Sunday, February 11, 2018

Folk psychology and Alexa


Paul Churchland made a large splash in the philosophy of mind and cognitive science several decades ago when he cast doubt on the categories of "folk psychology" -- the ordinary and commonsensical concepts we use to describe and understand each other's mental lives. In Paul Churchland and Patricia Churchland, On the Contrary: Critical Essays, 1987-1997, Paul Churchland writes:
"Folk psychology" denotes the prescientific, commonsense conceptual framework that all normally socialized humans deploy in order to comprehend, predict, explain, and manipulate the behavior of . humans and the higher animals. This framework includes concepts such as belief, desire, pain pleasure, love, hate, joy, fear, suspicion, memory, recognition, anger, sympathy, intention, and so forth.... Considered as a whole, it constitutes our conception of what a person is. (3)
Churchland does not doubt that we ordinary human beings make use of these concepts in everyday life, and that we could not dispense with them. But he is not convinced that they have a scientifically useful role to play in scientific psychology or cognitive science.

In our ordinary dealings with other human beings it is both important and plausible that the framework of folk psychology is approximately true. Our fellow human beings really do have beliefs, desires, fears, and other mental capacities, and these capacities are in fact the correct explanation of their behavior. How these capacities are realized in the central nervous system is largely unknown, though as materialists we are committed to the belief that there are such underlying neurological functionings. But eliminative materialism doesn't have a lot of credibility, and the treatment of mental states as epiphenoma to the neurological machinery isn't convincing either.

These issues had the effect of creating a great deal of discussion in the philosophy of psychology since the 1980s (link). But the topic seems all the more interesting now that tens of millions of people are interacting with Alexa, Siri, and the Google Assistant, and are often led to treat the voice as emanating from an intelligent (if not very intelligent) entity. I presume that it is clear that Alexa and her counterparts are currently "question bots" with fairly simple algorithms underlying their capabilities. But how will we think about the AI agent when the algorithms are not simple; when the agents can sustain lengthy conversations; and when the interactions give the appearance of novelty and creativity?

It turns out that this is a topic that AI researchers have thought about quite a bit. Here is the abstract of "Understanding Socially Intelligent Agents—A Multilayered Phenomenon", a fascinating 2001 article in IEEE by Perrson, Laaksolahti, and Lonnqvist (link):
The ultimate purpose with socially intelligent agent (SIA) technology is not to simulate social intelligence per se, but to let an agent give an impression of social intelligence. Such user-centred SIA technology, must consider the everyday knowledge and expectations by which users make sense of real, fictive, or artificial social beings. This folk-theoretical understanding of other social beings involves several, rather independent levels such as expectations on behavior, expectations on primitive psychology, models of folk-psychology, understanding of traits, social roles, and empathy. The framework presented here allows one to analyze and reconstruct users' understanding of existing and future SIAs, as well as specifying the levels SIA technology models in order to achieve an impression of social intelligence.
The emphasis here is clearly on the semblance of intelligence in interaction with the AI agent, not the construction of a genuinely intelligent system capable of intentionality and desire. Early in the article they write:
As agents get more complex, they will land in the twilight zone between mechanistic and living, between dead objects and live beings. In their understanding of the system, users will be tempted to employ an intentional stance, rather than a mechanistic one.. Computer scientists may choose system designs that encourage or discourage such anthropomorphism. Irrespective of which, we need to understand how and under what conditions it works.
But the key point here is that the authors favor an approach in which the user is strongly led to apply the concepts of folk psychology to the AI agent; and yet in which the underlying mechanisms generating the AI's behavior completely invalidate the application of these concepts. (This approach brings to mind Searle's Chinese room example concerning "intelligent" behavior; link.) This is clearly the approach taken by current designs of AI agents like Siri; the design of the program emphasizes ordinary language interaction in ways that lead the user to interact with the agent as an intentional "person".

The authors directly confront the likelihood of "folk-psychology" interactions elicited in users by the behavior of AI agents:
When people are trying to understand the behaviors of others, they often use the framework of folk-psychology. Moreover, people expect others to act according to it. If a person’s behavior blatantly falls out of this framework, the person would probably be judged “other” in some, e.g., children, “crazies,” “psychopaths,” and “foreigners.” In order for SIAs to appear socially intelligent, it is important that their behavior is understandable in term of the folk-psychological framework. People will project these expectations on SIA technology and will try to attribute mental states and processes according to it. (354)
And the authors make reference to several AI constructs that are specifically designed to elicit a folk-psychological response from the users:
In all of these cases, the autonomous agents have some model of the world, mind, emotions, and of their present internal state. This does not mean that users automatically infer the “correct” mental state of the agent or attribute the same emotion that the system wants to convey. However, with these background models regulating the agent’s behavior the system will support and encourage the user to employ her faculty of folk-psychology reasoning onto the agent. Hopefully, the models generate consistently enough behavior to make folk-psychology a framework within which to understand and act upon the interactive characters. (355)
The authors emphasize the instrumentalism of their recommended approach to SIA capacities from beginning to end:
In order to develop believable SIAs we do not have to know how beliefs-desires and intentions actually relate to each other in the real minds of real people. If we want to create the impression of an artificial social agent driven by beliefs and desires, it is enough to draw on investigations on how people in different cultures develop and use theories of mind to understand the behaviors of others. SIAs need to model the folk-theory reasoning, not the real thing. To a shallow AI approach, a model of mind based on folk-psychology is as valid as one based on cognitive theory. (349)
This way of approaching the design of AI agents suggests that the "folk psychology" interpretation of Alexa's more capable successors will be fundamentally wrong. The agent will not be conscious, intentional, or mental; but it will behave in ways that make it almost impossible not to fall into the trap of anthropomorphism. And this in turn brings us back to Churchland and the critique of folk psychology in the human-human cases. If computer-assisted AI agents can be completely persuasive as mentally structured actors, then why are we so confident that this is not the case for fellow humans as well?

Friday, February 9, 2018

Cold war history from an IR perspective


Odd Arne Westad's The Cold War: A World History is a fascinating counterpoint to Tony Judt's Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945. There are some obvious differences -- notably, Westad takes a global approach to the Cold War, with substantial attention to the dynamics of Cold War competition in Asia, Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East, as well as Europe, whereas Judt's book is primarily focused on the politics and bi-polar competition of Communism and liberal democratic capitalism in Europe. Westad is a real expert on East Asia, so his global perspectives on the period are very well informed. Both books provide closely reasoned and authoritative interpretations of the large events of the 1950s through the 1990s. So it is very interesting to compare them from an historiographic point of view.

The feature that I'd like to focus on here is Westad's perspective on these historical developments from the point of view of an international-relations conceptual framework. Westad pays attention to the economic and social developments that were underway in the West and the Eastern bloc; but his most frequent analytical question is, what were the intentions, beliefs, and strategies of the nations which were involved in competition throughout the world in this crucial period of world history? Ideology and social philosophy play a large role in his treatment. Judt too offers interpretations of what leaders like Truman, Gorbachev, or Thatcher were trying to accomplish; but the focus of his historiographical thinking is more on the circumstances of ordinary life and the social, economic, and political changes through which ordinary people shaped their political identities across Europe. In Westad's framework there is an underlying emphasis on strategic rationality -- and failures of rationality -- by leaders and national governments that is more muted in Judt's analysis. The two perspectives are not incompatible; but they are significantly different.

Here are a few illustrative passages from Westad's book revealing the orientation of his interpretation around interest and ideology:
The Cold War originated in two processes that took place around the turn of the twentieth century. One was the transformation of the United States and Russia into two supercharged empires with a growing sense of international mission. The other was the sharpening of the ideological divide between capitalism and its critics. These came together with the American entry into World War I and with the Russian Revolution of 1917, and the creation of a Soviet state as an alternative vision to capitalism. (19)
The contest between the US and the USSR over the future of Germany is a good example.
The reasons why Stalin wanted a united Germany were exactly the same reasons why the United States, by 1947, did not. A functional German state would have to be integrated with western Europe in order to succeed, Washington found. And that could not be achieved if Soviet influence grew throughout the country. This was not only a point about security. It was also about economic progress. The Marshall Plan was intended to stimulate western European growth through market integration, and the western occupation zones in Germany were crucial for this project to succeed. Better, then, to keep the eastern zone (and thereby Soviet pressure) out of the equation. After two meetings of the allied foreign ministers in 1947 had failed to agree on the principles for a peace treaty with Germany (and thereby German reunification), the Americans called a conference in London in February 1948 to which the Soviets were not invited.(109)
And the use of development aid during reconstruction was equally strategic:
For Americans and western European governments alike, a major part of the Marshall Plan was combatting local Communist parties. Some of it was done directly, through propaganda. Other effects on the political balance were secondary or even coincidental. A main reason why Soviet-style Communism lost out in France or Italy was simply that their working classes began to have a better life, at first more through government social schemes than through salary increases. The political miscalculations of the Communist parties and the pressure they were under from Moscow to disregard the local political situation in order to support the Soviet Union also contributed. When even the self-inflicted damage was not enough, such as in Italy, the United States experimented with covert operations to break Communist influence. (112)
Soviet miscalculations were critical in the development of east-west power relations. Westad treats the Berlin blockade in these terms:
The Berlin blockade, which lasted for almost a year, was a Soviet political failure from start to finish. It failed to make west Berlin destitute; a US and British air-bridge provided enough supplies to keep the western sectors going. On some days aircraft landed at Tempelhof Airport at three minute intervals. Moscow did not take the risk of ordering them to be shot down. But worse for Stalin: the long-drawn-out standoff confirmed even to those Germans who had previously been in doubt that the Soviet Union could not be a vehicle for their betterment. The perception was that Stalin was trying to starve the Berliners, while the Americans were trying to save them. On the streets of Berlin more than half a million protested Soviet policies. (116)
I don't want to give the impression that Westad's book ignores non-strategic aspects of the period. His treatment of McCarthyism, for example, is quite astute:
The series of hearings and investigations, which accusations such as McCarthy’s gave rise to, destroyed people’s lives and careers. Even for those who were cleared, such as the famous central Asia scholar Owen Lattimore, some of the accusations stuck and made it difficult to find employment. It was, as Lattimore said in his book title from 1950, Ordeal by Slander. For many of the lesser known who were targeted—workers, actors, teachers, lawyers—it was a Kafkaesque world, where their words were twisted and used against them during public hearings by people who had no knowledge of the victims or their activities. Behind all of it was the political purpose of harming the Administration, though even some Democrats were caught up in the frenzy and the president himself straddled the issue instead of publicly confronting McCarthy. McCarthyism, as it was soon called, reduced the US standing in the world and greatly helped Soviet propaganda, especially in western Europe. (120)
It is interesting too to find areas of disagreement between the two historians. Westad's treatment of Leonid Brezhnev is sympathetic:
Brezhnev and his colleagues’ mandate was therefore quite clear. Those who had helped put them in power wanted more emphasis on planning, productivity growth, and welfare. They wanted a leadership that avoided unnecessary crises with the West, but also stood up for Soviet gains and those of Communism globally. Brezhnev was the ideal man for the purpose. As a leader, he liked to consult with others, even if only to bring them onboard with decisions already taken. After the menacing Stalin and the volatile Khrushchev, Brezhnev was likeable and “comradely”; he remembered colleagues’ birthdays and the names of their wives and children. His favorite phrases were “normal development” and “according to plan.” And the new leader was easily forgiven a certain vagueness in terms of overall reform plans as long as he emphasized stability and year-on-year growth in the Soviet economy.... Contrary to what is often believed, the Soviet economy was not a disaster zone during the long reign of Leonid Brezhnev and the leadership cohort who came into power with him. The evidence points to slow and limited but continuous growth, within the framework provided by the planned economy system. The best estimates that we have is that the Soviet economy as a whole grew on average 2.5 to 3 percent per year during the 1960s and ’70s. (367)
By contrast, Judt treats Brezhnev less sympathetically and as a more minor figure:
The economic reforms of the fifties and sixties were from the start a fitful attempt to patch up a structurally dysfunctional system. To the extent that they implied a half-hearted willingness to decentralize economic decisions or authorize de facto private production, they were offensive to hardliners among the old guard. But otherwise the liberalizations undertaken by Khrushchev, and after him Brezhnev, presented no immediate threat to the network of power and patronage on which the Soviet system depended. Indeed, it was just because economic improvements in the Soviet bloc were always subordinate to political priorities that they achieved so very little. (Judt, 424)
Perhaps the most striking contrast between these two books is the scope that each provides. Judt is focused on the development of postwar Europe, and he does an unparalleled job of providing both detail and interpretation of the developments over these decades in well over a dozen countries. Westad is interested in providing a global history of the Cold War, and his expertise on Asian history and politics during this period, as well as his wide-ranging knowledge of developments in Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America, permits him to succeed in this goal. His representation of this history is nuanced and insightful at every turn. The Cold War unavoidably involves a focus on the USSR and the US and their blocs as central players; but Westad's account is by no means eurocentric. His treatments of India, China, and Southeast Asia are particularly excellent, and his account of turbulence and faulty diplomacy in the Middle East is particularly timely for the challenges we face today.

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Here are a couple of interesting video lectures by Westad and Judt.





Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Declining industries


Why is it so difficult for leaders in various industries and sectors to seriously address the existential threats that sometimes arise? Planning for marginal changes in the business environment is fairly simple; problems can be solved, costs can be cut, and the firm can stay in the black. But how about more radical but distant threats? What about the grocery sector when confronted by Amazon's radical steps in food selling? What about Polaroid or Kodak when confronted by the rise of digital photography in the 1990s? What about the US steel industry in the 1960s when confronted with rising Asian competition and declining manufacturing facilities?

From the outside these companies and sectors seem like dodos incapable of confronting the threats that imperil them. They seem to be ignoring oncoming train wrecks simply because these catastrophes are still in the distant future. And yet the leaders in these companies were generally speaking talented, motivated men and women. So what are the organizational or cognitive barriers that arise to make it difficult for leaders to successfully confront the biggest threats they face?

Part of the answer seems to be the fact that distant hazards seem smaller than the more immediate and near-term challenges that an organization must face; so there is a systematic bias towards myopic decision-making. This sounds like a Kahneman-Tversky kind of cognitive shortcoming.

A second possible explanation is that it is easy enough to persuade oneself that distant threats will either resolve themselves organically or that the organization will discover novel solutions in the future. This seems to be part of the reason that climate-change foot-draggers take the position they do: that "things will sort out", "new technologies will help solve the problems in the future." This sounds like a classic example of weakness of the will -- an unwillingness to rationally confront hard truths about the future that ought to influence choices today but often don't.

Then there is the timeframe of accountability that is in place in government, business, and non-profit organizations alike. Leaders are rewarded and punished for short-term successes and failures, not prudent longterm planning and preparation. This is clearly true for term-limited elected officials, but it is equally true for executives whose stakeholders evaluate performance based on quarterly profits rather than longterm objectives and threats.

We judge harshly those leaders who allow their firms or organizations to perish because of a chronic failure to plan for substantial change in the environments in which they will need to operate in the future. Nero is not remembered kindly for his dedication to his fiddle. And yet at any given time, many industries are in precisely that situation. What kind of discipline and commitment can protect organizations against this risk?

This is an interesting question in the abstract. But it is also a challenging question for people who care about the longterm viability of colleges and universities. Are there forces at work today that will bring about existential crisis for universities in twenty years (enrollments, tuition pressure, technology change)? Are there technological or organizational choices that should be made today that would help to avert those crises in the future? And are university leaders taking the right steps to prepare their institutions for the futures they will face in several decades?

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Gaining compliance


Organizations always involve numerous staff members whose behavior has the potential for creating significant risk for individuals and the organization but who are only loosely supervised. This situation unavoidably raises principal-agent problems. Let's assume that the great majority of staff members are motivated by good intentions and ethical standards. That means that there are a small number of individuals whose behavior is not ethical and well intentioned. What arrangements can an organization put in place to prevent bad behavior and protect individuals and the integrity of the organization?

For certain kinds of bad behavior there are well understood institutional arrangements that work well to detect and deter the wrong actions. This is especially true for business transactions, purchasing, control of cash, expense reporting and reimbursement, and other financial processes within the organization. The audit and accounting functions within almost every sophisticated organization permit a reasonably high level of confidence in the likelihood of detection of fraud, theft, and misreporting. This doesn't mean that corrupt financial behavior does not occur; but audits make it much more difficult to succeed in persistent dishonest behavior. So an organization with an effective audit function is likely to have a reasonably high level of compliance in the areas where standard audits can be effectively conducted.

A second kind of compliance effort has to do with the culture and practice of observer reporting of misbehavior. Compliance hotlines allow individuals who have observed (or suspected) bad behavior to report that behavior to responsible agents who are obligated to investigate these allegations. Policies that require reporting of certain kinds of bad behavior to responsible officers of the organization -- sexual harassment, racial discrimination, or fraudulent actions, for example -- should have the effect of revealing some kinds of misbehavior, and deterring others from engaging in bad behavior. So a culture and expectation of reporting is helpful in controlling bad behavior.

A third approach that some organizations take to compliance is to place a great deal of emphasis the moral culture of the organization -- shared values, professional duty, and role responsibilities. Leaders can support and facilitate a culture of voluntary adherence to the values and policies of the organization, so that virtually all members of the organization fall in the "well-intentioned" category. The thrust off this approach is to make large efforts at eliciting voluntary good behavior. Business professor David Hess has done a substantial amount of research on these final two topics (link, link).

Each of these organizational mechanisms has some efficacy. But unfortunately they do not suffice to create an environment where we can be highly confident that serious forms of misconduct do not occur. In particular, reporting and culture are only partially efficacious when it comes to private and covert behavior like sexual assault, bullying, and discriminatory speech and behavior in the workplace. This leads to an important question: are there more intrusive mechanisms of supervision and observation that would permit organizations to discover patterns of misconduct even if they remain unreported by observers and victims? Are there better ways for an organization to ensure that no one is subject to the harmful actions of a predator or harasser?

A more active strategy for an organization committed to eliminating sexual assault is to attempt to predict the environments where inappropriate interpersonal behavior is possible and to redesign the setting so the behavior is substantially less likely. For example, a hospital may require that any physical examinations of minors must be conducted in the presence of a chaperone or other health professional. A school of music or art may require that after-hours private lessons are conducted in semi-public locations. These rules would deprive a potential predator of the seclusion needed for the bad behavior. And the practitioner who is observed violating the rule would then be suspect and subject to further investigation and disciplinary action.

Here is perhaps a farfetched idea: a "behavior audit" that is periodically performed in settings where inappropriate covert behavior is possible. Here we might imagine a process in which a random set of people are periodically selected for interview who might have been in a position to have been subject to inappropriate behavior. These individuals would then be interviewed with an eye to helping to surface possible negative or harmful experiences that they have had. This process might be carried out for groups of patients, students, athletes, performers, or auditioners in the entertainment industry. And the goal would be to uncover traces of the kinds of behavior involving sexual harassment and assault that are at the heart of recent revelations in a myriad of industries and organizations. The results of such an audit would occasionally reveal a pattern of previously unknown behavior requiring additional investigation, while the more frequent results would be negative. This process would lead to a higher level of confidence that the organization has reasonably good knowledge of the frequency and scope of bad behavior and a better system for putting in place a plan of remediation.

All of these organizational strategies serve fundamentally as attempts to solve principal-agent problems within the organization. The principals of the organization have expectations about the norms that ought to govern behavior within the organization. These mechanisms are intended to increase the likelihood that there is conformance between the principal's expectations and the agent's behavior. And, when they fail, several of these mechanisms are intended to make it more likely that bad behavior is identified and corrected.

(Here is an earlier post treating scientific misconduct as a principal-agent problem; link.)

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Actors in historical epochs


I've argued often for the idea that social science and historical explanations need to be "actor-centered" -- we need to ground our hypotheses about social and historical causation in theories of the pathways through which actors embody those causal processes. Actors in relation to each other constitute the "substrate" of social causation. Actors make up the microfoundations of social causes and processes. Actors constitute the causal necessity of social mechanisms.

In its abstract formulation this is little more than an expression of ontological individualism (link). But in application it represents a highly substantive research challenge. In order to provide concrete accounts of social processes in various cultural and historical settings, we need to have fairly specific theories of the actor in those settings (link): what motivates actors, what knowledge do they have of their environment, what cognitive and practical frameworks do they bring to their experiences of the world, what do they want, how do they reason, how do they relate to other actors, what norms and values are embedded in their action principles?

Rational choice theory and its cousins (desire-belief-opportunity theory, for example) provide what is intended to be a universal framework for understanding action. But as has been argued frequently here, these schemes are reductive and inadequate as a general basis for understanding action (link). It has also been argued here that the recent efforts to formulate a "new pragmatist" theory of the actor represent useful steps forward (link).

A very specific concern arises when we think carefully about the variety of actors found in diverse historical and cultural settings. It is obvious that actors in specific cultures have different belief systems and different cognitive frameworks; it is equally apparent that there are important and culture-specific differences across actors when it comes to normative and value commitments. So what is needed in order to investigate social causation in significantly different cultural and historical settings? Suppose we want to conduct research on social contention along the lines of work by Charles Tilly, with respect to communities with widely different cultural assumptions and frameworks. How should we attempt to understand basic elements of contention such as resistance, mobilization, and passivity if we accept the premise that French artisans in Paris in 1760, Vietnamese villagers in 1950, and Iranian professionals in 2018 have very substantial differences in their action principles and cognitive-practical frameworks?

There seem to be several different approaches we might take. One is to minimize the impact of cultural differences when it comes to material deprivation and oppression. Whatever else human actors want, they want material wellbeing and security. And when political or social conditions place great pressure on those goods, human actors will experience "grievance" and will have motives leading them to mobilize together in support of collective efforts to ameliorate the causes of those grievances.

Another possibility is to conclude that collective action and group behavior are substantially underdetermined by material factors, and that we should expect as much diversity in collective behavior as we observe in individual motivation and mental frameworks. So the study of contention is still about conflicts among individuals and groups; but the conflicts that motivate individuals to collective action may be ideological, religious, culinary, symbolic, moral -- or material. Moreover, differences in the ways that actors frame their understandings of their situation may lead to very different patterns of the dynamics of contention -- the outbreak and pace of mobilization, the resolution of conflict, the possibility of compromise.

Putting the point in terms of models and simulations, we might think of the actors as a set of cognitive and practical processing algorithms and who decide what to do based on their beliefs and these decision algorithms. It seems unavoidable that tweaking the parameters of the algorithms and beliefs will lead to very different patterns of behavior within the simulation. Putting the point the other way around, the successful mobilization of Vietnamese peasants in resistance to the French and the US depended on a particular setting of the cognitive-practical variables in these individual actors. Change those settings and, perhaps, you change the dynamics of the process and you change history.

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Clifford Geertz is one of the people who has taken a fairly radical view on the topic of the constituents of the actor. In "Person, Time, and Conduct in Bali" in The Interpretation Of Cultures he argues that Balinese culture conceives of the individual person in radically unfamiliar ways:
One of these pervasive orientational necessities is surely the charac­terization of individual human beings. Peoples everywhere have devel­oped symbolic structures in terms of which persons are perceived not baldly as such, as mere unadorned members of the human race, but as representatives of certain distinct categories of persons, specific sorts of individuals. In any given case, there are inevitably a plurality of such structures. Some, for example kinship terminologies, are ego entered: that is, they denote the status of an individual in terms of his relation­ ship to a specific social actor. Others are centered on one or another subsystem or aspect of society and are invariant with respect to the perspectives of individual actors: noble ranks, age-group statuses, occu­pational categories. Some-personal names and sobriquets-are infor­mal and particularizing; others-bureaucratic titles and caste desig­nations-are formal and standardizing. The everyday world in which the members of any community move, their taken-for-granted field of social action, is populated not by anonymous, faceless men with­ out qualities, but by somebodies, concrete classes of determinate per­sons positively characterized and appropriately labeled. And the symbol systems which denote these classes are not given in the nature of things --they are historically constructed, socially maintained, and individu­ally applied. (363-364)
In Bali, there are six sorts of labels which one person can apply to an­other in order to identify him as a unique individual and which I want to consider against this general conceptual background: ( I ) personal names; (2) birth order names; (3) kinship terms; (4) teknonyms; (5) sta­tus titles (usually called "caste names" in the literature on Bali); and (6) public titles, by which I mean quasi-occupational titles borne by chiefs, rulers, priests, and gods. These various labels are not, in most cases, employed simultaneously, but alternatively, depending upon the situa­tion and sometimes the individual. They are not, also, all the sorts of such labels ever used; but they are the only ones which are generally recognized and regularly applied. And as each sort consists not of a mere collection of useful tags but of a distinct and bounded terminologi­cal system, I shall refer to them as "symbolic orders of person-defini­tion" and consider them first serially, only later as a more or less coher­ent cluster. (368)
Also outstanding in this field is Robert Darnton's effort to reconstruct the forms of agency underlying the "great cat massacre" in The Great Cat Massacre: And Other Episodes in French Cultural History; link.

Monday, January 15, 2018

The second American revolution


The first American Revolution broke the bonds of control exercised by a colonial power over the actions and aspirations of a relatively small number of people in North America in 1776 -- about 2.5 million people. The second American Revolution promises to affect vastly larger numbers of Americans and their freedom, and it is not yet complete. (There were about 19 million African-Americans in the United States in 1960.)

This is the Civil Rights revolution, which has been underway since 1865 (the end of the Civil War); which took increased urgency in the 1930s through the 1950s (the period of Jim Crow laws and a coercive, violent form of white supremacy); and which came to fruition in the 1960s with collective action by thousands of ordinary people and the courageous, wise leadership of men and women like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. When we celebrate the life and legacy of MLK, it is this second American revolution that is the most important piece of his legacy.

And this is indeed a revolution. It requires a sustained and vigilant struggle against a powerful status quo; it requires gaining political power and exercising political power; and it promises to enhance the lives, dignity, and freedoms of millions of Americans.

This revolution is not complete. The assault on voting rights that we have seen in the past decade, the persistent gaps that exist in income, health, and education between white Americans and black Americans, the ever-more-blatant expressions of racist ideas at the highest level -- all these unmistakeable social facts establish that the struggle for racial equality is not finished.

Dr. King's genius was his understanding from early in his vocation that change would require courage and sacrifice, and that it would also require great political wisdom. It was Dr. King's genius to realize that enduring social change requires changing the way that people think; it requires moral change as well as structural change. This is why Dr. King's profoundly persuasive rhetoric was so important; he was able to express through his speeches and his teaching a set of moral values that almost all Americans could embrace. And by embracing these values they themselves changed.

The struggle in South Africa against apartheid combined both aspects of this story -- anti-colonialism and anti-racism. The American civil rights movement focused on uprooting the system of racial oppression and discrimination this country had created since Reconstruction. It focused on creating the space necessary for African-American men and women, boys and girls, to engage in their own struggles for freedom and for personal growth. It insisted upon the same opportunities for black children that were enjoyed by the children of the majority population.

Will the values of racial equality and opportunity prevail? Will American democracy finally embrace and make real the values of equality, dignity, and opportunity that Dr. King expressed so eloquently? Will the second American revolution finally erase the institutions and behaviors of several centuries of oppression?

Dr. King had a fundamental optimism that was grounded in his faith: "the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice." But of course we understand that only long, sustained commitment to justice can bring about this arc of change. And the forces of reaction are particularly strong in the current epoch of political struggle. So it will require the courage and persistence of millions of Americans to these ideals if racial justice is finally to prevail.

Here is an impromptu example of King's passionate commitment to social change through non-violence. This was recorded in Yazoo City, Mississippi in 1966, during James Meredith's March against Fear.



Populism's base


Steve Bannon may have lost his perch in the White House and Breitbart; but the themes of white supremacy, intolerance, bigotry, and anti-government extremism that drive radical nationalist populism survive his fall. In The New Minority: White Working Class Politics in an Age of Immigration and Inequality Justin Gest attempts to explain how this movement has been able to draw support from white working class men and women -- often in support of policies that are objectively harmful to them. Here is how he describes his central concern:
In this book, I suggest that these trends [towards polarization] intensify an underlying demographic phenomenon: the communities of white working class people who once occupied the political middle have decreased in size and moved to the fringes, and American and European societies are scrambling to recalibrate how they might rebuild the centrist coalitions that engender progress.
The book makes use of both ethnographic and survey research to attempt to understand the political psychology of these populations of men and women in Western Europe and the United States -- low-skilled workers with limited education beyond secondary school, and with shrinking opportunities in the economies of the 2000s.

A particularly interesting feature of the book is the ethnographic attempt Gest makes to understand the mechanisms and content of this migration of political identity. Gest conducted open-ended interviews with working class men and women in East London and Youngstown, Ohio in the United States -- both cities that were devastated by the loss of industrial jobs and the weakening of the social safety net in the 1970s and 1980s. He calls these "post-traumatic cities" (7). He addresses the fact that white working class people in those cities and elsewhere now portray themselves as a disadvantaged minority.
There and elsewhere, the white working class populations I consider are consumed by a nostalgia that expresses bitter resentment toward the big companies that abandoned their city, a government that did little to stop them from leaving, and a growing share of visible minorities who are altering their neighborhoods’ complexion. (10)
The political psychology of resentment plays a large role in the populations he studies -- resentment of government that fails to deliver, resentment of immigrants, resentment of affirmative action for racial minorities. The other large idea that Gest turns to is marginality -- the idea that these groups have that their voices will not be heard and that the powerful agents in society do not care about their fates.
Rather, this is to say that—across the postindustrial regions of Western Europe and North America—white working class people sense that they have been demoted from the center of their country’s consciousness to its fringe. And many feel powerless in their attempts to do something about it. (15)
And resentment and marginality lead for some individuals to a political stance of resistance:
Unimpressed with Labour’s priorities, profoundly distrustful of government, and unwilling to join forces with working class immigrants, Barking and Dagenham’s working class whites are now engaged in a largely unstructured, alternative form of minority politics. They tend to be focused on local affairs, fighting for scarce public resources and wary of institutionalized discrimination against them. The difficulty has been having their claims heard, and taken seriously. (71)
The resentments and expressions of marginality in Youngstown are similar, with an added measure of mistrust of large corporations like the steel companies that abandoned the city and a recognition of the pervasive corruption that permeates the city. Here is Evelyn on the everyday realities of political corruption in Youngstown:
The more I saw, the more I realized that money can buy your way out of anything. Then you see your sheriff get indicted, your congressman dishonored, our prosecutor in prison, and a mayoral nominee with a cloud over his head. The Valley has been embroiled in political corruption for a long time, and people just look out for themselves. It makes you sick. You don’t see it firsthand, the corruption, but you know it’s there. (128)
The overriding impression gained from these interviews and Gest's narrative is one of hopelessness. These men and women of Youngstown don't seem to see any way out for themselves or their children. The pathway of upward mobility through post-secondary education does not come up at all in these conversations. And, as Case and Deaton argue from US mortality statistics (link), social despair is associated with life-ending behaviors such as opioids, alcohol abuse, and suicide.

Gest's book lays the ground for thinking about a post-traumatic democratic politics -- a politics that is capable of drawing together the segments of American or British society who genuinely need progressive change and more egalitarian policies if they are to benefit from economic progress in the future. But given the cultural and political realities that Gest identifies among this "new minority", it is hard to avoid the conclusion that crafting such a political platform will be challenging.


Monday, January 8, 2018

Trust and organizational effectiveness



It is fairly well agreed that organizations require a degree of trust among the participants in order for the organization to function at all. But what does this mean? How much trust is needed? How is trust cultivated among participants? And what are the mechanisms through which trust enhances organizational effectiveness?

The minimal requirements of cooperation presuppose a certain level of trust. As A plans and undertakes a sequence of actions designed to bring about Y, his or her efforts must rely upon the coordination promised by other actors. If A does not have a sufficiently high level of confidence in B's assurances and compliance, then he will be rationally compelled to choose another series of actions. If Larry Bird didn't have trust in his teammate Dennis Johnson, the famous steal would not have happened.

First, what do we mean by trust in the current context? Each actor in an organization or group has intentions, engages in behavior, and communicates with other actors. Part of communication is often in the form of sharing information and agreeing upon a plan of coordinated action. Agreeing upon a plan in turn often requires statements and commitments from various actors about the future actions they will take. Trust is the circumstance that permits others to rely upon those statements and commitments. We might say, then, that A trusts B just in case --
  • A believes that when B asserts P, this is an honest expression of B's beliefs.
  • A believes that when B says he/she will do X, this is an honest commitment on B's part and B will carry it out (absent extraordinary reasons to the contrary).
  • A believes that when B asserts that his/her actions will be guided by his best understanding of the purposes and goals of the organization, this is a truthful expression.
  • A believes that B's future actions, observed and unobserved, will be consistent with his/her avowals of intentions, values, and commitments.
So what are some reasons why mistrust might rear its ugly head between actors in an organization? Why might A fail to trust B?
  • A may believe that B's private interests are driving B's actions (rather than adherence to prior commitments and values).
  • A may believe that B suffers from weakness of the will, an inability to carry out his honest intentions.
  • A may believe that B manipulates his statements of fact to suit his private interests.
  • Or less dramatically: A may not have high confidence in these features of B's behavior.
  • B may have no real interest or intention in behaving in a truthful way.
And what features of organizational life and practice might be expected to either enhance inter-personal trust or to undermine it?

Trust is enhanced by individuals having the opportunity to get acquainted with their collaborators in a more personal way -- to see from non-organizational contexts that they are generally well intentioned; that they make serious efforts to live up to their stated intentions and commitments; and that they are generally honest. So perhaps there is a rationale for the bonding exercises that many companies undertake for their workers.

Likewise, trust is enhanced by the presence of a shared and practiced commitment to the value of trustworthiness. An organization itself can enhance trust in its participants by performing the actions that its participants expect the organization to perform. For example, an organization that abruptly and without consultation ends an important employee benefit undermines trust in the employees that the organization has their best interests at heart. This abrogation of prior obligations may in turn lead individuals to behave in a less trustworthy way, and lead others to have lower levels of trust in each other.

How does enhancing trust have the promise of bringing about higher levels of organizational effectiveness? Fundamentally this comes down to the question of the value of teamwork and the burden of unnecessary transaction costs. If every expense report requires investigation, the amount of resources spent on accountants will be much greater than a situation where only the outlying reports are questioned. If each vice president needs to defend him or herself against the possibility that another vice president is conspiring against him, then less time and energy are available to do the work of the organization. If the CEO doesn't have high confidence that her executive team will work wholeheartedly to bring about a successful implementation of a risky investment, then the CEO will choose less risky investments.

In other words, trust is crucial for collaboration and teamwork. And an organization that manages to help to cultivate a high level of trust among its participants is likely to perform better than one that depends primarily on supervision and enforcement.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Is history probabilistic?



Many of our intuitions about causality are driven by a background assumption of determinism: one cause, one effect, always. But it is evident in many realms -- including especially the social world -- that causation is probabilistic. A cause makes its effects more likely than they would be in the absence of the cause. Exposure to a Zika-infected mosquito makes it more likely that the individual will acquire the illness; but many people exposed to Zika mosquitoes do not develop the illness. Wesley Salmon formulated this idea in terms of the concept of causal relevance: C is causally relevant to O just in case the conditional probability of O given C is different from the probability of O. (Some causes reduce the probability of their outcomes.)

There is much more to say about this model -- chiefly the point that causes rarely exercise their powers in isolation from other factors. So, as J.L. Mackie worked out in The Cement of the Universe: A Study of Causation, we need to be looking for conjunctions of factors that jointly affect the probability of the occurrence of O. Causation is generally conjunctural. But the essential fact remains: no matter how many additional factors we add to the analysis, we are still unlikely to arrive at deterministic causal statements: "whenever ABCDE occurs, O always occurs."

But here is another kind of certainty that also arises in a probabilistic world. When sequences are governed by objective probabilities, we are uncertain about any single outcome. But we can be highly confident that a long series of trials will converge around the underlying probability. In an extended series of throws of a fair pair of dice the frequency of throwing a 7 will converge around 6/36, whereas the frequency of throwing a 12 will converge around 1/36. So we can be confident that the eventual set of outcomes will look like the histogram above.

Can we look at history as a vast series of stochastic events linked by relations of probabilistic causation? And does this permit us to make historical predictions after all?

Let's explore that idea. Imagine that history is entirely the product of a set of stochastic events connected with each other by fixed objective probabilities. And suppose we are interested in a particular kind of historical outcome -- say the emergence of central states involving dictatorship and democracy. We might represent this situation as a multi-level process of social-political complexification -- a kind of primordial soup of political development by opportunistic agents within a connected population in a spatial region. Suppose we postulate a simple political theory of competition and cooperation driving patterns of alliance formation, institution formation, and the aggregation of power by emerging institutions. (This sounds somewhat similar to Tilly's theory of state formation in Coercion, Capital and European States, A.D. 990 - 1992 and to Michael Mann's treatment of civilizations in The Sources of Social Power: Volume 1, A History of Power from the Beginning to AD 1760.)

Finally we need to introduce some kind of mechanism of invention -- of technologies, institutions, and values systems. This is roughly analogous to the mechanism of genetic mutation in the evolution of life.

Now we are ready to ask some large historical questions about state formation in numerous settings. What is the likelihood of the emergence of a stable system of self-governing communities? What is the likelihood that a given population will arrive at a group of inventions involving technology, institutions, and values systems that permit the emergence of central state capable of imposing its will over distance, collecting revenues to support its activities, and conducting warfare? And what is the likelihood of local failure, resulting in the extinction of the local population? We might look at the historical emergence of various political-economic forms such as plunder societies (Genghis Khan), varieties of feudalism, and medieval city states as different outcomes resulting from the throw of the dice in these different settings.

Self-governance seems like a fairly unlikely outcome within this set of assumptions. Empire and dictatorship seem like the more probable outcomes of the interplay of self-interest, power, and institutions. In order to get self-governance out of processes like these we need to identify a mechanism through which collective action by subordinate agents is possible. Such mechanisms are indeed familiar -- the pressures by subordinate but powerful actors in England leading to the reform of absolutist monarchy, the overthrow of the French monarchy by revolutionary uprisings, the challenges to the Chinese emperor represented by a series of major rebellions in the nineteenth century. But such counter-hegemonic processes are often failures, and even when successful they are often coopted by powerful insiders. These possibilities lead us to estimate a low likelihood of stable self-governance.

So this line of thought suggests that a stochastic model of the emergence of central states is possible but discouraging. Assign probabilities to the various kinds of events that need to occur at each of the several stages of civilizational development; run the model a large number of times; and you have a Monte Carlo model of the emergence of dictatorship and democracy. And the discouraging likelihood is that democratic self-governance is a rare outcome.

However, there are several crucial flaws in this analysis. First, the picture is flawed by the fact that history is made by purposive agents, not algorithms or mechanical devices. These actors are not characterized by fixed objective probabilities. Historical actors have preferences and take actions to influence outcomes at crucial points. Second, agents are not fixed over time, but rather develop through learning. They are complex adaptive agents. They achieve innovations in their practices just as the engineers and bureaucrats do. They develop and refine repertoires of resistance (Tilly). So each play of the game of political history is novel in important respects. History is itself influenced by previous history.

Finally, there is the familiar shortcoming of simulations everywhere: a model along these lines unavoidably requires making simplifying assumptions about the causal factors in play. And these simplifications can be shown to have important consequences for the sensitivity of the model.

So it is important to understand that social causation is generally probabilistic; but this fact does not permit us to assign objective probabilities to the emergence of central states, dictatorships, or democracies.

(See earlier posts on more successful efforts to use Bayesian methods to assess the likelihood of the emergence of specific outcomes in constrained historical settings;
link, link.)

Friday, December 22, 2017

The culture of an organization


It is often held that the behavior of a particular organization is affected by its culture. Two banks may have very similar organizational structures but show rather different patterns of behavior, and those differences are ascribed to differences in culture. What does this mean? Clifford Geertz is one of the most articulate theorists of culture -- especially in his earlier works. Here is a statement couched in terms of religion as a cultural system from The Interpretation Of Cultures. A religion is ...
(1) a system of symbols which act to (2) establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in men by (3) formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and (4) clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that (5) the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic. (90)
And again:
The concept of culture I espouse, and whose utility the essays below attempt to demonstrate, is essentially a semiotic one. Believing, with Max Weber, that man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun, I take culture to be those webs, and the analysis of it to be therefore not an experimental science in search of law but an interpretive one in search of meaning. (5)
On its face this idea seems fairly simple. We might stipulate that "culture" refers to a set of beliefs, values, and practices that are shared by a number of individuals within the group, including leaders, managers, and staff members. But, as we have seen repeatedly in other posts, we need to think of these statements in terms of a distribution across a population rather than as a uniform set of values.

Consider this hypothetical comparison of two organizations with respect to employees' attitudes towards working with colleagues of a different religion. (This example is fictitious.) Suppose that the employees of two organizations have been surveyed on the topic of their comfort level at working with other people of different religious beliefs, on a scale of 0-21. Low values indicate a lower level of comfort.


The blue organization shows a distribution of individuals who are on average more accepting of religious diversity than the gold organization. The weighted score for the blue population is about 10.4, in comparison to a weighted score of 9.9 for the gold population. This is a relatively small difference between the two populations; but it may be enough to generate meaningful differences in behavior and performance. If, for example, the attitude measured here leads to an increased likelihood for individuals to make disparaging comments about the co-worker's religion, then we might predict that the gold group will have a somewhat higher level of incidents of religious intolerance. And if we further hypothesize that a disparaging work environment has some effect on work productivity, then we might predict that the blue group will have somewhat higher productivity.

Current discussions of sexual harassment in the workplace are often couched in terms of organizational culture. It appears that sexual harassment is more frequent and flagrant in some organizations than others. Women are particularly likely to be harassed in a work culture in which men believe and act as though they are at liberty to impose sexual language and action on female co-workers and in which the formal processes of reporting of harassment are weak or disregarded. The first is a cultural fact and the second is a structural or institutional fact.

We can ask several causal questions about this interpretation of organizational culture. What are the factors that lead to the establishment and currency of a given profile of beliefs, values, and practices within an organization? And what factors exist that either reproduce those beliefs or undermine them? Finally we can ask what the consequences of a given culture profile are in the internal and external performance of the organization.

There seem to be two large causal mechanisms responsible for establishment and maintenance of a particular cultural constellation within an organization. First is recruitment. One organization may make a specific effort to screen candidates so as to select in favor of a particular set of values and attitudes -- acceptance, collaboration, trustworthiness, openness to others. And another may favor attitudes and values that are thought to be more directly related to profitability or employee malleability. These selection mechanisms can lead to significant differences in the overall culture of the organization. And the decision to orient recruitment in one way rather than another is itself an expression of values.

The second large mechanism is the internal socialization and leadership processes of the organization. We can hypothesize that an organization whose leaders and supervisors both articulate the values of equality and respect in the workplace and who demonstrate that commitment in their own actions will be one in which more people in the organization will adopt those values. And we can likewise hypothesize that the training and evaluation processes of an organization can be effective in cultivating the values of the organization. In other words, it seems evident that leadership and training are particularly relevant to the establishment of a particular organizational culture.

The other large causal question is how and to what extent cultural differences across organizations have effects on the performance and behavior of those organizations. We can hypothesize that differences in organizational values and culture lead to differences in behavior within the organization -- more or less collaboration, more or less harassment, more or less bad behavior of various kinds. These differences are themselves highly important. But we can also hypothesize that differences like these can lead to differences in organizational effectiveness. This is the central idea of the field of positive organizational studies. Scholars like Kim Cameron and others argue, on the basis of empirical studies across organizational settings, that organizations that embody the values of mutual acceptance, equality, and a positive orientation towards each others' contributions are in fact more productive organizations as well (Competing Values Leadership: Second Edition; link).


Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Is public opinion part of a complex system?


The worrisome likelihood that Russians and other malevolent actors are tinkering with public opinion in Western Europe and the United States through social media creates various kinds of anxiety. Are our democratic values so fragile that a few thousand Facebook or Twitter memes could put us on a different plane about important questions like anti-Muslim bigotry, racism, intolerance, or fanaticism about guns? Can a butterfly in Minsk create a thunderstorm of racism in Cincinnati? Have white supremacy and British ultra-nationalism gone viral?

There is an interesting analogy here with the weather. The weather next Wednesday is the net consequence of a number of processes and variables, none of which are enormously difficult to analyze. But in their complex interactions they create outcomes that are all but impossible to forecast over a period of more than three days. And this suggests the interesting idea that perhaps public opinion is itself the result of complex and chaotic processes that give rise to striking forms of non-linear change over time.

Can we do a better job of understanding the dynamics of public opinion by making use of the tools of complexity theory? Here is a summary description of complex systems provided by John Holland in Complexity: A Very Short Introduction:
Complexity, once an ordinary noun describing objects with many interconnected parts, now designates a scientific field with many branches. A tropical rainforest provides a prime example of a complex system. The rainforest contains an almost endless variety of species—one can walk a hundred paces without seeing the same species of tree twice, and a single tree may host over a thousand distinct species of insects. The interactions between these species range from extreme generalists (‘ army’ ants will consume most anything living in their path) to extreme specialists (Darwin’s ‘comet orchid’, with a foot-long nectar tube, can only be pollinated by a particular moth with a foot-long proboscis—neither would survive without the other). Adaptation in rainforests is an ongoing, relatively rapid process, continually yielding new interactions and new species (orchids, closely studied by Darwin, are the world’s most rapidly evolving plant form). This lush, persistent variety is almost paradoxical because tropical rainforests develop on the poorest of soils—the rains quickly leach all nutrients into the nearest creek. What makes such variety possible? (1)
Let's consider briefly how public opinion might fit into the framework of complexity theory. On the positive side, public opinion has some of the dynamic characteristics of systems that are often treated as being complex: non-linearity, inflection points, critical mass. Like a disease, a feature of public opinion can suddenly "go viral" -- reproduce many times more rapidly than in previous periods. And the collective phenomenon of public opinion has a feature of "self-causation" that finds parallels in other kinds of systems -- a sudden increase in the currency of a certain attitude or belief can itself accelerate the proliferation of the belief more broadly.

On the negative side, the causal inputs to public opinion dynamics do not appear to be particularly "complex" -- word-of-mouth, traditional media, local influencers, and the new factor of social media networks like Twitter, Weibo, or Facebook. We might conceptualize a given individual's opinion formation as the net result of information and influence received through these different kinds of inputs, along with some kind of internal cognitive processing. And the population's "opinions" are no more than the sum of the opinions of the various individuals.

Most fundamentally -- what are the "system" characteristics that are relevant to the dynamics of public opinion in a modern society? How does public opinion derive from a system of individuals and communication pathways?

This isn't a particularly esoteric question. We can define public opinion at the statistical aggregate of the distribution of beliefs and attitudes throughout a population -- recognizing that there is a distribution of opinion around every topic. For example, at present public opinion in the United States on the topic of President Trump is fairly negative, with a record low 35% approval rating. And the Pew Research Center finds that US public opinion sees racism as an increasingly important problem (link):



Complexity theorists like Scott Page and John Holland focus much attention on a particular subset of complex systems, complex adaptive systems (CAS). These are systems in which the agents are themselves subject to change. And significantly, public opinion in a population of human agents is precisely such a system. The agents change their opinions and attitudes as a result of interaction with other agents through the kinds of mechanisms mentioned here. If we were to model public opinion as a "pandemonium" process, then the possibility of abrupt non-linearities in a population becomes apparent. Assume a belief-transmission process in which individuals transmit beliefs to others with a volume proportional to their own adherence to the belief and the volume and number of other agents from whom they have heard the belief, and individuals adopt a belief in proportion to the number and volume of voices they hear that are espousing the belief. Contagion is no longer a linear relationship (exposure to an infected individual results in X probability of infection), but rather a non-linear process in which the previous cycle's increase leads to amplified infection rate in the next round.

Here is a good review article of the idea of a complex system and complexity science by Ladyman, Lambert and Wiesner (linklink). Here is a careful study of the diffusion of "fake news" by bots on Twitter (link, link). (The graphic at the top is taken from this article.) And here is a Ph.D. dissertation on modeling public opinion by Emily Cody (link).

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Varieties of organizational dysfunction


Several earlier posts have made the point that important technology failures often include organizational faults in their causal background.

It is certainly true that most important accidents have multiple causes, and it is crucial to have as good an understanding as possible of the range of causal pathways that have led to air crashes, chemical plant explosions, or drug contamination incidents. But in the background we almost always find organizations and practices through which complex technical activities are designed, implemented, and regulated. Human actors, organized into patterns of cooperation, collaboration, competition, and command, are as crucial to technical processes as are power lines, cooling towers, and control systems in computers. So it is imperative that we follow the lead of researchers like Charles Perrow (The Next Catastrophe: Reducing Our Vulnerabilities to Natural, Industrial, and Terrorist Disasters), Kathleen Tierney (The Social Roots of Risk: Producing Disasters, Promoting Resilience), or Diane Vaughan (The Challenger Launch Decision: Risky Technology, Culture, and Deviance at NASA) and give close attention to the social- and organization-level failures that sometimes lead to massive technological failures.

It is useful to have a few examples in mind as we undertake to probe this question more deeply. Here are a number of important accidents and failures that have been carefully studied.
  • Three Mile Island, Chernobyl nuclear disasters
  • Challenger and Columbia space shuttle disasters
  • Failure of United States anti-submarine warfare in 1942-43
  • Flawed policy and decision-making in US leading to escalation of Vietnam War
  • Flawed policy and decision-making in France leading to Dien Bien Phu defeat
  • Failure of Nuclear Regulatory Commission to ensure reactor safety
  • DC-10 design process
  • Osprey design process
  • failure of Federal flood insurance to appropriately guide rational land use
  • FEMA failure in Katrina aftermath
  • Design and manufacture of the Edsel sedan
  • High rates of hospital-born infections in some hospitals
Examples like these allow us to begin to create an inventory of organizational flaws that sometimes lead to failures and accidents:
  • siloed decision-making (design division, marketing division, manufacturing division all have different priorities and interests)
  • lax implementation of formal processes
  • strategic bureaucratic manipulation of outcomes 
    • information withholding, lying
    • corrupt practices, conflicts of interest and commitment
  • short-term calculation of costs and benefits
  • indifference to public goods
  • poor evaluation of data; misinterpretation of data
  • lack of high-level officials responsible for compliance and safety
These deficiencies may be analyzed in terms of a more abstract list of organizational failures:
  • Poor decisions given existing priorities and facts
    • poor priority-setting processes
    • poor information-gathering and analysis
  • failure to learn and adapt from changing circumstances
  • internal capture of decision-making; corruption, conflict of interest
  • vulnerability of decision-making to external pressures (external capture)
  • faulty or ineffective implementation of policies, procedures, and regulations

******

Nancy Leveson is a leading authority on the systems-level causes of accidents and failures. A recent white paper can be found here. Here is the abstract for that paper:
New technology is making fundamental changes in the etiology of accidents and is creating a need for changes in the explanatory mechanisms used. We need better and less subjective understanding of why accidents occur and how to prevent future ones. The most effective models will go beyond assigning blame and instead help engineers to learn as much as possible about all the factors involved, including those related to social and organizational structures. This paper presents a new accident model founded on basic systems theory concepts. The use of such a model provides a theoretical foundation for the introduction of unique new types of accident analysis, hazard analysis, accident prevention strategies including new approaches to designing for safety, risk assessment techniques, and approaches to designing performance monitoring and safety metrics. (1; italics added)
Here is what Leveson has to say about the social and organizational causes of accidents:

2.1 Social and Organizational Factors

Event-based models are poor at representing systemic accident factors such as structural deficiencies in the organization, management deficiencies, and flaws in the safety culture of the company or industry. An accident model should encourage a broad view of accident mechanisms that expands the investigation from beyond the proximate events.

Ralph Miles Jr., in describing the basic concepts of systems theory, noted that:

Underlying every technology is at least one basic science, although the technology may be well developed long before the science emerges. Overlying every technical or civil system is a social system that provides purpose, goals, and decision criteria (Miles, 1973, p. 1).

Effectively preventing accidents in complex systems requires using accident models that include that social system as well as the technology and its underlying science. Without understanding the purpose, goals, and decision criteria used to construct and operate systems, it is not possible to completely understand and most effectively prevent accidents. (6)

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Organizational dysfunction


What is a dysfunction when it comes to the normal workings of an organization? In order to identify dysfunctions we need to have a prior conception of the "purpose" or "agreed upon goals" of an organization. Fiscal agencies collect taxes; child protection services work to ensure that foster children are placed in safe and nurturing environments; air travel safety regulators ensure that aircraft and air fields meet high standards of maintenance and operations; drug manufacturers produce safe, high-quality medications at a reasonable cost. A dysfunction might be defined as an outcome for an organization or institution that runs significantly contrary to the purpose of the organization. We can think of major failures in each of these examples.

But we need to make a distinction between failure and dysfunction. The latter concept is systemic, having to do with the design and culture of the organization. Failure can happen as a result of dysfunctional arrangements; but it can happen as a result of other kinds of factors as well. For example, the Tylenol crisis of 1982 resulted from malicious tampering by an external third party, not organizational dysfunction.

Here is an example from a Harvard Business Review article by Gill Corkindale indicating some of the kinds of dysfunction that can be identified in contemporary business organizations:
Poor organizational design and structure results in a bewildering morass of contradictions: confusion within roles, a lack of co-ordination among functions, failure to share ideas, and slow decision-making bring managers unnecessary complexity, stress, and conflict. Often those at the top of an organization are oblivious to these problems or, worse, pass them off as or challenges to overcome or opportunities to develop. (link)
And the result of failures like these is often poor performance and sometimes serious crisis for the organization or its stakeholders.

But -- as in software development -- it is sometimes difficult to distinguish between a feature and a bug. What is dysfunctional for the public may indeed be beneficial for other actors who are in a position to influence the design and workings of the organization. This is the key finding of researchers like Jack Knight, who argues in Institutions and Social Conflict for the prevalence of conflicting interests in the design and operations of many institutions and organizations; link. And it follows immediately from the approach to organizations encapsulated in the Fligstein and McAdam theory of strategic action fields (link).

There is an important related question to consider: why do recognized dysfunctional characteristics persist? When a piano is out of tune, the pianist and the audience insist on a professional tuning. When the Nuclear Regulatory Commission persistently fails to enforce its regulations through rigorous inspection protocols, nothing happens (Union of Concerned Scientists, link; Perrow, link). Is it that the individuals responsible for the day-to-day functioning of the organization are complacent or unmotivated? Is it that there are contrary pressures that arise to oppose corrective action? Or, sometimes, is it that the adjustments needed to correct one set of dysfunctions can be expected to create another, even more harmful, set of bad outcomes?

One intriguing hypothesis is that correction of dysfunctions requires observation, diagnosis, and incentive alignment. It is necessary that some influential actor or group should be able to observe the failure; it should be possible to trace the connection between the failure and the organizational features that lead to it; and there should be some way of aligning the incentives of the powerful actors within and around the organization so that their best interests are served by their taking the steps necessary to correct the dysfunction. If any of these steps is blocked, then a dysfunctional organization can persist indefinitely.

The failures of Soviet agriculture were observable and the links between organization and farm inefficiency were palpable; but the Soviet public had not real leverage with respect to the ministries and officials who ran the agricultural system. Therefore Soviet officials had no urgent incentive to reform agriculture. So the dysfunctions of collective farming were not corrected until the collapse of the USSR. A dysfunction in a corporation within a market economy that significantly impacts its revenues and profits will be noticed by shareholders, and pressure will be exerted to correct the dysfunction. The public has a strong interest in nuclear reactor safety; but its interests are weak and diffused when compared to the interests of the industry and its lobbyists; so Congressional opposition to reform of the agency remains strong. The same could be said with respect to the current crisis at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau; the influence of the financial industry and its lobbyists can be concentrated in a way that the interests of the public cannot.

Charles Perrow has written extensively on the failures of the US regulatory sector (link). Here is his description of regulatory capture in the nuclear power industry:
Nuclear safety is problematic when nuclear plants are in private hands because private firms have the incentive and, often, the political and economic power to resist effective regulation. That resistance often results in regulators being captured in some way by the industry. In Japan and India, for example, the regulatory function concerned with safety is subservient to the ministry concerned with promoting nuclear power and, therefore, is not independent. The United States had a similar problem that was partially corrected in 1975 by putting nuclear safety into the hands of an independent agency, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), and leaving the promotion of nuclear power in the hands of the Energy Department. Japan is now considering such a separation. It should make one. Since the accident at Fukushima, many observers have charged that there is a revolving door between industry and the nuclear regulatory agency in Japan -- what the New York Times called a "nuclear power village" -- compromising the regulatory function. (link)

Monday, December 4, 2017

New perspectives on Chinese authoritarianism


The question of China's political future is an important one and a difficult one. Will China evolve towards a political system that embodies real legal protections for the rights of its citizens and some version of democratic institutions of government? Or will it remain an authoritarian single-party state in which government and the party decide the limits of freedom and the course of economic and social policy?

Two recent books are worth reading in this context, and they seem to point to rather different answers. Ya-Wen Lei's The Contentious Public Sphere: Law, Media, and Authoritarian Rule in China makes the case for a broadening sphere of public discourse and debate in China, which seems to suggest the possibility of a gradual loosening of governmental control of thought and action. Wenfang Tang's Populist Authoritarianism: Chinese Political Culture and Regime Sustainability on the other hand makes the case for a distinctive version of populist authoritarianism in China that may have the resources it needs to retain power for a very long time. Neither scholar is dogmatic about his or her findings, but they give rather different pictures of the evolution of China's polity in the next several decades.

The two books use rather different kinds of data. Tang relies primarily on various surveys of Chinese public opinion, whereas Lei's research relies on a range of qualitative and observational data about the contents of China's legal system, media, and social media. She makes use of newspaper archives, legal texts, interviews, online texts from Internet forums, and survey data (lc 466).

Tang's book begins with several paradoxical facts. One is that the Chinese state already embodies a kind of democratic responsiveness, which he refers to as "Mass Line" politics. According to this political ideology, the Party represents the interests of the masses, and it must be responsive to the interests and demands of workers and peasants. So the CCP is sometimes responsive to demands expressed through public demonstrations and protests. Here are a few of Tang's comments about the Mass Line ideology: "Some observers see the totalitarian nature of the Mass Line.... Other scholars, however, see the empowerment of society under the Mass Line.... Others describe the Mass Line as a democratic decision-making process" (kl 357-388). But Tang's own view appears to be that the Party's adherence to the ideology of the Mass Line makes for a compelling imperative towards paying attention to the attitudes and interests of ordinary peasants and workers, and towards improving their material conditions of life.

The other paradoxical fact in Tang's account is that China's government commands support from a remarkably high percentage of its citizens. Using survey research, Tang reports that there are issues of concern to the Chinese public (corruption, environment, land use policy), but that the large majority of Chinese people support the single-party government of the CCP.
The 2005–2008 5th wave of the WVS [World Values Survey] coordinated by the University of Michigan further indicated that Chinese respondents expressed the strongest support for political institutions including the military, the police, the legal system, the central government, the Communist Party, the national legislature, and the civil service. (kl 712)
But Tang also notes that surveys indicate a low level of "happiness" and satisfaction by Chinese citizens. In the WVS 2005-2008 survey "China ranked at the very bottom of this happiness index (65). Above China were eastern Germany (65.5), Slovenia and South Korea (66), India (67), Taiwan and Spain (68), Italy and Chile (69)," along with many other countries. This presents a third paradox in Chinese political realities; low citizen satisfaction is often associated with low approval of government, but this is not the case in China at present. Tang observes, "there seems to be a contradiction between the low level of happiness and the high level of regime support" (kl 774).

Here is how Tang characterizes China's particular version of "populist authoritarianism". China's particular version involves ...
the Mass Line ideology, strong interpersonal trust and rich social capital, individual political activism and political contention, weak political institutions and an underdeveloped civic society, an often paranoid and highly responsive government, and strong regime support. (kl 240)
What strategies and mechanisms permit an authoritarian state to maintain its stability over time, beyond the exercise of force? Tang supports the "political culture" strand of thinking about politics; he believes that the beliefs, identities, and attitudes that citizens have are crucial for the way in which politics unfolds in the country. One factor that Tang rates as particularly favorable for regime stability in China is the high degree of nationalism that Chinese people share, according to survey data. Survey data support the finding that Chinese people have a high level of identification with the value and importance of China as a nation. And, significantly, the central government makes explicit efforts to reinforce popular nationalist sentiment.
While Chinese civilization is an ancient concept, Chinese nationalism is a relatively new idea in contemporary China. It is constructed by the CCP to incorporate a multi-ethnic state that was inherited from the Qing dynasty. It has been used by the CCP to justify its resistance to liberal democracy which is often associated with Western imperialist invasion of China in the 19th and early 20th centuries. More importantly, nationalism is an inseparable component of contemporary Chinese political culture that provides the soil for the CCP to nurture its legitimacy. (kl 1364)
So Tang's conclusion about regime stability in China is tentative, but he leaves open the possibility that the CCP and single-party government has enough resources available to it to survive as a popular and populist government in China for an extended period of time. He suggests that populist authoritarianism is potentially a stable system of government -- anti-democratic in the traditional western sense, but responsive enough to the demands and interests of ordinary citizens to permit it to maintain high levels of legitimacy and acceptance by the broad public over an extended period of time.

Now let's look at the political dynamics described in Ya-Wen Lei's very interesting 2018 book, The Contentious Public Sphere: Law, Media, and Authoritarian Rule in China. Lei too regards China as an authoritarian state. And yet Chinese society possesses a surprising degree of public contestation over important social issues.
Authoritarian states, by definition, undermine civil society—the basis on which the public sphere is built—thus conventional wisdom tells us that the conditions for political life and a public sphere in such contexts are likely to be quite bleak and suffocating (Habermas 1996, 369). Yet, when I looked at what was going on in China, I saw lively political discussion, contention, and engagement—in short, the emergence of a vibrant public sphere, against all apparent odds. (kl 264)
In describing this "unruly sphere capable of generating issues and agendas not set by the Chinese state" (kl 278) Lei is primarily referring to the cell-phone supported social media world in China, within which Weibo is the primary platform. And Lei takes the position that the emergence of this public sphere in the early 2000s was an unintended consequence of "authoritarian modernization".
I argue that the rise of China’s contentious public sphere was an unintended consequence of the Chinese state’s campaign of authoritarian modernization. The government desperately needed to modernize in the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution. To do so, the state institutionalized the double-edged instruments of modern law, marketized media, and the Internet. It sought to utilize but also contain these instruments, recognizing the potential risk each posed of empowering professionals and citizens and destabilizing political control. Nonetheless, the state’s choices set in motion complex and interconnected processes beyond its control. Building legal and media institutions and adopting information technologies, paired with political fragmentation and marketization, increased the capabilities of citizens and professionals, encouraged the formation of multiple overlapping social networks of collaboration, engendered widespread legal and rights consciousness, and created a space for contentious politics. Through everyday practices and the production of so-called public opinion incidents (yulun shijian), media and legal professionals, public opinion leaders, activists, NGOs, and netizens translated individual grievances into collective contention—and in so doing, facilitated the rise of a contentious public sphere. (kl 290)
Lei maintains that the state was aware of this risk and has taken measures to ameliorate it; but she also believes that the forces leading to open debate and social networks that are relatively free to engage in these kinds of discussions are more numerous than authoritarian censorship can manage to control. President Xi's current crackdown on ideological deviation is the most recent version of the state's effort at control; but the logic of Lei's argument suggests that these repressive measures will not succeed in eliminating the emerging public sphere. She refers to this situation as the "authoritarian dilemma of modernization":
Yet the Chinese state’s authoritarian modernization project has encountered what I call an “authoritarian dilemma of modernization.” On the one hand, the state has to build economic, legal, and political institutions to pursue socioeconomic development. The state also needs capable professionals and citizens to make institutions work, produce economic growth, and ultimately achieve the goal of modernization. These capable agents need to be educated and have knowledge, information, and even some autonomy to participate in the tasks designated by the state. (lc 354)
New legal institutions and new forms of information technology create opportunities for increasingly well-educated people to find new ways of pursuing debates and advocating for policies that the state would prefer not to have to consider.

In contrast to Tang's "populist authoritarianism", Lei refers to a "fragmented and adaptive authoritarianism" in China. And she argues that this fragmentation (through new institutions, new legal frameworks, and new ways of communicating and disseminating divergent opinions) has led to the possibility of social changes emerging that were not intended or sanctioned by the governing elites.

In an interesting way Lei's view of fragmented authoritarianism has some themes in common with Fligstein and McAdam's ideas of organizations as "strategic action fields" (link); different actors within the Chinese polity are able to gain resources and leverage to pursue their own concerns. Lei's analysis emphasizes the shifting resources available to various actors within the field of politics, including new legal institutions and new opportunities for communications and interaction through the Internet. The strategic-action-field theory does not presuppose that "governors" or "insurgents" automatically have the upper hand; instead, it posits that change within a strategic action field is highly contingent, with a variety of possible outcomes. And this indeed seems like a very good description of Chinese politics.

(Here is an earlier post on Martin Whyte's research on public opinions about social justice in China in Myth of the Social Volcano: Perceptions of Inequality and Distributive Injustice in Contemporary China; link.)