The meme of control

Posted by  Andrew Rixon —May 12, 2006
Filed in Communication, Culture

Thinking over how pervasive (and problematic?) the notion of control appears to be in organisations I was inspired to write a little piece around it. Here’s how it begins:

A change of mindset is needed for organizations to reach towards the next stage of their development. With this change of mindset comes along the needed change of language. Currently there is a tendency for organizations, and those ‘in-charge’ of organizations to lock in a very specific metaphor and language for tackling organizations. Rationalising the goals, specifying targets and then optimizing the outcomes. Applying matrix logic and mobilizing the troops. It’s time to make, manage and meet the plan!

Such metaphors and their resulting language are all driven from the underlying assumption of control. Someone having it. Someone applying it. With control holding such intellectual and emotional power over us it may be useful to consider it a meme and in doing so, provide us with a new refreshing perspective.

Read the full article here

About  Andrew Rixon


  1. ken says:

    For anyone intrigued by organisational structures, identity and naming, there’s two good podcasts over at IT-Conversation by Bruce Sterling and Thomas Malone, that compliment your paper in several delightful ways. Bruce waxes provocatively on geek speak, jargon and hyped up metaphors: being tempted by over confident metaphors can freeze progress – he compares an example of modern mechanical metaphor (the search “engine”, the useful one built by two grad students) versus the results of a company with near monopoly power and aspirations to “artificial intelligence” (that annoying little paper clip). The French, he notes, avoided the hype (of the DIK highway) by simply naming the beast an “ordinateur” and long ago there was what could be considered a Victorian Internet. His dangerous notes at the end are worth the ride. Tom’s talk discusses the evolution of human groups from tribes, to nation states ruled by kings, drawing analogies to the growth of the large organisations: “efficiencies” enabled by cheap communication (phones) but paradoxically limited by a necessary hierarchical decision making structure, a dependent relationship. Just as printing and literacy changed the old balance of power so too, he says, will even cheaper connection and communication, with more knowledge in those relationships. I think both speakers use the word “shaping”, an attractive alternative to the control based “prediction”.

  2. The assumption and/or exertion of control very often occurs as a response to the fears of the ‘controller’. And the fact that it works is usually due to the fears of the ‘controllee’. Do those observations support the idea that ‘control’ is a meme?

    Conversely, we often learn control at a very early age, through socialisation and copying our parents. In this view, the meme is passed on and /causes/ the creation of the fears (dependence, self-image etc).

    Will we ever know which came first – the meme or the fears?

  3. Andrew Rixon says:

    Interesting post Kevin.
    Your observation about the drive towards exertion of control along with why control works being fear is interesting.
    Maybe fear is one of the ‘propogation mechanisms’ for the ‘meme of control’.
    Another of the propogation mechanisms is through copying, like you say, our parents, and anyone else for that matter.
    If I were to hazard a guess at which came first, the meme or the fears, I would say evolutionarily speaking, fear. Fear is hard-wired into us biologically. Such as in the fight or flight response. I wonder, without such a foundation, would the ‘meme of control’ be able to persist?

  4. ken says:

    Well.. might we pity the poor steam engine, under automatic control by it’s spinning governor(s), or the unthinking assembly line robot, able to move with several degrees of freedom but not free to experience fear: movable but not motivated. It can sense when it’s operating outside it’s control limits and, if it could feel, it might feel comfortable knowing that it’s in the zone, optimised to efficiently meet it’s productivity targets (even if it’s controller is going mad to keep it on aim while the larger system as a whole cycles wildy ;).
    Or, might a machine with naiive and emergent intelligence take pity on us? It could cooly calculate the value of our economic progress, organising ourselves into larger and more powerful tribes, states and organisations. It might enjoy the culture that specialisation enables, and if it evolves a primal fear response seek out the traditional wise men who work cognitive magic to channel nervous emotional energy, stress and tension to creative ends. Content with it’s newfound emotional awareness it might be fit to get a job, only to experience more complex confusion, the irony of a coercive corporate culture, only using the left half of it’s brain (“Think!”), poisoned by a desire for rationality free from primal emotions but instead controlled by even more complex social emotions (blame, shame, guilt) and afraid(!) to admit that we, as scientific engineers, don’t really know it all – luckily group-think grants us a rational cop-out so we can collectively deny the presence of the elephant in the room.
    Confused by corporate speak, necessarily abstract to not make sense and preserve the illusion of a disembodied corporation still in control, our thinking machine may not find help in a health care system efficiently meeting targets but with no time to listen to deep feelings we can’t give voice to, the robot may start to express a respect for balanced autonomation over obsessive automation and strict cost control.
    But then again, the unthinking and unfeeling robot won’t get confused by the complexity and counter intuitive effects of an expanding and interacting social network, and it’s never gonna reach for a sugar-fix when it feels stressed 🙂

  5. Anecdotes – Insights and Empowerment

    I’ve just added a permanent link from this site to Anecdotes – Insights and Empowerment from Australia. They’ve got some great stuff, particularly on complexity theory and other emerging trends in strategy. The pic above, by the way, comes…

Comments are closed.