Harry R. Schwartz

Software engineer, nominal scientist, gentleman of the internet. Member, ←Hotline Webring→.

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The Tyranny of Structurelessness

Published 21 Jul 2014. Tags: personal, philosophy, conferences.

This weekend I attended HOPE X at the Hotel Pennsylvania in Manhattan. I’ve got a few little gripes with the conference, but there were several great talks, including an absolutely excellent roast of hacker culture by Johannes Grenzfurthner.

His talk has since been made available! If you’re interested in the many, many psychological and institutional problems plaguing computer people, I’d recommend giving it a watch. He touches on some of my favorite hobby horses: ignorance of history, obsession with martyrdom, unwillingness to talk about theory, “solutionism,” etc.

(Fair warning: the talk is titled Fuckhackerfucks!, so it may N be SF your W.)

One thing that caught me in particular was a throwaway reference he made to one of my favorite essays, The Tyranny of Structurelessness, which has encouraged me to go back and reread it.

I was planning on writing a little summary, but instead I’m just going to quote a couple of paragraphs verbatim:

Contrary to what we would like to believe, there is no such thing as a structureless group. Any group of people of whatever nature that comes together for any length of time for any purpose will inevitably structure itself in some fashion. The structure may be flexible; it may vary over time; it may evenly or unevenly distribute tasks, power and resources over the members of the group. But it will be formed regardless of the abilities, personalities, or intentions of the people involved. The very fact that we are individuals, with different talents, predispositions, and backgrounds makes this inevitable. Only if we refused to relate or interact on any basis whatsoever could we approximate structurelessness – and that is not the nature of a human group.

This means that to strive for a structureless group is as useful, and as deceptive, as to aim at an “objective” news story, “value-free” social science, or a “free” economy. A “laissez faire” group is about as realistic as a “laissez faire” society; the idea becomes a smokescreen for the strong or the lucky to establish unquestioned hegemony over others. This hegemony can be so easily established because the idea of “structurelessness” does not prevent the formation of informal structures, only formal ones. Similarly “laissez faire” philosophy did not prevent the economically powerful from establishing control over wages, prices, and distribution of goods; it only prevented the government from doing so. Thus structurelessness becomes a way of masking power, and within the women’s movement is usually most strongly advocated by those who are the most powerful (whether they are conscious of their power or not). As long as the structure of the group is informal, the rules of how decisions are made are known only to a few and awareness of power is limited to those who know the rules. Those who do not know the rules and are not chosen for initiation must remain in confusion, or suffer from paranoid delusions that something is happening of which they are not quite aware.

Good stuff! One of the big bugs in the geek brain is a refusal to recognize the importance of implicit structures, and it’s always nice to see that articulately rebutted.