November 08, 2021

Interesting Things on the Internet: November 8th 2021 Edition

  • What Facebook Knew All Along. "But this much is clear: Facebook knew all along. Their own employees were desperately trying to get anyone inside the company to listen as their products radicalized their own friends and family members." Get an RSS reader and start building a newsfeed you control; come and hang-out with me and others on Mastodon—or Pixelfed if you're leaving Instagram and prefer the photo-friendly approach. That interoperates with Mastodon too. And leave Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp...
  • Managerial blah.
  • Does someone deserve to die for this?. "As Genevieve Gunther says, climate change isn't something we're doing, it's something we're being prevented from undoing. [...] In the UK, politicians held off on announcing a lockdown because they assumed that people wouldn't be willing to make that sacrifice. But it turns out we're willing to go to extraordinary lengths to protect our community and each other. [...] I'm not an activist in any way, and I've never considered myself to be someone who'd risk my own comfort in order to save the world. But I have. All of us have. Now we know how far we're willing to go, and it's further than many of us imagined."
  • A Beginner's Guide to Social Media Verification. Good primer (and links to more) on detecting fake images online. As Laurie Anderson says, "get a good bullshit detector and learn how to use it."
  • COP26: Taking on the takes. COP26 won't solve all the problems but it will move us in the right direction.
  • High Streets for All? We need communities to own more of their buildings.
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October 25, 2021

Interesting Things on the Internet: October 25th 2021 Edition

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October 11, 2021

Interesting Things on the Internet: October 11th 2021 Edition

  • Catharsis. Good of Tim Bray to follow up on the story of Amazon firing people for speaking out about how it treats its warehouse staff, now that they've settled out of court, so "that particular firing spree was not only unethical and stupid, it was probably illegal."
  • The end of the world is over. Now the real work begins.. "Besides, it is realistic: things could be better. [...] Obviously there are complications, but these are just complications. They are not physical limitations we can’t overcome. So, granting the complications and difficulties, the task at hand is to imagine ways forward to that better place.
    Immediately many people will object that this is too hard, too implausible, contradictory to human nature, politically impossible, uneconomical, and so on. Yeah yeah. Here we see the shift from cruel optimism to stupid pessimism, or call it fashionable pessimism, or simply cynicism. It’s very easy to object to the utopian turn by invoking some poorly-defined but seemingly omnipresent reality principle. Well-off people do this all the time."
  • How to blog. If you can all just start blogging then I can stop posting these "you should be blogging" links every year or so...
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September 27, 2021

Interesting Things on the Internet: September 27th 2021 Edition

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August 30, 2021

Interesting Things on the Internet: August 30th 2021 Edition

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August 29, 2021

Blog All Dog-eared Pages: Organizing Genius by Warren Bennis and Patricia Ward Biederman

Last year, in response to a blog post about scenius and groups, Matt Edgar recommended Organizing Genius by Warren Bennis and Patricia Ward Biederman.

It's taken a year to make it to the top of my reading pile, but it was an interesting read. Here are the sections I highlighted...

Page 5

A classic example is Michelangelo's masterpiece the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. In our mind's eye, we see Michelangelo, looking remarkably like Charlton Heston, laboring alone on the scaffolding high above the chapel floor. In fact, thirteen people helped Michelangelo plan the work. Michelangelo was not only an artist, he was, as biographer William E. Wallace points out, the head of a good-sized entrepreneurial enterprise that collaboratively made art that bore his name [...]

Page 7

A Great Group can be a goad, a check, a sounding board, and a source of inspiration, support, and even love. Songwriter Jules Styne said he had to have a collaborator: "In the theater you need someone to talk to. You can't sit by yourself in a room and write."

Page 17

Curiosity fuels every Great Group. The members don't simply solve problems. They are engaged in a process of discovery that is its own reward.

Page 68

Recruitment was critical for several reasons. Taylor believed in the ARPA creed of choosing people over projects when funding research. Like George Pake, who headed both PARC as a whole and its science lab, Taylor believed that good science was done from the bottom up. You hired great people and turned them loose on projects that reflected their unique talents and passions. They told you what they needed to do. The more easily the individuals interacted, the less distracted from their mission they would be. Collaboration was formally encouraged. "You could spend 40 percent of your time working as 'hands' on somebody else's project," Kay says.

Page 71

Taylor knew better than to burden his gifted team with arbitrary rules. If some were arrogant, so be it. It was a small enough price to pay for talent (the attitude was pretty much "we don't care if they're prima donnas, as long as they can sing"). But the weekly meeting was mandatory. "There was only one rule not to be broken at PARC," Kay says. "There was one weekly meeting you had to go to, and you had to stay until the end."

Each week, participants grabbed a beanbag chair from the pile as they came into the meeting. At these often heated sessions, every member of the group was exposed to the ideas and fragmentary accomplishments of the others. Those "bits and pieces," as Taylor called them, were what everyone might have to build on in his or her own research. Thus the weekly meeting served as a simple but remarkably efficient structure for exposing everyone to information that might prove key somewhere down the line. The weekly meeting allowed information to be shared without resorting to time-consuming reports and memos. It also allowed tensions and disagreements to surface and be wrangled out on the spot. The meetings were a reflection of Taylor's understanding of the dynamics of extraordinary groups. "No organization works beyond the size you can get all the principals together in a room and thrash out the issues before you go home," Kay says.

Taylor was also sensitive to the critical importance of his group's having the right tools. Most often, that meant tools they created themselves. In the ARPA community, everyone was both a hardware and a software person. "You had this group that was able to roll its own," Kay says.

Page 78

Bob Potter, who headed the computer-engineering facility that Xerox established in Dallas during the PARC era, was one corporate decision maker who felt the sting of PARC's collective scorn. "[...] they were only interested in their own thing. They thought they were four feet above everybody else. What the PARC people never understood was that they were supposed to help the less fortunate, less intelligent rest of the world."

Page 97

Carville's rhetoric is a reminder of just how powerful the underappreciated art of persuasion continues to be in collective action of all kinds. People are not necessarily swayed by reason. "The head has never beaten the gut in a political argument yet, and I doubt if it ever will," Carville writes in All's Fair.

Page 127

In organizing his Skunk Works, Johnson paid no attention to how the quarters looked or how comfortable they were. One of the principles he held dearest was that designers and mechanics should work side by side, making suggestions and addressing problems as they went along, so the prototype could be modified on the spot.

Page 130

The Skunk Works, Disney Animation, and the Macintosh team were remarkably innovative, but they weren't think tanks—institutions whose real mission is the production of ideas. These Great Groups were places where products were being made, things that had to be delivered in a timely fashion to the world. One of Steve Jobs's mantras at Apple was "Real artists ship." Johnson, too, believed that a plane must be designed brilliantly but not so perfectly that it never gets off the drawing board. In Johnson's view, some things, notably safety, must never be compromised. He built triple redundancy into the Blackbird, for instance, so that a failure in any one system, or even two, would not mean the loss of a pilot. But, like Thomas Aquinas before him and Steve Jobs after, Johnson knew that something that exists is intrinsically better than something, however brilliantly conceived, that doesn't.

Page 141

[Ben Rich, successor to Johnson in running the Skunk Works,] believed, for instance, in the value of generalists "who are more open to nonconventional approaches than narrow specialists." (Both the Manhattan Project and Xerox PARC similarly benefited from the presence of people who were not narrow specialits, but deep generalists.)

Page 158

Although its mission was never as clear as that of groups involved in creating an actual thing, Black Mountain was a place that throbbed with the excitement of creating something new. All Great Groups are boundary busters, and Black Mountain, with its unusual curriculum and changing cast of fascinating characters, was no exception.

Page 181

The role of women in the Manhattan Project is troubling. From Madame Curie, the codiscoverer of polonium and radium, to Lisa Meitner, the grievously unsung physicist, who with her nephew, Otto Frisch, first explained how neutron capture could result in the release of enormous amounts of energy, women were crucial at every stage in the history of nuclear physics. But they were a decided minority among the players in the Tech Area. There were a few female physicists and other scientists, but, for the most part, women played supportive roles, doing tedious mathematical calculations, for example, and serving as secretaries.

Page 198

Great Groups give the lie to the remarkably persistent notion that successful institutions are the lengthened shadow of a great woman or man. It's not clear that life was ever so simple that individuals, acting alone, solved most significant problems. Our tendency to create heroes rarely jibes with the reality that most nontrivial problems require collective solutions.

Page 199

Every Great Group has a strong leader. This is one of the paradoxes of creative collaboration. Great Groups are made up of people with rare gifts working together as equals. Yet, in virtually every one there is one person who acts as maestro, organizing the genius of the others. He or she is a pragmatic dreamer, a person with an original but attainable vision. Ironically, the leader is able to realize his or her dream only if the others are free to do exceptional work. Typically, the leader is the one who recruits the others, by making the vision so palpable and seductive that they see it, ttoo, and eagerly sign up.

Page 202

The broader and more diverse the network, the greater the potential for a Great Group. The richer the mix of people, the more likely that new connections will be made, new ideas will emerge.

Page 214

Great Groups ship. Successful collaborations are dreams with deadlines. They are places of action, not think tanks or retreat centers devoted solely to the generation of ideas. Great Groups don't just talk about things (although they often do that at considerable length). They make things—amazing, original things, such as a plane that a bat can't find. Great Groups are hands-on. Think of Kistiakowsky, the great chemist, sitting with a dentist's drill correcting defects in castings because that was what the project needed.

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August 16, 2021

Interesting Things on the Internet: August 16th 2021 Edition

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August 09, 2021

Interesting Things on the Internet: August 9th 2021 Edition

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July 12, 2021

Interesting Things on the Internet: July 12th 2021 Edition

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June 27, 2021

Blog All Dog-eared Pages: Playing the Bullshit Game: How Empty and Misleading Communication Takes Over Organizations by André Spicer

Rather than the usual books, Playing the Bullshit Game: How Empty and Misleading Communication Takes Over Organizations is a paper by André Spicer. Normally it'd be something to include in the Interesting Things on the Internet... editions, but there were too many nuggets to quote so I figured it warranted its own post.

As ever, remember to heed Laurie Anderson's advice: "Get a really good bullshit detector. And learn how to use it."

Page 2

In this paper, I claim bullshitting is a social practice. I will argue that in particular speech communities people are encouraged to play the language game of bullshit-ting, and when it is played well it can bolster their identity. Under certain conditions, bullshitting is relatively harmless and can even be beneficial. But bullshitting can quickly spiral out of control and take over an entire organization or industry.

Page 3

While lying is an attempt to conceal the truth (Bok, 1978), bullshit is to talk without reference to the truth. ‘It is just this lack of connection to a concern with truth – this indifference to how things really are – that I regard as the essence of bullshit’, Frankfurt writes.

[...]

Cohen pointed out that sometimes ‘the shit wears the trousers’ (p. 324). Instead of focusing on the bullshitter’s inten-tions, he argues, we should look at the structure of bullshit. Cohen goes on to identify ‘unclarifiable unclarity’ as the key feature of bullshit (p. 333). These are statements which are unclear (‘unclarity’) but for which there are no procedures to make it clear (‘unclarifiable’). A bullshit state-ment is ‘not only obscure but cannot be rendered unobscured’. Furthermore, ‘any apparent success in rendering it unobscured secretes something that isn’t recognizable as a version of what was said’

Page 4

A lie is a statement which the liar believes to be false but they present as if it is true, often with intentions of deceit (Bok, 1978). In contrast, bullshit is not presented as if it were true and the intention behind it is not always outright deception. This distinction is captured by Frankfurt (2005) who argues that a liar is concerned about the truth, but attempts to replace it with falsehood. In contrast, the bullshitter is unconcerned with the truth and speaks with no reference to it. The bullshitter falls short of lying because they make use of insincere and misleading statements rather than outright falsehoods

Boris Johnson is a bullshitter, not a liar.

Page 5

Littrell and colleagues (2020) found that bullshitters tend to have lower cogni-tive ability, be less honest, less open-minded, have lower feelings of self-worth and a higher tendency for self-enhancement. Finally, a recent study of school children found that bullshitters shared demographic characteristics; they were more likely to be males from better-off socio-economic background (Jerrim etal., 2019).

Page 9

A second sub-sector with a significant concentra-tion of bullshit merchants is the ‘entrepreneur-ship industry’ (Hunt & Kiefer, 2017). This is the cluster of mentors, (pseudo-)entrepreneurs and thought leaders who push poorly evidenced, misleading and seductive ideas about entrepre-neurship. Often their target is so-called ‘wantre-preneurs’ (Verbruggen & de Vos, 2019). In some cases, these ideas have been found to encourage vulnerable young people to adopt what are seductive but empty and misleading ideas about entrepreneurial success.

[...]

A second aspect of a speech community which can foster bullshitting is noisy ignorance. This is when actors lack knowledge about an issue yet still feel compelled to talk about it.

This reminds me of so many "digital and creative" strategy discussions in the city.

Page 10

When an actor is relatively ignorant about an issue, they do not have the wider back-ground knowledge in order to compare new claims. Nor do they have an understanding of the right questions they might ask. This means they rely on relatively crude understandings of an issue yet tend to be much more certain than an expert would be (Raab, Fernbach, & Sloman, 2019).

When ignorance is noisy, uninformed actors do not simply stay silent about what they don’t know. Rather, they are compelled to speak about an issue of which they have little knowl-edge or understanding.

Page 13

For instance, following the financial crisis of 2008, senior executives of some of Britain’s largest banks were asked to testify in front of a committee of the UK Parliament. When the bankers were quizzed about their responsibility for the crisis, many responded with evasive bullshit. They expressed regret, claimed they had already apologized and shifted blame to others (Tourish & Hargie, 2012). This evasion had a game-like quality. The inquisitors kept asking questions aimed at establishing the veracity of claims while the bankers continued to avoid the questions. This points to a significant chal-lenge for people calling bullshit: the effort they need to put in to refute bullshit is often of an order of magnitude greater than what is required to produce the bullshit in the first place (Brandolini, 2014).

Page 19

Finally, bullshit can become sacrilized when it is legitimated by wider institutions. This hap-pens when meaningless terms are embedded within commonly accepted practices, rules and cognitive schemes. When this happens, what was previously bullshitting within a particular organization can begin to seem like something which is inevitable and highly valuable across an entire field. For instance, within the cultural sector in the United Kingdom, a wide range of empty terms such as ‘creativity’ began to be used by actors in increasingly reverential terms (Belfiore, 2009). When this happened the idea of creativity began to be treated as a sacred value.

[...]

For instance, a participant in a meeting may resist being swept up in a presentation filled with manage-ment buzzwords and ask for precise under-standings of how this will work operationally. When this happens, resolute disbelief can become a significant barrier to ongoing bullshit-ting.

[...]

When bullshitting becomes part of the rou-tine processes in an organization, it is more likely to be undermined through de-routiniza-tion. One way this happens is through unlearn-ing. This occurs when actors consciously question the bullshit they use in an unthinking way. For instance, if a management buzzword is identified as bullshit, actors have to consciously reflect on their language and find alternatives. A second way routine bullshitting can be under-mined is through anticipatory defence. This means actors who expect bullshitting will put in place prophylactic measures to protect them-selves.

Page 20

As well as undermining routinized bullshit-ting, actors can question bullshit which has been integrated into the formal structures of an organization. This happens through the process of de-formalization where what appeared as legitimate organizational processes are shown to be illegitimate. One way this process can occur is through theorizing. This is when claims which appear to have a rational gloss are sub-jected to deeper and more searching inquiry by experts. For instance, overblown claims about the effectiveness of a management technique may be deflated through careful empirical tracking of actual impacts. A second way bullshit can be deformalized is through de-sanctioning. This can occur when people in for-mal positions of leadership ‘call out’ bullshit in an organization and question its use. When this happens, organizational members are less likely to routinely bullshit. Finally, bullshit can be deformalized through public repudiation. This happens when an organization as a whole com-mits itself to avoiding management jargon, unnecessary acronyms and other forms of busi-ness bullshit.

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