Part II. Topics worth updating: more on control, differentiation, dread and betterment, revolts, yes-but, and coordination

More on control

Like the poverty premium, where poor people have to pay more for key services (insurance, credit, energy, shelter), people seeking full control of uncertain task environments pay a “control premium”: Control strategies cost them—and, of course, us—more than would be the case were they able to cope ahead or manage the uncertainty. When their control excesses make the lives of others difficult or worse, this isn’t an externality to be corrected by taxing them or having the rest of us bribe them to become better uncertainty managers. Instead, their controlling behavior shifts the costs onto us. They might as well be demanding money with menaces from us.

Here’s a different analogy to reinforce the 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. What’s happening, we ask, because of the cultural biases imported via the original data into the algorithm? As for CRISPR, the worry is that, even when we know that this rather that gene is being edited, we’re still not sure it’s the right thing to do.

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

So what? It’s hard to believe, for example, that all the talk about artificial intelligence (AI) “controlling” behavior will not need to be far more differentiated and contextualized, when it comes to really-existing policy and management implications.

Consider underwater oil and gas exploration. Alarms produced by autonomous systems have turned out to be false alarms occurring under already turbulent task conditions at sea. Indeed, operating at a higher level of autonomy and having to cope with indiscriminate false alarms may no longer permit the real-time operators to revert, just-in-time, to lower levels of autonomy, e.g., managing via more manual operations, as and when nothing else works in the context under consideration.

More on differentiation

When I and others call for better recognition and accommodation of complexity, we mean the complex as well as the uncertain, unfinished and conflicted must be particularized and contextualized if we are to analyze and to manage case-by-granular-case.

When I and others say we need more findings that can be replicated across a range of cases, we are calling for identification not only of emerging better practices across cases, but also of greater equifinality: finding multiple but different pathways to achieve similar objectives, given case diversity.

What I and others mean by calling for greater collaboration is not just more teamwork or working with more and different stakeholders, but that team members and stakeholders “bring the system into the room” for the purposes of making the services in question reliable and safe.

When I and others call for more system integration, we mean the need to recouple the decoupled activities in ways that better mimic but can never reproduce the coupled nature of the wider system environment.

When I and others call for more flexibility, we mean the need for greater maneuverability across different performance modes in the face of changing system volatility and options to respond to those changes. (“Only the middle road does not lead to Rome,” said composer, Arnold Schoenberg.)

Where we need more experimentation, we do not mean more adaptive learning, when the systemwide error ends up being the last systemwide trial destroying survival.

While others talk about risks in a system’s hazardous components, we point to different systemwide reliability standards and only then, to the different risks and uncertainties that follow from different standards.

More on dread and betterment

Widespread fear and dread, so criticized by 18th century Enlighteners, have positive social functions that serve Enlightenment goals of bettering human conditions.

The large-scale systems for betterment—whether defined around markets at one end or social protections at the other—are managed in large part because of widespread societal dread over what happens when they aren’t managed reliably and safely. Critical infrastructures for energy, water and healthcare (among others) are so essential that they mustn’t fail, even when (especially when) they have to change. That they do fail, and materially so, increases the very real sense that it’s too costly not to manage them.

We of course are meant to wonder at the perversity of this. But that is the function of this dread, isn’t it? Namely: to push us further in probing what it means to privilege social and individual reliability and safety over other values and desires. We are meant to ask: What would it look like in world where such reliability and safety are not so privileged?

For the answer is altogether evident: Most of the planet lives in that world of unreliability and little safety. We’re meant to ask—precisely because the answer is that clear. Hunting and gathering societies may be the most sustainable for the Anthropocene, but I do not remember any hunter-gatherer in Botswana in the early 1970s who didn’t want to quit that that way of life for something safer and more reliable.

More on revolts

For Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, 18th century German Enlightener, the point is not for the sculptor or painter to portray a violent event at its climax, when visualizing a single moment. Better to choose a moment before or after the apex of destruction, so as to allow the viewers’ imaginations freer rein over what is to come. That way, Lessing argues, the narrative continues in an arc of reflection that is not cut short by any climax’s overpowering intensity:

since the works of both the painter and the sculptor are created not merely to be given a glance but to be contemplated. . .it is evident that the single moment and the point of view from which the whole scene is presented cannot be chosen with too great a regard for its effect. But only that which allows the imagination free play [freies Spiel] is effective. The more we see, the more we must be able to imagine. And the more we add in our imagination, the more must think we see. In the full trajectory of an effect, no point is less suitable for this than its climax. There is nothing beyond this, and to present to the eye what is most extreme is to bind the wings of fancy and constrain it, since it cannot. . .shun[ ] the visible fullness already presented as a limit beyond which it cannot go.

Rather, the moment chosen should be pregnant—fruitful, suggestive—of possibilities that are not foreclosed because imagination has been arrested by catastrophizing the worse. Instead of picturing Ajax at the height of his rage and slaughter, better he be depicted afterwards in the full realization of what he has done and in the despair leading him to what must come next.

One problem with today’s crisis scenarios of a violent Anthropocene is a preoccupation with a visualized climax. Obviously, post-apocalypse can be pictured as even deadlier. But the point holds: In today’s scenarios, the worst is imagined and imagination stalls there—like shining deer at night—with the glare of it all.

But the truth of the matter is that before or after the climax, thought (not just imagination) is still at work. Before, in the sense of thinking about the roads not taken; after, in terms of the what-ifs ahead. In fact, today’s unrelieved stream of crisis scenarios is itself proof of imaginations’ inability to let a prophesied climax do all the talking.

Where does this leave us?

Basically, it’s better to focus on crisis and catastrophe before or after they have happened rather than to be in the grip of their climaxes. For all we know, the Occupy Movement, Yellow Vests Movement, Hong Kong protests, the Extinction Rebellion and more were the apex of reaction. Any disappointment that one or more have not culminated into revolution or other “far-reaching substantive change” is one scenario only—which on reflection may not be the most fruitful, suggestive moment to focus on anyway, let alone be overawed by. The whole purpose of revolt may be revolts (in plural).

More on yes-but and yes-and

A great deal of US politics and policy is caught up in the yes’s and no’s of pros versus cons, advantages versus disadvantages, and costs versus benefits. But there has never been consensus on making these their own either/or. Lionel Trilling, the literary critic, famously said of 19th century American writers “they contained both the yes and the no of their culture”. For Robert Frost, the poet, neither exists in its own right—“yes and no are almost never ideas by themselves”.

The ethnographer and writer, Michel Leiris, writes about the need “to merge the yes and the no.” “Between yes and no” is the title of an early essay by Camus. Nietzsche “said no to life as long as it was easy, but yes when it took on the form of the impossible”. The work of Elizabeth Bishop was “perhaps more a quiet no than a great big yes,” according to another poet. More severe, “Herman Melville praised Nathaniel Hawthorne: ‘He says NO! in thunder; but the Devil himself cannot make him say yes. For all men who say yes, lie’”, records the critic, Christopher Ricks, who then asks: “But what about saying, ‘Yes, but…?’”

Ricks is spot-on. In the same way as dark energy and dark matter are said to make up the vast portion of the universe, politics, policy and management are grasped only because—not in spite—of the not-knowing, difficulty and inexperience, all around and in between.

A character in Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives asks: “If simón is slang for yes and nel means no, then what does simonel mean?” That is difficult to answer, Bolaño describes:

And I saw two boys, one awake and the other asleep, and the one who was asleep said don’t worry, Amadeo, we’ll find Cesarea for you even if we have to look under every stone in the north…And I insisted: don’t do it for me. And the one who was asleep…said: we’re not doing it for you, Amadeo, we’re doing it for Mexico, for Latin America, for the Third World, for our girlfriends, because we feel like doing it. Were they joking? Weren’t they joking?…and then I said: boys, is it worth it? is it really worth it? and the one who was asleep said Simonel.

Bolaño’s translator (Natasha Wimmer) asks, did this Simonel mean “Absolutely”? For my part, I’d like to think simonel insists “yes” and “no” matter when followed by “but” or “and,” the first as a caution and the second as encouragement. To admit this is to be open to alternatives when yes and no aren’t: “Yes or no; or provide an alternative,” as emergency managers are put it.

More on coordination

I come from a policy analysis and management training with little good to say about calls for “more effective coordination.” When having nothing more to say but feeling compelled to recommend something, then comes the “what we need is more effective coordination.”

Who can be against effective coordination? Though called for without a tincture of what to do, step by step and in real time. Like gold in seawater, coordination is impressive, but pointing that out is of scant use.

I’m not the only one who hesitates reading further when the document gets to the part where death and disaster are credited to “the lack of coordination.”

When I read criticisms that blame deaths or injuries in a disaster on the “lack of coordination,” I expect to see answers to two immediate questions: (1) can it be demonstrated that the lack of coordination did not arise because the responders knew—or thought so at the time—that they were undertaking activities just as urgent; and (2) can we conclude that the event in question would (not could, should, might or perhaps) have been better responded to had it not been handled the way it was (the classic counterfactual)? Rarely, I find, are answers even attempted, let alone provided. (The counterfactual often has a twofold would. The sociologist, Raymond Aron, asks critics of decisionmakers: “What would you do, in their place, and how would you do it?”)

Such detail is of course difficult to summon, but that it is so rarely mustered leaves us to wonder just whose inexperience is revealed—the responders criticized or the callers for more coordination.

Obviously, the more detailed the future scenario, the more likely it will fall short of what actually happens in the face of so much contingency; but how else to face uncertainty in the future than to demand details? For that matter, predicting the future is difficult precisely for the same reasons learning from the past is: Both require stability in objectives, institutional memory, multiple reserves in case something goes wrong, and low environmental uncertainty, among others. Should the obvious need restating, we already knew this even before acknowledging we’re in the Anthropocene.

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