February 5, 2010

Obama's Dysfunctional Disinformation Dilemma

Hatched by Dafydd

I first learned about the "disinformation pyramid" from Robert Anton Wilson; Tim Leary later expanded upon the subject at a seminar I took from him about 25 years ago. Finally, I read a piece in a libertarian mailer titled "New Work for Idle Hands," or somesuch (it's in storage and unavailable to me for the moment); this piece developed several strategies for bringing the market to corporate structure.

You will see its obvious application to the present administration at the bottom of this post.

The basic premise is this: In a classically heirarchical structure, nobody benefits from passing only truthful communications. Contrariwise, everybody has an incentive to lie up, lie down, and lie sideways.

Information disincentive is disinformation incentive

Lying up: Because your boss has the power to fire you, demote you, or at the very least sideline you, and because many bosses love to "kill the messenger," it rarely works to your advantage to tell your boss something he doesn't want to hear, even if true.

Thus there is a great incentive to filter and edit your communications up the chain of command so that you make your boss happy... even if it's a false happiness. In fact, fooling your boss into believing in the Tooth Fairy and Santa Claus can work to your advantage: If he gets into trouble with somebody even higher up the chain, you can narc him out and possibly take over his job after he is removed.

Lying down: You know your subordinates are always out to get you (see above); if you tell them what's really going on, you've given them power over you: They know where the bodies are buried and which pressure points will hurt you.

In addition, since your job is probably phoney-baloney anyway, if your junior ever gets all the information, he can do your job alongside his own and not even have to stay late nights. You become vulnerable to redundancy disposal.

Therefore you have two good reasons to severely restrict communications flow to your underlings; not to let anybody see the Big Picture; to give disinformation to them (both to ensure loyalty and also to detect whether information has a way of escaping anybody); and in general to muck up the data flow, which only you know how to unravel, to maintain your own "irreplaceability."

Lying sideways: Your colleagues are not your friends; they are your most dangerous competitors. They work for the same boss; and since most businesses severely restrict either jobs themselves or at the very least power and authority within those jobs, advancement becomes a zero-sum game: You succeed by making your office friends fail -- and vice versa, naturally.

Are you going to tell your rivals everything you know? Are you going to tell them only the truth and never a convenient (to you!) fiction? Everybody reading this post knows the answer to that question.

The pyramid

In a classic corporate/government bureaucracy, power is represented by a pyramid: At the tippy top is one boss, the CEO in a corporate setting, or the head of some branch of government (emperor, king, president, governor, mayor).

Below the boss is a small privy council -- the board of directors perhaps, or else the cabinet or the various department heads.

Each member of that board or council has his own set of advisors, lieutenants, direct subordinates, and so forth all the way down. With every step down the food chain, the pyramid widens. Because of the disinformation incentive above, with every step up or down the pyramid, information quality and reliabilty degrades. The farther information travels vertically or horizontally, the less it resembles the real reality of the outside world.

The surreality based community

In addition, to avoid information overload, nodes at the higher levels must cut off communications from those too far down the chain; if the CEO actually tries to read all the suggestions in the suggestion box himself, he will quickly be overwhelmed.

So each node insulates himself from all but the nearest nodes (up, down, sideways) -- and those above him do the same, more and more ruthlessly with each step up the pyramid.

Thus, the higher up the pyramid we go, the fewer connections do the nodes have to reality, and the more dependent they are upon their direct subordinates -- each of whose greatest dream is to kill the boss and take his place. (Picture the "Mirror Mirror" universe from the original Star Trek.) At the very top, the capo di tutti capi is functionally schizophrenic: fully divorced from reality and non-functional.

If you study multinational corporations and powerful governments, and you sometimes think they must be utterly insane, please be reassured: Your perception is 20-20. Such a top-down, heirarchical structure has in essence implemented an informational Ponzi scheme; and it will end as all Ponzi schemes end: in complete collapse.

This may take a while; as Adam Smith wrote, "there is a great deal of ruin in a nation" -- or a multinational corporation. But the fall of General Motors and AIG are two good examples that eventually, all the ruin takes its toll. Both companies were felled, I am convinced, because their disinformation pyramids drove each to madness. Neither could respond to the mutable real world outside the corporate headquarters; each ceased to function as an independent entity... its name was jacked up and a new regime rolled underneath.

Short-circuiting the disinformation pyramid

That's the bad news; the good news is that there are techniques a boss can use to get around this design flaw in communications theory:

  • The first key is to cut through the isolation.

Each boss urgently needs sources of information and communications from outside the normal channels; that is, he needs spies and informants to tell him what's really going on. These spies must operate at a high enough level to get the necessary information, but a low enough level that they cannot expect to advance by knocking off their patron; rather, their fate depends upon the patron rewarding them.

The patron must make clear that the spies are rewarded for any information that checks out, good or bad for the patron: There is something to be said for getting a "heads up" about even the worst news! Let multiple spies compete, and give a cookie to the first to bring important information to the patron.

Naturally, each spy is also set to spy on the other spies, to guard against a double agent.

  • The second key to cracking the disinformation pyramid is to engage an oversight panel.

The oversight panel must be entirely outside the corporate structure, not subject to the boss' whims or rages. The panel would be an independent agency with a long-term contract, subject to periodic renewal, to continually measure the governmental or corporate behavior against the outer realm, and to report back to whichever boss or bosses engaged the panel.

It's vital that this panel not be directly paid or employed by the boss but rather independently contracted, so there is little incentive for toadying to the boss' prejudice. Basically, the oversight panel would keep checking to see whether the bureaucracy is actually achieving real-world results.

  • The third and most radical key is to decentralize the bureaucracy itself.

Instead of a corporate or governmental pyramid, the whole should be broken into independent corporate "business units" or governmental "service units."

- Each such unit is small, no more than twenty to fifty employees; that is about the largest group of humans that can be supervised by a single individual who knows how each member is actually performing.

- Each unit is functionally defined, by what it specifically does rather than by who is a member. (Individual employees can be in multiple units.)

For example, a software company might have a dozen units, each of which develops certain non-overlapping software library routines -- perhaps split into core functionality routines and user interface routines; it would also have product testing units, manufacturing units, distribution units, sales units (to sell existing product), marketing units (to find out what customers want), future technology units (to develop new products), accounting units, payroll and personnel units, and so forth.

- Each unit "communicates" with other units as in a free market -- by "buying" products from other units with budget funds, turning that input into a more valuable output, then "selling" the output to other units further along the production line. If a unit breaks down and is unable to pull its share, other units can reroute around the damaged unit until it is broken down and rebuilt.

- Each unit is modular and can be joined with other modular units into a functioning super-unit. The super-units can likewise be joined together. The entire corporation or government itself is nothing but a super-super...super-unit formed from many, many modules joined together.

Individual units can be members of multiple super-units. The idea is to make each final product line or specific government service a self-contained, functioning microcosm, with each unit boss (and super-unit boss) ultimately accountable for the output from his unit or super-unit.

- By analogy, think of a corporation as a mall made up of individual stores. Each store is a "business unit;" the individual mall is a super-unit comprising the individual stores, plus a rental unit, facilities unit, accounting unit, parking unit, security unit, and so forth. The chain of all such malls is a super-super-unit formed from the super-units, and so forth.

When a particular store fails to generate enough output (sales) to pay for its necessary inputs from other units (mall space rental from the rental unit, electricity and other services from the facilities unit, franchise fees, security costs, etc.), it's closed down; and a new mall store/unit is opened in its place.

The idea is to infect the feudal bureaucracy with the beneficial "disease" of Capitalism by turning a giant corporate pyramid into a hive of entrepeneurial business units, or by turning a dysfunctional government department into a network of functioning service units.

A government example

Note that the branch of the United States government that has already done the best job of implementing this decentralization is, oddly enough, the military service: America gives more authority to junior officers and senior NCOs -- and demands more accountability for results -- than any other country in the world. Under Donald Rumsfeld we made our military into an interlinked network of small, individual, self-contained combat units, which can join together or break apart into combined-arms forces of any size necessary (depending on the specific task).

It's a wonderful model for the rest of the government. And upon further thought, it's not odd at all: The military is the branch of government most forcefully and immediately impacted by the real-world result of its efforts, so it's not suprising that it has moved quickest to confront, on our own proactive terms, the fast-moving, adaptive, small, and independent enemy we have faced since the 1970s and Vietnam.

The case at hand

All right, with the prolog out of the way, let's turn our analysis to the current President of the United States, Barack H. Obama:

  1. Obama sits atop a heirarchy that is shaped like a classic pyramid.
  2. He considers himself a philosopher-king, so he surrounds himself with nothing but acolytes.
  3. He isolates himself from other information sources -- and even from his own closest advisors; he always knows best.
  4. He makes no effort to reach down the ranks to find out what the "little people" want or how they're doing. Subordinates' only function is to translate his vague pronunciamentos into action plans that more or less match what he said, or at least can be plausibly claimed to match it; they have no independent existence and should be seen but not heard.
  5. He does not accept external oversight even in theory; it's an affront to his own absolute moral and legal authority. It gives him a pain even to have to deal with Congress (a task he generally "delegates" to powerless flunkies who cannot even make deals).
  6. He certainly has no interest in or intention of decentralizing the federal government; rather, he would like to consolodate more and more power in his own hands, even to the point of nationalizing banks and corporations, allowing him to rule more of the economy by decree.
  7. He is not self-reflective enough to realize the pickle he has gotten himself into; he does not comprehend how damaged his own communications have become.
  8. Ergo, his is an administration that has become a classic disinformation pyramid.
  9. It is increasingly cut off from reality.
  10. Its isolation is a feedback loop.
  11. It is functionally insane.
  12. Q.E.D.

See? Once one properly frames the early lemmas, the final theorem writes itself.

Hatched by Dafydd on this day, February 5, 2010, at the time of 5:06 AM

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The following hissed in response by: snochasr

Perhaps why General Electric's vaunted management was based on a hierarchy no more than 4 deep. Part of the advantage to that would be a large number of colleagues at each level, such that no one would dare pass disinformation up, lest they be contradicted by another colleague either bright enough to point out the lie, or too un-bright to conceal the truth.

The above hissed in response by: snochasr [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 5, 2010 6:26 AM

The following hissed in response by: LarryD

It's been a long time, but somewhere I came across the datum that only about 1/3 of information made it up a level. Or maybe it was 1/3 loss, I'm not sure.

But even optimistically, that comes to only 28% of information making it up from level 1 to level 4.

The above hissed in response by: LarryD [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 5, 2010 12:40 PM

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