An Administrator’s Lament

I bet you could prove me wrong, but I have come to FEEL that all institutions rot and hollow out.

I met the founder of a school that will take somebody with no programming experience and get them hired by a startup as a coder in just weeks. They’ve delivered on this promise every time to date. If you take a job through them (the jobs are cool) the school even refunds you part of your money. They offer scholarships too. It’s not totally transparent but it’s relatively small and appears to be a well-managed and subjectively good business.

When the founder heard about the way we handle money (as if it is the students’ not the school’s), he said: I’m a capitalist. If you believe in what you’re doing you shouldn’t be ashamed to make a profit. If you deprive yourself of resources you compromise your ability to deliver on your value-proposition. More resources might mean teaching more students, or just continuing to teach.

You walk right out of the super-clean officey-type campus and right in front of you is the Wall Street bull.

Advising us vaguely on the future, he said that he thinks we have three options: become a non-profit so that we can take full advantage of grants, donors, and sponsors (which are difficult for a technically for-profit school to pull off); run it like a business with a full-time staff, teachers, and space; or run it as something different from or perhaps less than a “real” school: maybe just night classes and weekends.

I don’t disagree with his points.

But for us non-profit status might be more overhead than I could stomach. If it took even one full-time employee to oversee paperwork I would die a bit inside. I don’t want non-profit paperwork to be anyone’s job here. We didn’t need it to start — hell, we didn’t even have a bank account! — why should we need overhead to continue on?

To get some godforsaken startup lingo off my chest: profit creates a buffer which creates institutional inertia which builds stability which allows for focus which improves everyone’s ability to deliver on a value-proposition that I’ve already forgotten if we even have. For an experimental school [profit|buffers|inertia] are a double-edged sword. What happens when one day you realize you’re propelled by nothing but inertia to keep de-liv-er-ing val-ue? What when your ideas have become stagnant? What when your ideas are yet-to-be-conceived?

I don’t remember whether it was a nightmare I had or a story somebody told me, but: several collaborators became massively popular, so much so that demand for their work far outstripped their ability to supply it. They brought on an army of assistants and interns and still couldn’t meet demand. Perversely, meeting demand for their work only created more demand for their work. They stumbled upon an idea to appease ravenous collectors: selling work they hadn’t yet made. Not only was it crazy, but it worked. They sold years of promissory artworks. They took over the whole floor of a sunlit building and built a luxurious studio. I imagine that they never have to worry about money again. But the work is (by all accounts outside of their circle of rich, ignorant patrons) BAD. Even the artists are bored. You can see it in their eyes. To make matters worse: things are tense. Members of the group whose names weren’t on the paperwork began to peel off to do better work. The collaborators don’t talk easily anymore and have taken to managing separate aspects of the practice. They’re, in some ways, trapped. Their comfortable, boring, tense life is funded by dollars drawn from work they have yet to make together. There’s nobody driving this train! And there’s no easy exit.

So what’s an alternative to this? Not taking advance money for things you have yet to make? Being careful not to make too much of a profit? Awkwardly considering ephemerality at every decision point? Embracing a sporadic existence?

A businessman approached with the idea of a sporadic institution might be see it as something on the brink of collapse or failure. That’s because the ephemeral institution’s default state is not growing, profitable, comfortable, boring, tense inertia…but: potential energy. A resting network of individuals, resources, and ideas awaiting the charter of its next constellation.

There’s a weight to having resources and a freedom in forcing yourself to shut down and start over early and often. You can tell you’re thinking in terms of Return On Investment if that sounds backwards to you.

Starting something is hard enough, so it’s scary to consider building a framework in which you intentionally shut yourself down like clockwork to rehustle as if you’re just starting out. Self-sabotage?! Self-inflicted trauma!? (The warnings of smart and kind but still capitalists.)

Again, this sounds crazy, but: if you’re liked well enough, you won’t be able to run fast enough to outpace support. The gradual decline into comfortable, boring, tense, rich, ignorant, trapped — at some point forever imposed on you.

The-most-fucked-up-thing-of-all: time accrues. No matter how small you try to stay fiscally, bureaucratically — time grows you up. Simply by virtue of having existed for consecutive minutes, months, years you’re expected to legitimize (as if you didn’t start off running from its logical conclusion): a storage unit, taxes, insurance, payroll, audits, correspondence. Whole industries around not letting experiments stay young forever.

Maybe in a year there’ll be a staff of 25 and franchises from Shanghai to Dubai. I can only see that kind of future when I squint beyond the horizon of some twisted alternate universe. But I’ve lived it before, so when I meet with our accountant it literally hurts to think I’ll live it again.

Every day, the world over, large amounts of high-level radioactive waste created by nuclear power plants is placed in interim storages, which are vulnerable to natural disasters, man-made disasters, and to societal changes. In Finland the world’s first permanent repository is being hewn out of solid rock - a huge system of underground tunnels - that must last 100,000 years as this is how long the waste remains hazardous.

Once the waste has been deposited and the repository is full, the facility is to be sealed off and never opened again. Or so we hope, but can we ensure that? And how is it possible to warn our descendants of the deadly waste we left behind? How do we prevent them from thinking they have found the pyramids of our time, mystical burial grounds, hidden treasures? Which languages and signs will they understand? And if they understand, will they respect our instructions? While gigantic monster machines dig deeper and deeper into the dark, experts above ground strive to find solutions to this crucially important radioactive waste issue to secure mankind and all species on planet Earth now and in the near and very distant future.

Michael Madsen, Into Eternity

Instead of being addressed just to you, the second person, discourse is revealed as discourse in the universality of its address….It no longer has a visible auditor. An unknown, invisible reader has become the unprivileged addressee of the discourse.” Hermeneutics, once again is the art of literary correspondence where no reply is possible. Since the text’s intended audience is gone, it can be read only in conditions of eavesdropping. Hermeneutics involves the interpretation of stray texts. Though theorists of hermeneutics are rarely as explicit about the strangeness of the operation as we will find Kafka or even Emerson to be, the challenge is to stand in the place of those “invisible auditors”—in short, to “mate with the dead,” as Nietzsche put it.

As Raymond Williams puts it in a serviceable but too psychological definition, communications are “the institutions and forms in which ideas, information, and attitudes are transmitted and received.” They might include tombs, hieroglyphics, writing, coins, cathedrals, stamps, flags, clocks, the press, the post, telegraphy, photography, cinema, telephony, phonography, radio, television, cable, computer, the Internet, multimedia, virtual reality, or any other signifying medium. “Communication,” in contrast, I take as the project of reconciling self and other. The mistake is to think that communications will solve the problems of communication, that better wiring will eliminate the ghosts.

John Durham Peters, Speaking into the Air: A History of the Idea of Communication

My opinion from years of volunteering is that money ruins every volunteer effort. As soon as a need receives funding, it becomes a noun and a product instead of an action. As soon as a project is allowed to fundraise, there is a need to manufacture scarcity, to withhold work until payment is received and to continue the need for the project. And as soon as a project receives money, the motives of the person receiving money are suspect.

I do not want to go to a ‘crowd funding website’ and ask a centralized go-between to stand between me and anyone who chooses to support me. I do not want to waste my time creating glossy videos and applications to explain to strangers what you already know, my work. I do not want to ally myself with corporate media or NGO’s, I am trying to make both obsolete. I do not want to develop a persona, tell you all about my personal life, appear on panels and talks to become a character and a brand; I am an action not a noun and I value my right to privacy.

I do not want to be the designated official person for any action I initiate, I want to be free to let others take my place whenever I find people willing. I want to continue to promote others instead of seeking to enhance my own reputation for a livelihood. I want to give freely my ideas and work to anyone who can use them instead of hoarding them to myself for profit.

I do not want to ask you to support every action I take. I will not delay my work waiting for approval or funding. Most of what I work on are things that nobody knows of or supports, that is why I give them my priority. I do not want to jump on popular, widely supported causes to gain support. I want to continue to speak even when everyone disagrees with me as they very frequently do. I want to speak for Gaza when the world says it is anti-semitic to do so, I want to speak for the DRC when the west doesn’t know or care where that is, I want to speak for the Rohingya when no one believes me. I want to criticize democracy, consensus, peer to peer economies, libertarianism and Marxism when everyone I know supports them. I want to advocate for people who have no supporters or funding behind them and tell people about things they may not want to know about.

I do not want to sell you a book, a talk, art, advocacy, a button or a T-shirt, anything I do is available to you as always, for free. But I want it recognized that what I do is not ‘unemployment’, that I am a contributing and valuable member of society entitled to the benefits of society. I want to have the human dignity of societal approval and recognition. I want to be able to support myself and others in society without any of us becoming a product.

If you do approve of the actions I have taken in the past and the work I do, if you trust that I am a valuable member of your community and I would not take more than I require, and if you agree that my time is better spent on my work than in trying to justify my work to strangers, please consider supporting me. If you are unable to support me directly please vouch for my work to others who may be able to.

Heather Marsh, Approval Economy in Practice

The systems analysis community has a lot of lore about leverage points. Those of us who were trained by the great Jay Forrester at MIT have all absorbed one of his favorite stories. “People know intuitively where leverage points are,” he says. “Time after time I’ve done an analysis of a company, and I’ve figured out a leverage point — in inventory policy, maybe, or in the relationship between sales force and productive force, or in personnel policy. Then I’ve gone to the company and discovered that there’s already a lot of attention to that point. Everyone is trying very hard to push it IN THE WRONG DIRECTION!”

The classic example of that backward intuition was my own introduction to systems analysis, the world model. Asked by the Club of Rome to show how major global problems — poverty and hunger, environmental destruction, resource depletion, urban deterioration, unemployment — are related and how they might be solved, Forrester made a computer model and came out with a clear leverage point1: Growth. Not only population growth, but economic growth. Growth has costs as well as benefits, and we typically don’t count the costs — among which are poverty and hunger, environmental destruction, etc. — the whole list of problems we are trying to solve with growth! What is needed is much slower growth, much different kinds of growth, and in some cases no growth or negative growth.

The world’s leaders are correctly fixated on economic growth as the answer to virtually all problems, but they’re pushing with all their might in the wrong direction.

Donella Meadows, Leverage Points

In a major blow to the stadium’s management, the Beijing Guoan Soccer team declined an offer to make the Bird’s Nest their new home field, citing the embarrassment of playing in a nearly empty stadium. They typically attract 10-11,000 spectators; the Bird’s Nest, even after being recently downsized, still seats 81,000 people.

I’m sure that the upcoming London Olympics will lack the grandeur of the 2008 Beijing Games. The Bird’s Nest, of course, was a key element in this spectacle. But London has at least got it right with respect to seating capacity in Olympic stadium design.

The new facility being built in East London has removable upper tiers, which will reduce its post-Olympic seating capacity to a manageable 50,000 spectators. Indeed, the Premiership team West Ham is already very keen to take over the facility after the 2012 games.

China Daily on Olympic architecture designed to shrink

When people speak of the future and all of the things humans will be able to create, rarely do they consider all of the things humans have already created which need constant upkeep and maintenance in order to not fail critically.

Add in the chemical weapons storage depots, the bio-warfare weapons depots, the thousands of chemical plants, fertilizer plants, oil wells, refineries, nuclear research facilities, nuclear warships and nuclear waste storage facilities, and it becomes hard to fathom how a point won’t come when a large portion of human effort won’t be dedicated to merely maintaining what civilization has built while attempting to mitigate disasters caused by aging and dilapidated infrastructure. All of this while trying to grow a civilization and its technological capacity as fish stocks disappear from the rapidly acidifying oceans and top soil blows away from drought parched and poorly managed fields.

Eamon Farrelly, Maintaining Our Collective Clunker

Maybe there are biological systems that already follow this practice, at least loosely. I’m thinking of seeds that are activated by the heat of a forest fire. It’s like: “Oh no! Worst-case scenario! Fiery apocalypse! … Exactly what we were designed for.” And I’m thinking of bears hibernating—a sort of controlled system crash every winter.

What else could we apply crash-only thinking to? Imagine a crash-only government, where the transition between administrations is always a small revolution. In a system like that, you’d optimize for revolution—build buffers around it—and as a result, when a “real” revolution finally came, it’d be no big deal.

Or imagine a crash-only business that goes bankrupt every four years as part of its business plan. Every part of the enterprise is designed to scatter and re-form, so the business can withstand even an existential crisis. It’s a ferocious competitor because it fears nothing.

Robin Sloan, Only Crash

Nearly a century ago a French sociologist wrote that every institution’s unstated first goal is to survive and grow, not to undertake the mission it has nominally staked out for itself. Thus the first goal of a government postal service is not to deliver the mail; it is to provide protection for its employees and perhaps a modest status ladder for the more ambitious ones. The first goal of a permanent military organization is not to defend national security but to secure, in perpetuity, a fraction of the national wealth to distribute to its personnel.

It was this philistine potential that teaching the young for pay would inevitably expand into an institution for the protection of teachers, not students - that made Socrates condemn the Sophists so strongly long ago in ancient Greece.

John Taylor Gatto, Dumbing Us Down