Thursday, 9 October 2008

the machine

every now and then something happens which reminds me of the difficulty of dealing with "the machine", and how being part of the machine turns nice people into ... well machines.

If you've ever read The "BIOLOGY OF COGNITION" by Humberto R. Maturana you might be more comfortable with the idea that evry organisation is perhaps also a kind of living thing, an organizational organism.

Since the organism does not really exist, people themselves form the substance of the machine, following the rules which are its stuff, and also giving it an ability to interact with the world and function.

Normally people are oblivious of this fact, but occasionally "things happen" which bring it to your attention. You might have had a clerical error in an accounting system in a large organisation or had a moderator remove your post from a list. If you don't think of it in these terms its easy to get confused and think that some person is causing you trouble. After all, we're all people, we're used to dealing with people, and its a person we see who is representing the organization. A good example of this is brought up in the documentary "the Corporation" (if you have not seen it I recommend it).

A classic example of this is Terry Gilliams movie "Brazil", in which the 'hero' finds himself fighting against people who are just regular policemen and civil servants carrying out their duty dispassionately, and unaware of why it is that anything is wrong.

So when problems occur, the people who are parts of the machine appear to take a contrary stance to another person. Their personal reactions cause them to feel uneasy in being contrary to another person (whom they often don't know) and so they react defensively by "sticking to the rules" (which compounds the situation).

Conciliation and compassion go by the way and we find that previously smiling neighbours can become our hated enemy. At times like this its hard to maintain composure and not feel something against that the person who represents the organizational organism. The temptation to "rage against the machine" is high. But just as the officials in Brazil aren't guilty of torturing an innocent man ("I got the wrong man delivered to me as the right man ..."), you have to remember that the representatives of the organizational organism are also bound by their association with it, and can be duly punished if they don't follow the rules.

I believe that the root of the problem is that the organisational organizations need to learn how to structure themselves to allow their people to be people and perhaps we'll get along better.

PS: I just found (March 2018) that a quote from a book I read many years ago may have indeed spawned this theory:
“A government is a living organism. Like every living thing its prime characteristic is a blind, unreasoned instinct to survive. You hit it, it will fight back.”
– Ben Caxton (Robert A. Heinlein, Stranger in a Strange Land)


Noons said...

I was recently reminded of this when my cousin back in Portugal - probably the worst country for bureaucracy I've ever seen - told me the story of his 15€ fine.

In a nutshell: he was sent a request from the ministry of Finance to pay 0€ of tax for 2011. Later, he was sent a 15€ fine for not paying the 0€ tax.

It took him months of to-and-fro and a final visit to the Lisbon regional director of Finance to finally get someone with sufficient "authority" to understand the stupidity of the whole thing and get it overturned.

Never underestimate the capacity of bureaucracy to send you mad!

Anonymous said...

Ah, I remember as a kid in the late 50's, my mother received a bill from the tax office for 3 pence halfpenny - 2.5 pennies, about 4 cents.

She used to scoff about the fact that postage in those days was 2 pennies more than the bill and she refused to pay it. She received letters of demand for nearly two years till a rep came out to see her and cleared the matter up.