Previous post: How Escape From Immoral Mazes
Sequence begins here: Moloch Hasn’t Won
The previous posts mostly took mazes as given.
As an individual, one’s ability to fight any large system is limited.
That does not mean our individual decisions do not matter. They do matter. They add up.
Mostly our choice is a basic one. Lend our strength to that which we wish to be free from. Or not do so.
Even that is difficult. The methods of doing so are unclear. Mazes are ubiquitous. Not lending our strength to mazes, together with the goal of keeping one’s metaphorical soul intact and still putting food on the table, is already an ambitious set of goals for an individual in a world of mazes.
We now shift perspective from the individual to the system as a whole. We stop taking mazes as given.
It is time to ask why and how all of this happens, and what if anything we can do, individually or collectively, about it.
In particular, this post presents an explicit model of the first question, which is:
How did mazes come to be, both individually and overall?
This is partly a summary of the model developed so far. It is partly making the model more explicit, and partly the fleshing out of that model with more gears.
If there are points here for which you believe the previous posts failed to lay the groundwork they should have laid, please note that in the comments by number, so I can consider fixing that. Keep this distinct from any disagreements or other notes on these claims, which are also welcome.
- Every organization has an organizational culture. That culture can and does change.
- Those who focus on their own advancement at the expense of other considerations will, by default, advance further, faster and more often. Those who do not do this will not advance. Increasing amounts of focus make this effect increasingly large.
- Focus on one’s own advancement inside hierarchies causes individuals to self-modify in order to be the type of person who automatically engages in maze-creating and maze-supporting behaviors. They will also see such behavior as natural and virtuous.
- Middle management performance is inherently difficult to assess. Maze behaviors systematically compound this problem. They strip away points of differentiation beyond loyalty to the maze and willingness to sacrifice one’s self on its behalf, plus politics. Information and records are destroyed. Belief in the possibility of differentiation in skill level, or of object-level value creation, is destroyed.
- The more one is already within a maze, the more one is rewarded for maze-creating and maze-supporting behaviors, and for self-modifications towards such behaviors. This creates a vicious cycle.
- Focus on one’s own advancement causes one to wish to ally with others who do the same thing. That means allying with those who are engaging in maze-creating behaviors, and who are likely to do so in the future. Those people are likely to have future power. They are aligned in support of your new values and likely actions.
- Changing the organizational culture towards a maze, which we will call raising the maze level, benefits those who wish to engage in maze-like behavior at the expense of those who do not. Those wishing to raise maize levels implicitly, and sometimes explicitly, coordinate together to reward maze behaviors, culture and values, and punish other behaviors, cultures and values.
- Those who wish to have strong allies notice that strong potential allies want to ally with those who support mazes, and with those who ally with those who support mazes, and so on. This creates a strong incentive to strongly signal, in a way that others who support mazes can recognize, our support for maze behaviors and rising maze levels. One does this by supporting maze behaviors and maze allies whenever possible over all other considerations, without any need for explicit coordination or reciprocity, and by other costly signals of maze virtue.
- The larger an organization and the more of a maze it becomes, the closer competition among its middle managers resembles super-perfect competition plus political considerations. Slack is destroyed. Those who refuse to get with the program, where the essence of the program is support of mazes over non-mazes, stop getting promoted or are pushed out entirely.
- Such behaviors chose how to react to people largely by observing those people’s culture and values. Those who wish to get ahead in such worlds must self-modify to instinctively support such actions, whether or not doing so is locally in their self interest. Being too aware of one’s local self-interest is therefore not in one’s broader self-interest. Humans are much better at doing all this, and at detecting it, than they are at faking it. The way one gets such behavior is through cultivating habits, including habits of thought, and choosing one’s virtues. This self-modification creates even stronger implicit coordination.
- There are contravening forces that can potentially outweigh all these effects, and result in maze behaviors being net punished. But they require those opposed to maze behaviors, culture and values to devote substantial resources to the cause, and to bear substantial costs. The more of a maze a place has already become, the harder it will be to turn things around or even stop things from getting worse. If such efforts are to succeed, this needs to be a high priority.
- Even if maze behaviors are net punished for now, those who have embraced the maze nature will be skeptical of this. Even if they observe such behaviors being net punished now, they will not expect this to continue. Given the state of our world and culture, this is a highly reasonable prior. They also have knowledge of their own maze nature and presence within the organization, which is likely to raise maze levels over time and is evidence that the fight against mazedom is failing. And they stand to gain a huge competitive edge by raising the local maze level. Thus, the fight never ends.
- Damage done is very difficult to reverse. Once particular maze behaviors become tolerated and levels rise, it takes a lot of effort to undo that.
- Once people who support mazes are in places of authority in a given area, that area will rapidly become a maze. This is true of organizations, and of sub-organizations with an organization.
- If the head of an organization believes in mazes, and has the time to choose and reward the people of their choice, it’s all over. Probably permanently.
- Mazes reward individuals who engage in maze behaviors and exhibit maze culture and values, and punish those who do not so exhibit, even outside the maze or organization in question. This includes customers, producers, business partners, investors and venture capitalists, board members, analysts, media, government officials, academics and anyone else who supports or opposes such patterns.
- All strengthening of mazes anywhere creates additional force supporting mazes elsewhere. Mazes instinctively support other mazes. As society falls increasingly under the sway of mazes, it implicitly cooperates to push everyone and everything into supporting the behaviors, culture and values of mazes.
- The end result inside any given organization is that maze behaviors grow stronger and more common over time. This is balanced by maze behaviors making the organization less effective, and thus more likely to fail.
- Occasionally an organization can successfully lower its maze level and change its culture, but this is expensive and rare heroic behavior. Usually this requires a bold leader and getting rid of a lot of people, and the old organization is effectively replaced with a new one, even if the name does not change. A similar house cleaning happens more naturally in the other direction when and as maze levels rise.
- Maze behaviors grow stronger and more common over time in any given organization barring rare heroic efforts. As organizations get bigger and last longer, maze levels increase.
- When interacting with a world of low maze levels, or especially when interacting with individuals who have not embraced the maze nature, mazes are at a large competitive disadvantage versus non-mazes. Organizations with too-high maze levels become more likely to fail.
- As organizations fail and are replaced by smaller upstarts via creative destruction, revolution or other replacement, maze levels decrease.
- Replacement of old organizations by new ones is the primary way maze levels decline.
- As the overall maze level rises, mazes gain a competitive advantage over non-mazes.
- If society sufficiently rewards mazes and punishes non-mazes, non-mazes can stop failing less often than mazes. Existing organizations become increasingly propped up by corruption. New organizations will start off increasingly maze-like, signal their intent to become mazes, and raise their maze levels more rapidly. They will still usually start out at much lower maze levels than old organizations.
- New organizations and smaller organizations also have more benefit in survival and growth from non-maze behaviors versus maze behaviors, as they have a greater need to do things mazes cannot do, or that they cannot do without huge additional overhead. Even in the scenario where large organizations benefit from maze coordination more than they are hurt by maze inefficiency, it can still benefit smaller organizations to minimize maze levels.
- Mazes have reason to and do obscure that they are mazes, and to obscure the nature of mazes and maze behaviors. This allows them to avoid being attacked or shunned by those who retain enough conventional not-reversed values that they would recoil in horror from such behaviors if they understood them, and potentially fight back against mazes or to lower maze levels. The maze embracing individuals also take advantage of those who do not know of the maze nature. It is easy to see why the organizations described in Moral Mazes would prefer people not read the book Moral Mazes.
- Simultaneously with pretending to the outside not to be mazes, those within them will claim if challenged that everybody knows they are mazes and how mazes work.
- As maze levels rise, mazes take control of more and more of an economy and people’s lives.
- Under sufficiently strong pressure the maze behaviors, value and culture filter out into the broader society. Maze behaviors, values and culture are seen increasingly as legitimate and comfortable and praiseworthy. This happens even outside of any organization. Non-maze behaviors are increasingly seen as illegitimate, uncomfortable and blameworthy.
- The result of these effects is that people in societies with high maze levels, especially those with power and wealth, increasingly and increasingly openly oppose and vilify the creation of clarity, engaging in any productive object-level action, and participation in or even belief in the existence of positive sum games of any kind. Simulacrum levels continue to rise.
- Given sufficiently high societal maze levels, talk in support of maze behaviors would eventually becoming more and more open, and dominate discourse and how people are educated about the world, as people explicitly and publicly endorse and teach anti-virtues over virtues.
- We would see increasing societal inability to create clarity, engage in actions or do anything other than repeat existing patterns. Costs to all still possible actions would rise. Existing patterns would expropriate increasing portions of remaining resources to keep themselves afloat, and increasingly ban any activity outside those patterns.
- The default outcome on the scale of individual organizations is the rise and fall of those organizations over time.
- The default short term outcome on the scale of a nation, when maze levels and simulacrum levels increase, is declining growth, dynamism, slack, discourse, hope, happiness, virtue and wealth. People increasingly lose the things that matter in life.
- The default long term outcome on the scale of a nation is the rise and fall of civilizations.
- We do in fact see all of this. Here and now.
The next few posts will flesh this out more and provide, as best I can, answers to the other questions.
First, small technical feedback — do you think there's some classification of these factors, however narrow or broad, that could be sub-headlines?
For instance, #24 and #29 seem to be similar things:
#24 As the overall maze level rises, mazes gain a competitive advantage over non-mazes.
#29 As maze levels rise, mazes take control of more and more of an economy and people’s lives.
As do #27 and #28:
#27: Mazes have reason to and do obscure that they are mazes, and to obscure the nature of mazes and maze behaviors. This allows them to avoid being attacked or shunned by those who retain enough conventional not-reversed values that they would recoil in horror from such behaviors if they understood them, and potentially fight back against mazes or to lower maze levels. The maze embracing individuals also take advantage of those who do not know of the maze nature. It is easy to see why the organizations described in Moral Mazes would prefer people not read the book Moral Mazes.
#28: Simultaneously with pretending to the outside not to be mazes, those within them will claim if challenged that everybody knows they are mazes and how mazes work.
While it's hard to pin down exactly what the categories would be, It seems that the first cluster is about something like feedback loops and the second culture is about something like deceit, self-deceit, etc.
The categories could even be very broad like "Inherent Biases", "Incentives and Rewards", "Feedback Loops", etc. Or could be narrower. But it's difficult to follow a list of 37 propositions, some of which are relatively simple and self-contained and others are synthesis, conclusion, and extrapolation of previous points.
Ok, second thought —
This is all largely written from the point of view of how bad these things are as a participant. I bet it'd be interesting to flip the viewpoint and analysis and explore it from the view of a leader/executive/etc who was trying to forestall these effects.
For instance, your #4 seems important:
#4: Middle management performance is inherently difficult to assess. Maze behaviors systematically compound this problem. They strip away points of differentiation beyond loyalty to the maze and willingness to sacrifice one’s self on its behalf, plus politics. Information and records are destroyed. Belief in the possibility of differentiation in skill level, or of object-level value creation, is destroyed.
Ok, granted middle management performance is inherently difficult to assess.
So uhh, how do we solve that? Thoughts? Pointing out that this is a crummy equilibrium can certainly help inspire people to notice and avoid participating in it, but y'know, we've got institutions and we'll probably have institutions for forever-ish, coordination is hard, etc etc, so do you have thoughts on surmounting the technical problems here? Not the runaway feedback loops — or those, too, sure — but the inherent hard problem of assessing middle management performance?
On editing note, I think that subheaders requires that things happen in header order, but I want to go in timeline order, and I don't think you can do clean breaks given that restriction. I'm presuming you could group them into types of steps in useful ways if you were so inclined and had a reason to go in that direction.
On second note, I do worry that people will think that #4 is both more endogenous and does more work than I see it as being and doing, and use that as a reason to think of this is a localized and conditional problem. But in terms of how to solve that?
It's hard and important. Enough so that it's often going to be worth designing and/or splitting the whole structure in order to keep this problem in check, even if such splits don't otherwise make any sense. And in general there's a whole set of thoughts I could give on how to try and measure performance more accurately. I'll put that in the stack of possible future things to say, but long series already super long and I don't think I have anything great to suggest here, unfortunately.
Just tracing the edges of hard problems is huge progress to solving them. Respect.
On #4, which I agree is important, there seems to be some explanation left implicit or left out.
#4: Middle management performance is inherently difficult to assess. Maze behaviors systematically compound this problem.
But middle managers who are good at producing actual results will therefore want to decrease mazedom, in order that their competence be recognized. Is it, then, that incompetent people will be disproportionately attracted to - and capable of crowding others out from - middle management? That they will be attracted is a no-brainer, but that they will crowd others out seems to depend on further conditions not specified. For example, if an organization lets people advance in two ways, one through middle management, another through technical fields, then it naturally diverts the competent away from middle management. But short of some such mechanism, it seems that mazedom in middle management is up for grabs.
This post matches very strongly with my experiences both in a growing company attempting to resist becoming maze-like and in a larger company with a new CEO attempting to reduce maze-structure.
For the points r.e. nations do you have examples or are they just inferences (which, to be fair, seem reasonable)?
How did that go?
I don't think there has been enough turnover of staff for this to actually be effective. However I would say that the difference between those executives hired before and after his arrival is noticeable. The number of levels has been reduced somewhat (10 -> 8 ish) and the structure simplified. As a result I think its kind of well known who you need to speak to if you actually want anything to get done.
So yeah, I'd say there's been progress but the culture of the organisation is still held back by those who are comfortable in the maze.
I should say that the company isn't nearly as bad as the worst described in the sequence but there are certainly departments within the company which feel very maze-like.
The best single piece of the whole Mazes sequence. It's the one to read to get all the key points. High in gears, low in detail. I give it +4.
Broader comment on the sequence as a whole:
This post is one of my three picks from the sequence, along with Create a Full Alternative Stack, and Protecting Large Projects Against Mazedom. (Also Motive Ambiguity which is not technically part of the sequence.)
(This review is taken from my post Ben Pace's Controversial Picks for the 2020 Review.)
Ben's post is the best reference I've seen for this so far: Excerpts from a larger discussion about simulacra
I debated which of those two to use here. Will consider switching.
The Moral Mazes sequence prompted a lot of interesting hypotheses about why large parts of the world seem anti-rational (in various senses). I think this post is the most crisp summary of the entire model.
I agree with lionhearted that it'd be really nice if somehow the massive list of things could be distilled into chunks that are easier to conceptualize, but sympathize that reality doesn't always lend itself to such simplification. I'd be interested in Zvi taking another stab at it though.
I guess "maze behavior" is short for "maze-creating and maze-supporting behaviors"? Did you explain what such behavior consist of previously in the sequence? (I tried searching and skimming the previous posts but couldn't find it.)
Yes, that is what it is intended to mean, while noting that 'acting like a maze' or 'doing what it takes to get ahead in a maze' is in general a maze-creating and maze-supporting behavior.
Agree with Raemon that I haven't done the best job summarizing exactly what maze behaviors actually are. I attempted with this post to summarize my model of how mazes come to be and become powerful, but that is a different question. I will consider writing an explicit post to cover this, since it isn't in any of the scheduled posts either, but seems like an important thing to have. Thank you for pointing this out.
I would like to take this opportunity to ask others, without anchoring them with an answer: If you had to give a short summary answer to "What exactly are maze behaviors?" what would you say? I want to know what is being communicated, and also people might have their own insights/perspectives/behaviors.
Part of the issue is that there's a cluster of issues that overlap and are kinda fuzzy and if you try to pin them down you might miss the forest for the trees. I think (unfortunately) that reading the full set of Quotes on Moral Mazes.
I think it's possible to do a better job summarizing than Zvi has currently done. My current attempt at the cluster of patterns are:
Would "maze behavior = playing company politics, especially punishment of attempts to communicate clearly about ethics and object level output" be a good way to sum it up? (Or is it missing something important?)
Without anchoring anyone too much on my question elsewhere in the thread: I would say that this is certainly a central case of maze behavior and points in the correct direction, but as a definition of all maze behavior it is importantly too small a class of things. There is something more fundamental going on, and it is a Fnord (I have Fnord as the top of my future post pile, where Fnord is a thing that makes you want to not notice look at it or notice it.)
I think it's technically right, but something like "company politics is more horrifying than you think in subtle ways" that people will tend to gloss over, or something.
You asked to notify you for things the previous texts failed to lay the groundwork, so here it is. The previous discussion largely looked as if it's static and self-supporting, aside from a couple of examples of how organizations jumped to being mazes as they grew. I feel like this is partially related - but distinct from - this, but getting your own perspective on when it can vs. can't change (not in the case of heroic efforts where you basically uproot everything because I presume that's not what you meant by this) could be useful.
I'm thinking about number 24: "As the overall maze level rises, mazes gain a competitive advantage over non-mazes."
Why is this?
Do you only mean this in the sense that in a mazey environment, mazes grow (like a fungus or a virus?). I am trying to think my objection through clearly, but it seems to be that mazes should have some inefficiencies and organizational failure modes that would make them less competitive on a level playing field.
Is it that even a single maze will tend to be so politically oriented and capable (as politics is almost definitionally maze-like) that it will have an advantage over everything else? Is the root problem politics? And taking that a step further, is the root problem of politics one of effectively signaling in a communication-constricted (i.e. too big to clearly suss out all communications) environment?
If that is the case, then an organizational culture and individuals dedicated to hacking signals (politicking) would dominate. It seems this would be a characteristic of people who are fully sold-out to the maze -- their resumes would tend to tick every box, their credentials would seem flawless, and their memos would read as perfect professionalism, right?
Put another way, Maze-People are usually really good at audit trails, I wager. Their narratives, credentials, and etc will all seem to 'add up' in a way that interfaces well with mazes.
This would make them dominant in some sense and easy to infiltrate organizations.
But I'm still caught on number 24 in the sense that the organizations that have become mazes should have competitive disadvantages. For one thing, they're being operated by people whose actions might be completely opposed, or at least tangential, to the organizations.
Note that earlier, Zvi specifically says:
By default, mazes have a disadvantage. The claim is that as society collectively becomes more mazelike, a) the relative disadvantage of being a maze begins to fall, b) mazes collectively create an interface where it's easier to get ahead if you are conforming to the maze culture. (This could mean that society collectively becomes disadvantaged against other societies)
Corruption seems to me like a phenomena that's of a different nature then just looking to advance in the politics in an organization by exchanging political favors with each other. If Bob speaks in favor of Alice proposal on A in exchange for Alice speaking in favor of Bob's proposal B that's not corrupt.
In my mental model a key factor of corruption is that it's about exchanging things of a different nature with each other.
If Bob speaks in favor of Alice proposal on A because Alice gives him a personal introduction to a doctor that's a specialist for an illness under which Bob suffers, that's corrupt because it's exchanging things of a different nature.
I don't think the crux is exchanging things of a different "nature" but rather allowing a personal benefit to influence or determine an agent decision.
So, "Install new windows in my house and I'll recommend your company for the contract" and "Install new windows for the HQ office, and I'll recommend your company for the contract" are the same exchange, but the first benefits the agent, while the second benefits the company/principal.
This still feels corrupt to me. Having competitive bidding where the best bid gets selected seems to be an important feature of good governance and making deals that circumvent the system of competitive bidding is corrupting such good governance.
Define "best bid" - the HQ install is evidence of quality/ability. A free sample, as it were.
If the HQ install goes well it's evidence of quality. It could also be evidence of the lack of quality.
"If you do a good job installing the HQ office windows, I will tell everyone on the purchasing committee about that's evidence of your company providing high quality services" would be proper more proper.
Circumventing the competitive bidding procedure by making side-deals that are not open knowledge to the purchasing commitee would be a lot mroe problematic.