what doesn’t work about a local religious charity. What doesn’t work about financial capitalism is what doesn’t work about the Chamber of Commerce in a small town.

Why have executives at for-profit and non-profit institutions enriched themselves so greatly over the last twenty or thirty years? Is there any way for oversight to actually improve the situation?

The subtle problem that organizations and institutions pose to contemporary life is that people who live inside an institutional culture often are so sensitive to the nuances of the way things work, the limits and possibilities of change within the institution, that they let problems and failures slide or pass. No one wants to be that guy, the one who rants about everything. And that’s what often happens to someone inside an institution who blows the whistle on a bad practice or a growing issue, because that often ends with that person in a kind of internal exile, and in that circumstance, a loss of a sense of proportion is all but inevitable. Everything will come to look suspect or corrupt.

Stross poses the problem in the form a science fiction scenario: how would you design the society of a generation starship that is going to be traveling through space for hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years? None of our current institutions have ever lasted that long. Even long lasting institutions, like the Catholic church or Japanese monarchy, have changed.

Consumer capitalism along our current model simply won’t work as a way of running a long-duration generation ship (the failure modes are lethal and non-recoverable). Communism (or rather, Leninism) has a slightly better prospect, but is still a long way from optimal. Monarchism is just a pretty word for “hereditary dictatorship supported by military caste”. What are the alternatives? And what do we need to consider when designing a society that can survive for a 500-1000 year voyage in a bottle without exploding?

It’s not hart to twist the generation starship scenario slightly and end up with Bucky Fuller’s Starship Earth. The problem of building a long-term starship is parallel to the problem of building a long-term lifeworld here on Earth. Both Stross and Burke agree that our current institutions aren’t up to the challenge.

Burke concludes his musings:

Institutions work best through and are safeguarded most by strong cultures of professionalism, loyalty, and honor. Institutions are most at risk from parasitic infiltrations which adroitly use professionalism and loyalty as shields and weapons, who act like cancer cells, turning healthy structures into diseased ones. Problems of cultural maintainance and cultural creation are the hardest of all, because they can only be worked upon through incremental action within culture, with a humble sense of the immediate horizons of plausible transformations.

But the fate of institutions can’t just be left to them alone, because even the least of them has some kind of consequential social and economic power. If we need to think about how to live better within our institutions, we also need to think about how to act more wisely towards the institutions of others, to concern ourselves with their workings and when necessary, find smarter and more humane ways to intervene in their affairs and even to shut them down. The tools we have aren’t up to it, and the habits we have even less so.