This is a guest post by David Manheim.
If you’re in Silicon Valley, you might have missed the trend, but the percentage of American workers working for big companies has been increasing, even as corporate bureaucracy is getting more stifling. Strangely, this has been happening even as the companies issue press releases about being more flexible and adaptive, to compete with startups, as Paul Graham argues in his recent controversial essay on Refragmentation. But flexible seems to mean layoffs and reorgs into ever more complex and, yes, fragmented corporate structures. They aren’t slimming down into flexible startups.
Worse, startups scale into big companies, and transform into bureaucracies when they do. Harvard Business Review just came out with some advice on how to stop being a startup. Even startups can’t stay startups. Github, the catalyst for distributed software companies everywhere, is itself restructuring. As the author of this post on Github’s restructuring puts it, “Out with flat org structure based purely on meritocracy, in with supervisors and middle managers.” But why?
Sarah Perry is a contributing editor of Ribbonfarm.
In Minimum Viable Superorganism, Kevin Simler posits a minimal structure by which an institution made up of self-interested participants can achieve its goals:
Individuals should grant social status to others for advancing the superorganism’s goals.
There are two definitive activities within the prestige economy:
In this model, prestige inequalities are not socially harmful, but a consequence of a system that harnesses self-interest to achieve the goal of “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need.”
This bears only a vague resemblance to the system we currently find ourselves in. And that’s not a criticism of the model. Humans as a species are unimaginably richer now than in ancestral times, compared to how many of us there are. Why, given this ingenious mechanism for the distribution of talents and resources, is there still so much hunger, misery, and boredom? [Read more…]
/* Zapp: prepare to continue the epic struggle between good and neutral */
Let’s say you are a member of the proud Red tribe, enjoying a ritual communal feast. There is mirth and joy in the air. There is eating, dancing, and various other sorts of revelry in progress. Everybody is enjoying the priceless feeling of being part of something bigger than themselves.
Suddenly, a young buck of your tribe runs into the camp ground, exhausted, wounded and bleeding. He delivers news of a grievous insult to your tribe dealt by the chief of the hated Grey tribe, and dies.
Now a different sort of priceless feeling of being part of something bigger descends on your tribe. This feeling is not derived from festive joy, but from infinitely outraged honor. Joy races against rage in every head. Hot heads and cool heads, young bucks and grey eminences, all start talking at once, to process the emotional calculus.
Eventually, a consensus narrative emerges and a course of action develops. The narrative has done its job: helped you decide how to feel, allowing action to cohere and precipitate.
How should we understand the unfolding of this course of events? The answer lies in a principle it’s taken me quite a while to formulate to my satisfaction: narrative abhors a vacuum.
What sort of vacuum?
Of all the remarkable things about our species — and there are many — perhaps the most striking of all is our ability to band together and act as a united, coherent superorganism. E pluribus unum. From many, one.
I don’t mean anything particularly high-minded by “superorganism.” It’s just a fun way to refer to a cooperative enterprise. Co-, together + operari, work. Acting in concert. Coordinating individual behavior in pursuit of shared goals.
Superorganisms, in this sense, include such mundane arrangements as law firms, soccer teams, city governments, and party planning committees. In fact, most of the groups we care about are superorganisms. A mere crowd, on the other hand, isn’t a superorganism. It’s just every man for himself — all pluribus, no unum.
Sarah Perry is a contributing editor of Ribbonfarm.
To: Human Subjects Review Board
Re: Universal Basic Income Study
We propose to give people money for five years. We will have them fill out some surveys.
Recently, Y Combinator announced plans to fund a research study on universal basic income. Everybody is all excited and/or mad about it. I do not have an opinion; rather, I’m interested in using it as a lens to think about predictions in complex systems, avoiding harm, the modern invention and subsequent fall of the work ethic, and the innovation-driving effect of procrastination and useless hobbies.
I did a couple of podcasts in the last few months.
The first was with Aaron Lammer of Longform in November, at their studio in Brooklyn. We talked about living versus observing gonzo lifestyles, developing an identity as a reader and as a writer, life scripts and going off them, and a lot more.
The second was with Shane Parrish of Farnam Street, over Skype (so there’s a bit of static in parts). We started off talking about Tempo, various styles of decision-making, staying grounded in reality by maintaining cracks in your mental models, being shaped by the work you do and the books you read, and so forth. I think I rambled a bit in this one. Note to self, chunk it up.
I am recording one more podcast, with Dan and Ian over at Tropical MBA, tomorrow. So you can look out for that in the next few weeks. I’ll try and talk about stuff I haven’t already covered in these two.
Podcasts are interesting. I’ve done a few radio programs and podcasts over the years, but there does seem to be a big spike in the medium (I think the last one I did before this spate of requests was in 2013). Several readers have suggested that I ought to try my hand at the game, but I don’t have any good ideas that lend themselves to the format. Plus it seems like a lot of work, so for the moment, I’ve decided to stay out of the game. Being on others’ podcasts is fun though. For those of you who like audio though, it seems Pocket now offers audio for arbitrary content. I haven’t yet tried it, but maybe you’ll like having ribbonfarm posts read out to you.
I’m having a lot of fun taking a break from writing and playing around with comics, which is why I haven’t yet done a real long-form post yet this year. Also because all the posts in my drafts folder seem to be long and complicated, and are taking forever to finish in the midst of a rather messy start to my year on the consulting side.
In other random news, I also recently upgraded to an iPad Pro with a Pencil, and it’s a life-changer for anyone who makes heavy use of thinking tools. Worth getting. It’s better than pen and paper.
We’ve been told for years now that what our parents and kindergarten teachers told us is not, in fact, true — we are not each and every one of us special unique snowflakes destined for greatness. In this essay I want to offer a new theory of productivity for those of us who, despite all the evidence to the contrary, still believe there is something valuable about our particular point of view. I will argue that the fundamental driver of creative work today is not values, goals, or processes, but unique states of mind.
Let’s start by taking this idea to unreasonable extremes: hyper-advanced aliens and digital souls.