Hierarchy is bad; “flat” is good. Right?

In the 1970s, Jo Freeman wrote The Tyranny of Structurelessness, reflecting on the experience of women’s liberation groups with “unstructured” organization:

…the idea of “structurelessness” does not prevent the formation of informal structures, only formal ones. Similarly “laissez faire” philosophy did not prevent the economically powerful from establishing control over wages, prices, and distribution of goods; it only prevented the government from doing so. Thus structurelessness becomes a way of masking power, and within the women’s movement is usually most strongly advocated by those who are the most powerful (whether they are conscious of their power or not). As long as the structure of the group is informal, the rules of how decisions are made are known only to a few and awareness of power is limited to those who know the rules. Those who do not know the rules and are not chosen for initiation must remain in confusion, or suffer from paranoid delusions that something is happening of which they are not quite aware.

Jo’s experience is not an outlier:

…the very rules that kind of set up this egalitarian group resulted in the opposite of the dream. They resulted in creating the hierarchical structure in which some could be dominant over others because everyone is not equally powerful in their voice against another person.

That’s a quote from Molly Hollenbach, in the documentary All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace. Hollenbach was a member of one of the many techno-utopian communes that sprang up on the US West Coast in the 1960s. These communes were set up to be wholly egalitarian, without power structures of any kind. Many of their founders were influenced by simplified computer models of ecologies, which were in vogue at the time.

All of these communes failed within three years.

But instead of having this top-down system defined or at least acknowledged, an implied structure develops: one which is much harder to change, and infinitely more frustrating for the people working within it. Confused, directionless employees create a sort of ad-hoc system of self-management, which is catastrophically non-communal and ultimately results in some Lord of the Flies-level chaos.

From Flat Will Kill You, Eventually by Mark Nichols, published November 18, 2015.

I’ve always been drawn to distributed, leaderless, unstructured systems of organization. As far as I can tell, I share this bias with a lot of other hackers. The buzzwords of this orientation permeate our craft: Peer-to-peer. Schemaless. Wiki nature. The bazaar. “Small pieces, loosely joined”. For myself at least, it’s sobering to realize that structurelessness, far from being a stable ideal, is often a rich growth medium for implicit dark structures.

This article was adapted from a SIGAVDI newsletter originally published December 2015.

Published by Avdi Grimm

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