One of the wonderful, though seemingly meaningless, things we get to learn (provided we sit up straight at our desks and pay attention) in school science is the magical nature of energy. Now, if I remember correctly (I didn’t always give my lessons the undivided attention they undoubtedly deserved), this energy is wonderful stuff, chameleon-like, omni-present and indomitable. It cannot be created afresh, nor can it be destroyed. It changes form, changes behaviour and even type but there’s always the same amount of the stuff. When you think about it, as a concept on which to build a universe, it’s a pretty nifty one.
Money’s a bit the same. We can shuffle it around, alter its form, change its packaging and even just tuck it away but it’s never created out of nothing. Adding a bit here means taking a same-sized bit from there. Having is always correlated to not-having; the haves rely completely on the have-nots. It gives one pause to reflect on how similar the properties of money are to the properties of energy.
Not all things in life are in such perfect balance. Take housework, for instance. We’ve always striven to reduce it. Cleaning the carpet mightn’t have the same exciting association as the transformation of kinetic energy into thermal energy but it’s something most of us can relate to; and something that humankind has spent quite a bit of time and thought trying to make easier and more efficient.
In fact, that search for making just about everything we do able to be done more efficiently has been a hallmark of human existence. It’s not that we’re lazy as a species; far from it. But we are smart, and that makes us curious and that makes us inventive. The way we built the very first pyramid was not as efficient as the way we built the last.
We’ve managed to make everything more efficient: social media lets us be more efficient friends; high-tech toys and pharmaceuticals make us more efficient at sex; all sorts of technological and scientific advances make us more efficient at being healthy. We live a decade longer than before, so having to spend the equivalent of ten years protecting that longer life seems fair.
And, apparently, the only thing we haven’t been able to make us more efficient at is being around each other. Put more than one homo sapien in a room and efficiency makes for the door. All that curiosity, inventiveness and general wilfullness goes to work to make efficiency a lucky by-product, when it happens at all.
Now, this is where we pick up a recent thoughtful and entertaining article the Guardian by Cory Doctorow, descriptively and precisely titled Disorganised but effective: how technology lowers transaction costs. There’s a hint of light-heartedness in the article that makes me wonder how much is fishing for responses and how much is a serious comment. At the end of the article, Mr Doctorow asks us to imagine with him …
What technology would let us govern nations the way that ants build hills or Occupy runs its general assembly? What technology would make it possible to build and run a tramway the way Wikipedia manages its collective editing process? What would it mean to have networking fade into the background, become so commodified and automated that it more or less built and maintained itself?
Most of all, I try to imagine what “disorganised and effective” groups would do with every area of substantial human activity, from public health to education to astronomy.
The question pre-supposes, of course, that this ‘disorganised and effective’ arrangement is a good thing. We’ll not quibble for the moment. In order to bring truth to the supposition, Doctorow begins with a discussion of ‘transaction tax’ (or ‘friction’): a form of the by-product that I mentioned above, of people working together. It is not the effort of the task, but the effort that goes into actions needed to ensure that the effort of the task is complete. His example is neat and simple:
It was once the amount of time our monkey forebears spent checking in on their “friends” to make sure that the one who was up the tree “watching for predators” wasn’t actually taking a nap.
The task – to look out for danger – is a simple one and requires no more than watching. But to ensure that the task is done, the watcher has to be checked periodically. The checking is friction, the tax.
As Doctorow points out, the concept of the transaction tax is an economist’s one. It’s hardly new and even as a business discipline it was formalised over a century ago by Gilbreth, McKinsey and others – though without the catchy name – and is an attempt to monetize the ancillary efforts of task and organisational structure. What’s surprising is that Doctorow uses an economist’s concept as a reference point for non-enterprise inter-human relationships and, more importantly in terms of what he asks us to reflect upon, doesn’t distinguish between two things: the transaction tax that occurs whenever two human beings co-operate; and the transaction tax that occurs as a result of any organisational activity.
In some ways, the ‘transaction tax’ is a red herring. It doesn’t particularly advance Doctorow’s main point: that technology makes us more efficient, and we’d be more efficient still if technology was around that could enable us to work in a co-operative rather than hierarchical mode. Granted, the term does have the benefit of sounding modern and that even if we don’t really understand what it means it sounds close enough to its meaning that we can probably get it without the definition packaged with it. It does bear some scrutiny, though.
Anyone of us can name a dozen tasks that have been made easier, simpler or faster because of technology, from stuffing envelopes to recording bank account transactions in a ledger. For each individual task, there has been a reduction in the transaction tax. Unfortunately, technology, by its very nature, brings with it a new and equally expensive tax: the complexity burden. What lies behind that capability to eliminate stuffing envelopes is a structure and consumption of effort that merely shifts the effort from one task to another. A complexity burden (let’s call it our complexity tax) fills the gap left by the reduced transaction tax.
Sometimes, the reduced transaction tax creates an unforeseen and even more expensive complexity tax. Corporate email is a case in point. There is ample evidence of the pitfalls of the ubiquitous email, from miscommunication or over-communication to strategy isolation, to time consumption. Or, a more topical example, banking. Technology automated bank accounting; it also made possible highly complex derivatives with all their attendant problems, as well as ultra-fast trading and execution engines whose only master is the layers of complex algorithms within. The departments and divisions required to service the new possibilities are far larger than the halls of clerks with mechanical calculators that technology replaced.
That’s the trouble with the concept of the transaction tax; it’s fine as a way of calculating the cost (or benefits) of technology or process change on a single or isolated set of tasks; but in the big picture, it’s the problem of the butterfly; the corporate organism is too complex to be able to accurately predict every consequence and effect. What experience has shown us is that effort is like energy: the saving in one place is expended elsewhere. The complexity tax takes up the slack of the transaction tax. Sometimes the expenditure is outside the organism in question but it is there nonetheless.
Even if we discard any reservations about ‘transaction tax’, there’s still the issue of what influence technology has on progress or social revolution. Now, when the definition of technology is as broad as the one presented by Doctorow, it is hard to find it useful:
Language (which allowed for explicit communication), writing (which allowed for record-keeping), literacy (which allowed for communication at a distance and through time) and all the way up to assembly lines,…
It’s a stretch to include language, writing and reading within the definition of technology, though a perfectly logical argument can be made to include them. That’s true of most things. Try defining Art, or Theatre. After a while, it becomes obvious that having a definition is pointless because it becomes so broad that it ceases to describe anything. When a definition becomes all-encompassing it becomes a black hole of meaning; everything is sucked in and everything loses meaning and definition. But without doing so, it is hard to make the claim that
The most profound social revolutions in human history have arisen whenever a technology comes along that lowers transaction costs.
Hellenistic democracy, Qin dynasty legalism, the Reformation, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment were all profound social revolutions but none were driven by technology, even if we include literacy and language as part of technology.
We could actually argue that writing increased the transaction tax more than it reduced it. Once we could write, we realised that we could do more, and developed more sophisticated procedures. Writing reduced the transaction tax on broadcast communication but increased the complexity tax.
Having said all of this, I must confess that I share Doctorow’s desire and optimism, but not his view of technology as a means to get where he wants to go. We obviously see technology differently. I consider Orwell’s Nineteen Eight-Four, for example, as a book about the corruption of power and the system’s attempts at self-preservation by the institutionalised removal of human will; Doctorow sees it differently:
The tendency of technology to increase the power of the powerful is at the heart of stories like Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four…
To me, the technology in the book is at the heart of the plot but not at the heart of the theme, in the way that kingship is at the heart of the plot of King Lear but plays second-fiddle thematically.
Technology is astounding and with it we can achieve great things but too often we can become messianic about it and ascribe to it qualities it doesn’t have. But perhaps that’s a difference in how we view human nature as well. It is our social evolution that determines change, not our technological and cultural.
The idea of a ‘disorganised effective’ method of operating is an interesting one but neither Occupy nor Anonymous is a good example. Particularly with regard to the former, we have to ask ourselves whether it has been at all successful, regardless of how we describe its method of operation. As for the latter, I’m not at all personally familiar with how they structure or govern themselves but any organisation that has had at least one splinter group (LulzSec) has sufficient hierarchy and cohesion so that a split can be identifiable.
Putting technology into perspective is why it is important to question whether Doctorow is right or wrong about the modus operandi of Wikipedia, for example, being a new and unique thing. I can’t see that it is new at all, nor particularly horizontal in structure. The process of building Wikipedia has no different than the one Dr. Murray used to produce the first OED. The only difference is access and procedure.
He is also wrong about ‘disorganised efficiency’ being sui generis. The 19th century alone is littered with deliberate attempts to develop non-hierarchical societies. And for the non-hierarchical co-ordination and mobilisation of disparate groups – i.e., the physical manifestation of discontent – one only has to look at the anti-Vietnam protests on the late sixties and early 70s. Without internet communication, and co-ordinating a number of separate and distinct (at times even mutually hostile) organisations within a very short time, there were at least two protest marches in the US alone that attracted over 500,000 citizens (October 1969 and April 1971). A mere week after the Kent State tragedy more than 100,000 people took to the streets in protest. That’s disorganised efficiency we haven’t seen for quite some time and it didn’t take technology to achieve that. The synapses of the collective will are far more powerful than the circuits of the computer chip.
I think what Doctorow admires – quite rightly – is a world which can function efficiently through the collective actions of humanity rather than the directed actions of its citizens. So do I. Technology may one day help facilitate that but not until we learn how to value, rather than reduce, the ‘transaction tax’ on two or more people working together.