Posts Tagged ‘side effects


Are institutions becoming counterproductive?

I think this thought has been kicking around in my brain for a long time, but today things coalesced into this post. You see, I was sitting in a meeting for one of my jobs. I work in a pedagogical role at Tufts (that’s all I’ll say for fear of offending superior or giving the wrong idea to colleagues who I might read this, but I doubt that will happen). Anyway, there was a training meeting where we talked about various issues and what to do going forward.

My main problem is that I think institutions, jobs, organizations, are losing their purpose. As always, I hope to make this vague rhetoric more clear. Take an ordinary institution like a charity in Africa. Presumably the value of this organization is that it promotes some good; it helps people in Africa. This charitable mission is the reason that some people work for the organization full time (of course they work for the money, but most people who work for non-profits care about the mission of the organization to say the least) and why others give money to the organization so that, well, people can be hired to work full time. The organization is a MEANS to accomplishing some goal, and by pooling talent, communication, money, and probably most of all, coordination, the goal of healthy people in Africa can be pursued more effectively than if each Afrophile tried to help on their own.

All this is perfectly intelligible, but I think there is a growing cultural shit to considering institutions valuable IN THEMSELVES so that there is value in merely participating in groups. For one good example, take the interest that college and high school kids have in being part of various clubs and groups that EVERYONE KNOWS don’t actually do anything. Ok too cynical; let me scale that back. Some clubs do great things, but those are the clubs that people join because they want to do the thing that the organization promotes. On the other hand, we have a word for people who join organizations just to be a part of an organization. The word is fake.

And this is kind of what was going on in my meeting today. We had a meeting to talk about issue that either a) any person with commonsense could resolve or b) were irresolvable and should not be legitimized by spending time on them. For example, someone talked about a student that was being difficult and so could not be helped effectively by the service this group that I work for offers. And I’m sitting there thinking WELL THEN WHAT CAN YOU DO? We run an organization that helps people who want help, and of course you can go along we in seeking out people who need help but forget, or are weak-willed, or need a nudge. Fine. But if someone using a voluntary service is just screwing the service up then what more is there to say. And if there is more to say, is it worth saying.

You see, I think the critique can be deepened. An organization is meant to act as a mechanical lever by allowing a group of people to be more effective at something than they would otherwise be trying to fly solo. But remember, flying solo is very effective for many things. We had a bunch of announcements in this meeting in which various individual problems were addressed in front of 20 people. But if only one person has a problem and it’s not contributing to the effectiveness of the other members, than things would be much more effective if the one person with a problem just invested time in finding out the answer on his or her own by talking to the right person or just thinking about the problem for a little bit.

Now of course, there are reasons why its good to air concerns to the group because other people might not have encountered the problems YET, but could benefit if they knew how to react ahead of time. A good point, but there is a real information cost balance between having the organization take time in promulgating information and holding meetings and then having individual members of the organization find stuff out on there own. For some information, it will be easier to disseminate and email, and hold meetings, but other information is best discovered by NOT having the group do anything and letting members come to the information as needed. If the information isn’t widely useful, then you end up wasting the time of people who didn’t need the information to get it to people who do.

Let me back track for one second. I said institutions are only a means to achieving a goal, and that isn’t quite right. There is something uniquely valuable about sharing ideas and decisions with peers toward a common end (for one thing it is a training ground for democracy and a wellspring of mutual respect). However, this value, the value of working in concert, disappears if everyone in the group is working for the group WITH THE GOAL OF GETTING THAT BENEFIT.

For group life to be uniquely valuable, the members have to be part of the group not in order to get the benefits of group life, but to advance the interests of the group. I’ve used this analogy a million times on this site and I hope its starting to creep into people’s lives because its a big difference. Take sports. Sports are uniquely valuable because they teach special lessons. But you can’t get the special lessons of sports by going into each game and practice trying to get those special lessons. The lessons will run away from you and you’ll never find them. You have to train, struggle, and in the end, desire VERY INTENSELY, to win. By doing all this, you will, as a side effect, grasp the specific value of sports.This is not to say that there is not value in “playing for fun.” There is, but it’s not the same type of value that is only available for a certain type of attitude.

The same is true with institutions, and if people forget that they have to join groups and clubs and whatever FOR THE THINGS THOSE CLUBS DO, then we’re going to slowly fall into a kind of self-congratulatory stasis in which everyone does group business all day without there being anything at stake and without the goal itself animating the minds and hearts of the participants.




Sociality, facebook, and farmville

First there was facebook, and then there were a bunch of games for people to play on facebook.

Today, sociality is becoming explicit in a variety of ways. What I mean is that our cultural institutions are, to an increasing degree, solidifying sociality into a quantifiable and manipulable force. Sociality is now a game, a goal, a method, a tweet, a status update, a friend count, a text, and a host of other measurable units. The point is not just that we have all these new units of sociality; it’s that we are slowly but surely making social interaction into an object of social consciousness. Social networking sites, social gaming sites, twitter, and real time news polls, are part of the same trend to make explicit or conscious our interaction with other people.

What worries me about this trend is that some things are better left implicit and in the form of a fluid practice rather than a static institution. Coming from an analytic philosophical tradition, I realize that the previous sentence may seem cryptic and unhelpful, but I think I can make the point more clear.

There are many examples I think, of values or goals that are best fulfilled by not trying to achieve them in a conscious way. Take the person who is tries really hard to be funny. This person is always thinking to himself “how can I say something funny?” But inevitably such an indelicate and direct approach to being humorous fails. People recognize that the person is trying too hard or that the jokes are forced. The same goes for any number of other activities. Take the person who is playing basketball and thinks to himself “I’m going to make a great play on our next possession.” As we all recognize, such thinking is nonsense. Great plays come about as side effects of playing hard or playing with intensity. Highlight moments can’t be reliably produced by the direct intention of producing them; you have to get at them obliquely. They arise naturally out of practice and dedication.

Think also of dating advice. Any number of men and women, when giving advice to the opposite sex, say things like “just be yourself and don’t try too hard.” The point is that the someone who approaches a member of the opposite sex as if they are “on a mission” come off as fake and mechanical (think also of business people that can’t stop “networking” and how obnoxious it is to endure their fakery). The people who are best at meeting others aren’t trying to meet people; rather, such people are just having a good time, or are genuinely interested in things, or are just nice. Meeting people comes about as a side effect for such people.

One last example. Take a kid lying in his bed on christmas eve. The more this kid focuses on trying to go to sleep, the more he will stay awake. We’ve all experienced this feeling. The more we try to will ourselves asleep so that morning will come, the more we stare at the ceiling. Sleep has to be attained through the back door; we have to count sheep or think about something other than sleep itself.

I think sociality is the same way. It always waits in the background as a fluid setting for all our other actions. We go to work, to school, and to the movies. We cook and compete and fight, but all these activities are always with other people. In the course of our other activities we are always navigating the fluid waters of greetings, platitudes, jokes, and conversation. The new emphasis on social everything is taking an elaborate and unconscious skill and transforming it into an object of scrutiny and work, destroying its spontaneity and playfulness in the process. Sociality is reduced to information. Notice how this model of sociality is dulling our ability to have conversations and interact with other people in satisfying ways. Text conversations are slow and drawn out, and one can always wait a few minutes before replying. The art of repartee, changing the subject, acknowledgment and reading someone’s face or mood are all lost. The same is true on facebook and all other social media: social exchanges are reduced to sound bytes, hanging in electronic space, awaiting a response. In other words: just because we can share more information with more people does not mean we have become more social.

You might ask: why then do you have a blog? Are you not just participating in this mechanical model of sociality? I answer: no, because my blog has never been aimed at sociality. Rather it has always been about trying to stimulate my thinking on philosophical subjects. Any social interaction I get from it comes about purely as a side effect.