Project Management Memetics

Leon sent me a link to this paper a couple of years ago, to which I responded “interesting” – he knows I’m interested in memes. I didn’t actually read beyond the title until today.

The essence of memes is that there is something “self-serving” about patterns of information (*1) which is independent of any rationally intended human purposes in using them. The same is as true of (say) project management procedures and practices as it is of any rational processing of information – my agenda is that this is a problematic feature of management and governance in the most general sense, not just businesses and projects, any decision-making-to-act process, knowledge-management practices, even the rational domain par-excellence science itself. So I have no doubt about the problems of failing to see the memetic aspect of project management activities – it’s is of course where my concerns began in Oil & Gas industry and Information Management projects, 15 or 20 years ago – the reason I’ve been blogging since blogging was invented …. but this is not about me.

In fact none of this is new in management circles, just the new(ish) memetic language, and part of the problem now is that memetics itself is contentious to some people (*1). But even without memetics, the idea that decision-rationality = action-irrationality has been part of action-science management theories (eg Argyris / Brunsson et al) and probably longer before that with (say) Parker-Follett – guru to the gurus in management.

In any “professional” management situation it is difficult (anathema) to suggest that doing a rational thing is the irrational (wrong) thing to do. You’re mad, surely. “Before we make this decision to act, we should study and agree upon this issue – right ?” Wrong. Act and experience the outcomes (with “care”, in the knowledge of the issue). It’s been called analysis-paralysis for years, but it’s not just “analysis”, it’s following any rational, objective process that delays action, because it is the action that provides experience. Experience is worth more than theory, in practice.

Performing rational (project) management analyses, modelling and management decision-making processes tends to lead to more (project) management activities – ie self-serving – rather than achieving the value-adding goals of the enterprise or project. (IT / IM projects, particularly new, integrated business and/or government (civil or defense) systems, are often legendary in terms of project failure, however they are actually post-rationalized. Not surprisingly there are newer “agile” IT project management processes that force the action and feedback cycle milestones.)

(*1) Patterns of information, known as memes because they are copied (not the other way around), come in many levels; patterns (upon patterns) upon patterns of information (statically defined) and patterns (upon patterns) of their (dynamic) relations, procedures, patterns of use, communication and processing. Because genes – the biological analogue of memes – are based on 4-bases (*2) and n-chromosomes in any given species (*3), there is a popular misconception that genetic copying in biological reproduction is well defined in terms of atomically discrete “digital” genes, whereas memes are somehow more woolly – anything from a single word representing an identifiable concept to the whole idea of ideas, concepts, interpretations, representations even internet crazes, fashions, cultural patterns (even whole religions and cultures) etc. Many people baulk at the idea that “cultural units” (memes) can be considered as discretely as “biological units” genes. Now, reducing things to discrete objects (genes or memes, or anything else) is part of a wider issue, but genes and memes, their own definitions and the processes and patterns involving their transmission and reproduction are equally complex and ultimately flaky – just equally useful in describing the processes involved – information processing processes both (*4). The analogy is in fact a very good one. It’s about what IS copied and communicated, not prescriptive about what they should be, or how they might be represented when communicated and processed. Naturally, simpler patterns of information (memes or genes) – patterns of information which are simpler to represent – are communicated, processed (and replicated) more easily, so unsurprisingly discrete objects are much more “popular” than complex patterns of information – another self-serving aspect. Simple ideas rule, but often simple may be dumb.

(*2) Even the 4 DNA / RNA bases are not in any sense absolute. They just happen to be the basis of the most prevalent and most studied organic biological forms. Other biochemical possibilities exist. And of course even in R/DNA based life, there are many other non-R/DNA cell structures involved in the processes too. Doesn’t change the essential pragmatic truth of genetic reproduction.

(*3) And even the definition of a discrete species is highly context dependent and controversial when it comes down to it. Different definitions are accepted for different practical purposes.

(*4) Objective reductionism is full of contentious topics when it comes to more subjective things like free-will and consciousness, but this is true even at the most fundamental levels of physics too. Arguments in these topics need to be conducted extremely carefully – avoiding “misplaced-objectivity” and “greedy reductionism” – more self-serving memes.

[Need to come back and link to the implied sources throughout.]

[Post Note : Existentialism and Evolutionary Psychology – Heidegger, Foucault, Dennett and many more in Jon Whitty’s project management presentations. A man after my own.]

Forget Starbucks

Seems Ian Angell is a Costa Coffee man. A man after my own taste. Actually, I prefer Cafe Nero, but either way, anything but Starbucks.


I first mentioned Angell when I heard him on Thinking Allowed discussing his book “Science’s First Mistake” with Laurie Taylor. I mentioned in the footnote there, the suggestion, gained from other essay’s on his web site, that sometimes his language suggests he’s less agnostic and more theistic that he claims, which led a number of people with whom I shared the Thinking Allowed link to react against him. This is not an isolated problem. Take the recent Anthropic Principle thread that spun out of PZ Myers blog. It’s impossible to point out flaws in any scientific response to non-science without being branded as “anti-science” – somehow representing “the other side” or “playing into their hands”. And of course this flaw is the whole “neurosis” of science to use Maxwell’s term.

Anyway, I responded to Laurie Taylor and exchanged a few emails with Ian Angell since then. I discovered, as Laurie did in this interview in the current edition of the New Humanist, that Ian is a man on a mission, who’s positively enthusiastic about using language intended to inflame scientists (or theists, who cares). The interview concludes :

Angell’s book is a fascinating read, a clever, insightful, philosophically persuasive account of the limitations of science. But this wasn’t the first time in the interview when I felt he’d been so outraged by scientific arrogance that he was prepared to employ some dubious logic in order to pursue his case. I wondered if it was his fury about the manner in which science had robbed the world of enchantment that led him into another strange assertion, the declaration that the world was safe from science because it was, in his word, “magical”.

“It is magical. It is wonderful. Don’t you wake up in the morning and think this is incredible? You know, since I stopped being scientific, nothing is drab or predictable. It’s totally astounding that every day is different and you never know what will happen. Science is drab. It’s not a humanist way of looking at the world. To me humanists have to believe in magic. Because life is magic. It is magic that we can actually operate at all. The fact that we can categorise is magic. All thought is sympathetic magic. And it is wonderful. Every day is a bonus. If tomorrow’s going to be the same as today, then why bother?”

This new-found enthusiasm for life was almost alarmingly evident as he led me across Kingsway to his beloved Costa coffee house. He greeted the baristas behind the glassed cakes as though they were old friends. When I insisted on paying he cheekily demanded an extra stamp on his own loyalty card and noticed as he did that the card was now complete. “Free coffee tomorrow!”, he cheerily boomed as we carried our lattes to a table.

Fun and Games

In one of his robust, no punches pulled email exchanges, he concluded:

I’m just having fun!
God is a comedian, but His followers have no sense of humour. And neither do Scientists.

He’s right of course, the outrage is scientific arrogance. And this reference to fun, and his “dubious tactics” put me in mind of Zizek’s use of the Lacanian “jouissance“. I’m reading (almost finished) his “Living in End Times”. It also put me in mind of another subject – I often get backlash against “game theory” suggestions, as if the whole idea is somehow discredited. One of my two criticisms of Maxwell’s excellent “Is Science Neurotic” was that there was no acknowledgement of game-theory in his Aim-Oriented Rationality processes of scientific progress. (My other criticism was overlooking what US Pragmatist philosophers have to say on the subject.)

Now the Lacanian “jouissance” is more than just fun and enjoyment, it has all the Freudian, sexual, phallic, orgasmic symbology you’d expect from a French PoMo. You know, pleasure (nudge, nudge, wink, wink). As a Lacanian, Zizek uses the term this way, but he also uses it as the point of “play” in general, in politics, in architecture, making progress in life in general – the pleasure principle. Pleasure is what we want, but too much pleasure hurts. In the interview above, Angell makes a remark about people who revel in their own misery and quips the question of whether this puts them at 2 or 8 on a 1 to 10 scale of pleasure. The point of the pleasure principle is that we need to play interactive games with ourselves and each other, and games involve psychological tactics, even dubious logic, to establish our optimum levels of pleasure. It’s what we do. It really is. And to deny it is … denial … Maxwell’s scientific neurosis.


Another reason I identify with Ian is that we share a historical route to our current positions (see my manifesto). I’m an engineer primarily, which naturally has scientific / technological underpinnings. Long before I became focussed on management per se, I had my doubts about the role of ambiguity in engineering management, but ever since the master’s study and wider management and consulting experience since, I am ever more convinced that mechanistic management tools are only ever a simplification over the underlying human reality. Of course the more interactive, social, story-telling approach to business management is no longer a novel idea. The point is this management problem really extends to all forms of governance in economics, politics, even science itself.

When things change, they don’t necessarily get better, they get more complicated.

We can use simplifying tools, but we mustn’t confuse this with believing we have simplified the underlying fun and games. The world does not reduce to science and simple choices.

[Post Note : Actually reading the book now. Noted this “real sociology” blog article too, linked to the original Thinking Allowed piece, which confirms the opinion that Angell may be reinforcing well established views on the scientific delusions of objectivity and causality, but comes across as

… quite angry … irritating …


Science vs Religion Wars

I have three or four draft responses to Pharyngula (PZ Myers) blog posts, but they always turn into long essays and I rarely get round to publishing. One problem is he has many signed-up readers who respond to every post, and individual comments get lost in the baying mob (just like Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science blog I find). And since my comments (as an atheist) are mainly about the baying-mob mentality, it’s hard to know how to get the point into the stream. So here a very short post with one point, track-backed to PZ’z blog.

In this Facebook extract example, the innocent / ignorant status poster and commenters are indeed misguided on attributing the +/-10ft design to God, but the one scientific response totally misses the point and proceeds (very smugly I might add) to split hairs with one quantifiable “design” detail, and get soundly booed off stage by the believers with no argument either way. But PZ and his admirers simply jump on the same band-wagon – Oh look, theists only argue using the LaLaLaLaLa fingers-in-ears methods. Dumb and dumber I say. Theist or scientist, you can both be dumb. There is a very important point of interest in this facebook post that is completely swamped by those who believe themselves intellectually superior yet prefer wars to progress.

OK, so the “10ft” quote was way off the mark, but the “Goldilocks” enigma of how much of the universe seems to be fine-tuned “just right” for our-world-as-we-know-it to exist is a very interesting question. Easily attributed to god by the ignorant, but conveniently glossed-over by science in baying-mob mode.

My point ? It’s a myth that pointing out flaws in your adversaries’ arguments is a source of progress – falsification is good in the science-lab of repeatable-cases, refereed-peer-reviews & law-courts, but not in the real world. In fact it simply deepens the divide, reinforces adversaries as adversaries and excludes middles. Middles that have nothing to do with with compromise or accomodationism or apologism – I’m as atheist as any of the four horsemen – but concerned with the exclusion of sound rational knowledge.

Pull your finger out PZ – you are supposed to a responsible scientist / atheist.

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