Control, surpris’d

against policy (a tiny manifesto): The notion of “policy” presumes a state or governing apparatus which imposes its will on others. “Policy” is the negation of politics; policy is by definition something concocted by some form of elite, which presumes it knows better than others how their affairs are to be conducted. By participating in policy debates the very best one can achieve is to limit the damage, since the very premise is inimical to the idea of people managing their own affairs. David Graeber, Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology

“Policy” need assume no such thing; policy with which I am familiar is about managing, because the imposition of control is not possible. Really-existing implementation, operations and shocks surprise any uni-directional, deterministic notions of control.

–More, attempts at direct control produce disruptive surprise. Think of those cases where power politics and material interests led to counterproductive outcomes never foreseen by power-makers. There surely had to be cheaper ways for the US to get the oil than undertaking two wars in Iraq.

–Surprise too can produce power. This is known, though less understood are all the surprising ways surprise leads to power. Psychologist Kevin Dunbar and his colleagues examined a handful of science labs, particularly their regular meetings involving senior researchers, postdocs and grad students:

The analysis of the 12 laboratory meetings yielded 28 research projects, with 165 experiments, and the participants reasoned about a total of 417 results. . . .When we divided the scientists’ results into expected and unexpected findings, we found that over half of their findings were unexpected (223 out of 417 results). Thus, rather than being a rare event, the unexpected finding was a regular occurrence about which the scientists reasoned.

There were, in fact, so many unexpected findings that what distinguished one lab from another was the subset of unexpected findings the labs chose to pursue (Dunbar, personal communication). In the labs examined, unexpected findings were happening all the time, and what was most interesting was how pursuit of some rather than others led to intellectual property and increased economic and/or scientific status (e.g., a Nobel).

–Let’s try a different way to make the same point. Compare algorithmic decisionmaking (ADM) and the current technology for gene editing known by the acronym, CRISPR. When it comes to ADM, the worry is that we don’t know how the algorithm works; it’s all murky. What’s happening in the algorithm, we ask, because of the cultural biases imported via the original data? When it comes to CRISPR, the worry is that, even when we know that this rather that gene is being edited, we’re still not sure it’s right thing to do. The deaf community is not so hot on getting rid of “the deafness gene,” when deafness is its own culture.

Suppose we had a CRISPR analogue for ADM, i.e., we could go into the algorithm and excise cultural bias. We’d still worry about, e.g., what is bias to some is not to others. Also, is there any doubt whatsoever that some new mechanism promising greater control in addressing one worry wouldn’t produce another worry, equally if not more important? Control cannot answer the questions control poses.

–Still, we see more and more attempts to control directly. Still, people conclude: “Studies of resistance in organizations have largely concluded that it is impossible to effectively resist contemporary regimes of control.” Still, people talk about taking back control from those who are better described as being out of control in the first place.

So, to be clear as possible, this is my point: You have to take control seriously enough to realize it’s–surprisingly–about much more than control. It’s about managing surprise because you can’t control, much as when negotiated bargains replace contracts that cannot be renegotiated.

Principal sources

Courpasson D, Younes D, Reed M. (2021). Durkheim in the neoliberal organization: Taking resistance and solidarity seriously. Organization Theory. doi:10.1177/2631787720982619

K. Dunbar, personal communication, and also: Dunbar, K., and J. Fugelsang (2005). Causal thinking in science: How scientists and students interpret the unexpected. In M. E. Gorman, R. D. Tweney, D. Gooding, & A. Kincannon (Eds.), Scientific and Technical Thinking (pp. 57-79). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates

Leonard, D. K. (2013). Social contracts, networks and security. In Tropical Africa Conflict States: An Overview, IDS Bulletin 44.1, Brighton: IDS

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