Geoff Evamy Hill
This Procedural Life: Socio-cultural Systems and Rhetoric
Our definition of technologies is often restricted to the material: the hammers and nails. But what enables hammers and nails to be made, and why are they made? To answer this question, we have to look at the processes of socio-cultural systems that produce object and tools. I have thought of these coordinating processes as organizational technologies: models that use conceptual symbolic representation to guide human action in order make change in the material world. By primarily discussing aspects of Jean Baudrillard’s paper “Consumer Society” and Ian Bogost’s work on “Procedural Rhetoric”, I propose that we may develop a framework with which to analyze socio- cultural systems.
Organizational technologies occur at various scales of socio-cultural systems as the means to achieve ends that are either explicit or implicit. I claim that organizational technologies are subsets of socio-technical systems that take the form of everything from individual productivity tools, to business optimization strategies, to entire economies. They are fundamentally rhetorical, but not necessarily consciously designed. Organizational technologies are a type of “unit operation”, a term that Ian Bogost uses to “distinguish one process in interleaved or nested procedural systems.” (Bogost 8) Unit operations are “crafted from a multitude of protracted, intersecting cultural processes [and] are characterized by their increased compression of representation”, (Bogost 8) simplified models that allow us to understand them in terms of larger ecosystems.
When asked to list technologies, people might list things like smart-phones, televisions, and moon rockets. They might go on to list tools such as hammers, flint arrowheads or wheels. This list might eventually lead to the mother of all technologies: fire. Of course, fire is something naturally occurring. The innovation is about controlling it or starting it oneself, and in that way is it a synthetic technology. Artificial fire is not a static thing, but a process that transforms, in its simplest form, organic material into heat. Fire is a system that has been harnessed by humans. Since primitive times, we have experimented with the principles of that simple process to produce other material tools: from building smart-phones to fueling moon rockets. Through the systems lens, fire becomes a foundational material process upon which other processes are built. Material technologies are processes that are embedded in larger systems situated in the physical world. These technologies only come into being because of human processes to make them so. Think of the collection of firewood to start a fire, the network of tools required to make a wooden wheels, and the workflow design of a factory building rockets. These are coordination activities, either actively or passively enacted, that make these material technologies.
Organizational technologies, like material technologies, are processes embedded in larger systems situated in the physical world. One could imagine a time-lapse video of a large structure, perhaps a skyscraper or cathedral, being built. What we see is the physical growth of a material thing, a piece of technology. Other technologies (steel, screwdrivers, welders, trucks) are employed to build the technology. But what are the rules that govern the movements and actions of the tiny, blurry people caught in the different frames of the video? What coordinates the interface of culture and technology? Organizational technologies, tools that govern behaviour and work flow to specific ends, are the means of coordination.
In nature, laws of the universe, of gravitation and entropy, set the fundamental shape of organizational technologies. These laws are the platform that evolutionary rules that guide the termites to build up their intricate mounds from instinct. We are not unlike the termite in the physical and biological rules that govern us aside from one thing: the evolutionary peculiarities of socialization, culture and language which allows for a more rapid ability of humans to adapt. It creates a conceptual domain of ideas and in turn bears out physical objects and changes to the material world. Unlike the termite, the network of objects we produce is dynamic and has grown in complexity and diversity. This is due to the flexible, fundamentally symbolic and rhetorical dimension of our socio-cultural system. We build on instinct, on ideas not only of our own but of others across space and time. Baudrillard defines it well in this way, “[objects] are in actuality the products of human activity, and are controlled, not by natural ecological laws, but by the law of exchange value”, a symbolic law that we have created. (Baudrillard 30) Organizational technologies produce objects. They are borne out of larger socio-cultural system and in turn influence them. Organizational technologies operate on a simple principle of transforming inputs into particular outputs through adaptive mechanisms, and there is a tendency to increase the total throughput of the system.
A note: My inspiration for looking at throughput and constraints comes from the Theory of Constraints, a prime example of an organizational technology that is originally a subset of the socio-technical system of manufacturing. It comes from a rhetorical area of supply chain management, which I think deserves deeper academic study and needs a critical examination. Theory of Constraints simply looks at systems as processes in order to maximize their throughput by identifying bottlenecks and minimizing the constraint. I have included a diagram below from an industry website (Leaproduction.com). The Theory of Constraints was borne out of the capitalist economic system, but I think is metonymical in that also captures something fundamental about how that system works. This will be useful in what I talk about below, and also represents a prime example of and organizational technology.
In his 1988 essay “Consumer Society”, Jean Baudrillard explores the nature of the consumer society with its abundance of objects. He states that consumer society emerged to solve the capitalist economic problem of “a contradiction between a virtually unlimited productivity and the need to dispose of the product…” (Baudrillard 38). This is a problem that arose early in the 20th century when the immense growth of industry led to production of objects reaching a saturation point of demand. The system was too efficient at converting inputs of the natural world into products and thus a bottleneck was reached in the distribution of the product output to the consumer. The throughput of the entire system was limited by the constraint of demand. It was no longer possible to expand production, so “it becomes necessary to control…consumer demand; not only prices, but what will be asked for the price… [shifting] the locus of decision in the purchase of goods from the consumer where it is beyond control to the firm where it is subject to control” (Baudrillard 38) thus opening up the availability of space for outputs.
The method described corresponds historically to the advent of mass-market advertising. Baudrillard puts it this way, that the “whole economic and psychosociological apparatus of market and motivation research, which pretends to uncover the underlying needs of the consumer and the real demand prevailing in the market, exists only to generate a demand for further market opportunities… ‘Man has become the object of science for man only since automobiles have become harder to sell than to manufacture.’” (Baudrillard 39) Perhaps advertising was a product of identifying logistics as the constraint for the throughput of the technostructure. Goods were not moving fast enough. The constraint of the human mind, of want and need, was identified. The advertising phenomenon emerges as a method to overcome this barrier to increase throughput. With this, the system creates an endogenous logic that helps it to self sustain.
By mid-century, the constraint had shifted and advertising by itself is no longer enough. To expand this idea, the next iteration is that the consumer sink now has plenty of demand, but not the economic means by which to support the industrial techno- structure. The size of the consumer pool was now the constraint. By elevating this bottleneck of the consumer side, the idea of credit was born. This expanded the consumer pool greatly. Credit, if conceived in the larger organizational technology of industry and consumer society, could be thought of as a capitalistic enterprise equal to investing in new machinery. An investment is made (complete with interest returns) to grease the wheels and expand the potential of the consumer sink.
The consumer society is a dynamic organizational technology that adapts and changes in order to optimize the throughput of its system. Its larger shape is not designed by anyone person, it is guided through the implementation of smaller unit operations at lower levels which in turn change the entire system. There are feedback loops that guide the development of unit operations, these are mostly borne out of historical contingency and larger socio-cultural processes. It is a model that is a product of the assumptions that go into it. An example of these feedback loops is the use of Homo Economicus as an agent to model humans over the past century or more. As Baudrillard puts it, “[Homo economicus,] the fortuitous conjunction of Human Nature and Human Rights, is gifted with a heightened principle of formal rationality which leads him to: Pursue his own happiness without the slightest hesitation & Prefer objects which provide him with the maximum satisfaction”(Baudrillard 35). This concept is interesting because intuition (and behavioural economics) typically tells us it’s not correct, humans just aren’t like that! It is an artificial model of an agent (or human) that is used so much that perhaps it becomes reality for the system. Our economy for over 100 years has worked (and failed) around this rationality assumption. If unit operations use this as the assumption enough, it will eventually become the reality of the entire socio-cultural system. The reality of the system is not the truth of physical nature.
The important takeaway is that the consumer culture is an economic model that is used. It does not reflect the reality of how economics, in a broader sense, actually works. This is not understood at all. As an incredibly complex phenomenon, it might never be understood. But certain aspects are understood and elevated in order to create socioeconomic models, not necessarily consciously, that are then executed. One such economic model is capitalism, another is communism, and another is socialism. Another set of models might be legal models. Perhaps there is such a thing as law or economics in a broader sense, but legal or economic systems are unit operations that focus on and optimize some other level of symbols or material. There is an infinite potential for different systems all focusing on different things. These will be made up of sub-systems, unit operations, like prisons or stock markets. All of these, at a certain scale, are organizational technologies as means set up to achieve an end.
How can such a thing occur? Organizational technologies succeed at making physical change in the world through coordinating people in the symbolic realm. To create a successful organizational technology is to “assure the regulation of signs and the integration of the group: it is simultaneously a morality (a system of ideological values) and a system of communication, a structure of exchange.” (Baudrillard 46). This makes the action primarily rhetorical, an act of influence and persuasion of thoughts in the conceptual realm. Metaphor is the fuel, representation of the world in abstraction that creates the means that motivate people towards a variety of ends. We might look at Friedrich Nietzsche’s “On Truth and Lying in an Extra-Moral Sense” for inspiration in this regard. To Nietzsche, language is a magnificent architecture. Our language and understanding is a web of metaphors that perhaps builds on a horizontal platform of corresponding to reality, and then builds on itself vertically to higher levels of abstraction. Nietzsche looks at the conceptual structure of language as, “a mighty architectural genius … an infinitely complicated conceptual cathedral on foundations that move like flowing water” (Nietzsche 251) to illustrate the horizontal and vertical complexities of a language. This massive metaphor is the complex human cultural creation that “substitutes for a bio-functional and bio-economic system of commodities and products (the biological level of needs and subsistence)… designed to assure a certain type of communication.” (Baudrillard 47) Large parts of it have risen and fallen, and surely one day it will all be gone, but organizational technologies are set within this constantly changing structure.
These organizational technologies establish paths of action. In terms of the consumption, it is that “[networks of objects] constitute object paths, which establish inertial constraints on the consumer who will proceed logically from one object to the next” (Baudrillard 31) where individuals are guided by the internal logic of the system. This corresponds with recent synthesis work done in cognitive science by Andy Clark of University of Edinburgh in identifying the purpose of the brain. It is seen to be that brains are “essentially prediction machines. They are bundles of cells that support perception and action by constantly attempting to match incoming sensory inputs with top-down expectations or predictions” (Clark 1) that optimize in order to survive and operate harmoniously in the world. Over time we have developed the power to manipulate the world, and therefore “we structure our worlds and actions so that most of our sensory predictions come true.” (Clark 62) It makes sense that there is a constant attempt to harmonize the logic of the systems. This fits with Baudrillard in the “…continual forward flight and unlimited renewal of needs…. irreconcilable with a rationalist theory claiming that a satisfied need produces a state of equilibrium an resolution of tensions – we can advance the following sociological hypothesis: if we acknowledges that a need is not a need for a particular object as much as it is a “need” for difference ( the desire for social meaning), only then will we understand the satisfaction can never be fulfilled, and consequently that there can never be a definition of needs.” (Baudrillard 45) Outcomes can never be predicted, but we can be assured that there will be a never-ending optimization to an ever-changing end-point through a desire for difference towards harmony of prediction. Nothing is new; the systems we create are dependent on “material and socio-cultural scaffolding [that] induce substantial path-dependence as we confront new problems using pre-existing material tools and inherited social structures.” Organizational technologies create new path dependencies upon old path dependencies. The growth of structures in material and socio-cultural space creates further rigidity to the larger bounds of the system. Perhaps the core of optimization lies in a cognitive disposition for harmonious prediction within a complex world that we attempt to make sense of with metaphor but will never fully understand.
Nietszche’s suggestions that there might be a set of bedrock principles upon which the greater metaphorical system is built may be affirmed by modern science. Work has been done in particular to tie political outlook to genetics and physiological behaviour. It is a controversial claim, but a 2011 study by Smith et al. summarizes the extent of possibilities :
“Biological and sometimes even genetic variables are increasingly being connected to social variables: trust in interpersonal exchange situations (Kosfeld, Heinrichs, Zak, Fischbacher, & Fehr, 2005), choice of occupation and leisure activities (Bachner-Melman et al., 2005), marital stability (Walum et al., 2008), generosity in social exchange (Cesarini et al., 2008), offspring rearing (Bales, French, & Dietz, 2002; Hammock & Young, 2005), and openness to new experi- ences (Caprara et al., 2006). Though sometimes controversial, acceptance of such findings is assisted because of the acknowledged universality of the activities in question. Mating, child rearing, working, and interpersonal exchange take place in any human society at any time—and even to a certain extent in nonhuman societies as indicated by the reference just made to work on voles (Hammock & Young, 2005) and to primates (Bales, French, & Dietz, 2002)” (Smith et al. 20)
This is important because it highlights what are possibly the core psychological constraints guiding the growth of any socio-cultural system, and in turn the organization technologies as unit operations it uses to achieve its ends. The other constraints worth noting are the laws of physics and the bounds of the ecological system that supports other systems. Socio-cultural system and their constituent organizational technologies are simplified models of reality that perform specific functions. If this simple model sets itself in an inaccurate model of the system it is embedded in, it will fail. The consumer society model treats the inputs and outputs of the system (raw resources/waste resources) as if they were from an infinite source and going in to a bottomless sink. This assumption is fine as long as the conditions don’t change, but if they do it will quickly fall apart. This is the collapse of a paradigm. The same could be said for a new advertising company setting itself up in a model of the consumer society. If its founders have an unrealistic model of the system (assumptions about supply and demand, path-dependence of clients) they are nesting themselves in, their organizational technology will not survive. The rhetorical super-projects I have spoke of previously, mega-projects like Apollo or the Global War on Terror, fall under the same framework.
We have seen that the metaphorical network created by humans is where the energy potential to alter the world is coordinated. We can look at this as the socio-cultural system, made up of a huge diversity of processes. But how do we analyze these processes? How do we account for the complex merger of the physical and conceptual realm? Computational games provide a new inspiration for analyzing these systems,
because they operate by following a series of rules. Ian Bogost captures it here: “Software is composed of algorithms that model the way things behave. To write procedurally, one authors code that enforces rules to generate some kind of representation, rather than authoring the representation itself. Procedural systems generate behaviors based on rule-based models; they are machines capable of producing many outcomes, each conforming to the same overall guidelines.” (Bogost 4) The framework that can be used to analyze this, he proposes, is procedural rhetoric. This is how arguments are made through processes, how persuasion is done through processes. We can thus think of organizational technologies as a type of software, one that mounts arguments for the people situated within them to complete its procedures. This is, of course, situated in larger socio-cultural systems that produce these unit operations. These meaningful and metaphorical operations are “constructed not through a re-creation of the world, but through selectively modeling appropriate elements of that world. Procedural representation models only some subset of a source system, in order to draw attention to that portion as the subject of the representation.” (Bogost 46) Our world is made up of processes that simplify reality in order to coordinate human activity in a way that makes future predictions come true. It is a way of systematizing reality to maximize symbolic throughput in order to make meaning. It is rhetoric that is a way of joining minds that, in the words of Kenneth Burke, are “inherently separate from one another”.
It is most important to note that there is no one in charge of our systems. There is no one author or programmer. They are diverse, they are localized, they are emergent. People behave according the rules set in motion by an almost infinite number of decisions and actions made many people before them, and since the beginning by the actions of the rules of the greater ecosystem, and for forever by the rules of physics and the universe. The processes have weightings that may favour some agents decisions over others, and the processes spur new processes. They are dynamic and bi-directional. Mapping them would be impossible. They do not spur particular outcomes, but a range of potential outcomes that in turn could be new processes. But by looking at core functions of processes instead of micro and macro results, we may have a better understanding of how to cope with the complexity.
Perhaps through this discussion of socio-cultural systems and rhetoric we may be able to glimpse at ways to understand meaning in the larger sense. I have seen it as a way to construct procedures of persuasion, the means that are conceptual frameworks that mobilize people towards ends. These are symbolic forces, held as cultural representations or in books or on the Internet that motivate humans to alter the physical reality beyond subsistence. As our understanding of the some of the fundamental rules of the physical world and the mind become understood, science must not overlook semiotics and meaning. It seems like an unending cycle of processes creating and destroying processes that is in constant disequilibrium. Organizational technologies, models that use conceptual symbolic representation to guide human action in order make change in the material world, are but one aspect of this integration of theories. In future study, I would recommend using this framework for understanding the Meiji period in Japan. It was a period of rapid technological change which I think is more interesting for the rapid adoption of new processes such as banking and telecommunications and not just of new objects themselves. I believe this would be a good case to expand the content of this paper.
Word Count: 3 529
Baudrillard, J., “Consumer Society” from Jean Baudrillard: Selected Writings, Pp. 29-56,
© Stanford University, 1988.
Bogost, I., “Preface, Procedural Rhetoric” from Persuasive Games, pp. vii-xii, 1-64, ©
MIT Press, 2007.
Clark , Andy . “Whatever Next? Predictive Brains, Situated Agents, and the Future of
Cognitive Science. .”
© Cambridge University Press 2012
. (2012): n. page. Online.
Neitzsche, Friedrich. “On Truth and Lying in the Extra-Moral Sense.” Friedrich
Nietzsche on Rhetoric and Language. : 246-257.
Smith, Kevin et al. “Linking Genetics and Political Attitudes: Reconceptualizing Political
Ideology.” Political Psychology. (2011): n. page. Online.