Dissent, insiders, and outsiders: Institutions in the age of Twitter

How does an organization deal with differing viewpoints among its constituents, and how do constituents dissent?

Someone in Google’s AI division was recently fired, or the person’s resignation accepted, depending on one’s perspective, for reasons related to a violation of process and organizational norms, or something else, again depending on one’s perspective. The specifics of that incident can be disputed, but the more interesting level of abstraction might ask how organizations process conflict and what underlying conflict model participants have. I recently re-read Noah Smith’s essay “Leaders Who Act Like Outsiders Invite Trouble;” he’s dealing with the leadup to World War II but also says: “This extraordinary trend of rank-and-file members challenging the leaders of their organizations goes beyond simple populism. There may be no word for this trend in the English language. But there is one in Japanese: gekokujo.” And later, “The real danger of gekokujo, however, comes from the establishment’s response to the threat. Eventually, party bosses, executives and other powerful figures may get tired of being pushed around.”

If you’ve been reading the news, you’ll have seen gekokujo, as institutions are being pushed by the Twitter mob, and by the Twitter mob mentality, even when the mobbing person is formally within the institution. I think we’re learning, or going to have to re-learn, things like “Why did companies traditionally encourage people to leave politics and religion at the door?” and “What’s the acceptable level of discourse within the institution, before you’re not a part of it any more?”

Colleges and universities in particular seem to be susceptible to these problems, and some are inculcating environments and cultures that may not be good for working in large groups. One recent example of these challenges occurred at Haverford college, but here too the news has many other examples, and the Haverford story seems particularly dreadful.

The basic idea that organizations have to decide who’s inside and who’s outside is old: Albert Hirschman’s Exit, Voice, and Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations, and States is one great discussion. Organizations also used to unfairly exclude large swaths of the population based on demographic factors, and that’s (obviously) bad. Today, though, many organizations have in effect, if not intent, decided that it’s okay for some of their members to attack the good faith of other members of the organization, and to attack the coherentness of the organization itself. There are probably limits to how much this can be done, and still retain a functional organization, let alone a maximally functional organization.

The other big change involves the ability to coordinate relatively large numbers of people: digital tools have made this easier, in a relatively short time—thus the “Twitter mob” terminology that came to mind a few paragraphs ago; I kept the term, because it seems like a reasonable placeholder for that class of behavior. Digital tools ease the ability of a small percentage of total people to be a large absolute number of people. For example, if 100,000 people are interested in or somehow connected to an organization, and one percent of them want to fundamentally disrupt the organization, change its direction, or arrange an attack, that’s 1,000 people—which feels like a lot. It’s far above the Dunbar number and too many for one or two public-facing people to deal with. In addition, in some ways journalists and academics have become modern-day clerics, and they’re often eager to highlight and disseminate news of disputes of this sort.

Over time, I expect organizations are going to need to develop new cultural norms if they’re going to maintain their integrity in the face of coordinated groups that represent relatively small percentages of people but large absolute numbers of people. The larger the organization, the more susceptible it may be to these kinds of attacks. I’d expect more organizations to, for example, explicitly say that attacking other members of the organization in bad faith will result in expulsion, as seems to have happened in the Google example.

Evergreen College, which hosted an early example of this kind of attack (on a biology professor named Bret Weinstein), has seen its enrollment drop by about a third.

Martin Gurri’s book The Revolt of The Public and the Crisis of Authority in the New Millennium examines the contours of the new information world, and the relative slowness of institutions to adapt to it. Even companies like Google, Twitter, and Facebook, which have enabled sentiment amplification, were founded before their own user bases became so massive.

Within organizations, an excess of conformity is a problem—innovation doesn’t occur from simply following orders—but so is an excess of chaos. Modern intellectual organizations, like tech companies or universities, probably need more “chaos” (in the sense of information transfer) than, say, old-school manufacturing companies, which primarily needed compliance. “Old-school” is a key phrase, because from what I understand, modern manufacturing companies are all tech companies too, and they need the people closest to the process to be able to speak up if something is amiss or needs to be changed. Modern information companies need workers to speak up and suggest new ideas, new ways of doing things, and so on. That’s arguably part of the job of every person in the organization.

Discussion at work of controversial identity issues can probably function if all parties assume good faith from the other parties (Google is said to have had a freewheeling culture in this regard from around the time of its founding up till relatively recently). Such discussions probably won’t function without fundamental good faith, and good faith is hard to describe, but most of us know it when we see it, and defining every element of it would probably be impossible, while cultivating it as a general principle is desirable. Trying to maintain such an environment is tough: I know that intimately because I’ve tried to maintain it in classrooms, and those experiences led me to write “The race to the bottom of victimhood and ‘social justice’ culture.” It’s hard to teach, or run an information organization, without a culture that lets people think out loud, in good faith, with relatively little fear of arbitrary reprisal. Universities, in particular, are supposed to be oriented around new ideas and discussing ideas. Organizations also need some amount of hierarchy: without it, decisions can’t or don’t get made, and the organizational processes themselves don’t function. Excessive attacks lead to the “gekokujo” problem Smith describes. Over time organizations are likely going to have to develop antibodies to the novel dynamics of the digital world.

A lot of potential learning opportunities aren’t happening, because we’re instead dividing people into inquisitors and heretics, when very few should be the former, and very are truly the latter. One aspect of “Professionalism” might be “assuming good faith on the part of other parties, until proven otherwise.”

On the other hand, maybe these cultural skirmishes don’t matter much, like brawlers in a tavern across the street from the research lab. Google’s AlphaFold has made a huge leap in protein folding efforts (Google reorganized itself, so technically both Google and AlphaFold are part of the “Alphabet” parent company). Waymo, another Google endeavor, may be leading the way towards driverless cars, and it claims to be expanding its driverless car service. Compared to big technical achievements, media fights are minor. Fifty years from now, driverless cars will be taken for granted, along with customizable biology, people will be struggling to understand what was at stake culturally, in much the way most people don’t get what the Know-Nothing party, of the Hundred Years War, were really about, but we take electricity and the printing press for granted.


One response

  1. Pingback: Links: Novels of work, the spy novel in the age of surveillance, and more about surveillance, and more in general « The Story's Story

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