Tag Archives: systems thinking

Reading and Working the Forms: Whole, Rhythm, Hierarchy, Network

I’m working my way toward my goal of reading 30 books this year (here’s my list so far). I wanted to share the one so far that keeps rolling around in my mind. Forms: Whole, Rhythm, Hierarchy, Network, by Caroline Levine is a book about formal literary criticism that focuses spends a lot of time talking about The Wire. I’m increasingly thinking it has a lot of utility for sorting out how to go about working to maximize the impact you can have in supporting an organization meet it’s mission.

This post is a sharing out of some of my notes and reflections about reading the book and The Wire. There is a good chance that this post will be much more relevant and useful if you’ve read Levine’s book and or are familiar with The Wire. I’ve tried to make the post legible without background in both, but I think it will likely make far more sense if you have some experience with them.

Forms: Whole, Rhythm, Hierarchy, Network

Levine asserts that “Formalist analysis turns out to be as valuable to understanding sociopolitical institutions as it is to reading literature” (p. 2).  I find that case compelling. The bulk of the book works to identify a set of literary and political forms and their affordances. In her words;

“Though we have not always called them forms, they are the political structures that have most concerned literary and cultural studies scholars: bounded wholes, from domestic walls to national boundaries; temporal rhythms, from reputations of industrial labor to the enduring patterns of institutions over time; powerful hierarchies, including gender, race , class and bureaucracy; and networks that link people and objects, including multinational trade, terrorism, and transportation.”  (21)

The book does a great job clarifying and articulating how these forms work and function both in literature and in society.

The more I’ve thought over the forms the more I see them in all kinds of every day decisions; who is in and out of a given group (bounded wholes), what is the right tempo for meetings and interactions around daily schedules (temporal rhythms), how are a given set of competing hierarchies playing out in any given situation, and what role are different social networks playing out in terms of how things get done.

On some level, it feels like this is a somewhat arbitrary list of forms, but the more I think about them and through them the more they seem like the right set. In many ways, several aspects of these, map into the organizational frames I discussed in a post last year.

There is no single “the system” there are colliding and competing forms

One of Levine’s central conceits is that forms collide. That in any given context there are a series of different competing socio-political forms at play which compete/struggle to resolve into maintaining or rupturing any given status quo. In her words;

“in practice, we encounter so many forms that even in the most ordinary daily experience they add up to a complex environment composed of multiple and conflicting modes of organization— forms arranging and containing us, yes, but also competing and colliding and rerouting one another.” (16)

In this context, Levine proposes that the central question for individuals working within these colliding systems is about how to navigate and work the forms. Fo her, this prompts a different set of tactical considerations for working toward any given set of goals. She asks;

“what tactics for change will work most effectively if what we are facing is not a single hegemonic system or dominant ideology but many forms, all trying to organize us at once?” (p. 22)

This line of questioning pushes us away straightforward notions of resistance or compliance with a system and toward a tactical framing focused on working through and across the collisions of forms.

Levine lands this analysis in an extended reading of the forms at work in one of my favorite works, The Wire, which I will explore further.

The Wire as a Life Coach on Forms

Like many, I’ve have been and remain compelled by the story of The Wire. I came to it late, I think Marjee and I watched the whole series four or five years ago. Since watching it I think of it often. Those who know me well will know I regularly bring it up in conversations about how systems and organizations play out in society. As a digression, I tend to think that the only other text I return to as much for understanding, explaining, and making sense of my world is American Gods.

I feel like Levine has given me a much more sophisticated set of tools for talking about how The Wire offers tools for reading our world. In Levine’s words, The Wire “conceptualizes social life as both structured and rendered radically unpredictable by large numbers of colliding social forms” (p. 23).

Central to the story is a dialog about the power and nature of the system. However, Levine nicely picks apart what that actual system is.

Both characters and critics bewail the power of what they call “the system” portrayed on The Wire, but it is crucial to note that “the system” is less an organized or integrated single structure than it is precisely this heaped assortment of wholes, rhythms, hierarchies, and networks.” (148)

In this context, “the system” is an emergent outcome of the ongoing collisions of forms competing with each other. In Levine’s reading, the central focus of “individual decisions matter only within environments of colliding forms where no individual or elite group controls either procedures or outcomes” (p. 149).

Furthermore, Levine makes the case that the heroes of the story are the people that read and navigate the collision of forms to make their world bend toward being better or more just.

“The few characters who recognize the power and significance of multiple forms—Lester Freeman, Bunny Colvin, and Omar Little— all make strategic decisions which, temporarily at least, permit outcomes that frustrate or elude the conventional distribution of power.” (p. 149)

After finishing the book, and returning to my own reflections on The Wire, I find myself increasingly thinking about reading the various situations I confront in terms of these formal categories. How can I best work within and through the competing forms that work to organize my life and work? How do I establish a trajectory for action that accepts the collision and competition of these forms as a basis to act from and not a system to define myself in opposition to?

I’m curious for thoughts from other’s reading both the book and the show. I feel like the ecological conception of society and organizations that emerges in this approach is really valuable and I’m curious to talk with folks about it more.

Parsimony and Elegance as Objectives for Digital Curation Processes

I’m increasingly convinced that parsimony and elegance are key values for the socio-technical systems that enable long term access to information. This post is me starting to try and articulate what I mean by that and connecting that back to a few ongoing strands of work and thinking I’m engaged in.

Now that the book as been circulating around a bit, I’ve been able to both reflect on it and get to have a lot of great conversations with people about it. Along with that, I’ve been participating (or at least trying to participate when my calendar allows) in some ongoing conversations about the role of maintenance, capacity, care, and repair in library work.

My points of entry into these conversations have been Bethany Nowviskie’s  Capacity and Care, Steve Jackson’s piece Rethinking Repair, Hellel Arnold’s Critical Work: Archivists as Maintainers, and Andrew Russell and Lee Vinsel’s work in pieces like Innovation is overvalued: Maintenance often matters more. As I mentioned in a pervious post, I think there is a ton more that I need to sort through in Nell Nodding’s line of thinking on an ethics of care, and that is all tied up in this too. So take those as trail heads to what I think is going to grow more and more into a major part of our professional discourse. Notions of capacity and maintain all implicate notions of sustainability.

Less is More Sustainable and Mantainable

The specific prompt for this post was one conversation where I ended up saying something I’ve said a few times before. Something like; “If you can do it with an Access database then don’t gather requirements for a software engineering project.” Furthermore, “If you can do it with a spreadsheet, don’t build an Access database.” Beyond that, “If you can do it with a text file, then don’t set up a spreadsheet.” The general point in each of these situations is that you want to use the least possible tool for the job and then when the complexity of the work demands it, you justify the added complexity of the next thing.

If when you get to the point where you need something more complex you are going to know a lot about what you really need. Sneakerneting your way through a workflow end to end is going to enable you to figure out what the process really involves and needs. The last thing you want to do is spend three years in meetings gathering requirements based on what you think you might need.

I often recall some smart stuff that the 37 Signals crew have avowed, namely that “Until you’ve actually thrown the ball at the wall, you don’t know how it’ll bounce back.” It seems to be true for software, for workflows, for procedures, for org structures. You name it.

Parsimony and Elegance

I’m becoming increasingly convinced that concepts of parsimony, elegance, and simplicity have a core place as anchors in the work of digital preservation and curation.

For some context, here I intend the definition of parsimony as;

“Using a minimal number of assumptions, steps, or conjecture”

and the definition of elegance as;

The beauty of an idea characterized by minimalism and intuitiveness while preserving exactness and precision

That is, our workflows, processes, and systems are parsimonious to the extent that they use “minimal number of assumptions or steps.” They are elegant to the extent that they are characterized by “minimalism and intuitiveness while preserving exactness and precision.” This isn’t to say that this infrastructure won’t become complex, but to say that it should only be as complex as it absolutely needs to be.

All Unnecessary Added Complexity is a Sustainability Threat

One of the core activities of digital curation and preservation work is imagining what happens when particularly things might go wrong. “What if this thing broke?” Or, “What if so-and-so took a different job, you know the one who built this really complicated piece of software?” Or ,”What if the the other organizations investing developer time in this complex application we are using shifted to invest their time in something else? Or, “What would happen if this company we are paying to provide this platform or service changed their business model?” In all of these cases, the more dependent you are on something the more risk you expose yourself to.

Significantly, you must expose yourself to risks. You’ve got to be dependent on a bunch of things, you just want to be deliberate about what you are being dependent on. You need exit strategies for your exit strategies. But in all of that you can take heart that the less complex the platforms, tools, services, processes you use are the easier it will be to move on to whatever the next thing of those is going to be. Believe me, the next thing is always coming. Whatever tools, processes, systems, methods you use today are just the things you use today. The shiny new thing of today will be the old crummy thing that you want nothing to do with tomorrow.

Relevant Axioms

Below are the axioms from my book that I think are most relevant/imply some of the points I’ve tried to make about parsimony and elegance.

1. A repository is not a piece of software. Software cannot preserve anything. Software cannot be a repository in itself. A repository is the sum of financial resources, hardware, staff time, and ongoing implementation of policies and planning to ensure long-term access to content. Any software system you use to enable you preserving and providing access to digital content is by necessity temporary. You need to be able to get your stuff out of it because it likely will not last forever. Similarly, there is no software that “does” digital preservation.

3. Tools can get in the way just as much as they can help. Specialized digital preservation tools and software are just as likely to get in the way of solving your digital preservation problems as they are to help. In many cases, it’s much more straightforward to start small and implement simple and discrete tools and practices to keep track of your digital information using nothing more than the file system you happen to be working in. It’s better to start simple and then introduce tools that help you improve your process then to simply buy into some complex system without having gotten your house in order first.

4. Nothing has been preserved, there are only things being preserved. Preservation is the result of ongoing work of people and commitments of resources. The work is never finished. This is true of all forms of preservation; it’s just that the timescales for digital preservation actions are significantly shorter than they tend to be with the conservation of things like books or oil paintings. Try to avoid talking about what has been preserved; there is only what we are preserving. This has significant ramifications for how we think about staffing and resourcing preservation work. If you want to evaluate how serious an organization is about digital preservation don’t start by looking at their code, their storage architecture, or talking to their developers. Start by talking to their finance people. See where digital preservation shows up in the budget. If an organization is serious about digital preservation it should be evident from how they spend their money. Preservation is ongoing work. It is not something that can be thought of as a one time cost.

9. Digital preservation is about making the best use of your resources to mitigate the most pressing preservation threats and risks. You are never done with digital preservation. It is not something that can be accomplished or finished. Digital preservation is a continual process of understanding the risks you face for losing content or losing the ability to render and interact with it and making use of whatever resources you have to mitigate those risks.

12. Highly technical definitions of digital preservation are complicit in silencing the past. Much of the language and specifications of digital preservation have developed into complex sets of requirements that obfuscate many of the practical things anyone and any organization can do to increase the likelihood of access to content in the future. As such, a highly technical framing of digital preservation has resulted in many smaller and less resource rich institutions feeling like they just can’t do digital preservation, or that they need to hire consultants to tell them about complex preservation metadata standards when what they need to do first is make a copy of their files.