Friday, January 4, 2013

Hierarchy Part 1: To Begin

How Society Organizes Itself

"All things are subject to interpretation. Whichever interpretation prevails at any given time is a function of power, and not truth."                  -Nietzsche
Warning, January 2016: this is a long blog, one of the first I wrote, long before even trying for brevity. You're going to need a solid half hour to really get anything of value from it.

I'm not sure what, of my ideas, has been stated before and what hasn't, so feel free to inform me of what this looks like in the comments. The topic is human hierarchies. I'm going to address Weber and his divisions of hierarchical style as I go through; I cannot address every theoretical style I know of because the social sciences have nothing really solid beyond Weber as far as hierarchical types go, and some writers have thrown out possible alternatives all over the place. Few of them have been really vetted by anyone, no decisions about what type of perspective is best, since academia doesn't really make decisions about what ideas have value and what ideas don't. Different theories just gain in popularity and occasionally fall, possibly replaced by something more appealing, market style. Now, it's my turn.

A note on convention: dividing concepts (and by concepts, I mean everything that can be analyzed, so basically everything) into types is THE age-old method for understanding things better. You break something down to its component parts to understand its function in order that you may comprehend how it works and, ostensibly, be able to use that knowledge, empowering yourself. This is a large part of what academia does to gain insights. There's nothing wrong with it, but particularly when we discuss something that develops organically instead of by design, it should be understood that all divisions are matters of convenience. There are always alternative ways to understand how something works, and that applies even to man-made stuff. Go to a grocery store to shop for milk, and you will likely divide the milk up by volume of the containers; generic and name-brand, notable for price differences; type of milk, like 2% or Vitamin D; and otherwise, you won't notice much. Your priorities are probably on price and taste. Someone else, someone with an activist streak, might subdivide it up as which milk is in eco-friendly containers, which milk is made by a company known to abstain from hormone use in cows, and the like. The differences make a big difference to much of what I'm going to say, because after the initial subdivision, the focus will shift towards hierarchies that revolve around perceptions and values. For our two hypothetical milk shoppers, they will have different perceptions of what matters in milk, where the important divisions are to be made, because they have different values. They will focus on aspects of the milk differently because of divergences in priorities and, to some minor extent, worldview. This makes all the difference in the world when we're talking about how people organize their world.

The key term here is values, which as a concept, joins economic and philosophical ideas. At the risk of stating the blindingly obvious, subjective values have a tremendous impact on our actions; through our actions, we bring our values into the world. We direct physical resources and each other's actions in accordance to our values, a tremendous substantiation of power. So this needs to be broken down, systematized a bit... and you should probably ignore the contradiction between my appreciation for systematization and my appreciation for Nietzsche, who hated systematization.

The Big Split: Explicit and Implicit Hierarchies

As I said, all subdivisions are matters of convenience, and the most important division to be made when dealing with hierarchy is to split the concept of hierarchy as practiced by people into the two types: explicit and implicit.

Explicit Hierarchies

Explicit hierarchies are what most people think of when they think about hierarchy. These are the jobs with rank on the uniform or title after the name on the business card. When you see a diagram that looks like a pyramid or something, and it's got names in positions and all that, you're seeing a hierarchy. There are a lot of different ways to organize them; in fact, a recent trend in business is to NOT organize them at all, to just get people together and let them work things out. But the thing about explicit hierarchies is that they are known. There's no hiding their nature; the system exists and the people in it are fully aware of its existence, what their role in it is, what their title is, and what their responsibilities are. Most often, such hierarchies are institutional, but that doesn't mean they are part of institutions where they reside. That puts the emphasis in the wrong place. The hierarchy IS the institution. All the physical trappings of it exist only to house the people within it, whose operations make up the actual institution. Explicit hierarchies are generally what happens when something needs to get done, so people are organized, and the roles of the individuals fit into a system of organization that turns the people from a mob into a machine. Jonathan Haidt would call them 'super-organisms'.

Now, not all explicit hierarchies are the same and some are better designed than others. In most, there is constant concern over corruption and constant debate over who is exactly supposed to do what, where the privileges and limitations are, and so on. That is among the greatest strength of explicit hierarchies; the organization can be manipulated by rules, the rules stemming from values that are assumed to be broadly shared among those with an interest in the group. The goals of the group - anything from the broad and basic need for the group to continue surviving to the specific needs of modern states, corporations, and political movements - are assumed to be legitimate because the members of the group all share a perspective which values the fruits of the group's labor. All these goals, from defense to profit to glorifying David Hasselhoff, give rise to a functionalist notion of hierarchy, one organized around the realization of something valued by those in the group. This understanding of organization focuses on specialization, which conveniently need not be seen through the lens of power so long as everyone is doing what they're supposed to be doing.

It will come as no surprise to anyone who's ever been a part of an explicit hierarchy that there's the theory as to how it is supposed to work, and then there's how it actually works. Sometimes, it doesn't work at all. Sometimes, it works despite itself, because if the goal that the organization is supposed to achieve is important and therefore valuable (like staying in business or winning the war), then the people who are a part of it will adapt, change arrangements, maneuver in order to get the big stuff taken care of. (this kind of behavior forms a parallel implicit hierarchy) That's all a matter of incentives. It's probably best to look at explicit hierarchies as a theoretical framework only. They evolve in many different ways, are extremely sensitive to the personalities involved, extremely sensitive to the beliefs and values of the people within, and can be affected tremendously by perceptions of good or bad function and a million other factors. Keeping one running smoothly requires a certain competence that's different for every organization but where certain abilities - leadership, being organized, being a good judge of character, having a sense of purpose - usually pay off.

Most of these hierarchies, in contemporary times, are not presented as being hierarchical in the old-school sense. The positions people hold are not explicitly positions of power, but are rather assumed to be functional subdivisions; John, head of accounting, makes more money and talks to the boss face to face, but that's a functional necessity of his accounting job, not necessarily a statement that John is superior to other workers. In some cases, the company may explicitly say that John has the capacity to give instruction, demanding compliance, only in his own department and even then only in a very limited scope. Shawn the janitor still knows better than to call John a cocksucker to his face, of course, because this is mostly bullshit. Cultural self-deceptions will come into the conversation later, but the concept of functionalism allows a manner of excusing itself and appeasing popular conceptions of right and wrong, without losing the benefits of organization.

There are lots of other ways to break down explicit hierarchy, but it's important to understand that they vary widely in operating philosophy and, therefore, in the levels of control used. Except for the most committed anti-statists, we are all a part of at least one: the government (in my case, of the US). Certain people in the government have the prerogative to make important judgments that affect the lives of others, the code of law relies on cultural understandings of what's right and wrong, etcetera.

Implicit Hierarchies

This category encapsulates much of the direction of my thought over the years and a full reckoning of its workings won't fit on this blog, so I'll try to be clear here and not fit everything onto one post. If you think this idea is complete bullshit, then this entire blog probably isn't for you.

Implicit hierarchies operate with no assumed structure, and the differences in value between different people arise as a result of individual evaluations. Basically, implicit hierarchies operate like markets.

When you look at a product in a market, you can often come to some conclusions about how valuable something is, what you'd pay for it, or what someone else would have to pay for it for you to call them a dumbass. You know that some things are more valuable than others. This could be because some things are more useful in the raw utilitarian sense, but to make yet another division of convenience, there are items useful because of what they do, and items useful because of what they are. We're talking about two different kind of value here, but both of them play in the perception of the subject. In any case, whatever type of value is at work, one thing should be obvious: as a matter of real-world importance, not everything is created equal.

This applies to people, too. You do judge people as you go through your life, even if you say you don't and you hate the idea. We push equality and non-judgmentalism very hard, but to not evaluate people is to refuse honest thought. You know that you don't value your mother the same way you value someone who's name you picked randomly out of a phone book. You know the formal structures of positions and authority at work, and then you know who you get along with, who actually has good information, which people turn to for advice regardless of their title. If you own the business, you know where your most valuable consumer demographics are, and who your most reliable employees are; you need this information, because your ass relies on people's performance. In your family, you know who can be counted on and who you shouldn't loan money to and who's marriage is going to fail. You can say people are different and that doesn't make them better or worse, but when something actually needs to be done, or things like money or marriage that you value are at risk, that sort of thinking has to go out the window by necessity. It's also been fairly well-proven that people prefer to spend time around others who are similar to them; how closely you identify with someone affects how you evaluate them. Thus, you organize people as you do products in a market, or to put it another way, you dice up the parts of your social environment and prioritize in accordance to your values. This means that there is an emergent hierarchy, one for every participant, that is quite fluid and does not operate by giving orders in the sense of an explicit hierarchy. It holds power because of how it can influence the subject; your values, constantly changing, change in response to what, and who, you think is important. We aren't talking about who you have to tolerate telling you what to do at work, or in any other analogous situation; we're talking about the people who you look up to, the people you need, the people who affect your values. Some people are evaluated as being higher than others with enough consistency to give those people greater influence over the social environment.

And, of course, we have enough perception to look at ourselves through this lens, albeit with tremendous distortions. The consequences for holding a low esteem among others can be severe. You know that when someone is disappointed, disgusted, pitying, or dismissive with you, you don't have much value to them. The game revolves around perceptions, which makes it superficial in our way of understanding it, but it is a necessary and highly refined superficiality. We can communicate quite a bit with someone we don't know well through understood facial expressions, posture, dress, and references to common experiences. (Have you ever had a conversation with someone you didn't know but who liked the same movies you like? Easy, isn't it?) Icebreakers and shared worldview keep things together, forms of communications without outright communication, signals creating an entire dimension that we usually aren't consciously aware of.

We've been doing this kind of thing since we were kids. Making friends in school was always a matter of finding the people who are like you, which raises the perception that you are both yourself valuable and worth the company of someone likeable. Same with dating; you find someone on your level, or maybe a bit above. (The best possible scenario with a couple is two people who are both slightly delusional, thinking themselves unworthy of the other, lucky to be there. The expectations work out nicely.) Associating with those 'above your pay grade' makes you look good and primes you to move up, although associating with people WAY higher than you usually will just make everyone uncomfortable and make you look like a sycophantic douchebag. It's complicated, obviously, particularly in America, a nation of endless informal, implicit subdivisions but with a passionate hatred of explicit hierarchy.

The perspective at work here is so obvious - what I'm referring to will be instantly recognizable to most people as the philosophy of success - that some people will be tempted to say that it's pointless to discuss it. But even in economics, where unequal value should be assumed, the official assumption is that people are equal and it's only their labor or some such other tangential quality that comes in for judgment. The idea that economic dynamics actually describe the dynamics of power in a hierarchical sense, or the workings of self-esteem to some relevant degree, doesn't get much play, unless you're an Objectivist. Even then, hierarchy is not the chosen word. America's hatred of hierarchy, literally written into the Declaration, has made honest discussion of it moot, even though addressing it as a fact of life might be preferable to denial.

So organize the people you care about into your own personal rankings system. Assign everyone a value, like a dollar value, in accordance to where they rank. If you duplicate this process with everyone and then throw everyone's values together, aggregate them, you'd probably begin to see patterns that look like a social hierarchy we'd recognize. Again, that's assuming people were being honest, and they usually aren't; lots of people would probably say that they value the homeless guy the same as they value the CEO, but that's what society has told them is the right thing to say. In reality, those people would probably move some things around on their schedule and wait in line for a couple of hours to see an actress who showed up in town to sign autographs, or be extra-nice to a foreign dignitary who showed up where they work with with bevy of armed guards. The president of Monsanto might not be liked, but the fact that thousands or millions of people have an opinion of him at all shows his importance, his social power, in contrast to normal people. Such people can create a reaction that most people cannot, and you have to admit, getting a negative reaction is, in some ways, better than getting no reaction at all. The reinforcements at play matter. People are reacting to you. The homeless guy might get some pocket change. If actions speak louder than words, then you simply can't deny that people value one another unequally.

An economist, being very open-minded, might see some shade of the term 'utility schedule' in here, or some of Samuelson's 'revealed preferences', but it goes much deeper. Unless you're a moral realist - and only the really unimaginative people can adopt that position seriously - you know that values are circumstantial and encapsulated in nothing more solid than the individual mind. So if values aren't solid, then where do they come from? What forces prompt significant change in what you care about?

Individual reason as the decision making variable is effectively out; Dr. Haidt has done excellent research to undermine that myth. Instead, intuition now guides, and our intuitions have a source: society, as we perceive it, guides them. The circumstances of our existence, almost entirely man-made, and therefore social in nature, guide them. The deep source of our decisions is far more emotional than rational, or more accurately, our emotions have a deep-seated logic to them that is often misunderstood. That logic comes from how we adapt to our social environment. Some social and biological sciences have started moving in the direction of figuring those adaptations out, but they probably aren't going anywhere unless they understand the hierarchical nature of human interaction.

Given that the implicit/explicit divide is a matter of convenience and not some deep-lined fact, every form of social organization has elements of both implicit and explicit in them. Personal disputes, stemming from personal relationships which always have some shade of implicit hierarchy to them (even if the respective position changes minute-by-minute), constantly bring up 'technicalities' (Were we actually even dating then? Did I say I would come by tomorrow, or did I say I'd come by when I had the time? What promises have I made, and what are the consequences for breaking them?) Even the most rigid working environment still has people who's jobs are made easier by showing respect to particularly valuable members of the team. Trying to work out issues of interpersonal power drives culture, and most of our passionate, involving emotions - love and hate, jealousy and greed, change and tradition, taboos and stigmas - have roots in power struggle. The issues at play define the lion's share of who we are.


Can you measure any of this? Sure. Money is the form of measurement we're used to when it comes to gauging power - I would make the case that money is socially legitimate power - but there are other currencies, and probably the most under-recognized is attention. This will eventually get its own post, but for now, look at attention as cultural currency. If you want to influence people, first things first, you have to get their attention. It's a very precious commodity, like gold, and every advertiser in the world knows it. Marketing is skill meant to use money to get attention, then take that attention and turn it into a greater amount of money. It's attention investment. You don't simply appeal to people's values in doing this; you can change people's values by creating certain perceptions.

Seen from this perspective, the hypothetical marketplace of ideas can take some genuine shape. With attention as the currency, ideas become products, created and marketed like physical products, transported along an infrastructure of communications technology varying in sophistication from language, to face-to-face mouth-and-ears conversation, to physical writing, to books, to the internet. What do these products look like? You know the answer: from religious ideas like God to philosophical ideas like justice, from love of the football team to the impression that Hondas are reliable, they all count. Art, specifically, gains a measure of respect when done well; art is a highly compressed form of communication, the jpeg of human interaction. In fact, you could make an excellent argument that all communication is a matter of art, not news at all to rhetoricians and poets. Nietzsche's characterization of all language as metaphor, from On Truth and Lying, holds here.

In a situation where the individual makes the decisions, and those decisions aggregate to push society on its path, being able to attract attention and use it skilfully means having a tremendous level of power. The same can be said for money, and the similarities in the issues surrounding the two currencies are striking. Most of the issues that come up with the money supply - our concerns over its distribution, inflation, deflation, currency crises - could theoretically come up with attention as well, albeit with limits; no central attention bank will be printing off fiat attention. But to the extent that money can be used to gauge power over material goods, so attention can be used to gauge cultural influence today. We can talk like entertainment doesn't affect behavior, but plenty of people have woken up to the realization that understandings of what society considers right and wrong can be drawn from what's popular. At times, these exposures inform us where the limits are, and what other people like. And in a world where people have more choices than ever when it comes to what they pay attention to, understanding what works in drawing attention is a tremendous asset in the power struggle. To maximize power, you need to know the trends.

The idea of an 'attention economy' is not new, and people in the business and advertising world have been pursuing the idea for years already. But philosophically, the idea has drawn little appreciation. Economically, it doesn't draw enough. Only businesspeople - who are more sophisticated in their understanding of people anyway - really seem to be interested in systematizing the idea at all. But you cannot deny the modern importance of having lots of brand recognition, or lots of blog visits (thanks!), or on a more personal note, lots of interest from the opposite sex, or having friends that are willing to spend real time listening to you and focusing on your problems. In many cases, attention is invested by people on terms more old-fashioned than rational: doing what a friend is supposed to do, being a good boss, learning about serious problems because it's 'right' in some sense beyond economic thinking. But it IS economic thinking. Personal commitments are investments of attention, and the security of living in communities, having families, muscling through hard times and taking part in the reciprocal altruism that forges relationships makes economic sense if viewed through a certain lens. The development of this lens forms the focal point of praxeology as I'm trying to move it.

Ideas on the development of social structure and culture need to take into account the distribution of attention for the same reason they need to take the distribution of money into account. Certainly there have been significant effects, the most obvious being technological innovations like the printing press and the web. Some of the functional purposes of religion could probably be better understood through this lens as well. Religion's ability to affect the values of people, to promote certain social attitudes and social structures, has certainly relied on the expectation that religious ideas can draw the attention of the community regularly. In some way, our values are forged by what we pay attention to, so the flow of ideas throughout society can certainly be traced to attention distribution in some way. One thing I have to cover is how, given the self-interested nature of life, ideas like altruism and unconditional love became so important for society's sense of morality. I'm not going to totally follow the Nietzschean line there.

The principle of attention as currency also has the potential to impact some matters of philosophy, particularly political and economic philosophy, which are really power discussions anyway. The structural matters will come up in the next blog. The philosophical stuff will come up, well, whenever the hell I feel like it. That's it for now.

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