SIGAVDI #87: Squash Blossom Edition

Hello friends,

First off, real quick: I’m planning a workshop on project automation. Tell me if you’re interested? Thanks!

OK, onward…

I’ve been reading a lot of books lately. So in lieu of the usual links, I give you a throwback to earlier incarnations of SIGAVDI: Fewer links, more quotes.

I'll Trade Ya!

Hey there! Archived SIGAVDI letters are for newsletter subscribers only. All it costs to join (and unlock this post) is an email address! I'll write to you weekly-ish with a few interesting links, some updates, and some reflections on the intersection of software and life. And I'll respond to your replies! Whattya say?

A photo of Avdi Grimm

It was inconceivable for me, as an educated Western man, that cognition, as it is defined in the philosophical discourse of our day, could be anything besides a homogeneous, all-engulfing affair for the totality of mankind. Western man is willing to consider cultural differences that would account for quaint ways of describing phenomena, but cultural differences could not possible account for processes of memory, experience, perception, and the expert use of language to be anything other than the processes known to us.

Carlos Castanada (this and following links contain my Amazon associate code)

This reminds me of something else I read recently. About how prior to Freud, most Westerners assumed that any one person’s own mind was an open book to them, with no secrets or hidden agendas. (Corollary: any surprises were clearly the work of outside forces.)

Culture was the solution to the brain size problem imposed by bipedalism. The new corporate brain called culture hovered like a friendly poltergeist over each tribe of hunter-gatherers.

Leonard Shlain

Hello, my friendly poltergeist!

We live in a world that is ruled by a futuristic drive. Prometheus boasts: “I planted firmly in their hearts blind hopefulness”… this drive represses the Dionysiac essence in a humankind to an unimaginable extent. Futuristic expectancy takes out of the here-and-now and thus out of the body–in other words, out the time and space of Dionysus. The endless promise of a happy future seems to be the carrot that moves the human donkey of Titanism… futuristic fantasies of happiness brought about by the ultimate in technological development going hand-in-hand with the most destructive evil. It is a vision of life in which there is no inwardness…

Rafael Lopez-Pedraza

It’s fascinating to me that the Titanic was not only called “unsinkable”, it was literally named after the ancient Greek personification of hubris. For modern examples of Titanism, see every AI startup ever…

A number of practicing psychiatrists seriously believed the DOCTOR computer program could grow into a nearly completely automatic form of psychotherapy… what must a psychiatrist who makes such a suggestion think he is doing while treating a patient, that he can view the simplest mechanical parody of a single interviewing technique as having captured anything of the essence of a human encounter? …What can the psychiatrist’s image of his patient be when he sees himself, as therapist, not as an engaged human being acting as a healer, but as an information processor following rules, etc.?

Such questions were my awakening to what Polanyi had earlier called a “scientific outlook that appeared to have produced a mechanical conception of man.”

Joseph Weizenbaum

DOCTOR is the program that would later be called “Eliza”. At this moment someone, somewhere, is doubtless courting seed funding for an AI therapy startup.

Turing thus predicted the emergence of a language of intelligent machines that I will call “cyborg discourse”. This discourse is primarily concerned with the psychological, metaphorical, and philosophical aspects of computer use, rather than on their political, social, and material dimension. It is both an account and an expression of the view that the computer is an “object to think with”, in Turkle’s phrase. Research in artificial intelligence, parallel distributed processing, cognitive psychology, and philosophy of mind forms a part of this discourse. So do social phenomena such as hacker communities and cultural expressions such as cyberpunk science fiction. While closed-world discourse is built around the computer’s capacities as a tool of analysis and control, cyborg discourse focuses on the computer’s mind-like character, it’s generation of self-understanding through metaphor.

Paul N. Edwards

“SIGAVDI: a cyborg discourse” has a ring to it, don’t you think?

And now, a word from our sponsor: me! Wanna join me and Jessitron this weekend for a live video hangout and show-and-tell? I’m re-starting my Discord hangouts, and all my Patreon supporters are invited. As little as $1/mo gets you an invite to the Tensegrity Discord server, where you can join us for hangouts and carry on the cyborg discourse with other members of this friendly poltergeist I call my tribe.

CEO: How do I have a high-performing team?

Management guru: first, bring me the holy grail.

CEO: …the… grail?

Guru: yes, the literal goblet Christ took his last drink from, with mythical powers of restoration.

CEO: …

Guru: See, that’s your problem, you claim you want this but you won’t even take the first step.

According to the above-linked tweet, if CEOs merely had the courage to fire half their team and pay the remaining badasses twice as much, they could have a high-performance culture.

It’s a nice theory. “Nice” as in: 1) neat and clean; 2) provides a built-in excuse for why the proof hasn’t been observed in the wild (“no one has the guts!”) (This is also how successful conspiracy theories work.)

Even if firing people were easy, it still wouldn’t work.

First off, if your organization isn’t high-functioning now, then by definition any signal you have about who is “high-performing” is missing, misleading, or flat-out wrong. Your metrics are wrong. Your feedback loops emphasize the wrong values. Your team’s creativity flows down dark pathways that you don’t have a window into. Your most potentially brilliant people aren’t motivated to express their worth.

Let us say that somehow, magically, you manage to fire all the “low performers” and keep the whiz kids. It’s still not going to work. Why? Because highly functional organizations aren’t made out of high-performance human resources. They are made out of healthy, generative relationships. When you fire half your people, you sever more than half your relationships.

How many of those “low-performers” act as foils that the “creatives” bounce their ideas off of? How many act as emotional buffers between volatile geniuses? How many perform thankless emotional labor?

A person is a person through other persons. When you gut your organization, you don’t just lose the people you lay off. You change the people who remain.

Could you use this understanding to change your organization for the better? Yes, probably. Not all relationships are positive.

But the reductionist view of “low performers” and “high performers” won’t get you there. The boundary of a person is fuzzy. Successful teams are emergent, not composited. You want to think that great teams are made from great people. But it’s really the other way around.

This is the part where I normally do a bit of a retrospective and planning session. But I have writing fatigue and I really want to get this issue out the door.

Short version: the Flux Board I tried in the last SIGAVDI worked well as a thinking exercise, but I haven’t really paid much attention to it on a daily basis. I’m still liking the policy of “everything you plan to do MUST go on the calendar”.

I’m spending most of my time on a writing project that’s related both to some very old WIP and to the upcoming workshop I mentioned at the top. I’m doing my best to ride that writing momentum before it gets interrupted by life happening.

What are YOU up to this fortnight? Write back!



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