RBPEA: Object, subject and ‘should’

A bright, sunny day – in Britain, no less! – though it’s the first day back to work after a very wet public-holiday weekend, so perhaps no real surprise there… But since it is sunny out there, my colleagues and I take a break from our in-depth discussions on enterprise-architecture, and go out for a a picnic in the park. A moment to slow down, a moment to breathe…

On the way back, we meet up with a trio of pre-school girls, accompanied by harassed-looking pram-pushing mother. We exchange a glance with Mum: yeah, that’s a lot of hard work for her, all right. One of the girls, we note, is definitely in Disney-style dressing-up mode, a shiny dress in garish colours and very-synthetic fabrics:

“Who’s that you’re dressed-up as?” I ask. “‘s Auwa”, says one of the other girls, somewhat shyly. “I’m sorry”, I say, “who was that again?” “Princess Aurora“, says the third girl, firmly, with all of the all-knowing haughtiness that a four-year-old can muster, “you shoulda known that!”.

Ah. Right. Sorry. My fault. Of course. Yes. Sorry.

And they swan off, mother in tow, a princess and her would-be ladies in waiting. All those putative pouting princesses: Disney has much to answer for, methinks…

Cute in its own way, of course, and mostly harmless too – on the surface, at least. Yet as usual, from an RBPEA perspective, it’s well worth looking at this rather more deeply – because when we do so, the sources for some seriously nasty societal-scale problems start to emerge.

The keyword in this case here is ‘Should’. There’s a specific usage of ‘Should’ that comes up in requirements-documents or in the MoSCoW priority-set, indicating a less-mandatory level of priority than ‘Must’ or ‘Shall’. But other than that special-case, we need to learn to be very wary of ‘Should’ – and especially so in the form ‘Should-Have’, because in effect it’s a demand that we should go back into the past to ‘correct’ our present ‘mistake’, often with information or whatever that we wouldn’t have been able to know back then anyway. A subtle yet surprisingly nasty form of abuse, in fact – but so common that most people don’t even recognise it as abuse…

Like so many hidden problems of paediarchy – ‘rule by, for and on behalf of the childish’ – the real source for this is back in ‘the terrible twos’. Or, more precisely, from children’s and, more worryingly, adults’ refusal to grow up beyond ‘the terrible twos’ – a developmental-disorder that has hugely-destructive impacts at the societal scale.

I learnt about all of this from child-development doyenne Mary Sheridan, rather too many decades ago, when I worked as illustrator for many of her books, such as her landmark Children’s Developmental Progress. (The current edition doesn’t use my illustrations any more – fair enough, I guess, after more than four decades, but there were a lot of subtle details in those drawings of mine that Mary supervised, that seem kinda missing now. Oh well.)

As Mary explained it, up until around two years old a typical child doesn’t have much sense of ‘the world’, or its own place in it: it merely knows, with increasing certainty, that it is the sole and exclusive ‘centre of everything’. In effect, everything is part of ‘I’, and everything revolves around ‘I’. But somewhen around the two-year point – which, we might note, is also a typical spacing of children within a family – a sudden awareness dawns that there is such a thing as ‘Other’, that there is a distinction between ‘I’ and ‘not-I’.

And the child does not like this at all.

As Mary described it, and as I’ve since also gleaned from other sources, the child applies two distinctive types or categories of tactics to try to retain this position of centrality and ‘control’: treating Other as object, and treating Other as subject. Crucial to this is that, at least at the start, there’s no distinction between animate and inanimate, human or not-human: anything Other is simply ‘the Other’, to which the respective tactics are applied.

In the object-based approach, the Other is viewed as something external to the Self, a non-autonomous thing to be acted on and controlled by the Self. If the Other does not do what the Self wants, the Self considers themself to be entitled, or in their rights – yep, there’s that word again… – to hit it, throw it, throw things at it, apply any required force until the Other does what the Self requires of it. (Or until the the Self’s attention wanders off to something else – which fortunately can happen quite quickly with two-year-olds…) Note that in an object-based approach, the Self claims the power and responsibility for action (though usually not for its consequences…), and the actions are overt, and usually physical – all of which are attributes that make it somewhat easier to point to and address socially-unacceptable actions.

In the subject-based approach, the Other is viewed as an extension of the Self – a semi-autonomous subject that exists solely to do the Self’s bidding. If the Other does not do what the Self wants, the Self considers themself entitled to cajole, manipulate and verbally-abuse the Other until the Other ‘realises the error of their ways’ and returns to serving the Self in whatever way the Self desires. Note that all responsibility is assigned to the Other, not the Self; the Self asserts that the Other ‘should know‘ what the Self wants, and adapt its own actions accordingly, without the Self having to do anything to make the desired outcomes happen. (Notice that keyword ‘should’ – it’s a classic characteristic of subject-based abuse.) In a subject-based approach, the actions of the Self are covert, and usually non-physical – which, together with the Self’s assignment of all responsibility to the Other, can make it very difficult to point to and address socially-unacceptable actions.

(Because subject-based abuse is so much harder to identify and stop at those critical early stages of child-development, it’s a major driver behind adult paediarchy. Whenever we see a culture that’s riddled with sycophancy, with grandiose labels such as ‘Your Majesty’, or ‘higher office’, or any kind of top-down hierarchy in which responsibility only goes one way, we would know straight away that that’s a culture that has serious problems with paediarchy. And when the dictator pulls out the dressing-up chest with the full-on glitz and glitter – think of Gadaffi or Goering or anyone at the court of Queen Elizabeth I – then we really need to watch out: it’s an indication that the whole culture has reverted all the way back to pandering to the capricious whims of the self-obsessed two-year-old, with all that that entails…)

The huge danger here is that subject-based behaviours are deeply-addictive: they often give an illusion of short-term success, but they actually don’t work – especially where the responsibility necessarily resides with the Self, and cannot be taken on by any Other, such as in skills-development or development of the Self as self. One of the most common consequences of societal-scale addiction to subject-based behaviours is the delusory notion that ‘power is the ability to avoid work’ – in contrast to the more-realistic physics-definition that ‘power is the ability to do work’.

(There’s more detail on this, if you’re interested, in the ‘manifesto on power and response-ability‘ from my book ‘Power and Response-ability: the human side of systems‘.)

The source of the danger is that the personal sense of functional-power is directly correlated with engagement in personal-responsibility. The more that responsibility is evaded – especially via mechanisms of subject-based abuse – the more this drives feelings of ‘disempowerment’. The sense of disempowerment is real: the catch in subject-based abuse of the Other is that those feelings actually arise from the (in)actions of the Self, but are blamed exclusively on the Other – who in most cases cannot do anything to make it any better, since the literal ‘response-ability’ for improvement inherently resides only with the Self. Refusal to face this fact feeds an addictive downward-spiral, first into power-under, and then scapegoat-based power-over – from which viable recovery becomes much harder.

(There’s a crucial distinction here between ‘responsible-to‘ or ‘responsible-about‘, versus ‘responsible-for‘. We can, and generally should – in the requirements-sense of ‘should’, that is – be responsible to others and about others in a social context; yet ultimately the only person we can each be responsible for is ourself. The moment someone insists that others must be responsible for them, that’s subject-based abuse in action, and we’re looking at an immediate driver downward into deep dysfunctionality. Not A Good Idea…)

When subject-base abuse becomes endemic in an entire culture, this often leads into spiralling abuse against an arbitrarily-selected scapegoat-Other – either as individuals or as a group – in forms that would best be described as state-sponsored internal-terrorism. A common example in severely-dysfunctional organisations is random threats of being fired, or other arbitrary punishments, at the personal whim of supposed ‘superiors’ – most often to cover up the latter’s insuperordination and similar symptoms of incompetence and the like.

At this point, however, we bump into a cross-theme that’s definitely a taboo-topic for many people – though in my work on RBPEA it’s become painfully clear that it’s something we must address, or else we risk societal-failure at a national or even global scale. The point here is that, at least at the level of the two-year-old, there are strong gender-overtones to preferred mechanisms for relations with the Other – whatever that Other may be:

  • boys tend to go more for object-based tactics
  • girls tend to go more for subject-based tactics

Yeah, I’m well aware that that’s ‘politically-incorrect’ – especially some of the inherent corollaries, if you stop and think about those for a while. But Mary Sheridan was adamant on this point – and by that time that I worked with her, her opinion was derived from more than sixty years of full-time professional observation of children, by one of the most subtle yet skilful observers of human nature that I’ve ever had the privilege to see in action.

Yet if you can’t accept what she’d said, just take a look at Disney’s merchandising. Their ‘boys’ toys’ – and there aren’t that many of them from Disney itself – are all about physical action: Woody from Toy Story rides in to save the day, for example. But for girls? – ah, a bit different, yes? It’s true that a few of them – Mulan, for example, or Merida from Brave – are somewhat aimed towards action. But almost without exception, Disney’s many, many heroines are ‘princesses’, seemingly entitled to special rights, privileges, attention, priority and more, for the sole reason that they are, well, princesses, aren’t they? – an interesting example of subject-based and utterly self-centric circular-reasoning. Yes, Disney’s ‘princesses’ are cute, as in the example with which we started this post: but the ‘cuteness’ can mask some very serious societal-scale dangers of which, in RBPEA, we most definitely do need to be aware…

The ‘princess-syndrome’ is problematic enough in itself, but there are some still-more-severe societal dangers that arise from that crosslink we saw earlier between paediarchy, power and perceived-responsibility:

  • object-based behaviours assign all responsibility to Self, which in turn leads to perceived ‘power’ of Self
  • subject-based behaviours assign all responsibility to Other, which in turn leads to self-disempowerment of Self and by Self, yet which is blamed exclusively on the Other

What this warns us is that there’s likely to be a direct correlation between the extent to which paediarchy is allowed to run unchecked through an entire culture, and the extent to which males alone are blamed for everything, regardless of what they themselves did, whilst females push themselves ever deeper and deeper into self-disempowerment, blaming everyone but themselves as the cause. We’ll see the same correlation in the extent to which, in any given culture, women alone are deemed to have ‘rights’ without concomitant responsibilities, whereas men alone are deemed to have all of the ‘power’ – and are actively punished for this – but actually don’t feel ‘powerful’ at all. Sadly, we don’t have to look far to find whole cultures that have succumbed to these particularly pernicious forms of sexism – ones that ultimately hurt women as much, if not more, than men.

We’ll explore those concerns further in a later post in this series: for now we’d best get back to mainstream enterprise-architecture, to identify how to put these insights into use in more everyday EA practice.

Practical implications for enterprise-architecture

Although much of the above describes concerns that are often a long way out of the remit of most enterprise-architects, there are direct implications and applications in mainstream EA practice.

Perhaps the most important of these is to beware of ‘should’. Other than its specific use in a requirements-type context, the usage of ‘should’ – especially when applied to an arbitrary Other – should (hah!) perhaps best be treated as a warning of potential risk of subject-based abuse: “attempts to offload responsibility onto the other without their engagement and consent”. If such risks are allowed to pass unchecked and unresolved, they will cause failure of the architecture, especially over the longer-term.

Some examples that enterprise-architects can often address in their work include:

— Misframed performance-metrics – and, in particular, arbitrary numeric targets. In effect, these are ‘shoulds’ applied to future-performance, and are notorious for causing all manner of dysfunctions and distortions: for example, a UK Parliamentary Report on the NHS (National Health Service) noted that such targets were always ‘gamed’, and always resulted in poorer performance. Simon Guilfoyle gives some practical advice in how to avoid this trap in his post ‘Spot the difference‘.

— One-sided ‘agreements’ – such as those still all-too-typical on online-services and the like. These tend to assign all of the ‘rights’ to the provider-organisation, and all of the responsibilities and blame onto the service-user. The attraction of such ‘agreements’ to their creators is obvious, of course, but they’re often retrospectively classifiable as unconscionable in law, and in any case they inherently create kurtosis-risks that can easily kill a company. (“Everybody’s doing it” is no defence here: it’s still a risk to the architecture and more, regardless of how many players there may be in that particular  game of ‘pass the grenade‘…) In short, Not A Good Idea…

— Open-loop ‘control’ in a closed-system context – such as too often still happens in many web-service contexts. In principle this is just a technical equivalent – some system “offloading responsibility to the Other without its engagement and consent”, for the appropriate management of the overall context – but ultimately it’s a human-person that’s doing the offloading of responsibility onto some other human-person, at the design-stage. The same also applies to all other types of whole-of-context responsibilities across a shared system. Blaming others afterwards doesn’t resolve the responsibilities right now: be careful to clarify what the responsibilities are, and what dependencies and cross-checks each responsibility would imply – otherwise you run a very real risk of creating your very own equivalent of the Mars Climate Orbiter failure.

Plenty more examples to watch for, of course, but that’s probably enough for now?

More in later posts in this series, anyway.

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