Corporate Anarcho-Syndicalism and Security Engineering (and eschatology)

A fascinating interview with Valve’s Economist-in-Residence, describing the boss-less, freewheeling culture of one of the world’s most highly regarded game developers. (Though, I think there’s also something to be said for GSC Game World 😉

In a nutshell, Valve is a collection of people who take responsibility for getting awesome stuff done, and then do it. There’s no hierarchical authority, even when it comes to hiring: if you think there’s a need to hire someone, you form a subcommittee to do the people search, the applicants come in for interviews, and then an email discussion ensues for a day about whether and who to hire.

The biggest problem? Deprogramming people who come from hierarchical working environments, for whom power has infected their minds and taught them either to retain power over others or to live under the authoritarian power of their bosses. And I’m quoting from the article!

What’s interesting is that Valve is using this non-structure to produce highly engineered systems. Like Portal.

There is a little history to this approach. Valve’s approach represents the natural evolution of polymer chemistry innovation powerhouse and GoreTex inventor W.L. Gore (http://www.fastcompany.com/51733/fabric-creativity). Those guys have been around since 1958, operating on the principles of small teams led by leaders who sort of percolate out of the group as needed — and, like Valve, small size. Gore sets a hard limit of 200 people per facility, so that everyone knows everyone. If they need to expand, they open a new plant.

Now, for the security angle. Anarcho-syndicalism is all fine and good, except for its vulnerability to infiltration.

Say there’s very wealthy competitor who wants to derail Valve over the next few years. If they can buy off or blackmail a very good developer and get him in the company, it’s not hard to have him make a point of doing consistently excellent work that earns him an informal but still influential social position.

From that point, the infiltrator can proceed to steer other people in directions that serve the long-term interests of the outside competitor, while making a point of only helping Valve’s interests himself.

Given that this decentralized non-organization relies on a collective rather than centrally managed vision, it might be possible to engineer an otherwise imperceptible collective course change.

At the very least, the presumable lack of centralized security management and education means it could be easier for our infiltrator to engineer apparently accidental opportunities for the competition to access “trade secrets.”

To my eye, it seems like the only way to guard against this is decentralized security managment and education: if everyone in the group knows what subtle malice looks like, these sort of shenanigans become harder.

Eschatology:
The Valve economist makes some interesting points about the global economy as well. The one thing that he seems to have missed is what set off the Eurozone crisis, the one cause everyone seems to ignore — the subprime mortgage crisis. One of the largest causes of troubles over here is, more or less, having absorbed a big part of the massive 2008 shock over there. If the Eurozone hadn’t done this (or been very subtly and quietly persuaded to do so) the US economy would have seen its Armageddon four years ago.

In karma terms, it’s almost like the crisis here started when the Eurozone paid back the favors of the Marshall Plan.

http://www.econtalk.org/archives/2013/02/varoufakis_on_v.html

” Given also that you have an abundance of money, in a company like Valve, when more than $1 billion dollars revenue, you have 300 something people to share it, then you are not operating exactly under conditions of scarcity. Especially when you are not operating under conditions of scarcity, all the other social rewards that one gets from great reviews of one’s output. Russ: And the respect of your peers at your workplace. Guest: Of course. Status, if you will. Status and the respect of the people that you respect. That way you overcome the master-slave, Hegelian paradox.”

” Given also that you have an abundance of money, in a company like Valve, when more than $1 billion dollars revenue, you have 300 something people to share it, then you are not operating exactly under conditions of scarcity. Especially when you are not operating under conditions of scarcity, all the other social rewards that one gets from great reviews of one’s output. Russ: And the respect of your peers at your workplace. Guest: Of course. Status, if you will. Status and the respect of the people that you respect. That way you overcome the master-slave, Hegelian paradox.”

“. The fact that I don’t have a boss; once I was tenured I no longer had a boss. And that doesn’t mean that you don’t have responsibility; you take responsibility for what you do. And you do it at a collegial level with your colleagues. ”

“Europe is rich. It’s full of intelligent young people. Innovative people. We have excellent educational institutions. We have amazing culture. And actually, we don’t have that much debt either, compared to Japan and to the United States either. What we have is an idiotic set of rules and regulations and institutions for running our common currency area. We have a Central Bank without a state behind it. And we have states without a central bank behind them. We have banks that are insolvent, and states that are insolvent. And we insist that the insolvent states borrow in order to bail out the insolvent banks. And when this is failing then we reduce aggregate demand further by increasing taxes, until the whole thing has spins out of control. There are three steps you can take, very, very simple steps, without the need of constitutions, federation, anything like that, that will put an end to the tailspin. It’s just not in the interest of the political elite, individually and collectively to go ahead with those. “

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