The Problem of Technical Society

In the past couple of months, I've found that I'm concerned with questions of technical decision making more than I have been in my career before. I've gone on about what "consensus" means to my colleagues and my manager, and I've weighed in on processes in a way that, if I take a step back, is surprising. After all, I never concerned myself with these questions before.

Why do I feel that these questions are pressing right now? To come around to that question, I must first walk around the bend for a bit and visit a work that left its mark on my thinking: Plato's Republic.

Self-governance and justice

My area of interest has always been at the level of the individual contribution to the organization. I have never been interested in management. Maybe that's because I don't want the responsibility; maybe it's because I'm an ideological reactionary. It's also because I feel I've never been up to snuff as an individual contributor, though. I don't do what I intend to do on any given day! I always end up doing something else.

This tendency of mine is what led me to read Plato's Republic with a group of friends some years ago. I had never been interested in it prior to that, because I wasn't interested in political theory. I had the idea that the Republic was mainly a utopian work, presenting a concept for a perfectly ordered society.

That's not the question that drives the Republic, though. Plato starts with a question: what does it mean to be a just person? If one were wealthy and fruitful and tyrannous, would that be better than to be just and penniless? From there, the conversation wends its way to the core question: what does it mean to be a just person, anyway?

I couldn't possibly summarize the case in a short blog post, but if you set aside the argumentation, his assertion is that being a just person is a matter of self-governance. Plato argues that each person is a collection of disparate drives and motivations, and that in a just person these aspects are well-ordered and in alignment with one another.

And then he does a curious thing: he says that if we want to understand the just person better, we can consider a just city-state as an analogue. After all, a city-state also operates as a collection of people with different drives and motivations. And isn't there such a thing as justice at the level of the state as well?

Plato contends not only that can we look to larger societies for insight into how individuals govern themselves, but also that individuals will reflect the social order they operate in. Look to the tyrannous regime, and you will find it constituted by tyrannous personalities.

As Above, So Below: The Fractal Analogy

This is an analogical tool: a way of connecting two things such that they may shed light on one another. It can explain some matters that would otherwise be baffling.

So let's come back to the organizational question, and ask a seemingly unrelated question: why do I have such a hard time focusing on my work? Why does it seem like I am affected by protests in the street when I'm not attending them? I'm staying at home trying to keep my head down and do my job.

The fractal analogy gives me an answer to that: I do not exist apart from the society I am in. I cannot separate myself from it. If it's in disarray, that disarray will affect me as well, struggle though I may against it.

Politics and Engineering Organizations

Just as it is for me and the society I live in, so it is for the engineering organizations I participate in. We are not immune to the questions of governance that exist in society at large. They are reflected in us as well.

If there is indeed a crisis of democratic governance at play in the United States, humility requires me to acknowledge that the outcome of this crisis is beyond the scope of my influence. But my own life is not, and neither is my team at work.

And so that is how I can engage with the major question of the day: can democratic consensus making work? Or do our operational necessities require hierarchical control? Or shall we give up on agreement entirely, and accept the technical drawbacks of anarchy?

A mentor once told me to end each communication with a call to action. I wish I had the certainty to say I know the right answer here. But I can say this: consider the question in your own organization, and take heed of what your heart's answer is.