Blog by Sumana Harihareswara, Changeset founder

25 Apr 2009, 23:27 p.m.

Hiro-ics Don't Scale, They Say

Hi, reader. I wrote this in 2009 and it's now more than five years old. So it may be very out of date; the world, and I, have changed a lot since I wrote it! I'm keeping this up for historical archive purposes, but the me of today may 100% disagree with what I said then. I rarely edit posts after publishing them, but if I do, I usually leave a note in italics to mark the edit and the reason. If this post is particularly offensive or breaches someone's privacy, please contact me.

Now I'm rereading Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash bit by bit. Spoiler ahead:

The important thing is, Hiro, that you have to understand the Mafia way. And the Mafia way is that we pursue larger goals under the guise of personal relationships. So, for example, when you were a pizza guy you didn't deliver pizzas fast because you made more money that way, or because it was some kind of a [expletive redacted] policy. You did it because you were carrying out a personal covenant between Uncle Enzo and every customer. This is how we avoid the trap of self-perpetuating ideology. Ideology is a virus. So getting this chick back is more than just getting a chick back. It's the concrete manifestation of an abstract policy goal. And we like concrete -- right, Vic?

pp. 349-350, massmarket paperback

There's a lot going on in this paragraph.

For one thing, the speaker makes the same tripartite distinction that my ex-boss does. How do you get peons in an institution to act in the organization's interest? Financial incentives, military-style unthinking policy compliance, or a relationship that comprises part of the employee's identity. That last one is most interesting. Fog Creek, the Mafia, some religons, really elite military units, Joss Whedon fan clubs, open source, sports cheerleading, political activism and nonprofit work are all activities or groups that go from "something I do" to "something I am."

We say "drink the Kool-Aid," not just because we know loyalty will kill you, but also because the ingestion metaphor sounds right to us. You are what you eat. Mike Daisey has a moment in at least the book version of 21 Dog Years: Doing Time at that touches on that. He writes a letter to Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, detailing a dream in which he cuts off Bezos's left hand and runs away with it:

You're all behind me, spilling out of the building like so many ants, but I'm running too fast for anyone to ever catch me. I'm out on the lawn, eating your hand, hungry like I've never been in my life. I eat the whole thing, chew through the bones, and now I own part of you, just like you own the best part of me. I wake up so indescribably proud.

The speaker in Snow Crash, however, doesn't just value loyalty for sentimental reasons. The Mafia rescue Y.T. because she is a friend of Uncle Enzo. If they don't rescue her, then her relationship with Uncle Enzo means nothing, and the value of the personal relationships that structure the Mafia is suspect. That's the policy goal: to maintain the currency that is a friendship with a Mafia executive. Per existing real-life Mafia scholarship, organized crime aims to replace government, to become the main way people and households and businesses relate to each other and get their needs met.

This is why bureaucracy is a good thing: because otherwise it would be personal relationships that decided whether you could or couldn't get a license, or buy that car. No such thing as a sticker price without bureaucracy, incidentally.

But what is an institution that only comprises specific personal relationships, one that eschews ideology? Is it a family? Is it a tribe? Is it LinkedIn? It seems like a rather fragile thing to me, like the structures from "World of Goo," liable to fall over under their own weight, or when people find another social network with better swag. Thus L. Ron Hubbard's apocryphal line that the real money is in starting a religion. Ideology is a virus, sure, but it's also a trellis for the vines to grow up, to comfortably trap them.

Anathem is obviously about an institution (the monastery system) that has thought very hard about how to perpetuate itself over the thousands-of-years long term. But Snow Crash and Diamond Age are about institutions, too, and specifically about the challenges of building and leading multigenerational or world-changing institutions. Enzo, Y.T., Jason "Iron Pumper," the terra-cotta-blazer Mafia kids, and L. Bob Rife could make for a pretty entertaining "Management Secrets of Snow Crash" presentation. Maybe I should write it.