Architectures of Control

As I mentioned in my last post, one of my most deeply seated research interests is in federalism. It would probably be more accurate to say that my MOST deeply seated interest is my fascination with how the basic structures of societies control our lives to such an extraordinary extent while remaining essentially invisible.

I typically focus on the social variety of structures – hence my fascination with federalism, government design, secession movements, business organizations, and the like. But I’m also really fascinated by how our physical environment shapes us, which I picked up from Jane Jacobs’ mind-blowingly satisfying The Death and Life of Great American Cities. The extent to which our behaviors are channeled by our physical environment – and the extent to which we’re oblivious to it – really blows my mind. Some vignettes:

  • In a recent conversation with Beezy, we both noted how our university’s current ban on smoking within 30 feet of a building entrance has led to a sharp increase in cigarette butts littered around campus because they didn’t move the damn ashtrays. I speculate that they could have caused the desired change in behaviors while skipping the heavy-handed legislation by simply moving the ashtrays further away from the doors. It’s now irrelevant, as a full ban on smoking is coming through (No smoking in the middle of that giant field in the middle of campus! You might give someone cancer!). I can’t help but wonder if they’re going to move the ashtrays.
  • The designers of prisons get it.
  • Although Citizen Jacobs was onto it decades ago – and surely wasn’t the first – designers are starting to catch on to the idea that making cities friendly for cars makes them totally inhospitable for pedestrians – and life in general.
  • Um… so there are these windows on both walls of the corridor leading to our graduate student offices, right? They have these lovely handles on them, and I like to go out into this corridor and yank them open to bask in the cool breezes that flow through. Turns out, you’re not supposed to do that because it lets in things – things like giant moths, torrential rain, and bats. Oops. But if I’m not supposed to open these windows, why the hell do they have these big handles? Why are designed to be so gratifying to open? Why are there only four other windows in our offices? It can’t be for escape purposes. They are too small, open inward on a bottom-mounted hinge, and drop four stories to pavement. Madness.
  • Seasteading. You know I’m going to write more about THIS one.

What’s your favorite way to manipulate the feeble-minded by shaping their physical environments?



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4 responses to “Architectures of Control

  1. This is gonna be disorganized:

    1. I like reading your blog cause I always learn new and interesting crap.
    2. I like being on college campuses because (much better than those Overheard In blogs), I overhear a lot of interesting crap. I remember a few weeks ago walking past a conversation about how any person that knew how to drive could get in pretty much any car and go to town (quite literally I suppose). They were then discussing why the same wasn’t true of computers. You can’t just turn on any new operating system and know immediately how to use it. [insert obligatory joke about me not being able to use my own operating system after years and years of having it]
    I know this is tangential to what you were talking about, but seems related.
    3. I read a book by Pfeffer on how within organizations sections of the organization (and people within) could maintain power by controlling an aspect of knowledge. The organization will need those people if they are the only ones who know how to do some important function. I’m wondering if this is related to 2.
    Wow. Umm. This comment is making no sense. I have to think more, but I’m gonna submit it anyway just cause I already typed all that crap. Perhaps you can make sense of it for me? No? Tough. I guess you always have the power to delete.

  2. 1. Thanks.

    2. Interesting. I don’t agree necessarily – I think there’s a logic that underlies pretty much all operating systems, especially for the more basic functions. Same thing for a car – yeah, you might have automatic transmissions, manual transmissions, and CVTs, but the underlying logic is all the same, and if you understand that you can move it. Getting things like the stereo or the nitro booster working is another story.

    3. That sounds like a book I should read. I know anecdotally that there are some places where, for example, a small company’s programmer purposefully doesn’t leave comments or anything on his code, making it impossible for anyone else to take over without massive disruptions for the company. I was just thinking about this last night, actually – I took a walk and was thinking about our sewer systems, how complex they really are, and how most people have no idea how they work (at least in terms of the tacit knowledge that a sewer worker would have). Lots of professional knowledge is under assault by the Internet – WebMD, Wikipedia, etc. – but never sewer knowledge. Maybe they will be the next masters of the arcane.

  3. 1. You’re welcome.

    2. True. But I think there is a difference in that the underlying logic of cars is generally more accessible to people. Less hidden. I am thinking that’s why I thought 2 and 3 were connected. If computer-maker-people-types were purposely trying to mute this logic? Keep PC users on PCs, even if we (read I) are tempted by Macs simply because we are worried we couldn’t figure out how to operate it, learning curve is too high?

    3. I’ll look at getting you the full citation. Something with Power in the title I think. I have never once thought about the complexity of our sewer systems. How about:
    Also, reminds me of Simon? Having to have trust in operations of things like sewer systems because of complexity. Yeah, maybe we can look it up online, but who’s got all that time?

  4. The book is Managing with Power: Politics and Influence in Organizations by Jeffrey Pfeffer.

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