Make No Distinction | 2004

Make No Distinction

This week I’d like to continue my fragmentary exploration of organisations/institutions and platforms as techno-social systems. Of course my book project is called Land as Platform so it shouldn’t be a surprise that this is a subject I’m thinking about platforms and organisations in public occasionally.

For new listeners Back in Episode 19-32 I talked about Temporary Total Institutions

β€œInstitutions are constructed of both physical and psychic space. Made up of rules and social norms which shape the behaviour of the people working on an activity within them.”

I should note that the psychic rules of an institution feedback into the physical environment. Temporary Total Institutions are both Physical and Mental Environments that are voluntarily entered into.

I also talked about the five types of Organisational Memory in episode 19-33. This involved exploring the notion of the apparatus of governance. What it means to see like a stack. EG: If it can’t see something in its database it’s not part of reality. It is important to understand that how a techno social system remembers things in some sense defines its reality. 

All of this of course also has knock on effects on platform and system design. See my friend Jaya Brekke’s excellent essay: Disassembling The Trust Machine Three Cuts On The Political Matter Of Blockchain for the deep dive on the problems of uncertainty in blockchains etc.

Today I’d like to make the case that we should give as much thought to software environments as we do physical environments when designing projects and institutions of the future.

To kick things off let us mention the bane of infoproles lives in the 21st century.

The Open Plan Office

We know that the reasons for not having them are myriad: they make bad bosses inescapable and make toxic work environments worse. Somebody is always trying to be a hero and sneezing their lurgy over everyone. They drive introverts IE 50% of the population crazy. 

Trendy offices are full crazy coloured walls and quirky furniture. This is essentially visual pollution a phenomenon which European Scientific Journal tells us 

…affects the overall well-being and thus the quality of life of a community, reduces aesthetic appeal, economic health, and civic-sense. This may incite a psychological aversion and thus affect mental and physical health.


You also end up sitting for 8 hours a day with your back exposed, causing your body to constantly produce cortisol, which negatively affects your weight and immune system while creating a greater risk of chronic disease. 

They also increase gender inequality.

Now I’ve just devoted a considerable portion of the script to talking about how open plan offices are bad both psychically and physically on members of an organisation. Yet organisations still seem to want them as their β€˜goto’ office layout.

I’d like to make the case that we should make no distinction between the software and physical environments in terms of the impact they have on an institution or organisation. We know that Software shapes people’s behaviour and norms. Let’s zoom in on communications software.

Slack is the open plan office of the business world. 

Slack is 100% more about worker surveillance than office productivity. It forces an inability to have a private conversation on the worker anywhere in the software environment. With many toxic bosses quote unquote β€œworking” basically spying on channels and worker productivity. 8 more hours of your back exposed.

A badly managed slacks are also full of visual pollution and distractions. Medium to large companies with Slack are also really bad at corporate memory and document control. 

Slacks are great for communities.*gasp*. Just like IRC but terrible for work. Slack is a fad that everyone who got suckered by it are probably regretting. Also mind-bogglingly Slack is not profitable and posted a net loss of $138.9 million in FY 2019.

Contrast a Slack based company with one that uses Salesforce. A far more sedate bulletin board style UX where comments and updates are attached to unique items inside a CRM. Everything is logical and controlled. Conversations and updates are all attached to items related to work. A hill that I am prepared to die on is at the enterprise level, chatter is excellent, actually.

Then there’s Google apps with its half assed communication and cohesion, Microsoft office suite is really good for most SMEs but also very Microsoft. All the most most exciting organisations I know are all using and have banded company chat. 

All these different tools shape the manners and mores of an organisations culture.

Again if we make no distinction between the software and physical environments in terms of the impact they have on an institution. Then UX needs to become a much larger field than it currently is: Taking cues from the fields such as human architecture might be a good start.

Last year at Sonar+D On the panel Tales Of The Next Internet link in the show notes. I raised the point that a much larger focus should be placed on how software makes us feel. 

Chat apps like Whatsapp or Telegram are essentially tennis volleys.

Music software highlights the artificial nature of the passing of time. 

And resource management strategy games games like Civilization or Sim City have a machine like algorithmic coldness.

In the medium term future software systems should adapt to us, not the other way around. We should be able to meet the interface somewhere in the middle. The same way as the best kinds of physical project spaces like workshops do. See Episode 1818 – Mise en place.

Right now, I don’t think any organisations seriously think about the psychic consequences of adopting a new piece of software.

A company I once worked for once rolled out Facebook at work and it basically basically abandoning its use of a very expensive project management Salesforce implementation. Generating enormous amounts of inter employee chat with very little substance. But bafflingly they kept with it because it was cool and shiny. Just like open plan offices.

You wouldn’t keep a tool like a hammer or a kettle around in your home for long if it actively made your life miserable. We shouldn’t tolerate it with software or physical environments in the workplace either.

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3 responses to “Make No Distinction | 2004”

  1. […] how does software make us feel? Earlier this year in Episode 20-04 I said that Slack was the open plan office of the software world. Full of visual pollution and […]

  2. […] Think about the current mechanisms for governance and coordination in the workplace on a platform like Slack. […]

  3. […] Make No Distinction […]

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