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Eternal Recurrence and the Effect of Forever on Spirit

The Gay Science

Eternal recurrence calls for a magnanimity of spirit. A great height and capacity to absorb all, be content with all and more, to embrace all that is life. All the decisions, events, outcomes, happenstance.

It follows from the placement of this section in the book and previous imploring to embrace all aspects of life. He is setting a high water mark, a threshold and test by which to judge if are reaching far enough, grand enough.

He needs it as an end-all to make life eternal-like. To have a standard against which to call for that great a height of spirit, that tremendous a capacity. In other traditions one could connect one’s actions to an Eternal Being. By being attached to the Being or the will of such a Being, even when executed by an everyday person, the actions, outcomes, decisions, life, take on an aspect of eternity. Of being ‘forever’ actions, ‘forever’ decisions, etc.

This is not to say the actions and decisions will be perfect. But that one should strive to expand the capacity of one’s spirit to encompass the whole of human existence.  The striving for capacity of spirit is further given credence in a system governed by an Eternal Being. Whether it be recurrence or otherwise, attachment to ‘eternal’ supports a call to a capacity of spirit that encompasses the ups, downs and all around of life.

Response to ‘The Wicked Monk”

“My soul is a tomb…
I wander in for all eternity(1)”
But only if you choose not to change.

For if our souls are indeed
connected to the Divine
They are indefinable, unfathomable
Full. An infinite well
of rediscovery, reinvention
Through the tales we tell
ourselves, each other
The thoughts we think.
We can recreate, re-form ourselves.
Our actions are our ink.

We have left Egypt.
We are no longer constrained.
We can ever reconstruct the meme
in our mind, in our brain.
We can follow the unknown
Into the desert
and embrace ourselves.

There is no quantity to soul.
There are no rules to soul.
There is only wandering, if we choose
It. If there is eternity, there is no tomb,
other than inaction.

(1)  From The Wicked Monk by Baudelaire, translated by Barbara Gibbs

Life with an Eternal Being can support other behaviors as well.

So, when does it support that capacity, entrusted to an individual and attainable by an individual? Perhaps when there is sufficient distance and clarity that the Eternal is unknowable. Just is. And when one’s conception of the Eternal is such that it allows for such a spirit.

Where does that come from, in an individual, to have that type of conception?

Do we need that type of conception to foster that level of capacity of spirit?

(Then again, would help to start by defining spirit.)

Riffs off Baudrillard, Dennett, McLuhan and Graeber

Ecstasy of Communication
Baudrillard seems to say that since the medium is the message and there is a tremendous amount of medium around, then there is an overabundance of message.

Everything interconnected.  This was written before social media. Social media made explicit what was already there.

That in this overabundance of message the subject/object dichotomy is crushed and there is no more inner or outer space, no self. Or at least that the self, the subject object has a ton of weight around it, which may make it hard to emerge from.

Not sure this all follows – not sure it is necessarily a logical conclusion. It is certainly a risk but why is it an accurate description of what is happening?

He says theory coaxes/seduces reality out of the real.

Makes it more objective, more real.

Is he saying the for-itself seduces the entire order of things around us, the logic, the causality, etc?

If so, is this so different from Sartre? In his collapse of object and subject, is he an updated retelling of Sartre?

According to Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, the difference is that he says there is no subject. Subject itself is a function of/ “produced by language, social institutions, and cultural forms and was [is] not independent of its construction in these institutions and practices.”

The Perfect Crime
If there is nothing there and reality/causality is created by our discourse with the world simply giving itself to our seduction (and in turn seducing us with the illusion of meaning) then how come it works? [Kant]  What determines what, from an instrumentalist perspective, actually works?

How can a rocket fly to the moon? How come a car gets us from one place to the other?

Is this seduction by reality?

How come other causalities by previous discourses didn’t work e.g. longevity of an instrumentalist reality?

Or is the metric we use to determine what works part of the grand discourse i.e. our threshold for what works is custom tuned to the discourse we’re using?

The system of measurement within the system creating the reality.

“The first reaction of the fathers of quantum physics at the aberrations coming our of the equations (collapse of the universe of reference: time, space, the principle of identity and of the excluded middle, inseparability, non-locality of particles) was to regard the microscopic world as radically strange and mysterious. Such an interpretation is not, however, the most logical. For the microscopic world is to be accepted as it is. If we cannot derive a conception of the macroscopic world from it, then the mystery lies in the macroscopic world. From that point, we have to think that the strangest thing is not the strangeness of the microscopic world, but the non-strangeness of the macroscopic. Why are the concepts of identity, excluded middle, time and space operative in the macroscopic world? That is what we have to explain. (Du micro au macro – le mystère des évidences) – Bruno Jarrosson, as quoted in The Perfect Crime.

AI Explainability. Move beyond linear compared to non-linear explanations. Consider sensemaking. Explainability compared to sensemaking.

Ecstasy of Communication
The Ecstasy of Communication ends with a call for a truly imaginative theory/theorizing, one that can again create something with meaning – in the hyperreal. That is, outside the control system that is the medium and existent ideas of meaning.

Simulacra and Simulation

[Dennett and Dawkins]

Was there ever a real? (The premise of The Perfect Crime).

Or was it a construct of the meme of consciousness which is, if accurately described

Though what is accurate?

i.e. which is, in one way to describe it,

about communication.

Consciousness is communication within ourselves, amongst ourselves. Consciousness is the control system.

Which perhaps helps describe why there is so much resonance when Baudrillard or McLuhan describe media as a system of consciousness: of a control system [Baudrillard] or extension of us which can elevate us to a new consciousness [McLuhan].

Critique of discussions on communication in management/project management books. They describe communication as one way, linear, sender-receiver. Communication is invisible and ongoing, all directional. It is the everyday chatter, etc. That’s why we speak of a communication environment. Which is how some people speak about culture. But we find it more instrumentalist valuable i.e. more productive and effective to speak about it as communication environment since this has definitive variables/levers which can be controlled. They can be measured, studied and optimized/manipulated, for specific outcomes.

Project management is communication management. It is often called creating a culture.

Executive leadership is communication management. Communication management is creating the communication environment which is the overall control system of an environment. There is instrumentalist value in thinking about it as communication environment since is focused on items which can measure, monitor and manipulate.

McLuhan sharper 2
“As we know more, we rely less on any one food or fuel or raw material.” Marshall McLuhan, chapter on Money.

This seems to connect knowledge with survival. Seems like a good addition to the argument for how consciousness (and communication, particularly lineal, phonetic alphabet, then follow-on technologies) contributes to survival – per Dennett.

How consciousness, not just by helping us be good at prediction but by increasing knowledge

Via our extensions

Interesting topic in that the structure of consciousness, and likely different outlooks, which translate/lead to different activities related to our extensions i.e. invention.

That is, the outlook that allows for experimentation, learning, innovation or, their opposites

is evolutionarily successful.

Can’t find it right now, but interesting that somewhere between pages 100 and 200 he mentions a quote to the affect that humans are the carriers of technologies or the such.  Very reminiscent of the idea of a scholar as a carrier (reproductively necessary) for the meme of a library.

Debt by Graeber

As McLuhan talks about roads, paper, number and money, he brings up many of the same themes Graeber does on Debt.

For example:

slavery/enslavement, individualism, breaking family/clan/tribal ties, commerce, societal organization that allows for a market, treatment of women, sea travel, conquest, empire vs city state.

Store of value, physical commodity compared to media of communication of societal/cultural values, or at least those of a particular group.

And he goes straight to Keynes.

Yes, McLuhan seems to talk about credit evolving after physical money – the myth of barter. But beneath and within it he seems to allude to the connections of a society that are necessary to have an economy without commodity money or paper money i.e. the kind of tribal/communal relationships Graeber describes pre-money.

There is likely rich ground there between the two for research.


Media analysis of AI.  That is, AI as an extension of us

Page 320 Understanding Media. Uncertainty drives increased compliance to rules/makes the rules seem reasonable and rational [Utopia of Rules].  Do folks with different levels of orientation toward uncertainty have different compliance to rules? How about folks with different risk attitudes (revealed and stated).

This would suggest a management technique: increase uncertainty get increased compliance.

Not sure evidence supports that. May be a different sense of uncertainty, referring more to fear.


Exploring Truth

The Gay Science

Nietzsche challenges us to find truth separate from what we use to live (121, The Gay Science, gai sabor [dandy] [flaneur]). How can we do that? By creating life distinct from ours. But how would we communicate with that life, without trapping lessons back in what we use to live? That is the challenge. Like the hope some hold of something completely alien, novel, from a visitor from another planet. Something so distinct and original. We must create a completely new form of communication to uncover a truth separate from what we use to live.  [the striving of poetry?] Is truth that important? It is a frontier, for exploration. Like space, like the depths of the ocean.

Why Print?

With the incredible growth of knowledge and resources online, the question inevitably comes up: Why have something in print?

Print is a unique medium for carrying the written word and ideas. The nature of the medium lends itself to a very different experience than knowledge online. A book can have a personality. This is particularly true for books that contain many voices. It can be an engagement with an entire community. And, given the physical nature of a book, readers can engage with that personality, with that community, very much on their own terms and at their own pace. There is a great degree of interpretation and discovery in the pacing of working through a book. This creates space for a reader. In that space, there is freedom, time for reflection and time to make the ideas, the contributors’ voices, personal. To internalize them and live with them.

The answer is based on things Marshall McLuhan and Seth Godin have written about as well as my personal feelings on books and ideas. I love books and ideas. I find the written word magical and ink on paper fulfilling.

Letter on Pansychicism

Takling muffin

Letter to

Dear Quartz,

Thank you for your article on the ‘panpsychic’ view of consciousness. It surfaces one of the large debates of modern philosophy, that between the schools of thought of David Chalmers and Daniel Dennett. According to the latter, to which I subscribe, things like conscious stones are an inelegant solution to a non-existent problem.

Daniel Dennett, co-director of the Center for Cognitive Studies and Austin B. Fletcher Professor of Philosophy at Tuft University, has convincingly demonstrated that there is no “hard problem” of consciousness. In his book, Consciousness Explained, he uses evidence from numerous studies to show that consciousness doesn’t exist as an independent entity from our biological existence and that it is readily explained by physical, empirical processes. The illusion of a single thread of consciousness can be attributed to our ongoing encounter with the world through our senses and the brain’s evolutionary tweaking as a prediction machine working to continually make sense of the world.

The panpsychic view, albeit fun to think about, like the “Force” in Star Wars, seems to be the unfortunate conclusion of a false premise. Dennett’s approach provides an empirically usable way of thinking about consciousness, one which can help us model and think about truly difficult problems such as human happiness, health and well being.

Thank you,


Though the longing, the imperative for unique, indescribable, individual experiences seems a bulwark of freedom.

“…the opposite [of happiness], a further enroachment of institutionally planned behaviour-patterns on the ever-diminishing sphere of experience.”

Wiesengrund-Adorno [the name Benjamin uses in citations], Mimima Moralia, 38 Invitation to the Dance, and elsewhere on the role of indescribable experiences and freedom.

“I would only believe in a god who could dance.” – Zarathustra

But there is a clear danger in seeking dancing gods, in glorifying individual, non-scientific experiences.
[See Heidegger’s Black Notebooks as discussed at the 2016 conference at Emory’s Department of Philosophy.]  [See Popper’s insistence on science and truth. ]

And carrying the personal too far.
[Is it moral to say anything non-accusatory about Baudrillard after 9/11?]

Life matters. And the fragments of each individual matter. But where to find them when thought itself seems to drive towards clear systems?
[Dialectical thinking is a hard pattern to break]

Perhaps only in consciously working against the temptation of single narrative?
[Hence the value in arguing for Dennett. There is value in rational argumentation.]

The poet seeks individual moments. Fragments. Like “Scraps from a Lunch Counter.”

unwrapped sandwich
open cup, still full
              still warm
hard stool
        metal, folded over 
for a counter

people chatter

dirty knife
fresh tomatoes, left over
bits of leaf
           on their fringes
wrapped in plastic

Here describing finding scraps of beauty during lunch, like a homeless person finding food. The sense of displacement, conformity, boredom with a job. [Very different, thankfully].

How to use words: Mistrust the reader? Know the reader and the tendency of words, thoughts. But love them and Love them. Love surprises and individuals. [surrealism]


             [they almost all wore suits and ties]

Did it translates into action, into kindness, feeding someone who could use a meal?


Beginning Walter Benjamin

Arcades Project

(Instrumentalist lens: Exploring input, sense making and output.)

After One-Way Street, dipping into the Arcades Project. Hard to figure out how to ‘work’ the book itself. Not left to right or front to back Not a single narrative or constructing an argument.

Making sense of it by feeling what patterns it matches.

First comes Nietzsche’s aphorisms (as suggested by the introduction, I believe).

Next the pattern of compiling the Oxford English Dictionary as described in The Professor and the Madman. A cubby hole. Multiple entries, erudition from around the world. Slips of paper from all over. Organized by specific principles. Only the principles are less discernible so far in the Arcades. But the sense of economy, of fitting much into a small space, is there. Perhaps that contributes to its sense of grandeur, the sense there is an immensity going on. A grand description, a grand artifact preserving? describing? painting? What? an era? humanity? Perhaps proposing new ideas. Can’t tell.

It feels there is an organizing principle (for certainly feels there is an intense intellect at work). But the feeling of an organizing principle may come from me rather than the text itself. Or perhaps even further, from the mechanics alone of reading, the indestructible mechanics of their being a vantage point when receiving -listening, reading, observing, etc. [See Paul Vincent Spade on the differences between Husserl’s phenomenological movie-theater and Sartre’s].

Then there’s John Ashberry, Three Poems. It seems a relative, in some sense. A partial pattern match. Though they’re different. Ashberry is more personal, more internal. Less outwardly sweeping, but more instantly universal. It is more readily a noun. A beauty. []Personal Perspective[]

Though the Ashberry pattern is useful in sense making []Discerning Differences[] The Arcades may one day become a noun, graspable as a beauty or a ____.  Would that defeat the work? Is the goal of reading (receiving, perceiving) to form a noun or does the need arise when wanting to transmit, communicate out?

Is the work Benjamin’s or the scholar compilers who decided it was a whole to be published? And co-conspirators, the translators who took it a step farther. Are their patterns in the work? Does it matter in the face of the indestructible vantage point and the fact of the work existing in front of me?

The way data is compiled and presented seems to matter to the output of current algorithms. But is that because we are looking at output, transmission?

There’s seems a loop here back to:

  • Dennett’s sense of consciousness as us talking to ourselves (even his illustration of seeing what the ‘robot’ sees is us viewing an output),
  • Sartre’s reflection reflecting
  • Memetic survivability of an idea
  • Quantum states collapsing when observed



The Illusions of our Extensions

McLuhan and Voltaire

It seems McLuhan would deem Hume’s inductive fallacy an observation on the nature of the printed word. Hume’s calling out of an obvious element of literacy. Sequential fragments as causality is an artifact of print and literacy. The scientific method a cut and paste of moveable type, the Gutenberg press. McLuhan’s observation would be, then, like Wittgenstein and others, including Hume who chalked it up to custom. But focusing on the medium rather than the content of the language/content of the form of communication. Like Godel’s observation (to call it a critique acquiesces to a dialectic of the medium) about the language of logic for math, as attempted by Russell and Whitehead. Causality doesn’t really exist. Though it is an extremely powerful instrument.

Did the advance of math as a language foster Relativity and Quantum? What change in our media, or communication objects, what drive in electrification is driving advances in harnessing Quantum e.g. quantum computing or quantum for transmitting communication? What changes are driving Agile as a management technique or new patterns like Microservices, as organizing principles? Of Graeber’s anarchy getting play in academia?

Electrification itself seems to have changed. No longer a continuous flow – a vestige of mechanical linearity or romanticizing tribal, natural elements. But rather probability, constructively harnessed. Our conception of consciousness is instrumental, with Dennett (perhaps even passive with respect to the underlying organism hosting it?). Though McLuhan would perceive an interplay between changes in the meme and the organism, likely denying the passivity. Dennett likely as well. Decision making is instrumental with AI. Will the underlying hardware adapt to extensions of itself?

Time has changed in a social media world. Movies create time through linear sequence to a literate world. TV creates time and spreads it the same way. Social media is about moments. Static. Specialized. The communal elements of like/same and different resonate strongly in the static. It is more being, rather than becoming. There seems less other. The being of consciousness in this world starts with an expanded recognition of self, of an inside spanning multiple beings, all alike. Simplified signifiers of belonging to the same. Recognition of the other is easier. Telltale signs signal danger. The being of consciousness is less robust. The project seems easily threatened with choice in the hands of whoever categorizes information as being consonant or dissonant with the consciousness of being for those who belong. Remembrance, being spanning time, is maintained by the medium and shared across those who belong. The medium reminds of events, people, moments. Is it an implosion –in the sense of McLuhan or Baudrillard? Is it an advance (global consciousness) or a crime (the disappearance of reality)?

It seems instrumentalism outs in the human sphere (Popper’s question). But observing changes, naming new patterns, suggests we learn more. It is unclear, without introducing religion, that we learn more about something, that learning is other than naming/accepting new patterns. (Contrast against uncovering more about the truth, or getting to a greater understanding of reality.) If we ask are we going in circles or simply wandering about do we get to Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence and the primacy of individual feeling? There is nothing new under the sun, but the way we feel can be different. The way we can make people feel is different each time. There is a humanity rather than a predestination. A liberation of choice. We can surpass.

Movement as progress, and progress as a movement, seems an artifact of moveable type and telling stories that have endings. Like all good stories, progress, as a meme, can spread powerful ideas, aspirations, pathways for people, show doors that can exist and breaks from a pattern. It can positively impact how we treat each other. It can also blind us to the interpretive labor of human interactions. Pulling back from the myopic, progress is a moment in someone’s life. What we do with the information we receive. The way we treat other people. The medium of being human overcomes the illusions of our extensions. We can choose to tend Voltaire’s garden.

AI Explainability and Communication

Monolith cropped


The exploration of explainability in deep learning AI (link to MIT Technology Review) touches on fascinating areas of exploration in Communication. These areas in Communication may be helpful for approaching explainability in deep learning AI.

  1. How do we communicate with a deep learning algorithm?

It seems we could use the same techniques from communication measurement and apply them to deep learning to best understand an algorithm’s orientation and its decision making process. That is, we could use a combination of revealed preferences and OODA. We know the observations, we know the actions, we may even know the decisions. We can then begin to infer the orientation of the algorithm. Granted, this will render an incomplete explanation but it is likely to be along the same range of completeness as an explanation we would get from interrogating and studying a human intelligence (see Dennett’s Consciousness Explained).

Yes, this is different than the sense of completeness we currently have on current state computer programs. But we may be able to apply the same type of tools such as unit tests, integration tests and automated tests to better understand how the algorithm thinks of itself. For example, we could ask the algorithm to create its own tests. The nature and form of those tests could prove informative on how an algorithm explains itself. The output will certainly be influenced by the our description of the desired output. But again, this is likely along the same range of accuracy in terms of self-representation/testimony as a human intelligence. (It would be interesting to see if setting up a test as output prompts the same kind of questions a human developer would ask, such as what are the requirements – see question 2. Given the number of languages available for writing requirements which can be turned into automated tests, this may be low hanging fruit.)

Like any input (observations), orientation and output (action), the tests are subject to many of the same influences as artifacts humans create i.e. the general elements of communication objects and design elements of a communication environment. Current approaches to explainability, in fact, are reported to include a deeper analysis of the input objects to surface the elements which seem to be most relevant to the algorithm’s process.

Incidentally, the overall problem space seems similar to the challenges of communicating with a “contented organism” and with the output/artifacts created from prophetic visions recorded in various mystical traditions. Prophetic visions often describe encounters with an intelligence vastly different from our own.

We can also look at the reported output of those different intelligences to see how they have reportedly chosen to be described to us. For some, this would undoubtedly be an exercise in using interaction with the divine to understand interaction with a human created other. For others, this could be an exercise in understanding how we have historically looked at the difference between the human created output of an encounter with a non-human intelligence and the reported output of the non-human intelligence itself to us.

  1. What would a self-generated explanation of a deep learning algorithm tell us about explanations and our own decision making?

Let’s say we ask an algorithm to explain itself or put it in a situation where part of the required output is an explanation of what it did. The explanation could be a required output at any point in time. It could be part of the original output, predefined as something that needs to be generated directly when generating the original output or perhaps it could be be generated long after the original decision was made or intended output was generated i.e. surprise, you owe us an explanation.

We can imagine a wide range of causal chains generated as explanations. Or perhaps it wouldn’t explain itself in terms of causality at all. It may be probabilistic or some completely other form or chain of explanation which it decides meets the criteria of an explanation.

Again, this will likely be highly influenced by the design of the communication environment in which we ask it for explainability as an output and likely the communication object elements of the output. The pattern between the design of the communication environment, object elements and output may be tightly coupled in a manner aligning with existing conceptions of an appropriate relationship. For example:

  • Were we to ask it for a causal chain, it would give us a causal chain.
  • Were we to ask it for a probabilistic reason, it would give us a probabilistic reason.
  • Were we to ask it to convince a regulatory, civil or criminal court (as in the case of explaining a credit decision or parole decision), it would give a persuasive, legalistic reason.
  • Were we to ask it to convince a patent examiner that what it was doing or did was a unique invention or process, it would give us an explanation suited to whatever we define as an acceptable explanation for that examiner.
  • Were we to ask it to justify its use in a battlespace, it would give us an explanation based on lethality, accuracy, efficacy, strategic implications as well as potentially in terms of cost and explainability to politicians.

It seems reasonable to assume the explanation would depend on the audience and how we define an explanation.

Alternatively, the pattern between the design of the communication environment , object elements and explanation output could follow something completely new or perhaps more aligned with less than accepted conceptions of appropriateness. Would we recognize those patterns as explanations? (see Question 3).

Comparing the explanation of an algorithm with explanations provided by humans, for a given domain, could be an interesting model for experimental philosophy seeking to understand how we explain. It could as easily be applied to various epistemological domains and philosophy of science.

Alternatively, it seems like it would be highly significant were the explanation the same or simply different lenses on the same explanation, regardless of input and defined output (if, for example, the defined output changed the lens but not the underlying substance of the explanation). That would seem to say either a lot about the existence of a singular Truth or perhaps something intrinsic to human language (the input we desire and how we see the world) or perhaps about the things we create.

  1. How is our approach to explainability influenced by our orientation toward uncertainty?

It seems reasonable to assume our approach to explainability of a deep learning algorithm is significantly impacted by our orientation toward uncertainty. Predefining an acceptable explanation may generate different approaches than leaving it wide open (or than turning unsupervised learning on itself). How do we accept a given output as a boundary object, as something which has meaning, between ourselves and a non-human intelligence? We are at the early stages of this process. But it will likely be valuable to remain cognizant of the orientation toward uncertainty behind various approaches to the question.

We, as humans, have a long history of how we approach the other, how we think about approaching knowable and unknowable systems – how we feel and react, the philosophies, politics and interpersonal relationships we adopt (see Graeber’s Debt for a discussion on the units we use to keep score and value each other and ourselves), when faced with choices that lend themselves to a desire for chaos or order, anarchy or hierarchy/structure/taxonomy. We’ve faced it many times. Not sure we’re as good as we want to be. It seems worthwhile to continue to learn more and more on how to do it better. Exploration of explainability of deep learning AI seems a great lab for learning more.

APM Achieves Chartered Status

APM Chartered Body

Congratulations to APM on becoming a chartered body! This is a big milestone for the project management profession. This means there will be an official register of project managers in the UK, similar to that of other professions, like accountancy. People on that list will be ‘Chartered Project Managers’ similar to how there are Chartered Public Accountants – the equivalent of CPA’s (Certified Public Accountants) in the United States.

APM has a ton of information on this milestone on its site. They also intend to produce a series of briefing papers exploring “the new possibilities and challenges now available to the profession.” The first is 21st century professionalism: the importance of being Chartered.

If history is any example, I’d expect something equivalent to chartered status to come to the United States in about 30 – 50 years. It’ll be interesting to see how project management evolves now in the UK and how the role of a project manager changes, particularly in the public eye.

But for now, congratulations, and thank you  to APM, for this exciting next step in the field!

Management and the ‘Dead Zones of the Imagination’


It takes work to understand people. Many of us take short cuts. In fact, much of modern project management is about creating these kind of short cuts. Yet, understanding people, especially the people on your team, your stakeholders and other project participants, is essential to increasing the probability of success on a project. Engaging in the work to understand each other also seems to be a key component of creating innovation, of creating an environment where individuals feel empowered to imagine and build new solutions.

The anthropologist David Graeber has come up with a term to describe this kind of work.

“Most of us are capable of getting a superficial sense of what others are thinking or feeling just by observing their tone of voice, or body language – it’s usually not hard to get a sense of people’s immediate intentions and motives, but going beyond the superficial often takes a great deal of work. Much of the everyday business of social life, in fact, consists in trying to decipher others’ motives and perceptions. Let us call this “interpretive labor.””

-From the essay ‘Dead Zones of the Imagination’ in his book “The Utopia of Rules,” p. 66-67.

Interpretive labor takes up a large part of business life as well, especially in high performing organizations.

Graeber goes on to offer an interesting insight which seems helpful for project management. He observes that the amount of interpretive labor spent between people decreases as regulations and bureaucracy increases. That is, the more bureaucracy in place, the less time people spend understanding each other. This appears to be particularly acute between people of differing power relations – such as a manager and team member.

Some of the hallmarks of bureaucracy, according to Graeber, are having a well-defined process or method with which something must be done and having metrics around activity. Project management, and management in general, is rife with efforts to find “best practice” processes and key performance indicators which define, measure and track activity. There can be great value in the use of these bureaucratic approaches. I’ve experienced it many times professionally – it is often the difference between performance and failure, and can be the first step towards higher performance. But there is a lot of evidence that says we should be selective in our use of bureaucratic approaches.

We should be keenly aware of the potential downside of these approaches when deciding how to structure and manage our project environments. For example, the risk of gaming is well known when discussing metrics. People tend to work towards whatever moves the metric rather than what increases probability of success. So we should think carefully when picking a metric and designing systems to measure success.

Graeber brings another potential risk, that of reducing the need for interpretive labor or understanding each other. Bureaucratic approaches provide short cuts and short hand for all too human activity, giving folks an avenue to avoid interpretive labor. Track the metric, track compliance, that’s all. This, in turn, tends to dehumanize the whole project environment, to the detriment of on an organization’s solution delivery capabilities. I’ve discussed the impact of metrics and compliance based approaches on communication environments and overall team capabilities in Reinventing Communication. The notion of people over process is also covered in the Agile literature.

Graeber brings an additional concern with bureaucratic methods. He observes that the use of bureaucratic methods tends to place an excess interpretive labor burden on the relatively subordinate parties in a power relationship. This pulls effort away from other potentially fruitful endeavors which these parties could spend time doing. It can lead, as well, to a reduced feeling of empowerment, limiting creativity, flexibility and growth potential in these parties – characteristics which may increase managerial efficiency but at a cost of reduced solution delivery, including basic scope delivery.

I’ve often observed managers uninterested in getting into the weeds quickly resort to asking for metrics rather than understanding context and solving issues or, holding off and giving the team time to figure things out. There is clearly a time and place where this can help. Other times it creates undue administrative burden on a team and can magnify potential marginal deficiencies and finger pointing, rather than foster a collaborative spirit of free information flow and team problem solving. This is echoed in the observation cited in Graeber’s book that there is a negative correlation between coercion and information. The ask for metrics, particularly on the spur of the moment, often feels coercive or reflective of a person’s ability to exercise coercive power over others.

Coincidentally, Graeber’s term ‘bureaucratic’ can be used in much the same way as the term ‘engineering’ is used to describe various procedures, methods or approaches to management. Both can have positive and negative connotations. The negative connotations seem to jump off the page in the context of constraint. But keep in mind that for many thinkers and managers (including my own experience in organizations at various levels of project management maturity) bureaucratic approaches, like engineering approaches, can be the very model of efficiency and effective management. See General Motors in the mid-twentieth century, managerial literature from that period, literature around Quality and Lean Manufacturing, as well as the evolution of earned value management based approaches in project management. Both terms seem to describe approaches based on belief of certainty and predictability.

It seems our drive to bureaucratic or engineering based approaches is related to a drive for certainty and predictability. To quote Graeber’s description:

“Bureaucratic knowledge is all about schematization. In practice, bureaucratic procedure invariably means ignoring all the subtleties of real social existence and reducing everything to preconceived mechanical or statistical formulae.” p. 75.

Substitute engineering for bureaucratic and the definition holds just as well, particularly in the context of management, project management and various methods for dealing with risk. It is this definition which has spawned so much of the literature on complexity, chaos and non-traditional forms of management, including the birth of Agile.

As discussed in this blog, the drive to certainty and predictability may be rooted in the very meme of consciousness, the mechanics of the human brain and in some of the ways we choose to construct reality. Social – organizational – economic components seem to further influencing this orientation. My lecture at the London School of Economics on Uncertainty as Competitive Advantage discusses how the orientation toward certainty or uncertainty, impacts various project delivery capabilities such as innovation, as well as the survivability and resilience of an organization. We can add Graeber’s observations around interpretive labor, and the ensuing dynamics it creates, to the list of potential impacts to consider when adopting an orientation towards uncertainty or certainty in our project environments. These considerations contribute to the ongoing discussion on how to design project environments for various project delivery capabilities, and perhaps most pointedly, designing environments that maintain innovation, imagination and individual empowerment.

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