In the Guardian piece I linked yesterday Clay Shirky was quoted saying, “Institutions will try to preserve the problem for which they are the solution.” Anecdotal evidence and intuition agree with this observation, but what does it really mean?
These decisions are made by people; we commonly think of organizations as individuals, but they are the dragons in Chinese dragon dances. Why would people, especially those associated with an institution which ostensibly intends to solve a problem, choose to prolong it? Let’s just talk about the conscious decisions here. One reason might be that they are trying to preserve their jobs. In that case, supposing we set up the world so that no one was allowed to lack the most basic human needs (so that fear would not compel anyone to do work they did not sincerely wish to do), would this still occur? I think it might.
I think there is a deeper issue of identification. The decision-maker identifies with the organization, mentally conflating it and his role with his definition of self: “I am the CEO of ExecuBureauCorp.”1 In the same way that an insult can elicit a similar emotional response to a physical threat, the demise of the institution would be taken as serious personal blow. And this identification is stronger than the one the person has with those adversely affected by the problem.
Perhaps in a world where basic human needs were assured and decision makers didn’t define themselves by their roles, this wouldn’t happen. But in this world, is an institution always a bad solution to a problem?
I think for problems that can be solved (even if only in theory), organizations which set the solution as their sole or primary purpose are probably not a good idea. Maybe this is why communism never lived up to the manifesto; the implementation required an organization charged with solving the issue of inequality. But are institutions in general always bad? I don’t think so.
Humans have achieved great things by collaboration, and will continue to do so. If the mission of an organization is positive and not predicated on the existence of a specific problem, it can be extremely useful. A hazy mission is suspect, and at times realignment may be necessary, but institutions can have a positive effect.
A few weeks ago I put up the comment I’d made on Joe Konrath’s blog about the self-preservation motive of the Authors Guild, and then later a link to Barry Eisler’s post expanding on that. In my original comment I asked the question:
After all, what use does a self-published author have for the Authors Guild, anyway?
It was intended to be rhetorical, and the implied answer was “none,” but since then I have been wondering what a serious answer to this question would look like. I don’t know if the Authors Guild has a mission statement (I couldn’t find one), but these are the services they provide, according to their site:
Members of the Authors Guild receive free book contract reviews from experienced legal staff, discounted health insurance rates in some states, low-cost website services including website-building, e-mail, and domain name registration, access to our free Back in Print service, our quarterly print Bulletin, and invitations to panels and programs throughout the year.
In addition, they provide advocacy in the form of legal action to defend the rights of authors collectively.
Almost all of this seems to be of dubious value, especially to the self-published author.
There are some things I think an author-focused organization could offer a self-published writer, though:
- Legal action to defend the rights of authors collectively (something may come up that would warrant this), and to help authors individually combat copyright violations.
- Marketing help (advice, a forum to facilitate cross-promotion and “blurbs,” maybe even actual marketing services for members’ books).
- Reviews of providers of author services (cover designers, editors, etc.).
- Advocacy for (and perhaps even creation and maintenance of) a universal ebook format.
An organization which could provide those things (and more?) for an author would actually be worth joining in the twenty-first century.
- Wow, it’s hard to come up with a stupid, fake company name that isn’t actually in use by a real company. ↩