Michal Migurski's notebook, listening post, and soapbox. Subscribe to this blog. Check out the rest of my site as well.

Jan 16, 2009 9:05am

blog all dog-eared pages: the process of government

Arthur F. Bentley's 1908 The Process Of Government (A Study Of Social Pressures) found me through a a review in the New Yorker a few months ago. This summary got me interested:

The Process of Government is a hedgehog of a book. Its point - relentlessly hammered home - can be stated quite simply: All politics and all government are the result of the activities of groups. Any other attempt to explain politics and government is doomed to failure. It was, in his day as in ours, a wildly contrarian position. Bentley was writing The Process of Government at the height of the Progressive Era, when educated, prosperous, high-minded people believed overwhelmingly in "reform" and "good government," and took interest groups to be the enemy of these goals.

Normally I summarize the books I read, but in this case Nicholas Lemann's review is a much better and more interesting writeup than I can offer. Instead I'll just mention that it's a delivery mechanism for the kind of worldview that burrows its way into your subconscious and won't let go. I have a weakness for reductive explanations, and Bentley offers a big one: "ideas", "the public", "zeitgeist", and other hive-mind explanations of political activity are meaningless in the face of often-temporarily organized interests arrayed in groups of people, playing a species-wide game of king of the hill. Law and morality exist because they are useful and helpful to someone, somewhere, more than they are harmful. When these things fall out of kilter, organizations form to rebalance them.

Read the review, check out the passages below, and then try to celebrate Tuesday's inauguration, read a political blog, watch Milk, follow Tim O'Reilly's losing battle to define "web 2.0", bemoan the passage of Prop. 8, or digg (something) for (some reason) without seeing groups, groups, groups, and groups all vying for your attention and support.

Page 13, on reform, opportunity, the absence of personal change:

What was to be seen, in actual human life, was a mass of men making of their opportunities. The insurance presidents and trustees saw opportunities and used them. Their enemies in the fit time saw opportunities and used them. The "public" by and by awoke to what it had suffered, saw its opportunities for revenge and for future safeguard and used them. All these things happened, all of them had causes, but those causes cannot be found in a waxing and waning and change or transformation of the psychic qualities of the actors.

Page 58, Rudolf von Jhering on the usefulness of law:

He set himself in opposition on the one hand to theories which made laws take their origin in any kind of absolute will power, and on the other hand to theories which placed the origin in mere might. It was the usefulness of the law, he said, that counted.
Stripped of terminology and disputation, this came to saying that you cannot get law out of simple head work, and you cannot get it out of mere preponderance of force; law must always be good for something to the society which has it, and that quality of being good for something is the very essence of it.
The formal element of the law he placed, at this time, in the legal protection by right of action ("Klage", "Rechtsschutz"); the substantial element in "Nutzen", "Vortheil", "Gewinn", "Sicherheit des Genusses". He defined laws as legally protected interests, and said that they served "den Interessen, Bedrfnissen, Zwecken des Verlkhes". The "subject" of the law, using the term habitual among the jurists, is the person or organization to whom its benefits pass. The protection of the law exists to assure this benefit reaching the right place.

Page 113, on beef, alternatives, and inevitability:

To take an illustration of a kind most unfavorable for my contention: Does anyone believe that a states'-rights Bryan in the president's chair could have taken any other course in dealing with the nation-wide beef industry when the time for its control had arrived than was taken by a republican? ... But given the national scope of the industry and its customers, given also its foreign trade, given the emergency for its control which was bound to come through its own growth and methods, if not in one year then in another, given presidential representation of the mass of the people on approximately the same level, could a states'-right president have found a different solution from any other president? The answer is most decidedly, No.

Page 169, on the social rootedness of emotion:

No matter how generalized or how specific the ideas and feeling are which we are considering, they never lose their reference to a "social something". The angry man is never angry save in certain situations; the highest ideal of liberty has to do with man among men. The words anger and liberty can easily be set over as subjects against groups of words in the predicate which define them. But neither anger, nor liberty, nor any feeling or idea in between can be got hold of anywhere except in phases of social situations. They stand out as phases, moreover, only with reference to certain position in the social situation or complex of situations in the widest sense, within which they themselves exist.

Page 181, on what material to study if not ideas:

When our popular leader - to revert to the Standard Oil illustration - gets upon the platform and tells us we must all rally with him to exterminate the trusts, we have so much raw material for investigation which we must take as so much activity for just what it is. If we start out with a theory about ideas and their place in politics, we are deserting our raw material even before we take a good peep at it. We are substituting something else which may or may no be useful, but which will certainly color our entire further progress, if progress we can make at all on scientific lines.

Page 197, on social activity as the raw material:

We shall find as go on that even in the most deliberative acts of heads of governments, what is done can be fully stated in terms of the social activity that passes through, or is reflected, or represented, or mediated in those high officials, much more fully than by their alleged mental states as such. Mark Twain tells of a question he put to General Grant: "With whom originated the idea of the march to the sea? Was it Grant's or was it Sherman's idea?" and of Grant's reply: "Neither of us originated the idea of Sherman's march to the sea. The enemy did it;" an answer which points solidly to the social context, always in individuals, but never to be stated adequately in terms of individuals.

Page 206, on acting groups:

There is ample reason, then, for examining these great groups of acting men directly and accepting them as the fundamental facts of our investigation. They are just as real as they would be if they were territorially separated so that one man could never belong to two groups at the same time. ... Indeed the only reality of the ideas is their reflection of the group, only that and nothing more. The ideas can be stated in terms of the groups; the groups never in terms of the ideas.

Page 211, on groups, activity, and interests:

The term "group" will be used throughout this work in a technical sense. It means a certain portion of the men of a society, taken, however, not as a physical mass cut off from other masses of men, but as a mass activity, which does not preclude the men who participate in it from participating likewise in many other group activities. It is always so many men with their human quality. It is always so many men, acting, or tending toward action - that is, in various stages of action. ... It is now necessary to take another step in the analysis of the group. There is no group without its interest. An interest, as the term will be used in this work, is the equivalent of a group.

Page 227, on the source of group strength:

There is no essential difference between the leadership of a group by a group and the leadership of a group by a person or persons. The strength of the cause rests inevitably in the underlying group, and nowhere else. The group cannot be called into life by clamor. The clamor, instead, gets its significance only from the group. The leader gets his strength from the group. The group merely expresses itself through its leadership.

Page 347, on the deception of appearances:

Taking all the conditions, it would have been natural to expect that the tariff movement would have found a leader in Roosevelt, and have made a strong struggle through his aid, which, of course, is just what has not happened up to date. And the reason for this is exceedingly simple. It is not that Roosevelt "betrayed" the cause nor that he sacrificed it to the "trusts", but that under present conditions, despite all superficial appearances, there is not an intense enough and extensive enough set of interest groups back of the movement to make a good fight for thoroughgoing reform with reasonable prospects of success.

Page 348, on subsurface movements:

The essential point in an interpretation of government concerns the great pressures at work and the main lines of the outcome. It is relatively incidental whether a particular battle is fought bitterly through two or more presidencies, or whether it is adjusted peacefully in a single presidency, so long as we can show a similar outcome. This is true because the vast mass of the matter of government is not what appears on the surface in discussions, theories, congresses, or even in wars, but what is persistently present in the background. It is somewhat as it is when twenty heirs want to contest a will, but have only a single heir apparent in the proceedings, while the other nineteen hang back in the shadow. The story will concern the fight of the one; but the reality concerns the silent nineteen as well.

Page 418, on the inadequacy of policy to explain political parties:

Like all "theory", policy has its place in the process as bringing out group factors into clearer relation, and as holding together the parties, once they are formed, by catchwords and slogans. So far as it gives good expression to the groups on its particular plane, all is clear. But to attempt to judge the parties by their theories or formal policies is an eternal absurdity, not because the parties are weak or corrupt and desert their theories, but because the theories are essentially imperfect expressions of the parties.
The vicissitudes of states' rights as a doctrine are well known enough. Another passing illustration concerns the government regulation of commerce. If we may identify the commercial interests of a century ago with those of today for the purposes of illustration, we find that the very elements which then under Hamilton's leadership were most eager to extend the power of government over commerce are now the most bitterly opposed to any such extension. Then and now the arguments made great pretenses to logic and theoretical cocksureness, and then, as now, the theories were valuable in the outcome only as rallying the group forces on one side or the other for the contest.

Page 432, on writing legislation yourself:

Still more striking if the organization which at times can be found which produces what may almost be described as substitute legislatures. When there is some neglected interest to be represented, when the legislature as organized does not deal on its own initiative with such matters, when a point of support in party organization can be found - a point let us say of indifference, at which nevertheless the ear of some powerful boss can be obtained - a purely voluntary organization may be formed, may work out legislation, and may hand it over completed to the legislature for mere ratification.

Page 440, on leadership and personality cults:

A leader once placed will gather a following around him which will stick to him either on the discussion level or on the organization level within certain limits set by the adequacy of his representation of their interests in the past. That is, as a labor-saving device, the line of action in question will be tested by the indorsement of the trusted leader. The leader may carry his following into defeat in this way, but that very fact helps to define the limits of the sweep of groupings of this type.

Page 441, on the primacy of groups over forms of government:

The citizen of a monarchy who sees his kind ride by may feel himself in the presence of a great power, outside of him, entirely independent of him, above him. The man busy in one of the discussion activities of the time may look upon ideas as masterly realities self-existing. But neither ideas nor monarchs have any power or reality apart from their representation of reflection of the social life; and social life is always the activity of men in masses.

Page 442, on leadership and esprit de corps:

Not only are discussion groups and organization groups both technique for the underlying interests, but within them we find many forms of technique which shade into each other throughout both kinds of groups. In the older fighting, soldiers might sing as they went into battle, or an officer might go ahead waving the colors. The singing and the officer illustrate the technical work of the representative groups. They serve to crystallize interests, and to form them solidly for the struggle, by providing rallying points and arousing enthusiasm. For all that, it is the men organized behind the singing, the cheering, and the colors that do the fighting and get the results.

Jan 3, 2009 9:30am

programming: like pulling teeth

Tom linked to this 2002 conversation between Kent Beck (programmer) and Alan Cooper (interaction designer), "Extreme Programming vs. Interaction Design":

Kent Beck is known as the father of "extreme programming," a process created to help developers design and build software that effectively meets user expectations. Alan Cooper is the prime proponent of interaction design, a process with similar goals but different methodology. We brought these two visionaries together to compare philosophies, looking for points of consensus - and points of irreconcilable difference.

So they reach one point of irreconcilable difference about midway through:

Beck: OK, wait. I agreed with you very close to 100 percent, then you just stepped off the rails. I don't see why this new specialist has to do his or her job before construction begins?
Cooper: It has to happen first because programming is so hellishly expensive and the cost of programming is like the cost of pulling teeth. ... Building software isn't like slapping a shack together; it's more like building a 50-story office building or a giant dam.
Beck: I think it's nothing like those. If you build a skyscraper 50 stories high, you can't decide at that point, oh, we need another 50 stories and go jack it all up and put in a bigger foundation.
Cooper: That's precisely my point.
Beck: But in the software world, that's daily business.
Cooper: That's pissing money away and leaving scar tissue.

The interview might as well stop there, because this is the One, Central, Insurmountable difference between these two approaches toward development work. XP is adapted to a context where motivation is expensive and change is cheap. Interaction design (at least how Cooper explains it) is adapted to a context where motivation is cheap and change is expensive. It should be obvious that contexts of both kinds can exist in the world: there are situations where it's easy to return to previous decisions and modify them (software, for one), and there are other situations where it's not (e.g. buildings, dams).

I think in this particular case, Cooper is pretty much wrong. They're talking about software, so we know that change is relatively cheap in the context of this conversation - cheaper than buildings, anyway. They just start to touch on the way in which running code becomes an object to think with, a thing to learn from: "you can build a program that improves with age instead of having it born powerful and gradually degrading" (Beck). Cooper believes that it's possible to suss out requirements and desires by talking to people about what they want and getting sign-off on a promise, but experience shows that people's desires change in response to novelty. Henry Ford's "faster horse" line comes to mind, as does perpetual beta wunderkind Flickr: starting with something that works enough to elicit use and reaction trumps big, up-front design when your changes are low cost. There are contexts where change is high-cost: skyscrapers, movies, mass-produced objects. Software, especially the astounding percentage of the world's software that's written by companies for their own internal use, is not one of them.

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