Emergent ignorance

Looking around, most people in my office spend most of their time avoiding the work, or trying to slough it off or reduce it. Little attention is spent on their duties or the overall performance of the work. They chat, they space out, they steal office supplies, or spend time on their personal business or recreation, there’s a general tendency to avoid resopnsibility. Many people don’t know some of the basic procedures, aren’t interested to know, want to keep employed and get occasional praise but not much beyond that. And then there’s this as well, there are others who are struggling for power, or trying to shame others or to take work away or spending time attempting to appear better to those in power, and to keep others from that same attention. But it’s the mystery of emergence. But somehow, out of all the chaos and competition and contradiction and difficulty and waste, inefficiency, and couterproduction, the overall work done by the department is good, is reliable, is fast; it’s expanding its scope and doing better by all measures all the time.

I heard on the radio part of an interview with someone studying ant hills. She said that individual ants are stupid, inefficient, and blind. They don’t take the shortest path anywhere, they move at random, they work against their fellows. She observed a pair of ants, each trying to take a twig different ways, standing on opposite ends of the twig, standing and playing tug-of-war for days on end, neither of them moving from the spot. And yet the ant colony as a whole is an extremely efficient organization, and ants are a very successful species. The individual, inefficient, short-sighted ant, trying to make its own life better and responding to its own imperatives, makes an effective part of the emergent whole nonetheless.

But the colony isn’t like the office, the ant isn’t intelligent, it operates on instinct and can’t see its colony’s goals, any organization built on ants has to be emergent, because the ant can’t hold the whole picture in its mind. However the analogy is closer: The workers on my floor don’t see the overall picture. Each of them knows their task well, knows the tasks of some of their neighbors less well, and has no idea what people on the other side of the room are doing. And the management perspective is incomprehensible to them as well. When, rarely, they are able to see the decision-making on higher levels, they find it abstract, incomprehensible, or both. And management on its side has little to no idea what happens on our level, what our work procedures are, how they are implemented and what they mean for the worker or the work. Their ignorance is hard to keep hidden, and it never fails to be mocked when it appears. The people who design the systems don’t know how we use them.

If there is any knowledge of what goes on, it isn’t in any one person’s head. In fact, when something needs to be known about the work, outside analysts are required, who definitively know even less than the people here who know little or nothing, and have to invent or modify their own tools to do learn what we do, and they only learn in relation to the questions that are asked of them, and then their answers have to be interpreted to be understood. There is no one who has the perspective able to account for everything, or any one thing’s place in the scheme. Management sends down orders, goals, procedures, but the workers, in the process of enacting them, each interpret them differently and no two people do the same thing in the same way. They are surprised by details in the other’s work every time they consult with one another. Workers send up results but have no idea how these are used in intra-management discussions or how those discussions influence them or why, in the course of which the results are interpreted away and replaced with something unrecognizable. The emergent structure isn’t controlled by anyone, it isn’t designed by anyone, and nobody knows what it looks like or what it does in any detail.

One Reply to “Emergent ignorance”

  1. I find the sociology of office work endlessly fascinating. This is one sweet and well-packed analysis of the diffuse nature of information and practical authority in a big organization. Nice.

    I feel like I should make an “I, for one, welcome our new ant overlords” reference. Well, there, I suppose I just did.

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