Organization: what it is and why it matters

April 17th, 2013  |  Published in commentary

When we talk about organizing and organization, we often think about it in terms of optimizing an existing organizational structure. This is all well and good, but the concept of organization has become so ingrained in our culture and language that it is often assumed as a given and little thought is given to what it means to organize and how the resulting order differs from disorder. So I’m going to do some thinking out loud on the subject.

First, what is organization? Following the word’s etymological trail leads one eventually to the greek organon which apparently translates literally to “that with which one works”. In short, organizing is the act of creating something that is useful, an infrastructural element of getting things done. One could think of it as the fundamental aspect of toolmaking. All of this is good if you’re making a musical instrument (something else that pops up when looking into the history of the word), but how does it function when applied to people? Sure, forming a task force to get something done fits the notion, but a couple of interesting ideas come from it:

  1. Organization is a multiplier of force. For example, take a mob of people who want to effect some sort of change. As a mob they have certain amount of ability to influence the world. Now, arm the mob, give them all guns. The mob has exactly one more option, violence (and even that isn’t really anything new, any mob is capable of violence with or without weapons, arming them just makes that option more effective and more likely). Okay, so go back to the original, unarmed mob. Instead of giving them weapons, organize them. Get them talking to each other, have them work out what it is they want and delegate tasks to individuals or subgroups. All of a sudden, the mob (although it is no longer a mob, really) has as many options as it has ideas, and the amount of ideas in proportion to its size. Instead of adding to its options, the mob has multiplied them. This is specifically why governments are leery of any well-organized group, they are more dangerous than an armed crowd ever could be.
  2. Mindset. Unorganized groups (and individuals within the group) approach problems from the perspective of the individual, organized groups (and individuals within the group) approach problems from the perspective of the group. This may not sound like a big deal, but it is in fact the difference between powerlessness and power. Many of the issues that we find troubling in our world are not problems at the individual level but problems at the neighborhood, town, state, national, or world level. Dealing with problems on those scales as an individual is difficult, if not impossible (which is why superheroes seem to be such a dangerous fantasy to me, almost no one can deal with those problems on an individual level).

All of this is not to say that there aren’t problems with organization. Take for example the Stanford Prison Experiment, which suggests that it is possible for our individuality to be overridden by group identity. Despite this, I don’t honestly believe that there is a better option, yet.

In short, organization is a process by which useful things are created, multiplying the options of a group and providing the potential for hope against long odds.

So why am I going to the trouble of working all of this out? Aside from the subject being interesting in its own right, I’ve wanted to write something about organizing in a post-privacy society, and so this post was a necessary prerequisite. I’ll try to get that (more interesting, I promise) post written in the next week or two.

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Soapbox Part 8

November 21st, 2011  |  Published in Fiction

Here’s part 8 of Soapbox (unedited, as usual). If you are new here and want to read the whole story, you can skip back to part one, or read the entire thing as one page. Enjoy.

He was skeptical, but kept it to himself. “Where are these gardens?” he asked. He looked at the towering buildings all around, and couldn’t picture gardens fitting in anywhere.

“Some of them are an rooftops, some are in empty office buildings. There’s probably one close to where you live,” she said. “Do you want to sign up for a shift, then?”


“When are you available?”

“I can start tomorrow, I guess.” If he was going to do this, there was no point in putting it off.

“Excellent. Let me scan your wallet and the system will figure out where to put you,” she said. He held his wallet out to her and she pointed her phone at it until it beeped. “You should get a message that will have a link to determine where you want to work in a minute or two. Shifts usually start around at ten in the morning this time of year. Wear something comfortable that you don’t mind getting dirty.”

“I’ll leave the interview clothes in the closet,” he said. She laughed.

“Have fun tomorrow,” she said. “And I’m Bridget, by the way.”

She stuck out her hand and he shook it. He would expected the Bazaar people to be more like stereotypical hippies, saying “groovy” and hugging all the time, but the repeated hand shaking made it clear that he was still in the City. He wondered if it was deliberate.

“Ethan,” he said.

“See you around, Ethan.”

Two bits are new here. The first is the presence of community gardens in an urban environment. Although this is something that is already happening, I think that it is important to explore a bit.  Cities are highly dependent upon a very complex network of supply lines, which makes them vulnerable. Add to that the fact that they can be difficult to leave when things go bad (think Hurricane Katrina) and it you begin to realize how important it is to have some sort of resilience. Keep in mind that I’m not sure of the viability of producing even a sizable fraction of a city’s food within city limits, but some is better than none. The second bit that I brought up was the idea of ad hoc assignment of labor and resources. The Bazaars would need to be extremely flexible to survive in their environment, and this simply would not be possible with traditional resource allocation.

Despite the holiday, I will attempt to keep up my usual Monday, Wednesday, Friday schedule, but apologies in advance if it doesn’t work out.

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