The Four Forces for Sociology

I’ve been fascinated by the idea of the four fundamental forces in physics ever since I first learned of the idea. I used it as a metaphor for Big History in A Brief History of the Corporation a few years back. Brian Skinner’s meditation on Coulomb interactions and some conversations with my favorite crazy engineer Artem Litvinovich (blog, twitter) have gotten me thinking about the four forces again.

I made up a metaphorical mapping of the four forces to sociology. It’s not pretty, but it’s interesting.

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The Amazing, Shrinking Org Chart

About a year ago, an 1855 org chart of the New York and Erie railroad was cascaded worldwide by the VP of the Infographics Department of the Internet. There was a good deal of admiration as well as lamentation. Apparently we no longer care enough about our corporations to create beautiful depictions of their anatomy, ars gratia artis. Whatever else the shortcomings of mid-nineteenth century corporate management (they had a tendency to start wars and gun down workers in pursuit of their Missions and Visions among other things, and you had to be a quick-draw gunfighter to earn a Harvard MBA in those days), they clearly cared. 


Library of Congress (via McKinsey)

By contrast, a modern set of org charts is usually a showcase of apathetic PowerPoint banality. In fact, you rarely ever see a big global view anymore. Just little local views that could, in principle, be patched together into a global view, but in practice never are. Often, even CEOs only have a coarse, low-resolution view of the whole, with blocks representing entire huge divisions of thousands of humans and billions in capital assets. There is usually no operational capability for drilling down into finer points where the situation demands it (Proctor and Gamble, apparently, is an exception). Most senior executives — VP and above in organizations of 1500 or more people say — are in the position of surgeons operating on the basis of having played the kids’ game Operation rather than on the basis of medical training and tools like MRI machines.

There’s a very good excuse for this though: the pace of organizational and environmental change today turns static maps into garbage very quickly. The part of the organization that is both possible and useful to represent using an org chart has been rapidly shrinking.

What, if anything, should be done about it?

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Technopaganism and the Newer Age

Ryan Tanaka is a resident blogger, visiting us from his home turf at

Elon Musk, in response to the popularity of HBO’s hit comedy Silicon Valley, once remarked that Hollywood doesn’t “get” SV culture because it doesn’t understand what Burning Man is all about.

Most of us here have seen the pictures and heard something it, but what exactly is Burning Man, anyway?  Why are pictures of the event posted in the hallways and offices of the Googleplex, and why is it a topic of conversation that comes up over and over among those working in tech?

Burning Man

Photo by Kyle Harmon from Oakland, CA, USA. (Accessed from Wikipedia – 05/10/15)

Beneath the confusion and craziness, Burning Man can be seen as a manifestation of the sentimentality and spirit of the Bay Area, compressed into an intense, week-long ordeal: techies, hippies, individualists, creatives/artists and progressives all living in close proximity, thrown together into an uncontrolled mix. A giant social experiment of sorts, organized into a ceremonial ritual, conducted year after year.

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The Capitalist’s Zombie

I’ve been in Chile for a few days, preparing to lead some sessions over the next week or so at a startup bootcamp put together by Exosphere. Naturally, my mind has been wandering to other matters Chilean.

Chile, as an acquaintance remarked recently, has an economy based on two things: copper and astronomy. It’s also an economy that is to economists what Southwest Airlines is to management consultants: a very significant case study. It was the site of neoliberal experimentation by the Chicago School in the 1980s. More recently, it has been the site of the hilariously adolescent Ayn-Randian-Libertarian experiment that was Galt’s Gulch.

I was pondering these matters as I was shopping for, among other things, an interesting local beer to fuel my time here. After some fumbling with my near-non-existent Spanish (with some help from my Italian host who fumbles less), I ended up with a sixpack of something called Baltica Dry.


It is apparently the pretty-decent-and-cheap local Löbrau. It does not really appear to be “local” in any sense other than the brand name. As best as I have been able to discover, it appears to be brewed and canned for the Chilean market by Anheuser-Busch in the US (the particular sixpack I bought appears to have been canned in Uruguay though). So now, I basically have no clue about the provenance of my beer.

Baltica Dry is an example of what I call a capitalist’s zombie.

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The Art of Gig III

And now for the thrilling finale. Read Parts I and II first. 

I exited the AspireKat building at a slight trot. Time was of the essence. Anscombe was scurrying to keep up with me, trying to type with one hand on his open laptop, balanced on the arm of his Starbucks-mug hand.

“Figure out Donna’s home address and get us an Uber. I am going to have Guanxi open up a line.”

He reluctantly folded his laptop under his arm, pulled out his phone and fiddled briefly with it. “Okay. ETA three minutes for the Uber. Looks like Donna lives about twenty minutes away.”


“So why are we going to see her? Why would she know about the acquisition bid?”

“Hold on. I’m texting Guanxi here.”

Unlike young digital natives, I can’t text and talk at the same time.

Things under control?

All good. Bainies getting set up for the initial goat sacrifice.


Trying to get to Saul, but the Bainies have him.

We need a live feed.

On it. Periscope.

I pulled up Periscope on my phone. It looked like Guanxi had managed to position his phone strategically by the window ledge near the display. Almost the entire room was visible in a fishbowl view. At the far end, Saul was standing regally, in a gown the Bainies had put on him. Three Bainies were doing a slow, ritual snake dance in a circle around him, waving incense sticks and chanting.

Guanxi wandered briefly into view and nodded imperceptibly at the camera before wandering out if view again. I handed my phone to Anscombe.

“Could you monitor that? I get a headache if I stare at a screen while moving.”

Anscombe promptly forgot about the question he’d asked. His gaze latched onto my screen.

“Firehose time. I’m going to have to reconfigure my setup a bit to handle this.”

Handing your phone to anyone born after 1985 is an incredible gesture of trust. So in consulting, it is increasingly important to maintain your phone in a state of plausible shareability to form alliances. It’s also a good way to keep digital natives busy so you can think.

And I needed to think about an important question: what did Donna know?

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The Art of Gig II

Read Part I first.

I shut the door of the conference room gently behind us. We could still hear Khan and Isabella out in the reception area, but their voices were now muted. Saul seemed to be in some sort of philosophical reverie as he made his way to his chair. Guanxi looked at me with narrowed eyes and nodded significantly. I narrowed my eyes as well, and nodded significantly in turn. A look of mutual understanding passed between us.

It’s a consultant thing. We call it the Significant Look Protocol.

Scientists have tried to figure out precisely what information is exchanged and  during these narrowed-eye-nod exchanges, and have come up with nothing. What is known though, is that about 1% of the time, a Significant Look results in a subtle, but unmistakable situational change known as Going Meta. Nobody knows what that is either, but it is a documented fact that when things Go Meta, cartels form and billables increase by a factor of 10.

This means a great many Significant Looks are exchanged at management conferences, but most lead to nothing. Some lead to sexual harrassment lawsuits.

This was one of those 1% of times. We had just gone meta. We both knew it, and knew the other did too.

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The Art of Gig

I don’t talk about my consulting gigs much on this blog, since there is surprisingly little overlap between my money-making work and my writing. But many people seem to be very curious about precisely what sort of consulting I do, and how that side of ribbonfarm operates. Unfortunately, it’s hard to explain without talking about actual cases, and I can’t share details of most engagements due to confidentiality constraints. But fortunately, one of my recent clients agreed to let me write up minimally pseudonymized account of a brief gig I did with them a while back.  So here goes.

It all began when my phone rang at 1 AM on a Tuesday morning a few months ago. The caller launched right into it the moment I answered.

“Oh thank God! Donna has the ‘flu…I tried calling Guanxi Gao, but I can’t reach him. I left a message but… omigod, we’re going to run out of inventory by Friday, what are we going to do?”

If you aren’t used to the consulting world, this is how most engagements begin: you’re dropped into a panicked conversation in the middle of a crisis that has already been unfolding for sometime.

Luckily, I was not yet in bed, but doing some routine Open Twitter Operations from the Ribbonfarm Consulting Command Center.

I hit the red alert button on my desk, which turned off all but one of the 16 flat-panel displays that line one wall of the darkened main room of the RCCC. The one that stayed on showed a blank 2×2 grid with a flashing lemon-yellow border. The speakers switched from Mongolian throat singing to a steady pip…pip…pip. 


Many consultants today use more complicated first-responder protocols, but I am old-fashioned. One clean vertical stroke, one clean horizontal stroke, at most 10 quick labels, and you’ve got your Situation all Awared-Up in the top right. 75% complexity reduction in minutes.

Ten seconds into the call, and I was already set up to Observe, Orient, Decide and Act. This is the sort of agility my clients have come to expect from me.

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The Art of Agile Leadership

Like most of you, I have no idea what I am doing 98.3% of the time I make a decision. Of that slice of the pie, I am actively getting it not-even-wrong 93% of the time. I bumble through on the strength of the 5.3% of the time I get it right by accident, and the 1.7% of the time a dim sense of direction lasts long enough that I can think more than one step ahead.

Of course, being the geniuses we are, we use almost all of the slim edge we possess over randomness — to the tune of 6.9%  of the available 7% — to convince ourselves we actually know what we’re doing all the time. This evolving, self-congratulatory narrative of determinate agency is what we humans call “culture.” We dislike indeterminacy almost more than non-survival.

This means our survival, at individual and collective levels, rests on our actions during the 0.1% of the time we:

  1. Have a dim sense of what the hell we are doing, and
  2. Are doing something other than congratulating ourselves about it.

Fortunately, thanks to the miracle of compound interest, over hundreds of thousands of years, we’ve collectively translated this thinnest of thin edges into an altered environment that is highly forgiving to having almost no idea what we’re doing, almost all of the time. This environment is what we humans call “civilization.”

This view is basic calibration concerning the human condition. If you’re lucky, you’ll figure this out at some point. If you’re really lucky, you’ll promptly forget it.

But if you’re really, really lucky, you’ll never figure it out at all and turn into a leader.

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The Mother of All 2x2s

A few weeks ago, I tweeted that I had made up the mother of all 2x2s — taxes vs. play/death vs. life — and that a large fraction of the models I’ve been playing with over the last couple of years, here on this blog, seem to fall neatly into (or are amenable to being forced without too much arbitrariness into) this 2×2. Understandably, there was some skepticism. Well, here we go. I’ve put not one, not two, but thirteen of my models (some of which I haven’t shared before) in 2×2 forms. Not only that, I figured out a personality test of sorts based on these models. For convenience, I made a deck out of the 2x2s rather than making this a blog post with 13 images. If you have trouble viewing the deck below, use this link to view it directly on slideshare.

I am working on refining this, and also developing versions for businesses, cities and nations.

I suspect this will not make much sense to people who haven’t been following along on this thought trail, and will require some work even for those who know where this is all coming together from. At some point, I’ll put together a talk track or an expository essay, but if you’ve read at least some of the posts linked on the first slide, you should get at least a sense of the multi-model. You should be able to usefully try out the personality test even if you don’t quite understand every 2×2, but are able to classify yourself on most of them.

The Future of Tipping

A couple of weeks ago, I was introduced to the bitcoin-based tipping service for Twitter, ChangeTip, by Leslie John Dilley. It is a fascinating thing to experiment with, and you should try it out if you’re interested in bitcoin. What makes it particularly interesting is that you can define your own pseudo-currency units called “monikers”. The result is a deceptively simple-seeming UX that not only lowers online tipping friction dramatically, but nails the psychology of tipping in a very powerful way. You simply mention who you want to tip in a tweet, and how much (using either a standard unit or a personalized moniker), and cc @ChangeTip. The service then sends out a tweet inviting the recepient to collect. The second tweet looks like this (notice how the 2nd and 3rd examples in the image are using personalized monikers; “bits” in the first one is one of the standard system-wide monikers):



Besides making you feel all important because you get to name your own currency, it is interesting because it helps you shape the social perceptions that ride along with a tip. One of my personal monikers, for instance, is “refactorings” where a refactoring is worth one penny. If I tip somebody 100 refactorings on Twitter, it means they get a dollar if they choose to collect, and if they know me, they also know that they’re getting it because one of their tweets helped me see something in a new way.

The idea of shaping the perceived meaning of a transaction is a hugely important one I think, and opens up very interesting new territories for economics. One of its effects might well be to increase the importance of tipping and decrease the importance of “meaningless” basal transactions. This is an interesting development because one of my assumptions so far has been that digital transactions break tipping cultures.

I have now changed my mind to the polar opposite view: going digital will eventually strengthen tipping culture to the point where the tipping economy might even become bigger than the basal transactional economy.

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