Autopoiesis

Many years ago I had the fun of working in a basement in Cambridge on some products for Lotus. This was for their Macintosh group and that group had built a truely amazing product called Jazz, and then a more amazing follow on called Modern Jazz. By the time I showed up the original project team had largely scattered. There were some really interesting amazing people still there though.
Now the job at Lotus was my first exposure to consumer software, or more accurately to a company that makes consumer software. Up until then most of the software I’d built had a customer who you could go out and have dinner with, and look over his shoulder and see if you were solving his problem – if you didn’t he told you. That relationship is deep, narrow.

Consumer software is really different. The customer is this huge cloud of random folks. The relationship between the you and the customer is very thin. It’s like the relationship between a whale and the plankton – you can’t even see the customers the relationship is so broad and thin.

Firms try to solve this problem by creating these huge complex statistical sense organs to reclaim contact with the customer. Vast organizational muscle is deployed. Channel managers, market researchers, usablity laboratory teams, etc. etc. on top of that you create a vast over arching managerial network.

I was lucky to get to see this from down in the basement at Lotus. I was lucky to have a few people who were familiar and bemused by this monster. What was fun at the time was that these folks had grown up with the firm and so were approprately distanced from from the thing that had emerged. You could watch them look at this meeting or that buracracy; wince and then mumble – “Huh? Who would a thought?”
So I ran into one of them today, Adam Hertz. Which was great because it let us recall a word. Autopoiesis.

Autopoiesis: …Self-reproduction or self-maintenance. …

We used to joke that the driving force behind any meeting was to spawn two more meetings. It’s in their nature.

This week, when I find myself thinking about change. I am noticing the networks (social, procedural, organizational, structural, …) that make up the connective tissue of any institution. They make them extremely resistant to change. Or, more positively they give the system a strong immune system.
Viewed through the lense of autopoiesis I’m reminded that they also have a tendency to maintain and reproduce themselves. To create more of their own kind.

That’s a huge organizational problem. Very similar to the opportunity hording idea in Tilly’s thinking about inequality in groups.

Open source tries to tackle it by being open to fresh blood. But it’s hard. We usually have a bit of a cell membrane to protect the quality of the code. We try to let good dedicated people cross that membrane; but if for example everybody inside is a symbolic thinker and what would be really helpful is a visual thinker it’s often hard to get the membrane to open up a pore that allows a group of such folks to cross over. Sometimes we fix that by keeping things loosely coupled. So a doc group can form without having to grant them the tools to inject security flaws into the server.

Man this stuff is hard.

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