Monday, November 8, 2010

More Notes on Collectives: Command

Having broached the subject of collectives—and thrown out the notion that they more resemble primitive entities than conscious beings—I thought I that would add notes on the subject as they occur to me. Here is one.

Collectives—complained about from without—can also be viewed from within. We’ve all lived and worked inside them and have our opinions about the ones we know. My premise today? Those who think that collectives behave more or less like conscious individuals have never been in charge of one. Once you’ve experienced command, as it were, you know better. People who’ve held management jobs know this only too well—and they also know that the larger the group becomes the more it assumes a life of its own that no single person can—indeed should even aspire to—control. The effect of increasing size produces an organization—organs, in other words, thus division of labor. Lines of communication, in both directions, grow longer and more complicated. The more often a message passes from one person to the next, the more it tends to change. This change is only natural. Each recipient will adapt it in good faith to his or her immediate context—and will pass it on with some of that change sticking to the message. At every level measurements of performance tend to be present—implicit, explicit, indeed also those that the people measured don’t even know are being applied. The presence of these measurements influence the information that passes up and back; people will minimize bad news and try to “look good”; this deforms the information as it moves. You might say that coherence is lost in this process—or say that the coherence is “adapted” to the nature of the organism and, ultimately, only vaguely resembles the intention in the mind of the leader who initiates an action. The initiator, indeed, will be only vaguely aware of all of the many contexts that must be considered by the organism as a whole.

This then results in the creation of an entity that has a behavior, sure enough, but that behavior is not that of the individual who, in any one instance, actually carries it out. He or she is carrying out instructions, after all, not all of which he or she agrees with. Nor that of the individual who initiated it—who could not foresee precisely what would happen in the “process” along the way.

Partial consciousness of what is going on is present in every member of this artificial life—but no one person can see the whole entirely as it is. This is also true of all those who deal with this entity as its constituency. Not to be forgotten: the person in charge is always just a human being with limited talents and insight. And even if the talent is high, the insight deep, and the arrangements excellent, the very fact that a collective is at work will diminish all of these positives as they are ground away by the resistant medium of the many and of the other. My working premise is that we must have collectives, but we should not expect them to behave like people do—although individuals do make them up. A frequent reminder of this comes when I hear a charming recorded voice say to me: “Please stay on the line. Your call is important to us.”


  1. Baldy says: your various descriptions of ccollectives immediatly brings to mind Weston, Missouri. It is a town of 1500 population. It operates somewhat like a collective. No businesses thrive to the extent that the owners become rich. The main businesses are tobaccco, truck farming, small wood shops, the antique stores, grocery store, funeral home, churches, and other support businesses.

    Much of the business is done on trade, I'll do this if you do that. It reminds me of the good samaritanm story in the Bible. In Weston it is difficult not to help because problems are exposed for all to see. So much is done to help collectively. So I believe this town is on the edge of subsisdence living. Not everything is done well, but every thing is done.

  2. Interesting take on Weston. The feel of the place is as you describe it. Living in some reasonable adaptation to reality is a good thing, actually. When the brittle giants fall, the dwarfs are still there holding their axes.

  3. Baldy's comment makes me nod my head. Size does make a difference: there is an OPTIMAL size to most societal organizations. Add to the Weston example Lake Wolverine as another, though smaller, township where size also "gets things done" collectively, if perhaps not always as everyone may desire.

  4. Hey, the Village of Wolverine Lake is bigger than Weston, MO, just for the record...

  5. Wars have been started over lesser disagreements than that! Now there is a way for John to unify the council around his initiatives! The looming threat from Weston, MO....

  6. Now, my comments on this series of posts about collectives. A most interesting subject, really. What Baldy brought up was an aspect of the topic I hadn't even thought about.

    What came to my mind on reading these posts are many thoughts really... this is a most complex topic (one to be pondered by the individual more effectively than by a collective, no doubt.)

    Your underlying premise is argued well, that the individual is, by definition, a more efficient entity than a collective. And yet, we need collectives to make our way through this life... And, does your argument go as far as to suggest that a dictatorship is a better form of organizing a collective than an elective system since the former can impose the will and judgement of a single induvidual more efficiently?

    Tricky topic really. There is also the issue of size, as Baldy and Brigitte mention. There is also the issue of what the collective is designed to do... defend a group (military collective), provide medical care, produce something for sale, govern a people... The prose and cons on how each is organized to maximize the functionality of that collective for its given purpose is, well, quite a big topic really.

    Oh, and lets not even bring up the issue of mobs...

    Then again, I believe you were aiming at a more... basic and general truth about the difference between the individual and the group.

    Very interesting...

  7. Monique. Dictators no more control than elected executives--although their influence in some ways can be greater. No. I don't advocate dictatorship or royalty, either. As some of your other comments, I've got a couple more posts in the hopper on this subject--but not yet up...


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.