The Tyranny of Systems Architecture

In 1970, Jo Freeman wrote an article called Tyranny of Structurelessness, in which she discussed how the lack of explicit structure in the feminist movement allows smaller networks of people to coopt the movement for their own ends. She advocates active decision making about representation and leadership rather than passively allowing structure to emerge. In The Invisible Dogma, Mitch Ratcliffe issues a similar call to arms about technology deployment. He categorizes the various ways in which technology can affect group behavior and dynamics and suggest we be more alert to these effects as we design systems.

  • Participation and modality biases:

    Technology, because it is usually deployed en masse is a blunt force instrument that often treats everyone the same way. This is especially apparent within the confines of a small group, where individual differences are starkly evident and can be exaggerated by the introduction of a tool that favors one form of participation or mode of dealing with knowledge over others.

    My favorite example of this problem is the street lights that change in response to cars but not bicycles. Mitch’s favorite example is the interruptive nature of IM and the “walkie-talkie-like press-to-talk” feature of Nextel and other new mobile phone systems and the fact that many people find the interuptions utterly counterproductive. Applying Freeman’s analysis here, we should think seriously about how and why these architectural decisions get made and try to explore ways of making these decisions that best serve all members of the group.

  • Time and skill biases: Some people have more time and energy to devote than others. Systems can be more or less responsive to their active users as opposed to their more passive ones. Here is Freeman on the subject:

    Elites are nothing more and nothing less than a group of friends who also happen to participate in the same political activities. They would probably maintain their friendship whether or not they were involved in political activities; they would probably be involved in political activities whether or not they maintained their friendships. It is the coincidence of these two phenomena which creates elites in any groups and makes them so difficult to break.

    These friendship groups function as networks of communication outside any regular channels for such communication that may have been set up by a group. If no channels are set up, they function as the only networks of communication. Because people are friends, usually sharing the same values and orientations, because they talk to each other socially and consult with each other when common decisions have to be made, the people involved in these networks have more power in the group than those who don’t. And it is a rare group that does not establish some informal networks of communication through the friends that are made in it.
    […]
    [These] informal structures have no obligation to be responsible to the group at large. Their power was not given to them; it cannot be taken away. Their influence is not based on what they do for the group; therefore they cannot be directly influenced by the group. This does not necessarily make informal structures irresponsible. Those who are concerned with maintaining their influence will usually try to be responsible. The group simply cannot compel such responsibility; it is dependent on the interests of the elite.

    Rather than simply responding to those with energy, perhaps systems need to be designed so that the energetic compete to represent the group. Moderation and electoral systems become increasingly important in making sure the group does not get hijaacked.

  • Semantic biases: Human vocabulary is fairly fluid. A common phrase among accountants is that profit and loss is fiction; cash-flow is fact. Computer systems implement particular definitions of profit and loss that may or may not be relevant to the decions made by its users. Orwell made the point that you have to remember that the state’s definitions are not your own. The same is true of computers and their programmers.
  • Historical bias: Mitch notes that tradition is not a justification. However, channelling Edmund Burke, I would note that revolution is risky too. It is important to find a balance. Proper allocation of decision making authority among the stakeholders facilitates finding this balance. From a historical perspective, there have been no successful revoltions; you can have liberal democracy and all the annoyances that go along with its due process and iterative decision making or you can have the Terror and all the fun of mass slayings. Its up to you.
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