Order Without Hierarchy: Illusions

In Neal Stephenson’s latest science fiction novel, Anathem, it’s easy to make certain comparisons between the fraas and suurs of the Mathic world and the idjits of our world’s anarchist communities. Yet, the comparison isn’t really valid on anything other than a superficial level, because the fraas and suurs are one thing the anarchists will never be: competent.

One particularly lovely concept from Anathem that does show obvious parallels to the anarchist world is that of “first among equals” – referred to in Stephenson’s book as “FAE”. It seems mildly hypocritical, at first – “we’re all equal, but some of us are more equal than others” – and, among anarchist circles, at least a little ironic: Wait, anarchists have leaders? Nevertheless, it demonstrates the importance of ego and hierarchy, and the former’s desire to create the latter where none is needed, or desired.

The problem boils down to language, and it doesn’t just affect fringe political groups and saecular orders in science-fiction novels. Any time you start organizing people – or objects, or intangibles, like ideas – into groups, not only does ego rear its ugly head, but what I guess is referred to as “emotional intelligence” comes into play: people interpret things, and add or infer meaning, in ways other than originally intended.

A simple example is the dividing up of a group of people into teams. What do you call each team? You could use numbers – Team One, Team Two, and so on, or you could use letters or phonetic letters (Alpha, Bravo, Charlie…) instead. The problem is, those are linear systems of labeling, and even where it’s not true, people will attach meaning to the labels that were probably never intended. Quick, which team is where the misfits and unpopular people are more likely to be: Team A, or Team F? Team One, or Team Six? (How about Team Zero? People with computer programming experience will attach a different emotional weight to “zero” than those without.) It doesn’t help that “the B team” is a mild pejorative, in English, but changing “team” to “squad”, or “group”, or “unit” isn’t really much of an improvement.

The easy solution is to use members’ names: Alice’s Team, Bob’s Team, and so on. Alas, in a non-hierarchical environment, this doesn’t work. As the anarchists might put it, such labeling uses weighted language to reinforce non-consensual hierarchy; by calling it “Alice’s Team”, you’re subconsciously promoting her to “first among equals”, and That Just Won’t Do.

The trick is to use labels that are either completely unrelated, or completely meaningless. Completely unrelated labels would be, say, “Team Finger”, “Team Giraffe”, and “Team Schist”. Usually, people who try to go this route fail, because they pick, say, animals. On the surface, that seems great, but if you get any kind of size disparity going, or have both predator and prey represented, you’re reinforcing class stereotypes. Hmmn, “Team Wolf”, and “Team Rabbit”; I wonder who’s “ahead” of whom, there? I guess you could go with near-identical animals – wrens, starlings, chickadees, and finches, for example – but there’s always the danger that someone has an emotional reaction to one or more of the chosen terms that you haven’t anticipated.

That’s where completely unrelated, meaningless labels come into play. Just try to arrange these in any kind of hierarchical order: Squad Aphelion, Squad Trepanner, and Squad Penumbra; or Team Sprocket, Team Gambon, and Team Kelvin. Can’t really do it, can you? If creativity isn’t your strong suit, it’s perhaps worth remembering that most people know the Greek alphabet begins with Alpha and ends with Omega, but can’t reliably order anything in between. While you, dear reader, are obviously smarter than the average bear, I dare say most people can’t put Epsilon, Kappa, and Gamma in the “right” order. They’re not a great example – because it’s obvious that there is an order, a hierarchy (“Alpha comes before everything else, therefore Alpha is better than everything else…”) – even if people are hazy on the actual details.

If this seems kind of pointless, that’s because it is, in a way. On the other hand, playing the PC card at work and demanding non-hierarchical group and team names is certainly one way to liven up the workplace, and I have a theory it could actually improve morale – and productivity. I mean, what would get you more excited? Being assigned to Development Team B, or being assigned to Development Team Ganymede?

Yeah, that’s what I thought. 🙂

Published in: Geekiness, General | on October 31st, 2008| Comments Off on Order Without Hierarchy: Illusions

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