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The Tyranny of Structurelessness (1970) (bopsecrets.org)
216 points by pron on Mar 16, 2014 | hide | past | web | favorite | 120 comments

I always want to paste the same excerpt from War and Peace when this comes up:

"When Boris entered the room, Prince Andrey was listening to an old general, wearing his decorations, who was reporting something to Prince Andrey, with an expression of soldierly servility on his purple face. “Alright. Please wait!” he said to the general, speaking in Russian with the French accent which he used when he spoke with contempt. The moment he noticed Boris he stopped listening to the general who trotted imploringly after him and begged to be heard, while Prince Andrey turned to Boris with a cheerful smile and a nod of the head. Boris now clearly understood—what he had already guessed—that side by side with the system of discipline and subordination which were laid down in the Army Regulations, there existed a different and more real system—the system which compelled a tightly laced general with a purple face to wait respectfully for his turn while a mere captain like Prince Andrey chatted with a mere second lieutenant like Boris. Boris decided at once that he would be guided not by the official system but by this other unwritten system."

I haven't read War and Peace, so I don't know the context of this excerpt. Despite that, I'd like to suggest that if you have a formal structure in an organisation, then you're still able to use it to do something about the informal structures that you don't like (assuming you can recognise them). If you've explicitly eschewed any kind of formal structure, then changing it becomes very difficult [1].

In this example, Boris could have decided that he would try and support the formal structures and wrest control (over time) from the informal leaders (perhaps by playing both sides for a while).

[1] Edit: The reverse is also true. You can adapt a formal structure by the use of informal power. This is more often talked about (c.f. every 'influence' book ever written), so I didn't think to mention it.

I think the thing is that the formal and informal structures need to be somewhat in alignment. A lot of countries have the form of institutions, but not the deep-rooted culture.

In theory the British Parliament could collectively lose its marbles and transform the UK into a totalitarian state in the space of a few weeks. In practice it's very unlikely to happen. The informal and formal are closely aligned in the political culture.

In theory Russia has the separation of powers and independent media. In practice, it doesn't. The informal and formal are misaligned, which in some ways is worse than never having the formal stuff in the first place.

Actually, during the Cold War there were fairly detailed plans the, if executed, would have turned the UK into a totalitarian state pretty quickly - Duncan Campbell exposed these in his excellent series "Secret Society" - and particularly the episode "In Time Of Crisis: Government Emergency Powers"



The fact that these plans existed during the Cold War is not really a surprise (although the severity of the planned measures is quite alarming - no wonder they tried to keep them secret).

What I do wonder about is what state these plans are in now and under what circumstances they could be used.

You don't disrupt elites as an infantry captain. You need to be more like Putin getting himself annointed by some oligarchs and then turning on them and making himself the supreme oligarch. Or Erdogan in Turkey saying, we can't have the military involved in civilian politics and be part of the EU, using EU membership as a stick to disrupt the 'deep state' of the elites, then saying screw the EU and concentrating his own power.

You have to attain a position of leadership in/over the informal elite to disrupt it.

Anyway, it's a very good article. And War and Peace is outstanding as well, if you have the time.

Behind every form of government lurks an oligarchy.

The point is that informal leaders have upper hand and support from big fish. Boris could have fight them, but he would loose and that would be it.

Informal leaders have power to change things the way they like. Formal leaders will run into difficulties every time they would try to implement something informal leaders do not like.

For example, informal leader in example is more likely to persuade the prince to take certain decision.

It's important to be mindful that the successful examples of flat / bossless organisations often discussed on HN are massively profitable.

What's missing from this picture? Statistics and case studies of flat/bossless organisations where money is very tight.

There is severe survivor bias at play. Massive profitability allows you to get away with just about anything.

People think that the market rewards virtue or merit; that profit is the reward for this or that method, strategy or culture. Not really. Market systems are agnostic to how a company is run. If you stumble on a gold mine, the market doesn't reward you because you flog your miners. It likewise doesn't reward you because you pamper your miners. It rewards you for having gold.

For every Valve and Github, there is a Microsoft or an Oracle.

> There is severe survivor bias at play. Massive profitability allows you to get away with just about anything. ... For every Valve and Github, there is a Microsoft or an Oracle.

That's a very interesting point, because Microsoft used to be the darling of the business press.

In the 1990s, we saw all sorts of business books about Microsoft, which was held up as the example to follow for the digital economy. People even found praise for Microsoft's tendency to have multiple teams working on competing products. Better to have the competition inside the company, they said, so that the best product could face external competitors.

This was just cargo-cult management. Just because Microsoft did it that way doesn't mean that it results in success. Maybe, just maybe, Microsoft was successful despite those characteristics.

We humans are very good at rationalizing things, after the fact. We can come up with a reason for things that are actually random and uncorrelated with success.

>There is severe survivor bias at play. Massive profitability allows you to get away with just about anything.

I think you could extend this observation even further. Technology start-up culture has a habit of sh*ting on well established knowledge as being useless because founders of start-ups often lack these knowledge yet still manage to succeed. An example of this is the general disdain for business know-how in the form of say an MBA.

They fail to realize that the reason they're succeeding is not because traditional business know-how is useless but rather because innovation grants you advantages that often allows you to succeed without business know-how. However this advantage disappears once everyone catches up to the innovation then business acumen reasserts itself. We are currently in a golden age of innovation, but that won't last forever.

The metaphor I like to use is: It is like someone using a machine-gun and hitting every target then concludes that marksman skills are useless while ignoring the fact that they are only hitting their target because they are using a machine-gun.

I have another analogy I sometimes use. If you're floating down a Mississippi made of money, it seems like everything works. Navigate, don't navigate. Tight ship, loose ship. Expensive paddle boat or a few planks lashed together. Everything moves in the right direction. So long as you manage not to find the edges of a famously wide river, you will move swiftly and effortlessly.

When the river of cash begins to dry up, or if you started in a creek and stayed in a creek, things are a bit harder.

I think you could extend this observation even further. Business culture has a habit of sh*ting on new knowledge as being useless because businessmen often lack these knowledge yet still manage to succeed. An example of this is the general disdain for innovative approaches.

They fail to realize that the reason they're succeeding is not because traditional business know-how is useful but rather because crony capitalism allows you to succeed without innovation. However this advantage disappears once a market disrupter appears. We are currently in a golden age of innovation, but that won't last forever.

There is definitely a case to be made about old stodgy incumbents getting in the way of innovation. But my point isn't really about innovation disrupting the old but rather people throwing out the baby with the bath water when it comes to the relevance of business know-how.

While I agree well-established knowledge is useful (don't get me started about NoSQL, for one thing), I'm not seeing any disdain for business know-how. What I'm seeing is the well-founded belief that you get business know-how from being in business, not from sitting in a classroom and coming out with a piece of paper.

I agree that experience from doing does trump book knowledge. But it would also be a mistake to discard the basic foundation that book knowledge grants you. Lots of rookie mistakes can be avoided by having some foundational knowledge.

Maybe. It depends on what you consider "foundational".

The Lean Manufacturing people, for example, have very different foundations than traditional American MBAs. Not opposite, really; more orthogonal. For example, MBAs focus on cost reduction and profit increase; in the Lean world you focus on reducing waste and increasing customer value. This leads to different accounting systems, different management structures, different outcomes.

Reading about the history of Toyota, where Lean ideas were developed, I suspect it's not accidental that they were both physically and culturally very distant from American business thinking. And that the background of Toyotas leaders was in engineering, not commerce.

Often when you ignore received wisdom, you are just forced to relearn it. But sometimes, you end up somewhere that nobody's been before.

An example of this is the general disdain for business know-how in the form of say an MBA

Our issue isn't with business skills and the people who have them. Those skills are really fucking important.

It's the entitlement that seems to come with elite MBAs that is irritating. They tend to think they know more than they do.

Also, as one who has talked with people looking to be business co-founders, there's a lot of "49er syndrome" (4s who think they're 9s). Look, man, I'm a Tech 8. I might work with a Biz 7+. Biz 6? Probably not. Biz 7 means that after a week of legwork, you're already deciding among term sheets. Biz 8 means you can get a half-hour conversation with anyone, except perhaps a head of state where it might be hit or miss. A typical top-5 MBA graduate is only a Biz 5 or 6; not unimpressive, but not what I'm looking for if I'm going to deal with the stress of a startup.

Absolutely correct. In essence, everyone simply looks at the winners and then redefines the 'path to success' to be 'the path they took'. That sounds ridiculous but it's what many arguments boil down to.

There are some excellent resources out there for people to understand more about this. There's an article on Survivorship bias [1] and I was recently at a talk by Duncan Watts on the 'The Myth of Common Sense', which considers questions such as 'Why is the Mona Lisa the most famous painting in the world?'. I found a video of one of his earlier talks [2].

[1] http://youarenotsosmart.com/2013/05/23/survivorship-bias/

[2] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EF8tdXwa-AE

> In essence, everyone simply looks at the winners and then redefines the 'path to success' to be 'the path they took'.

The classic example is Jim Collins' bestselling business book, Good to Great. The book claimed that certain characteristics of successful companies made them Great.

Inconveniently for Collins, after the book came out, these very same companies underperformed and went from Great to Good.

Of course, he did the statistics backwards. He started with the successful companies and looked for common traits. He should've started with the traits and evaluated how companies with-and-without those traits performed.

> Of course, he did the statistics backwards. He started with the successful companies and looked for common traits. He should've started with the traits and evaluated how companies with-and-without those traits performed.

I don't know if this would give useful insight, and furthermore it's possible someone has already looked into it, but this way of posing the difference sounds like it might be related to the field of research into "one-class machine learning". The usual setup for classification in ML is that you have examples from all the classes. In a positive/negative two-class setting you need both positive and negative examples. But what if you really have a one-class dataset, e.g. just a list of failures and their characteristics? Can you (in a predictively reliable way) generalize anything from that, and predict solely from that class of positive examples whether future cases presented to the classifier are like those? There's quite a bit of work looking into that. (Unfortunately, I don't know much about it.)

> Absolutely correct. In essence, everyone simply looks at the winners and then redefines the 'path to success' to be 'the path they took'. That sounds ridiculous but it's what many arguments boil down to.

Honestly, I think its more often worse than that, in that what is actually presented as a path to success is an self-justifying mythology that has been created by those who have succeeded in the current system to explain their success, rather than teh actual path they've taken.

"Success hides failure" comes to mind here. A company can do 9 things right and one thing wrong, but if they're a hugely successful company, then outsiders will assume that all ten things should be emulated. People will also latch onto anything with novelty value (like structurelessness) as being a prime differentiator vs. the competition, so it will get a disproportionate amount of attention even if it's one of the wrong things the company does.

Bob Martin wrote about a variant on this point a while ago:

> I'm sorry for your impending failures. I'm sorry that you're going slow and just don't know it yet. And I'm very sorry that when you finally brute-force your way to some modicum of success that you will credit your bad behavior, and recommend it to others. God help us all, because you won't.


This is also wrapped up with the notion of cargo-culting, which is common in tech. If you examine a successful company or team to try and work out why they're successful, you tend to focus on the most obvious factors: Their structure (or lack of it) and the tools and processes they use. But there is no way to know which if any of these factors are key to their success, or incidental, and getting a different team to use the same structure, or to apply the same tools and processes may produce a very different result.

Discussions about software development methodologies, programming languages and frameworks often fall into this trap. A developer will advocate a particular approach based on anecdotal experience where it has been effective for a different company or team. A mass of these anecdotes, strongly influenced by survivor bias, becomes the macro dev culture in which different ideological "movements" rise and fall. But there's very little attempt to thoroughly and scientifically research the effect of varying factors independent of others with the mainstream.

The best parable of this I've seen was "Meditation Driven Development":


Great comment.

Executives are machine-builders. Some areas of tech are starting to look like rock-band territory: great idea, cool team, right buzz, catch the wave at the right time, execution intelligence -> profit. How you execute? Not so much.

When the market settles, and you're doing something everybody else is doing that has an established value proposition and distribution channel? The game changes. Or even when you're the 10th successful entrant into a field the game changes. Then you're looking at building the most efficient machine you can.

Companies make a ton of mistakes trying to continue to eliminate inefficiencies from organizational structure, but that doesn't mean there's none to be found.

I fear that survivor bias is teaching the wrong lesson to an entire generation of business leaders. But hell, should make for some great case studies over the next 10-20 years if nothing else.

This is interesting. HN tends to sneer at people who formally study business, but comments like these seem to indicate that we actually do desire case study analyses and rigorous academic inquiry into the successes and failures of businesses - the sorts of activities that go into an MBA.

Exactly right. Even Google, while not being a flat/bossless organisation, is an example of a company with a product that makes such gobsmacking amounts of money, that they have plenty of spare to throw at amazing luxury for their people, at "20%" time, etc.

Having a product that brings you so much money lets you spend enormous amounts on trying (and sometimes failing) at new things, whether it be R&D, new organisation types, etc. But it's important to remember that the vast, vast majority of companies are not in this situation, and, while profitable, are not so massively profitable that they can afford such things.

Is 20% time still a thing or did it die with Google Labs?

> Massive profitability allows you to get away with just about anything.

> [...]

> For every Valve and Github, there is a Microsoft or an Oracle.

You are absolutely correct that a company that has stumbled on a gold mine can survive problems in its structure that would have been fatal if money were tighter.

However, it goes both ways. Some large, old companies have byzantine corporate hierarchies that would make Kafka blush. Yet money keeps flowing in, and props up this excessive architecture.

Streams of money flowing in can allow for out of the norm flat structures, but they can just as well prop up redundant hierarchies, TPS reports etc.

I agree. That's the point I was trying to make: the presence of massive profits is not an objective, meritorious endorsement of any system of organising your company. It merely ensures its continued existence.

This was an excellent read. I feel like it's coming from the trenches from someone who's had much experience creating structureless groups....

tldr: the conclusion/action points are:

Principles of Democratic Structuring

1) Delegation of specific authority to specific individuals for specific tasks by democratic procedures.

2) Requiring all those to whom authority has been delegated to be responsible to those who selected them.

3) Distribution of authority among as many people as is reasonably possible.

4) Rotation of tasks among individuals.

5) Allocation of tasks along rational criteria.

6) Diffusion of information to everyone as frequently as possible.

7) Equal access to resources needed by the group.

Thanks for this comment. I think too often this essay is interpreted as an argument for hierarchical control, when that is not what it seems to me to be arguing for, or how it would have been interpreted in the context it was written -- where a commitment to egalitarian and democratic organization was a baseline assumption.

The thing is, egalitarian organization is hard, and the contribution of this valuable essay is to point put that simply abolishing structure does't get you there -- and to specifically point out how it can still lead to hierarchy and authoritarianism.

But that hierarchy and authoritarianism are still identified as the problem --requiring solutions other than structurelessness-- not the solution to some other problem!

which leaves me curious what is being suggested as the applicability to github. I wonder if those at github actually see it as an org committed to democracy or egalitarianism. to me, despite an unusually flat org chart, its still a company with certain people in charge and certain equity owners, dedicated to efficiency and profit for it's owners.

The problem isn't hierarchy or authoritarianism (though the latter is a symptom of it), but the distribution of power in any organization (or society), regardless of its goals. The point is simple: shying away from a clear power structure results only in an unfair and unmanageable distribution of power. Companies like GitHub, that believe in "self-organizations" would often fall into this trap once they grow large enough. Julie Ann Horvath's story at GitHub demonstrates how events unfold when the power structure isn't explicit.

I have a hard time coming to terms with people talking in definite terms regarding subjective issues, this is such a case. This is speculation fueled by your subjective views.

Yes, as a person with libertarian socialist views I do have a bias towards the non-hierachical ideal of organizations. But I wouldn't jump on the opportunity to argue my point - in definite terms - based on individual cases.

I think there's a couple of things that need to be said here:

* What do we mean by structureless? Even the most bottom-up anarchistic organization would have a clear structure (e.g. a syndicalist union) but no people with long periods of unchallenged authority like traditional managers usually have.

* We are fooling ourselves if we compare a organization with bottom-up social organization with participation as the goal, with a modern company with profit and growth as the goal. As such; "regardless of its goals" is just too unnuanced.

* I know that the role of unions in the states is almost non-existant, especially in our industry, but where I live and work, Sweden, the issues at Github may have been addressed with help of the employee's union.

So I think that individual cases is not enough to challenge the whole premise of "self-organizations". People of questionable nature will exist in all kinds of organisations, and a fast growing organization will have many challenges to keep a good culture and weed out potential trouble.

It's just too easy to jump on the bandwagon of "we need managers, people can't handle the freedom". That sort of sentiment is also what's been the view of the totalitarian organizational structure of large businesses for as long as one can remember - so it's not hard to get unquestioning support for, especially as it serves a lot of peoples self-interest (namely people that's climbing the proverbial ladder).

Finally; there is a large organizational gap between the totalitarian corporate structure and the most bottom-up anarchistic ideal. My views leans to the latter, but I realize that what's most aligned to the goals of a profit driven company may be somewhat further to the structure of the former. Furthermore I think this article is pretty much in complicance with what I would expect of an organization based on anarchist principles - highly organized, but strictly bottom-up. Apart from maybe a bit too much focus on peoples inherent need, according to her, to seek power.

I think you're putting words in my mouth. I wasn't arguing in favor of managers but against an unclear power structure – which is what the article is saying.

Also, I don't like the use of the word "freedom" in this context, as in "people can't handle the freedom". Lack of organization does not imply freedom, and strict organization does not imply lack thereof. While anarchism appeals to me as well sometimes, I do not for one second believe that it brings more individual freedom. Are people in The Walking Dead more free than us? Diffuse power structures breed just as much oppression as tyrannical ones. An individual can as easily be abused by a group with no clear leaders as by a tyrant. And this isn't theoretical: historical and sociological examples support this (e.g. bullying in schools). Clear organizations nurture freedom just as often as they suppress it. The adoption of strict(er) government regulation in the US to suppress the unchecked power of the free-market robber barons in the early 1900s clearly increased individual freedom in the US for the majority of people (while curtailing the industrialists' "freedom" to exploit the populace).

Fair enough, I may have interpreted things a bit freely. Sorry about that.

I don't know a thing about The Walking Dead, but I guess you mean the freedom while being alive in post-apocalyptic society which is of course a fair point - even though a bit strange and could be interpreted to mean textbook anarchy.

A significant part of anarchist idea is to increase individual freedom as much as possible so I don't really follow you that it wouldn't bring more of it. Practice can of course always differ from theory and ideal, but as you seem to discard it out of hand I'd like to know a bit more why you do that.

This is a bit anecdotal but I recently read somewhere that the lack of rules on the school playground made bullying less common rather than the opposite.

I agree that clear organizations can nurture freedom as well but I don't agree with you that "diffuse power structures" inherently becomes oppressive. I think people with doubious motives or personalities can cause trouble in both kinds of organizations.

> A significant part of anarchist idea is to increase individual freedom as much as possible

Anarchists are no more pro-freedom than progressives. Anarchists simply argue that lack of hierarchy is the best way to achieve freedom, while progressives argue that strong, democratic, regulatory institutions is the best way to achieve individual freedom. Actually, the whole point of democratic institutions is to place boundaries on people with dubious motives or personalities, as those will always abound.

Also, there is debate on the meaning of freedom, because most kind of freedom mean that some individuals are free to restrict others' freedom (for example, if you're free to contaminate a river, you're denying the freedom of those who rely on it for their water to live a healthy life). Progressivism tries to give this ability only to people that are democratically elected.

Yeah, I have no problem with that and I wouldn't want to dive into a discussion of what "true" freedom is as it is not objective to start with. You said it yourself: "X simply argue that Y is the best way to achieve freedom".

I agree that's true, but I think that's more or less the problem this essay is tackling also (which I guess is why it ended up here). There is a pretty long history of anti-authoritarian political movements running into the problem that the first step of abolishing formal titles and declaring that your group has a flat hierarchy with collective leadership is... not enough to remove the actual existence of authority. If anything it can sometimes be worse because now there is a boss but it's not explicit, and you have to be "in the know" to even know who calls the shots. While at least with a President or CEO or Supreme Leader the actual boss is labeled, and everyone has fair notice of who he/she is. So the problem is what to do about that: abandon the flat-hierarchy idea, or try to push it further into a really-flat-in-practice organization?

> So the problem is what to do about that: abandon the flat-hierarchy idea, or try to push it further into a really-flat-in-practice organization?

Given that "really flat in practice" only works for societies like ants, I would tend to argue in most cases for the former, if only because it's more in keeping with what's actually going to happen anyways.

Even at places like Valve, the whole idea isn't to be flat, as much as it's to allow for the "best" sub-teams to arise naturally instead of management forming broken org. structures. But when you use annealing to form your teams you don't just form teams, you form all sorts of other unintended (and possibly harmful) cliques as well. And once you get above Dunbar's Number or thereabouts it becomes impossible to keep pointed in the right direction.

That's definitely not the argument Freeman was making in the OP though, right?

She ends with some suggestions for how to structure an organization to be actually non-hiearchical and with equal sharing of power, instead of assuming structureless will get you there.

What have we learned from trying these things and similar in the 30 years since she wrote the essay? On what basis, what sort of research or experience, do you conclude with certainty that 'really flat' (do you mean egalitarian, democratic, non-hieararchical, non-authoritarian in general?) organizations are only possible for 'societies' (do you mean 'species'?) 'like ants'?

Of course, she wasn't talking about businesses at all. "Even at places like Valve" have no real interest in an egalitarian sharing of power, they have an interest in efficiency and profit, and whatever organizational structure can give them that best. An entirely different context than Freeman was interested in, Freeman was interested in building a radical social movement, and was concerned about an equal democratic sharing of power and privilege -- and what sorts of devices or structures can give them that the best. Which may or may not be accomplished via 'really flat' organization, that's part of the discussion.

> On what basis, what sort of research or experience, do you conclude with certainty that 'really flat' (do you mean egalitarian, democratic, non-hieararchical, non-authoritarian in general?) organizations are only possible for 'societies' (do you mean 'species'?) 'like ants'?

I mean "societies", as if you look into how their colonies work it is very much a collective society.

But the thing that underpins its operation is the fact that it is structured on flat classes. Workers do work. Soldiers defend the colony. Queens lay eggs, and it is understood that in the normal scheme of business that workers will never be queens and queens will not be on the front lines fighting the nearby Nation of Termitistan. But except for the queen the soldiers and workers are all almost completely interchangeable within their class.

Humans, needless to say, are not completely interchangeable. Maximizing the overall contribution from each individual for a collective goal requires different org. structures, especially given the high need for communications and information exchange.

Many groups try to solve this by designing the org. structure first and then finding the "right people" to fill the right positions in that org. structure. That style has seen successes and failures.

Others try to start with the "right people" and then evolve the right org. structure. But this reacts more to the needs of the group than to the abilities of the people, and doesn't scale to boot.

Then you have groups like Valve that try to enforce a flat org. structure and you end up instead evolving informal org. structures as before (since being flat implies being interchangeable). Is that really better? Is it more equal when you end up being in the wrong clique at the Valve cafeteria?

Interesting that these are essentially what the 12-step movements have come up with as organizational principles, starting with AA in the '50s. (With a few twists, such as random election when no candidate gets 2/3 majority after 4 or 5 ballots, with elimination of low-vote candidates after rounds 2, 3, and possibly 4).

The blue background and lack of Safari Reader option made this difficult for me to read. The version on the author's own site is much better designed: http://www.jofreeman.com/joreen/tyranny.htm

I use this bookmarklet for websites like this (if there is no other version available):


Also great for preparing websites for printing too, when that is required.

The long line lengths don't help either. Normally you should aim for 12 words per line. http://www.maxdesign.com.au/articles/em/

The body color is #00FFFF. You could just change it to #FFFFFF with a html editor, and it'll be black on white.

<body bgcolor="#00FFFF"> => <body bgcolor="#FFFFFF">

In case some context is necessary, this excellent article was pointed out to me by scott_s as part of the discussion of the stuff going on at GitHub.

Thanks for posting this article. I've seen it linked several times in recent years; probably even here on HN. However, it's still relevant. Again.

It's been posted as an item before but I don't think it hung around long. It's definitely been referred to (and linked) in many threads where the idea of 'no-management' or flat structures crops up. e.g threads on Valve.

The irony is that it puts into words what many people have already experienced (in some sense) via high-school. Although it's long, I tend to point people at this story if they're having an anti-management rant with me during a discussion.

Contrary to what we would like to believe, there is no such thing as a “structureless” group.

Even anonymous developed small groups within vying for power as inner cabals. Also structureless groups are still subject to evaporative cooling, if not more so.

This has profound implications for things like open source projects, language communities, and startup communities.

what do you mean by "evaporative cooling"?

The most high-value people in a group are the first to leave as the group grows and the average value of the group decreases, accelerating the decline of the average value of the group. To prevent this you need structures in place to retain value for the highest-value people, e.g., strict policing on who gets to join the group or the ability to form groups-within-groups.

Original source (on the author's web site) is here: http://www.jofreeman.com/joreen/tyranny.htm

Isn't it incredibly obvious that hierarchical structures, even when they start o get a hint of tyranny, offer more freedom to the individual than "structureless" ones?! (my definition of "freedom" here is "freedom to do my thing however I want to do it, whether the majority agree or nor, whether I'm right or not").

In a "structureless"/"not explicitly structured" social system you have to always keep your senses sharp and always be observant about the hidden power structure that always changes. This takes a huuuge amount of mental energy, at least for me, and I can put this energy to waaaay better uses. In a functional "structured system", even if for short periods of time the wrong people get in charge, you can at least not spend 50% of your energy in tasks related to the perpetual reorganization of the power structure and the silent but continuous fights for power, and actually have time and energy for solving the problems (and no, the problem is never "who's in charge?", nobody gives a fuck "who's in charge"!) Yeah, you may have to do the problem solving while lying "yes sir, I'll do it like this" to the bosses, and then go on and do things "your way" in reality, but it's waaaaay less stressful then either:

- being in/around a perpetual silent power-fight

- not knowing who really is in charge (this is what I find the most stressful, because if you know who really is in charge you can solve any serious problem by jumping over your superiors and talking to someone more enlightened higher up the food chain)

"Non-micromanaging 'cold' hierarchies" (by 'cold' I mean both "relatively rigid", like not in a continuous reorganization and power fight, and non-empathic to even semi-autistical, like being relatively unperturbed by temporary emotions) and "benevolent tyrants" are to me the best models for helping the "makers" function at 100%. And "the makers" are the ones actually solving the problems and keeping the profit flow.

The moment you have two primates and a banana, you're going to get politics.

For those who would like to know more about this, I can't recommend De Waal's Chimpanzee Politics enough. I read this as a young nerd and suddenly people made a lot more sense to me. First things about society (especially companies). Then things about individual people. And, most recently, things about myself.

If the two primates are bonobos, the usual result is sex.

Which is still politics.

Indeed. Didn't one noble in the 30 years war switch sides at what amounts to the prompting of his girlfriend?

And the form of that politics will vary. c.f. Two wolves and a sheep deciding on what to have for dinner.

I love this analogy, but the funny thing is that it works both ways: whatever a wolf and two sheep might vote on for dinner, it's not gonna be sheep (or even wolf). Hence, it is the wolves and not the sheep who usually have the greater resentment for democracy.

Politics requires at least three people. With only two people, there is no us-vs-them.

Am I over-inferring from one piece of info, or does this writing represent an entire branch of early feminism which lost the struggle for the heart of the movement and was driven out by worse ideas?

I suspect you're over-inferring, and it's hard to tell what you mean by "heart" and "worse".

Reading the oft-cited anarchist response might provide some context (though it was written in 2005): http://libcom.org/library/tyranny-of-tyranny-cathy-levine

Nearly every time the Tyranny of Structurelessness is posted to some activist's facebook wall these days, a link to the Tyranny of Tyranny is in the first few comments. Then the discussion devolves into rehashed bickering, though never about the actual content of the pieces.

This (Tyranny of Structurelessness) pamphlet was one of many diverse pamphlets on a board in an anarcho-communist activist/literature space where I used to volunteer. I'm more than surprised to see it posted here and it pleases me to see that there is a critique (Tyranny of tyranny).

Has there ever been a pole about the political leanings of HN or would it be impossible to enumerate the categories?

   [] anarchist
   [] socialist
   [] republican
   [] monarchist
   [] libertarian
   [] free market capitalist taxes are theft ayn rand is my god
   [] conservative
   [] democrat
   [] i really couldn't tell you old boy

Such a poll would go against the site rules, and for good reason, but I sometimes conduct hidden polls by posting "libertarian" and "socialist" (I'm putting those in quotes because these terms have different meanings in the US than elsewhere) comments (using different accounts) on political threads and counting the upvotes. It might be surprising (but only for a split second) that the vast majority of HN users are progressive (in America: socialist/democrat), while free market believers/libertarians are a minority. It is by no means scientific, and possibly quite anecdotal, but also not surprising, that the free-market libertarians are among the younger members of this site (usually early twenties, judging by the information posted on user pages of "libertarian posters").

This is not surprising because HN is a community of mostly well educated people, which here, like elsewhere, is composed of left-leaning individuals. However, it is also true that the number of libertarians here, while still a relatively small minority, is larger than found in other communities of well educated people.

Have you also taken into account that most Americans that consider themselves democrat/liberal/progressive would be considered well to the right in most other countries represented on HN?

The American contingent really skews the numbers if you let people identify themselves.

You get a much clearer picture if you look at discussions around concrete issues, like government and regulation.

I'm not sure about that, I'm from the UK and most of my exposure to US culture comes from the internet or the media but I get the impression that there are simply more extremes of opinion in the US than there are here.

Your liberals are more progressive and your conservatives are more conservative, at least towards the fringes.

I think it would be much easier to find a consensus of opinion in the UK on most topics than it would be in the US.

It might be true that the political status quo (on many issues) in the US is further to the right than it is here, but that might be because progressives feel that they have to vote for the party that most closely represents their views and has a chance of being elected (presumably democrat) rather than a party that they necessarily agree with.

I think the UK is somewhat a special case among the Western European nations in this context as well. From a Finnish/Nordic perspective it seems that the US Democrats, on average, seem only a bit to the left of what would here be regarded as "center"; in some cases even to the right.

Either that and/or people on the internet are more extreme. Specifically the ones who write the things on the links you choose to click.

Bit of a me too comment, as in, that is what I was thinking as well - I have come to the judgment that the number of libertarians in HN is small though larger than other such communities. It makes you wonder.

I'd be more interested in a heat map of Political Compass[1] results or something similar. It's not a great model, but it's slightly less terrible than a bunch of pre-globalization labels.

And ultimately, I've stopped caring about how people define themselves politically. No matter how deep into activist milieus I got[2], my politics were always consequentialist. And to actually be a consequentialist you have to shut the hell up, strategize, build and iterate. Introspective and social identities are no exception to that.

[1] http://politicalcompass.org/analysis2

[2] Note the strict past tense.

"shut the hell up, strategize, build and iterate"

I've got a few rules like, "personal autonomy trumps most bullshit", "strict separation of church and state (means .gov and .mil and .edu)" "lots of checks and balances (judicial, legislative, executive, media, direct democracy)", um, and so on

I do not believe in innate human rights, I only believe in asserting ideals but I am completely aware that your ideals and my ideals may differ.

Most days I sympathize with the anarchist ethos, I align myself with organisations like the FSF and EFF and ACLU (and the global and European equivalents: FSFe and so forth)

What does that make me I wonder? Do you mean consequentialism in the philosophical sense - as in, to be contrasted with deontology?

> What does that make me I wonder?

It only matters if you're still asking that rabbit hole of a question.

> Do you mean consequentialism in the philosophical sense - as in, to be contrasted with deontology?

I suppose that's accurate enough for this context. The LW threads where consequentialism has been discussed[1] are probably the only way to get a good idea of what I mean by it.

I'd probably be better served by using the word less in favor of a phrase like "longterm rationality".

There is no good, simple to understand word or phrase that gets across the idea of "ethical strategy is more important than anything, and that doesn't mean what you think it means, because my strategy involves willfully, permanently altering my identity whenever necessary (and practical)". The common language of ethics is stuck in the early 20th century (at best) and its pre-computational aspirations.

[1] http://wiki.lesswrong.com/wiki/Consequentialism

I've found LessWrong tough going in the past but I'll try again as you've given me motivation.

Awesome. It's a fantastic community, full of incredibly smart people, novel perspectives and ways to actively improve the functionality of your mind.

Coincidentally, the user I originally replied to up above, Eliezer, is the founding member of LessWrong and author of most of the early posts.

A strict consequentialist wouldn't waste time with politics; he knows the input/output ratio is a billion to one.

perhaps surprisingly, many subcultures have more nuanced views in long-form historical texts than is evident in their blogs. This does not mean that the older, longer texts lack cultural influence in the present.

Wow. The section "Political Impotence" describes the experience of working in a well-functioning "structureless organization", and it sounds a lot like the descriptions of early-stage startups. (Chunks omitted with ellipses for brevity; go check out the whole thing!)

"While working in this kind of group is a very heady experience, it is also rare and very hard to replicate. There are almost inevitably four conditions found in such a group:

1. It is task oriented. Its function is very narrow and very specific, like putting on a conference or putting out a newspaper. It is the task that basically structures the group...

2. It is relatively small and homogeneous. Homogeneity is necessary to ensure that participants have a “common language” or interaction. ...too great a diversity among members of a task-oriented group means only that they continually misunderstand each other... If everyone knows everyone else well enough to understand the nuances, these can be accommodated. Usually, they only lead to confusion and endless hours spent straightening out conflicts no one ever thought would arise.

3. There is a high degree of communication... This is only possible if the group is small and people practically live together for the most crucial phases of the task....Successful groups can be as large as 10 or 15, but only when they are in fact composed of several smaller subgroups which perform specific parts of the task, and whose members overlap with each other so that knowledge of what the different subgroups are doing can be passed around easily.

4. There is a low degree of skill specialization. Not everyone has to be able to do everything, but everything must be able to be done by more than one person..."

This was written by a state communist, so you can imagine what "structure" she advocated, and the anarchists immediately replied with The Tyranny of Tyranny


Except history, in Silicon Valley (http://blogs.hbr.org/2014/01/how-silicon-valley-became-the-m...) as elsewhere, is unequivocally on Jo Freeman's side. No actual revolution (as opposed to imagined ones) ever managed to remain structureless, and those that aspired to be the most structureless quickly became as oppressive as the most tyrannical ones.

For additional context; what/which revolution(s) are you thinking about that aspired to be the most structureless but became as oppressive as the most tyrannical ones?

Pretty much all the communist ones; the French; counterculture (see the linked article as well as Adam Curtis's documentaries)

Communists never aspired to be structureless, definitely not in the short term. Even utopia they promised in long term had element of forced conformity with system aka oppression. Path towards that utopia was supposed to go through strong party discipline and obeisance. That is how communist party survived oppression in Russia.

It was not supposed to be "free" or "structureless" in any current meaning of the word.

I now much less about French revolution, but what I know suggests it was very complicated event. Describing it as simple attempt to move towards structureless society is simplifying it too much.

I have to agree with watwut. This is a bit unnuanced and oversimplifying things.

Yes, there's a link to that at the bottom of the original link. There's also a comment: "if you examine it carefully I think you will see that it actually does little but evade the issue." I found that to be true.

We don't have to imagine, the structure she advocates is spelled out at the end of the article.

Flat/no-bosses, untrue. Clash between the founder and employee, who's out the door?

If anyone's having trouble reading... https://www.readability.com/articles/vot5qmk3

That just redirects me to the original site.

The "zap colors" bookmarklet is helpful here: https://www.squarefree.com/bookmarklets/zap.html

"Contrary to what we would like to believe, there is no such thing as a “structureless” group. Any group of people of whatever nature that comes together for any length of time for any purpose will inevitably structure itself in some fashion. "

This assertion is not quite true.

When I think of "structure", I am thinking of deliberate, conscious, and rational attempts to create a sort of rigid ... structure. What he is describing is better termed as "dynamic".

I make this distinction because I've typically found (as a man), men tends to think and work with structures more often than with the dynamics... the natural ebb and flow of a group without a "structure".

When you start thinking about accomplishing a goal (whether a man or a woman) as a group, you start talking about structure, or "process" or any number of those words. That's when you use a particular part of the consciousness to drive and coordinate efforts. So when you start trying to look at what the group can do, accomplish, or its utility, you naturally start looking at structure, and perhaps even imposing structure.

Dynamics, or flow will happen regardless of whether we consciously attempt to structure the group or not. When you're not aiming for a particular goal, you can simply just be with the group, to feel and experience the way the group comes together and disperses. There is great wisdom in this, something that has been obscured because it doesn't produce anything that can be easily quantified.

I know programmers have talked about "flow" or "zone", about teams that have "gelled". These are all related to the wisdom of being, rather than that of doing. "Flow state", or "zone" is that sweet spot where your effort becomes effortless because you've relaxed into the flow while ... flowing to the goal. Flow states are one of the experiences we can have with consciousness, and you get there by first relaxing and getting more in touch with being ... and dropping some of your fixation on structure.

In truth, you see this play between structure and dynamic, between effort and flow. It's just that, most of us are so fixated on the doing and the structure, we are no longer aware of the natural dynamic. This is something I've noticed many (not all) women naturally understand this, and generally, men are pretty clueless about. When men typically encounter this, men will argue about it until we are blue in the face; usually, the women will agree, thus reinforcing this fixation. Women's liberation, in my opinion, is less about liberating women, and more about whacking men with a clue-by-four.

The author's premise is that when people interact, 'structures' always form (it's in the same section you quoted from). It's same way that one could argue that 'politics' is always present, when two or more people must work together.

You can't really claim her assertion isn't true simply by using your own definition of the term.

"What he is describing is better termed as "dynamic"."

The author of this essay is a woman.

It's so much easier to capture an organization when you can simply buy it.

Right, so if the women's liberation movement hadn't made flat orgs so fashionable, then maybe Github would still be a nice place for all kinds to work, and we wouldn't have this whole class of pseudo-sexist problems.

Am I reading this right?

And this is why I prefer 4chan to reddit. By eliminating individual identities (except on a few niche boards, almost nobody posts in any identifiable way) from a group, you are left with no way to form personal cliques.

You can identify people by their actions, sure. Like "that person who draws those video-games comics" or "that person who knows a lot about kernel development and posts help in the programming threads" (this is a hypothetical person, I haven't met one like that on 4chan yet) &c. But you don't have a name on those usually and even if they do use one, those people only use it to post that content, rather than in general. You don't know if the person is male, female, or a raptor butterfly from Venus.

The threads are also flat and you cannot upvote posts. This prevents the upvote-echo-chamber effect you can see on reddit. If you wish to drown out another opinion, you have to actually post more than the other anon, you can't just call your friends on IRC and have them upvote via puppet accounts or whatnot. And there is an enforced minimum time between posts, which is greatly increased if you attempt to post the same thing twice in a row. Every dissenting opinion is given equal opportunity for being heard (as long as it's not about posting gore pics out of sheer asshattery - that shit gets you banned).

This does sound very unstructured and some kinds of groups do arise, but they're centered around shared interests and not identities. It's kind of strange putting it like that, but 4chan is probably one of the sites on the internet where it's hardest to hurt a specific person. You can post hurtful remarks about some other person's post or opinions, but without an identity to attach to that person, you can't go on to hurt them in other threads. Or even in the same thread in many cases. Now, there are people on certain boards that voice general opinions that will hurt you and make you angry. I suggest posting right back at them.

4chan's design won't work in all cases, though. For instance, StackOverflow and friends work perfectly with the reddit model. But the point of SO is to get the best possible answer to a question. The point of 4chan is to enable fair discussion (also pictures of cats and porn, as long as it's not porn with cats).

It's a shame 4chan is the only well-known site on the internet using that model. I'd love to see different platforms experiment with fully anonymous posting and no upvote system.

P.S. I'm not moot

>And this is why I prefer 4chan to reddit. By eliminating individual identities (except on a few niche boards, almost nobody posts in any identifiable way) from a group, you are left with no way to form personal cliques.

I've never experienced this on reddit. Yes usernames are attached to every post, but it's functionally anonymous. No one knows or cares who anyone else is. With rare exceptions.

>The threads are also flat and you cannot upvote posts. This prevents the upvote-echo-chamber effect you can see on reddit.

You can sort reddit by "new" and it's awful. Likewise HN uses basically the same system and manages a much higher quality of discussion.

That's because HN is still pretty young. 4chan used to be "better" (note: actual better may vary) 8 years ago, when it was still basically a monoculture of like-minded individuals.

Reddit is awful when you sort by new because you can't see who people are replying to. 4chan solves that problem nicely, I think, with its post id and post id quoting feature. It's common to even quote a part of the post you're replying to, if it's a longer post.

HN is only a year and a half younger than Reddit itself. I don't think that theory holds.

HN is like Haskell: desperately trying to avoid success at all costs.

What do you mean you can't see who people are replying to on reddit? Replies are organized and indented quite nicely. As far as I can tell, 4chan just uses a cryptic number, and the replies can be anywhere in the thread.

I mean posts aren't numbered and the id of the post(s) that are being replied to aren't visible in the post itself.

4chan's "cryptic number" system is pretty much perfect. You click on the number and it expands inline to the comment itself. All the posts that replied to a given post are also added to the header of that post and clicking on those numbers inline-expands the comments. The best part is you can reply to several comments at once with just one comment - the thread isn't a tree, it's a directed acyclic graph. If three people give you roughly the same reply you can reply to all three posts at once. I find this a very good feature for discussions, where very often there are several micro-threads going on on a single sub-topic inside a thread, it allows to keep everything neatly organised and you can reference people to other posts easily just by number. It used to be more cubersome before the current built-in javascript extension, when posts didn't expand and you couldn't see replies to a post tacked as references on the post itself, but today it's really really good.

I urge you to try a more tame board, say /g/ (technology), and see for yourself how things work now. It's usually best around after 6-7 PM USA time (any coast), when the people who don't live to shitpost get home from work.

Edit: to be pedantically correct (the even better kind of correct), you can make a post that quotes a future post and with really good statistical modelling and some luck, you can arrange to post in the same thread with that exact number, forming a full cycle - a post that quotes a future post that quotes the first post. This was much easier early on. I think the highest achievement was one person who managed to pull it off across several different boards while roleplaying a time-traveler.

I wasn't aware of those features, that would significantly improve what I thought of it. However having to click to see replies seems less than ideal. Reddit and HN just organize them properly to begin with. It also gets rid of voting, which I believe to be the most important feature.

You must not frequent any niche subreddits. In the sports subs, everybody knows everybody.

> You don't know if the person is male, female, or a raptor butterfly from Venus.

Sure, but everyone just assumes you're a white male 20-something. And god forbid you correct anyone's assumptions, or you'll meet the endless refrain of kitchen jokes or racial epithets or whatever else they can think of. Remember, "there are no women on the internet." Disgusting.

Sure, but that reaction isn't directed at any particular group; rather, it's a "hurt them with whatever hurts" reaction to attempting to claim an identity, in a place where identity is itself discouraged. Amusingly-enough, there are slurs that are aimed at white male 20-somethings as well, when someone mentions they are one. Even though the people doing the slur-ing probably are also one. It's the principle of the thing. (The core of it being the slur "tripfag", which is used when you don't know anything about the person to hurt them with, but you still want to insult them for trying to persist their identity between posts.)

Picture 4chan as a masquerade ball in a politically-unstable climate. For example, imagine WWII-era Germany, with both members of the Nazi party, and persecuted minorities, participating. Nobody knows who anyone else is, though, and so everyone is generally genial toward one-another.

Now imagine that you start to take off your mask. I would think the immediate reaction would be for whoever was nearby to shove it forcibly back onto your face.

Which board are you using? That assumption might be right on many of them, but there are, of course, boards with majority female users and everyone there knows that.

And only a few of them get that angry - there's not much user crossover between every topical board.

The racial epithets only persist as long as a mod isn't looking (global rule #2), but "correcting someone's assumptions" is also against the rules (global rule #6), since it's offtopic! So it shouldn't be the majority of a post.

> The threads are also flat and you cannot upvote posts.


You have to conduct REAL interaction with the "thread". Not just artificially by voting for stuff you like.

Information is everything that matters. The only upvote-like mechanism is posting in a thread.

There are still people posting stuff without additional informations to show their approval, but they have to type something and type a captcha, which prevents the whole mass from skimming over boards and randomly vote as they go.

And if you just go around posting "this" or "qft", you'll be flamed, given a warning by the mods, banned for a day and if you persist, banned for a long while.

One good thing about upvotes is that every single person now doesn't have to contribute to the thread by posting.

When your site is too popular, there will be lots of posts that aren't good, since everyone wants to contribute, and it just tires everyone out reading and processing them. Voting takes no space on the page.

When your forum gets too big, it becomes a problem again, as you can see. Now there's so much voting it barely means anything. Without selection on reddit users, there's no "taste", which is one of the worst problems with reddit's front page.

(The other problem with reddit's front page is that they used to subscribe you to the gore and pictures of dead people board by default.)

A better system, but one that takes too much time for most people, is explaining yourself in the upvote. Like Slashdot!

In the absence of that, you can impose "taste" on users by defining a topic and having "board culture", aka, making everyone but a certain class of people too weirded out to post. This is totally egalitarian as long as you have enough different classes of people.

I'd love a system that required accounts and login (for moderation purposes), but then either made users anonymous to one-another, or only exposed identity on a per-thread basis (e.g. each user would get an identicon attached to each post, but it would be generated from SHA1(uid + threadid + salt), so in each new thread, your icon would change.)

That is implemented on 4chan. Your IP is your identity for moderation purposes. Not ideal, but an explicit goal is to never ever require logins.

IDs are present on some boards. The /int/ board for instance puts a country flag next to your post, /b/ used to have IDs the way you describe, then it didn't, but now it has them again, I think. Some other boards also have per-thread IDs.

And should you chose to do so, you can always pick a tripcode. Basically you pick a password, type username#password in the name box and it comes out as username!hash, where the hash is the same each time you type the same password.

Right, I'm familiar with all the things the Yotsuba codebase does for "identity." I was trying to say that they suck.

Tripcodes are an abomination--when you use them and others don't, you get made fun of, and allowing them to persist between threads removes the point of anonymity. Country flags (or any real-world-attached property of yourself), meanwhile, encourage hate and trolling.

Probably, the most obvious system would involve taking tripcodes, forcing the arbitrary-input-string to a numeric value one can increment (i.e. increment on each post where a "Keep Identity" checkbox isn't enabled) so that everyone always has one but they can still change easily, and then adding the thread-ID to the hash so that they can't be kept forever. And then visualizing them with something colorful, because when every post has a tripcode they become a mess of very-hard-to-track text.

Or, you know, hashed thread+user identicons, like I said.

> Your IP is your identity for moderation purposes. Not ideal, but an explicit goal is to never ever require logins.

You don't need logins to have accounts. Use an http://samy.pl/evercookie/, and generate an account for someone when you haven't seen them before. Make unnamed accounts ephemeral (expire them after a year or so.) And make it so that if you enter just an email address, you get sent a link that--provided it's opened under the same evercookie--merges the account it was opened in and its history into a named account.

Thus, the login flow looks like this:

1. go to 4chan, browse around, make posts;

2. decide you want to keep these posts;

3. enter your email address in the "email" field while making a post; now all the posts you made on this computer are attached to your account (but that doesn't retroactively change the identicon they have in their threads) and you are logged into that account from then on.

4. somewhere else, using a new computer, repeat 1-3.

This makes it much simpler to ban miscreants, while still generally keeping things anonymous. The one problem with it is that you won't be able to "remove" a 4chan identity from a (possibly public!) computer--but this can be handled by making computer identities separate from user identities, and allowing the "user" to log out while still remembering who the computer is. (And by making a ban ban both your current user- and computer-identity, of course.)

That's the exact experience of the Secret app.

Of course you are not moot. Moot has his own account on HN :)

Structurelessness is a bad idea. It's taking some good concepts (open allocation, self-direction) too far. It means that management is lazy and absent rather than aware, principled, and effective. Open allocation still requires management to keep it open.

Closed allocation is worse and basically terrible, because there's an inherent conflict of interest between people and project management. Advocating for 10 people, and having to make those 10 people deliver on a specific executive mandate, has a person serving two masters. It might be that the best thing for a person is to change projects, but that conflicts with the manager's need to manage up and won't happen.

You still need people who can protect the good (sheepdogs). Always. I don't care how flat an organization is, there has got to be someone who, if harassment occurs or someone is impeding others' work, says "Not fucking acceptable". The problem is that it's really hard to give someone that power and not have it be abused.


View->Page Style->No Style (in Firefox) turns it into a rather readable and certainly responsive page.

Less is more. Ain't HTML great?

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