… Otherwise they would not actually be institutions at all. That is basically what an institution is, as opposed to a temporary association or social movement.
I was trying to think through some irritation at the tendency of leaderships to just make changes that are very in the moment and focused on firefighting political controversies. I work in an ancient Scottish university and feel we have obligations to preserve the spirit and sacred traditions handed down to us, those of the Scottish Enlightenment. So I wanted to work through my sense of why this is an issue for me.
There has been a tendency recently for institutions to simply respond to the cultural moment rather than look beyond it. To some extent this is quite natural because, as I keep trying to remind everyone, institutions are just people. When people complain about the media or about social media or about Westminster or Hollyrood or the university it is good to bear that in mind. The University is just us. Elites are just folk, but with special, lizardy qualities.
Yet institutions are still something more than that, through the processes, cultures and practices that they embed. Many of the people occupying institutions are quite practised and skilled but naturally they are going to have blindspots. We can examine these topics systematically using Weber’s theories of bureaucracy. So although we can say that institutions are composed of people, they are not people who have entirely free latitude to do what ever they wan. Systems are built to create sanctions, rewards and status. We cannot break the rules willy-nilly. When we do as we find out the reasons why people would want it the rules in place. For example consistency could be valued over individual flexibility. One would probably want that in and airline, or an army. Rather more flexibility could be hoped for in a GP. But not too much. We can also point to their problems that we know emerge in any institution. There are problems of perverse incentives, ends-means displacement and other well-known problems of bureaucracies.
The popularity of algorithmic governance has meant that some of these qualities are now universal in the data infrastructure. For example the problem of performativity, where is the model becomes the aim. But this should not be treated as mysterious. In the case of Facebook the problems identified in terms of polarisation are parts of the business model. They are not a great mystery and we can mislead ourselves with an in-the-moment focus on the technology rather than the human-level decisions taken about the business it undergirds.
But the whole reason for being part of an institution is it gives you access to collective resources beyond yourselves. The reason we sometimes get a little bit testy about this tradition is that our traditions and maybe be hidebound and dated, or they may be part of this collective resources. You cannot always tell. Our ability to tell which is which is inversely related to our confidence in the doing that. So we need to have a learning process that is fairly reliable and self-correcting. Otherwise another problem sets in, that of path dependence. When you start going in one direction it is very hard to turn off.