Weighed down by the dead hand of success: toxic parelthocracy in libraries

There is a creative company in Seattle that has been steadily publishing content for a single project for the past 25 years in around a dozen languages to a global community of tens of millions of people who not only engage with it individually but actively gather specifically to enjoy this work. The experiences it creates with its extraordinary mix of narrative, visual art, and design, are an ongoing process of discovery and exploration shared by a community as big as a medium-sized nation.

The company is Wizards of the Coast (WotC), and the endeavour is the original collectible card game, Magic: the Gathering. For the past 25 years, aside from a couple of hiccups, Magic has been growing steadily to its current considerable size. What’s more, the average length people stay engaged with the game is nine years – the typical game lasts one or two – and many play once or more a week, as opposed to the typical more sporadic play. In commercial terms, in terms of the dedication of its audience and the people-hours spent engaged with the work, in terms of its ongoing longevity and engagement with the public, and in artistic terms (or design terms if you have trouble with the idea of game design as art), Magic is one of the most successful creative works in history.

On the topic of success, Mark Rosewater, Magic’s Head Designer, has a saying he uses often when interacting with the players of his game: “Success breeds repetition.”

Most often he says this to explain the straightforward commercial mechanism that informs WotC’s design processes: if people like some element of a particular expansion, and therefore buy a lot of it, WotC’s designers tend to make more of that sort of thing.

But sometimes, especially when discussing game design, Rosewater uses his dictum in a more nuanced way. He is a big believer in consciously examining the structures around creative work and engineering them to prevent stagnation and creation-by-default. For example, he takes considerable care to ensure that he approaches every game expansion he designs from a different starting point to the previous sets he has made. This may be why he has been making Magic for 22 years straight, has made nearly 100 such projects in that time, and since he became Head Designer a decade and a half ago has presided over a long run of both quality design and audience growth.

When Rosewater says “success breeds repetition” in this context, it is a caution against success leading us to repeat things unthinkingly. Magic has been so successful for so long that it is easy even for a team of dedicated, highly-trained innovators to miss obvious and easy improvements. (For a somewhat involved example of an embarrassingly obvious fix to a nagging systemic problem that was missed for over a decade, see the extended endnote Solving the Small Set Problem.)

The key takeaway from Magic’s experience is this: it feels difficult to justify questioning your own assumptions when you are clearly doing well. First there is the initial trap of thinking that your success means there is no improvement to be made, or at least none necessary. Even if you avoid that, if your services are popular, it will always seem like a smarter move to devote all your resources to keeping on doing the thing everyone wants you to do, rather than taking time out to wonder whether you should still be doing it in exactly that way.

In other words, success breeds repetition even if repetition is undesirable and will get in the way of further success. The author or actor whose breakout hit leaves them reprising the same material over and over understands this only too well.

Unfortunately, I don’t believe libraries do, and I suspect that we may be on the road to learning it the hard way.

 

Parelthocracy in the library

Public libraries, and the library sector generally, are examples of the best and the worst tendencies of parelthocracy.

 

Benign parelthocracy: the library and the living past

On the one hand, the past is vitally important, and libraries’ commitment to giving their communities access to the past through their non-fiction and fiction collections is at the core of what it means to be civilized.

Without freely accessible evidence of where we have come from, both in the form of important historical works and in the form of new collections and interpretations of information about the past, both at the global or national level and at the local level, the public is ill-equipped to understand the present day and to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past.

And there is undeniably value in the inherent history of the library itself as an institution. In the same way that walking into a library connects us with all the other libraries throughout the world, there are connections to libraries and by extension human communities throughout time as well. (Pratchett’s L-space gave us a magical metaphor for this.)

The profound significance of all these things – the pragmatic, the symbolic, and the emotional – is a living example of the very best of bringing the past into the present. An institution without these things would be a book depository rather than a library.

 

Toxic parelthocracy in libraries

But in terms of decisionmaking, libraries (public libraries in particular, as that is where my personal knowledge is broadest, but I have seen these same tendencies across the sector) are prone to both palaeocracy and notocracy.

The problem is that we are so popular in our current configurations that we feel that that means we must be doing our job pretty well. In some respects that’s true; there’s no doubt that we add tremendous value to the communities we serve, with a recent study of libraries in Victoria finding that we give value to the community over 6 times greater than we cost to run. As the rest of government increasingly moves online, and libraries become one of the few places people can come for internet access and support in using computers, this number can only have gone up.

But let’s be real here, overly relying on public satisfaction figures is pre-emptively letting ourselves off the hook. We are:

  • pretty much the only place left dedicated to genuine sharing, where people can get cool, useful stuff for free, with nothing asked except to return physical items on time and still in shareable condition (and an increasing amount of free electronic stuff as well),
  • pretty much the only enclosed public space which is freely accessible to all and not dedicated to specific pre-programmed activities,
  • pretty much the only place with a mandate to help people navigate the world of information and culture, in a time when vital services are moving online and becoming more bureaucratic as a result of automation,
  • doing all the above in a framework of genuine, all-inclusive, secular public service.

In this context, getting 95%+ satisfaction ratings in customer surveys isn’t a definite sign of exceptional good work. All we can be sure it means is we aren’t visibly doing anything to anger significant numbers of our community enough to offset everything in the bullet points above.

But that’s not immediately apparent when we’re contrasted against other public infrastructure bodies, whose ratings are often far lower, because their work is designed to be taken for granted (e.g. rubbish collection) or is unwelcome to some part of its users (e.g. parking inspectors). Both the external bodies from whom we receive funding (and through them ultimately the public who take an interest in these things), and we ourselves, can be fooled into thinking we’re doing our job that much better than other public servants, and that there’s no pressing need to be critical of our own work.

In other words, because what we do is so important and makes us so well-loved, in some important respects we are failing to do our job at all.

This seems like a shocking statement when we work as hard as we do with the limited resources we have, but let me explain.

My understanding of the role of the library is that we enable free sharing of and self-directed access to culture and information, as well as a community space amenable to these sorts of pursuits. Our job is to know what’s out there, think critically about it, and offer our community tools, expert guidance, and assistance in engaging with it. A century ago, the best way to do this was to buy a bunch of books, store them in one place, sort and index them to make them easy to find, and provide knowledgeable staff to help people learn how to use our systems and access the information they needed, as well as provide useful context and guidance about further research.

But in the networked age, the possibilities for ways to empower our patrons (and the creators who serve them) are far broader and more powerful than that.

As a community of so-called information management professionals, we have been shockingly complacent about our role in building the new information economies and ecologies, instead leaving that to engineers who all-too-often think that solving a technical problem such that the “good” numbers go up and the “bad” numbers go down is an ironclad guarantee that you’re actually making the world a better place (and that there are no thresholds that those numbers should never cross), and who are unambiguously building for profit and therefore power, rather than placing the public good above other considerations.

Libraries, with our commitment to universal humanistic ideals and our deep, rich, ancient knowledge of what constitutes a healthy community of truth-, beauty-, wellbeing- and joy-seekers, of weighing the rights of individuals against each other to maximise everyone’s freedom and wellbeing, could only have had a beneficial influence on the evolution of the internet. We could have… if we’d only rolled up our sleeves and mucked in, instead of sitting on the sidelines watching other people make the informational tools and processes that shape public discourse, grumbling to ourselves about their inadequacies, but nonetheless teaching people to use them with only token warning  about their flaws and perils.

And that missed opportunity to make a difference matters. Given the prevalence of misinformation and divisive, inflated, disrespectful rhetoric, and their effects on the present state of the world, it is no exaggeration to say that if there had been just 1% more library in the internet from the early days, 1% more resistance to bullying and bulldust, global geopolitics would look radically different in 2018.

Not only that, but we are systemically biased against new models of funding, publishing and distribution that have sprung up. This sounds harsh, but how many libraries have systems in place to monitor these channels and acquire works through them, despite crowdfunding platforms supporting literally billions of dollars’ worth of creative and informational projects? How many of us do anything to help our patrons find the considerable volume of quality culture and information released under various free licenses, or to support the creators who are generous enough to freely share their work? We are even passing the buck on our responsibility to curate our own commerically-published collections to external suppliers, who take our funds and give us slush that doesn’t sell elsewhere, and then we act dismayed when it doesn’t get borrowed much either. Given the contrast between the ways we could be spending our collections budgets and the ways we actually do, it is not unreasonable to characterise the way many of us purchase collections as being a form of corporate welfare for publishing conglomerates.

Why is this? Are we lazy? Indifferent? Corrupt?

We are none of these things. I am proud to be part of a hardworking, passionate, principled profession. But, ironically for information management professionals, we are not looking at the big picture and thinking critically about what we measure and what questions we ask, and therefore what we could be doing to fulfil our timeless mission of empowering our communities by sharing and helping people navigate information and culture. As a result we are letting our passion for our communities and our immediate goals keep us working hard at tasks that only partly fulfil our mission – living by our principles, but not reflecting on them.

And that is not entirely our fault. As we’ve noted, our funds are consistently less than we need to meet existing demand. The funding bodies that give us money ask us to measure things that reflect those old ideas of what libraries are and do, and expect us to do more of those things but with the same or fewer resources. The public who love us do so for what we have already done and want us to do more of the same – and fair enough.

Success is breeding repetition.

The thing is, it’s hard to blame the funding bodies or the public for that.

The funding bodies see our overwhelmingly positive feedback from the public – why would they ask us to change things?

And the public are busy leading their own lives – they trust us to think about the worlds of information and culture. While of course we should be open to good ideas from anywhere, especially our communities, it isn’t for them, or the funding bodies, to imagine that we could be and steer our profession towards that.

We’re the professionals. It’s on us to resist the siren song of success and make sure we give ourselves room to not just repeat our achievements, but build on them.

And that’s where we’re failing.

Let’s look at the specifics of how, broken down into notocracy and palaeocracy.

 

Notocracy in the library

I’m starting with notocracy because, thankfully, notocracy among library staff themselves is relatively rare. Where it exists, it takes the form of active resistance to media other than books, regarding them as inferior or, more generously, “not a library thing”; and generally, the ”newer” the media to libaries, the greater the resistance. (By contrast, non-notocratic staff love books but are not hostile to other media per se.)

Literacy and books are absolutely core parts of the library mission, but to disparage other media rather than dispassionately recognise the strengths, weaknesses, and value of all media and help our communities engage accordingly is to live in denial of the full range of ways in which ideas and experiences can be expressed and shared. It’s hard to see how we can adequately discharge our duty to the public under those conditions.

Notocracy is more common among the ancillary industries who make their livings from libraries’ existing ways of doing things and are understandably reluctant to see competition for collections and library managament system (LMS) budgets. The vested interest there makes it not only easy but imperative to set aside their concerns: their job is to empower our work, not the other way around.

 

Palaeocracy in the library

As I hope the above makes clear, palaeocracy is the overwhelming majority of toxic parelthocracy in libraries.

It takes two forms: systemic palaeocracy, where our systems are designed in such a way as to leave little to no room for experimentation and innovation, especially of any substantive kind, and cultural palaeocracy, where the importance of the work we already do blinds us to the necessity of applying our core mission and principles to the culture as it currently exists, not as it was last century.

Both are driven by a sense of insufficient time and resources to do our jobs, and in some cases, particularly smaller rural library services, it’s hard to argue that.

But if your library service has a collections budget that is more than 10 times the wage of a single worker, and hundreds of linear metres of shelves which are regularly two-thirds full or more, you clearly have some wiggle room. And if you are routinely weeding large numbers of books that are still lendable in terms of both condition and currency (for example, a mint condition Windows 3.1 manual would not be current), either you have an incredibly neat and considerate community, or – I would argue – you are overspending on collections that your community isn’t using.

This is not a problem in and of itself (better a slight oversupply than an undersupply), but does suggest that you are underspending on other resources, staffing, and/or tools and programs to help your community make the most of the materials you do stock. Which in turn certainly means you are underspending on business intelligence, strategy development, and innovation.

 

Preventatives for palaeocracy

What does adequate spending on these things look like? Well, it involves actually having budget lines for them, for starters; I’m not sure many libraries do.

It requires looking for (and spending money getting) insights not only into the library trade but into the worlds of culture and information beyond. (It should not be so easy for a random solo punk like me to surprise heads of library services with facts about where and how the public are spending their cultural dollars, but in my consulting work I do – and not only when it comes to games.)

It means understanding that marketing is not just promotion. Marketing involves listening to the market and using that information to shape your offering as much as attempting to push your own product once it’s made. How many libraries spend much time monitoring their community on social media and sharing those insights with the staff body?

It means setting time and resources aside for staff to meet to share ideas, insights and tips more than a few hours of a highly structured and top-down-directed agenda every few months.

It certainly entails recognising and cultivating the staff who contribute ideas, looking into barriers that might prevent other staff from contributing too, and having a channel to meaningfully and visibly feed frontline staff ideas into decisionmaking and resource allocation conversations.

It means looking at examples like Google, which spends around 20% of its staff budget on innovation by giving staff one day a week to devise and work on their own personal ideas. That trust has given them Google Maps, Google Translate, Gmail and more. We’re never going to be able to match that share of our wages budget, but if nothing else, it highlights that an “innovation” budget that’s entirely predetermined by the same people who make the other budget decisions a year or more ahead of time is less effective than having some capacity to allow staff to follow interesting ideas as they arise.

It means understanding that only budgeting for innovation when you know ahead of time what the innovation is going to be is largely missing the point. Budgeting for innovation means being ready for opportunities and ideas when those ideas, and especially opportunities, arise – not a year and a half later after a budget submission and approval process. It also means being far more willing to make the case for varying budgets than libraries, public libraries at least, traditionally are.

It also requires that we recognise that part of our role is not just to offer things to the public but to tell the story of why they might matter. Underestimating the extent to which the public needs assistance to even recognise or understand your offerings, and how they might be useful to them, is a particular problem when it comes to new tech.

For example, I’ve heard complaints about 3D printers and makerspace tech generally being underutilised, but I’ve also seen library services whose communities make good use of them. Now, it is certainly true that there will be more interest in some communities than others, but there is always, always a strong correlation between uptake and the energy and visibility with which the devices have been promoted to the community. Maker tech is potentially relevant to DIYers, kids, STEM students, design students, designers, artists, crafters, tchotchke-makers, random tinkerers… the list goes on. But most people are still only dimly aware of them, and have no idea of the kinds of uses they can have. To judge the relevance of entirely new tech – and 3D printers are very new, and transformative in all kinds of ways – without first taking the time to ensure you’ve given the public plenty of opportunity to grok it is a highly palaeocratic move.

(And don’t even get me started on “online safety” classes. Fiddling with your Facebook privacy settings is a sick joke if you’re not first having a serious conversation about Facebook itself, and the hidden empires of profiling algorithms that chitter and scurry behind its façade – and much of the rest of the web as well.)

 

The wisdom of risk

But of course, what I’m arguing for here is devoting time and resources to things we don’t know will work, when there are so many things we know do work. It’s understandable to want to stick with the old reliables – doing anything else feels like a gamble.

Here I’m going to back to Magic Head Designer Mark Rosewater again. This may seem of dubious relevance, but hear me out: Magic, as I said in the introduction, is a game of discovery and exploration; and libraries are places of discovery and exploration.

From time to time, the Magic team make a misstep and put out a card that turns out to be so unexpectedly powerful in some way that it needs to be banned or restricted in tournament play. Rosewater always acknowledges the specific mistake, of course, but makes the point that if this never happened he would be more worried – because it would indicate that they were being too conservative in their card designs. Or as he puts it, “Never taking any risks is the biggest risk of all.”

In other words, human fallibility being what it is, Rosewater recognises that to achieve exceptional things you need to accept that failure is possible. Look to prevent it, and to minimise it where prevention fails, by all means, and to learn from it when it happens so that you don’t make the same mistake twice, but accept it as the inevitable price of the excellence and innovation that you are striving for.

Are lessons from a game design company applicable to a public institution like a library? Are we supposed to be as driven to innovate?

Well, I’m not actually arguing that we should be as driven to innovate, but I think the burden of proof is on those who argue that at least some of that drive shouldn’t be systemically built into what we do.

We know that the world is rapidly changing, especially in the spheres of information and culture, and the demands and opportunities it creates for our communities are changing with it. Our mission is to help our communities engage with the world’s information and culture. Given these two facts, we have two alternatives: either we expand the things we do, to ensure our mission keeps pace with those wider changes; or we curtail our mission so that it is only about doing the specific things we already do.

I am not inclined to agree that our mission is worth limiting in that way.

And given that, we have a clear need to foster innovation, not only to respond to the ceaseless stream of invention and creation in the wider world but in order to proactively promote the core library values of democratic inclusion; truth and wisdom; free inquiry and exploration; and beauty, fun, and joy.

If we were building a library for the first time now, without any baggage of historical assumptions, but with an eye to the needs of our community now and into the future, what would it look like? That’s the question we need to answer; and the answer is what we need to strive towards.

 

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Endnote: Solving the small set problem

To understand this example, you need to know two things about Magic: the Gathering.

  1. Magic is often played in a draft format, where the players take turns choosing cards from the same pool. In the most common draft format, each player is given three packs of cards which they open, draft a card they want to use in their deck, and then pass the remainder around. This pattern continues – draft a card, pass the pack on – until the pack is all drafted, at which point the next pack is opened. Once all three packs are drafted, each player takes the cards they drafted and builds a deck, with which they then compete in a tournament.
  2. Magic releases new sets of cards regularly, and from about the third year of the game, these sets were made in “blocks”, groups of three sets in a kind of trilogy. The first, large set in the block provided baseline effects, established the gameplay themes and the narrative premise and setting, and was followed by a couple of smaller expansions that continued the narrative and evolved the mechanics of play.

For around the first 15 years of Magic, or more precisely of drafting and the block structure, drafting used to follow the same pattern as the block: start with one or two packs of the large set, then move on to one pack of each the small sets which evolved from the first. (So AAA when only the large set had been released, then AAB when the first small set was released, then ABC when the whole block was out.)

But WotC had a problem with the small sets: despite by their nature being interesting evolutions on the themes of the first set, they didn’t feel like they had enough impact on the draft, which made them feel less exciting to a sizeable contingent of players, which in turn reduced their sales and meant that, while the world in which the block was often well-known and -loved, players often had no idea of how the second and third parts of the blocks’ stories turned out.

It took over a decade before anyone suggested the simple expedient of opening the cards from the newest set first and allowing those to set the agenda for subsequent drafting. Exactly the same mix of packs, just change the order (from AAB to BAA or ABC to CBA), and all of a sudden the small sets are impacting the draft much more effectively.

Since breaking free of the old default, they have gone on to change the numbers of each set in the drafting mix (BAA became BBA), to change the default composition of blocks (1 large set, 2 small became 1 large, 1 small), and finally to do away with “blocks” altogether and just design large sets for each quarterly release. Escaping the grip of that legacy decision not only fixed the problem they could see, the “small set problem”, but freed them up to experiment and innovate to something that works far better.

Now, this is a company full of literal geniuses. The game was created by a professor of mathematics who went on to design many more smash hit games and to write a pioneering textbook about the history and design of games, and other designers have included accomplished writers, artists, biologists, ecologists, and an actual-no-jokes rocket scientist.

And yet although the problem I’ve described was clear in retrospect (though bear in mind that the simple fact of me having to explain the problem in a way that is comprehensible to readers with no knowledge of the game serves to make it even more readily apparent here than it was at the time), a solution that simple eluded them for years. Why?

Well, part of the problem was that – as we’ve seen – success breeds repetition.

At the time they made the change, Magic was a tabletop game with an international audience in the high millions. It has since grown into the tens of millions, which gives you an idea of both its growth trajectory at that moment and the success of these changes. The sets weren’t performing as well as WotC would have liked, but they weren’t exactly failing. And it’s not illogical to think that if you want something to succeed more, you just do more of the thing that’s making it succeed, namely design it as well as you can.

(The term for this particular trap is “local maximum”. The phenomenon is analogous to trying to climb the highest mountain in the world by always going upwards from wherever you are right now. Unless you’re lucky enough to actually be at the base of the mountain, and have a straight upward path to the top, at some point you will be at the top of a hill and be unable to go higher.)

And when you’re thinking about the sales outcomes of a particular set, the default is to look at the properties of the set itself. Magic’s designers were smart enough to also consider their small sets in the context of the design of the whole block, and even of the blocks either side, so they were already thinking more strategically than usual.

The other key part of the problem was that thinking about the draft order wasn’t really anybody particular’s job. It was the designers’ more than anyone else, but they had a whole slew of much bigger and more clearly defined responsibilities – namely, designing all the cards that would be printed – to tight deadlines every quarter… and then, as the popularity of the game grew and they started making more products, more frequently still.

So even at a company rightly famed for innovation and creativity, a combination of success and poorly-structured distributions of work can produce “innovation dead zones” – areas of work where defaults go unquestioned and cause systemic problems for years. Frankly, all things considered, I think it’s to WotC’s credit that they spotted the problem as soon as they did – though I have wondered if a helpful fan or two might have helped prompt the change (one of the benefits of having, and listening to, such a large community – the old open-source truism Linus’s Law, “given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow”).

What are your institution’s blind spots? And to whom are you willing to listen to find them?

One dead hand, and one living: examining the past’s grip on the present

Empirical evidence of success has its limits as a way of selecting leaders, decision-makers, and philosophical frameworks.

Don’t get me wrong, a meritocratic review of past performance is far superior to claims of divine mandate, brute coercion, and/or the ability to weave appealing ideas and rhetoric without any grounding in reality.

But the problem is this: a track record of success is necessarily evidence of success under past conditions and past definitions of success. If those conditions have changed – or if our knowledge of those conditions and what constitutes success has deepened, possibly as a result of observing the effects of those past “successes” – what counted as success in the past may have no bearing on success in the future, or indeed may even indicate a predisposition to failure under the new circumstances.

In its neutral form, I call the tendency to make determinations based on influence (including but not limited to evidence) from the past parelthocracy, rule of the past. And as a historian and human rights advocate, I will gladly affirm that there are good reasons to attend to the lessons of the past! Fetishizing the new, and ignoring/trivializing/falsifying history, is, ironically, an age-old mistake.

However, there are two related terms which are less benign, for when parelthocracy turns inert or resentful:

  • palaeocracy (rule of the ancient) is the fossilized persistence of ideas past the point where they clearly no longer apply; and
  • notocracy (rule of the back, as in turning one’s back) where power is used to attempt to prolong or recreate past conditions for the sake of doing so rather than because of any objective good – or, just as often, create the conditions of an imagined or delusory past.

 

Palaeocracy

Consider the colossal carnage in WWI trench warfare, where generals who rose through the ranks due to successes in cavalry warfare collided with the realities of mechanised industrial death-dealing. This constituted palaeocracy, where outdated ideas simply happened to be prevalent among those in charge and to persist in the face of evidence.

Other factors, especially classism, nationalism, and vested economic interests, also played major roles in the butchery and bungling, of course. But the generals on both sides were not only misgoverning from our historical perspective, but failing on their own jingoistic terms, because they were simply unable to comprehend that, for all their extensive training and experience, their understanding of war was almost totally redundant.

Two key ingredients of this example of palaeocracy, and a common though by no means universal element of palaeocracy in general, were operational distance – the fact that those making decisions were rarely anywhere near the implementation of those decisions – and a hierarchy designed to centralise information and decision-making authority. These two things meant that the generals could go literally years without the fact of their own redundancy being apparent to them, ignorant of the reality their troops faced, and often not even asking the right questions about their strategic situation. In this light, the astonishing victim-blaming of their troops and the lower echelons of the hierarchy as inferior, inadequate, cowardly, excessively sentimental, treasonous, and so on, becomes both more understandable (though still completely unforgivable) and a clear symptom of palaeocratic bungling.

 

Notocracy

As an example of notocracy, see the ability of oil and coal fortunes to buy delay in otherwise self-evidently desirable changes to energy policy. These billionaires and corporations accumulated tremendous wealth and political influence by (along with the usual shenanigans) being exceptional providers of energy under old, less-informed understandings of the world. It isn’t their fault that those understandings predated the invention of more distributed, cheaper, egalitarian, secure, and sustainable forms of energy generation, and unwittingly ignored the climate-destabilising effects of mass fossil fuel use.

What is their fault is the way they are now using the power thus accumulated to intentionally obfuscate climate science (see Doubt is their product) and the scientific and popular mandate to change; and more importantly, to ensure governments continue to subsidise and support their outdated technology, while at the same time withholding from the newer, cleaner, fairer tech the same economy-shifting levels of support that underwrote and continues to underwrite the success of fossil fuels.[1]

This is not simply an inability to adapt mental models to new information. It is a wilful, aggressive attempt to preserve outdated arrangements in the face of abundant evidence that this benefits nobody but the owners of the fossil fuel industry – and ultimately, not even them. Hence, notocracy rather than palaeocracy.

As this example suggests, the extra effort involved in notocracy means that its advocates are highly motivated, both in their reasoning and in acting on that reasoning. That motivation is often financial or political, but can be purely emotional, based on the same psychological drives as nostalgia.[2]

Notocracy is not the same as resistance to change where change is (a) avoidable and (b) for the worse. A worker resisting the erosion of their wages and working conditions is not doing so out of notocracy, unless there genuinely is no other way to keep the business running and there are no other businesses present or likely to arise where the worker can find a job. The chief executive who fails to cut their salary and bonus packages before asking workers to take a cut in pay and conditions is driven by notocracy, and also a sense of entitlement (the two often go hand in hand).

A final key point about notocracy is that the “past” is not necessarily the actual historical past. In fact, I would argue that this kind of obsessive devotion to a past way of doing things, outside of overwhelming personal vested interest such as the fossil fuel example above, is quite often the result of a partial and selective, or even outright false, understanding of the past, often as mythologised through particular partisan lenses.

 

The qualities of parelthocracy

Both of these toxic modes of parelthocracy are almost always accompanied by denial and/or wilful blindness about the aspects of the past that were undesirable, or historically contingent and no longer applicable. (In some cases, the “past” for which palaeocrats and notocrats yearn never actually existed![3]) Active efforts to conceal, ignore, destroy evidence of, or shout down contradictory facts are more prominent in notocracy (palaeocracy tends to rely on incumbency to get away with just shutting its eyes to inconvenient truth) but can occur in either. Likewise, messengers can get shot in organisations or communities suffering either mode, but in palaeocracy this will usually take the form of social penalties such as labelling the person a troublemaker, overly ambitious, or otherwise too big for their britches, whereas a notocratic reaction is more aggressively punitive.

Parelthocracy (and its more malign subtypes) is of course a trait of any real endeavour; science itself is prone to these tendencies. Not only in the sense that “science advances one funeral at a time” – that’s not science per se but the social context around science. Rather, because science involves an incremental gathering of empirical data, those data need to be recognised as historically situated rather than somehow being magically representative of eternal truth.

A live contemporary example is the way machine-learning AI algorithms draw bigoted conclusions from empirical data… data which was of course generated by societies with centuries-long legacies of bigoted systems heavily impacting social outcomes, and gathered by fallible human scientists influenced by the unconscious assumptions of those bigoted systems.

However, as attested by the fact that these discussions exist relatively early in the development of machine learning, science is much better equipped – and far more predisposed – to identify and overcome these same tendencies than most other human institutions.

The dangers of palaeocracy and notocracy also exist at smaller, more local levels. Palaeocracy is more common, as lower stakes mean less likelihood of corrupt self-interest, but notocracy is driven as much by emotion as greed, so both can be found.

“Seniority” in employment and management tends to mean not only experience but also a tendency to devalue new ideas, especially those from junior staff, and new cultural forms. To the managers in question, this feels like sensible conservatism, the “wisdom of experience”, but from the outside – especially in service organisations where the decision-making is not technical – can objectively result in inferior outcomes.

 

A concrete example that I have personally verified follows. A staff member of a local not-for-profit institution became aware of a regional brainstorming call for ideas that related to one of their areas of interest and expertise. The staff member had an idea that was both relevant and practicable enough to at least discuss, but the process for submitting the idea required that it be submitted by someone more senior. The staff member in question passed on the idea to their manager, only to be told after the deadline for submission had passed that the manager had decided not to contribute anything at all to the call for ideas (thereby impoverishing the brainstorming process), rather than submit an idea that the manager “did not understand”. No attempt to contact the staff member for clarification had been made, and other people to whom the staff member showed the idea found it perfectly comprehensible and worth discussing.

In confirming this story, I also established that the manager in question is widely regarded as hard-working, talented, intelligent and collegial, and was legitimately very busy in that time. This incident is not intended by me or the person who reported it to me as a personal criticism of that manager. But clearly there were other options than simply doing nothing, such as:

  • trusting their staff member enough to submit the idea as-was;
  • delegating the work of clarifying and submitting the idea;
  • submitting the idea with an appropriate caveat;
  • or recognising the value of the kind of initiative the staff member was showing, and shuffling priorities for the few minutes necessary to clarify whatever had confused the manager.

The final irony is that the idea was a simple, elegant framework for fostering and supporting innovation.

 

This example shows that palaeocracy need not be the result of an explicit commitment to old assumptions and ideas. It can simply be the result of institutional pressures squeezing out the time required to evaluate and develop new ideas. Indeed, the non-profit and government sectors are particularly and increasingly prone to these pressures, thanks to relentless funding cuts and “efficiency” drives that characterise efficiency as “doing more of the same for less” – a definition which embodies palaeocracy in no uncertain terms.

Which brings me to my conclusion.

 

Avoiding toxic parelthocracy

The past is indubitably important in understanding and making the most of the present. Engaged awareness of our history and the causal systems within which we operate is the living hand of the past, a strong guiding and supportive force.

But the past can also lay heavy on us, a dead weight holding us back and dragging us down.

My hope is that by naming and briefly describing palaeocracy and notocracy I have given managers and planners tools to avoid or at least minimise these tendencies. I have not named healthy parelthocracy because it is simply part of wisdom.

(And technically it is not a “-cracy”. Where our relationship to the past is healthy, even the strongest traditions are viewed in terms of the value they offer to the living people who embody them, and are not treated as ruling impulses to be honoured at all costs. The ancestors who bequeathed us these traditions, assuming they did so out of love for their descendants, would not want them to be harmful.)

The key takeaway is that we need to redefine assumptions around leadership and power to better reflect this principle that past success is not always a guarantor of suitability for future success.

In particular, we need to build into our systems for making decisions and assigning responsibilities a repeated check-in about whether the environment (or our understanding thereof) has substantially changed, or for that matter whether the people involved have substantially changed in ways that affect their suitability for the role. If we find that there have been major changes in our operating context, we should probably expect to need similar changes, perhaps even radical ones, not only in our operations but in our decision-making processes.

We need to rethink our attitudes to leadership and past decisions, to recognise that the decision and/or leader that were selected in the past may have been perfectly correct at the time (or at least as correct as was humanly possible in the context) but may not be the best choices now – without this being in any way a negative reflection on anyone involved. (After all, in some cases it will be the exact same qualities that made a choice the correct one in the past that make it now incorrect!) Loss aversion makes the shift to a world where leadership is not a ladder to climb but a temporary mantle bestowed for particular purposes psychologically difficult to adjust to; but once it is established as a norm it will serve substantially better than current hierarchical modes of advancement.

(As a side benefit it also mitigates against the Peter Principle.)

But beyond specific choices and individuals, we particularly need to apply these principles to systemic frameworks such as budgets, procedures, and hierarchies. Humans have a natural capacity and even tendency to adapt to change, though not always consciously, and certainly with a countervailing conservatism. But the whole point of such official structures is to be a fixed reference point; metrics are compared to previous years’, procedures are designed to produce consistent outcomes and can go years without change, and even budgets, which are produced annually, tend to be templated on the previous year’s. Changing these frameworks requires actual effort, which in and of itself is a cost, even before we start considering implementing the concrete changes these bureaucratic changes reflect.

Of these three areas of change, the most important is probably the shift away from fixed hierarchies towards more flexible and inclusive decision-making processes. Giving a meaningful voice in the discussion to more people, especially to those closest to the actual interface between budgets/procedures/frameworks and the real world, makes it far more likely that outdated ideas will be confronted with relevant new facts. Other necessary changes will flow from this.

As a significant and closely related side benefit, it also fosters inclusion of a broader range of demographic voices in the decision-making process. This is self-evidently true on simple numerical grounds – where there’s room for more voices, you get a wider range of them. But just as crucially, the nature of privilege is such that dominant groups will be over-represented in decision-making positions, and subordinate groups will be concentrated at the operational, “lower” levels.

But all three aspects of systemic frameworks need to be examined, and in some ways the more so the more successful an institution has been in the past. My post tomorrow will discuss the parelthocratic perils of success, with particular reference to libraries.

 

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[1] That they have the gall to fund think-tanks which purport to advocate a “free market” is especially insulting; if they are serious about a “level playing field”, they should either insist on their competitors and their competitors’ customers receiving the same subsidies as them and theirs, or reject all government subsidy and repay everything they have received to date, indexed to inflation if not at market interest rates throughout the period.

[2] In fact, I originally called notocracy nostocracy instead – but recent psychological research indicates that nostalgia can be a useful coping mechanism, and by definition this sort of denialism is unhealthy.

[3] One need only look at the quite recent idea that videogames are a masculine pastime. I am old enough to remember a time in my childhood when my sisters and I happily played PC games made by women without anyone thinking this was weird (well, not the gender aspects; the pastime itself was sometimes viewed as a bit strange, and I heard a few comments that it was unusual to see siblings collaborating as we did to beat the games). Yet some elements of the community have taken it upon themselves to treat women on the scene as interlopers. This is a clear case of false notocracy which has been consciously socially engineered by marketeers, and then further engineered and weaponised by outside forces – some of whom had previously been openly, viciously contemptuous of games and gamers – as part of a broader culture war.