The Imaginative Universal

Studies in Virtual Phenomenology -- by @jamesashley, Kinect MVP and author

Authority as Anti-Pattern


There has been a recent spate of posts about authority in the world of software development, with some prominent software bloggers denying that they are authorities.  They prefer to be thought of as intense amateurs.

I worked backwards to this problematic of authority starting with Jesse Liberty.  Liberty writes reference books on C# and ASP.NET, so he must be an authority, right?  And if he's not an authority, why should I read his books?  This led to  Scott Hanselman, to Alastair Rankine and finally to Jeff Atwood at

The story, so far, goes like this.  Alastair Rankine posts that Jeff Atwood has jumped the shark on his blog by setting himself up as some sort of authority.  Atwood denies that he is any sort of authority, and tries to cling to his amateur status like a Soviet-era Olympic poll vaulter.  Scott Hanselman chimes in to insist that he is also merely an amateur, and Jesse Liberty (who is currently repackaging himself from being a C# guru to a Silverlight guru) does an h/t to Hanselman's post.  Hanselman also channels Martin Fowler, saying that he is sure Fowler would also claim amateur status.

Why all this suspicion of authority?

The plot thickens, since Jeff Atwood's apologia, upon being accused by Rankine of acting like an authority, is that indeed he is merely "acting". 

"It troubles me greatly to hear that people see me as an expert or an authority...

"I suppose it's also an issue of personal style. To me, writing without a strong voice, writing filled with second guessing and disclaimers, is tedious and difficult to slog through. I go out of my way to write in a strong voice because it's more effective. But whenever I post in a strong voice, it is also an implied invitation to a discussion, a discussion where I often change my opinion and invariably learn a great deal about the topic at hand. I believe in the principle of strong opinions, weakly held..."

To sum up, Atwood isn't a real authority, but he plays one on the Internet.

Here's the flip side to all of this.  Liberty, Hanselman, Atwood, Fowler, et. al. have made great contributions to software programming.  They write good stuff, not only in the sense of being entertaining, but also in the sense that they shape the software development "community" and how software developers -- from architects down to lowly code monkeys -- think about coding and think about the correct way to code.  In any other profession, this is the very definition of "authority".

In literary theory, this is known as authorial angst.  It occurs when an author doesn't believe in his own project.  He does what he can, and throws it out to the world.  If his work achieves success, he is glad for it, but takes it as a chance windfall, rather than any sort of validation of his own talents.  Ultimately, success is a bit perplexing, since there are so many better authors who never achieved success in their own times, like Celine or Melville.

One of my favorite examples of this occurs early in Jean-Francois Lyotard's The Postmodern Condition in which he writes that he knows the book will be very successful, if only because of the title and his reputation, but ...  The most famous declaration of authorial angst is found in Mark Twain's notice inserted into The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn:

"Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot."

In Jeff Atwood's case, the authority angst seems to take the following form: Jeff may talk like an authority, and you may take him for an authority, but he does not consider himself one.  If treating him like an authority helps you, then that's all well and good.  And if it raises money for him, then that's all well and good, too.  But don't use his perceived authority as a way to impugn his character or to discredit him.  He never claimed to be one.  Other people are doing that.

[The French existentialists are responsible for translating Heidegger's term angst as ennui, by the way, which has a rather different connotation (N is for Neville who died of ennui).  In a French translation class I took in college, we were obliged to try to translate ennui, which I did rather imprecisely as "boredom".  A fellow student translated it as "angst", for which the seminar tutor accused her of tossing the task of translation over the Maginot line.  We finally determined that the term is untranslatable.  Good times.]

The problem these authorities have with authority may be due to the fact that authority is a role.  In Alasdaire MacIntyre's After Virtue, a powerful critique of what he considers to be the predominant ethical philosophy of modern times, Emotivism, MacIntyre argues that the main characteristics (in Shaftesbury's sense) of modernity are the Aesthete, the Manager and the Therapist.  The aesthete replaces morals as an end with a love of patterns as an end.  The manager eschews morals for competence.  The therapist overcomes morals by validating our choices, whatever they may be.  These characters are made possible by the notion of expertise, which MacIntyre claims is a relatively modern invention.

"Private corporations similarly justify their activities by referring to their possession of similar resources of competence.  Expertise becomes a commodity for which rival state agencies and rival private corporations compete.  Civil servants and managers alike justify themselves and their claims to authority, power and money by invoking their own competence as scientific managers of social change.  Thus there emerges an ideology which finds its classical form of expression in a pre-existing sociological theory, Weber's theory of bureaucracy."

To become an authority, one must begin behaving like an authority.  Some tech authors such as Jeffrey Richter and Juval Lowy actually do this very well.  But sacrifices have to be made in order to be an authority, and it may be that this is what the anti-authoritarians of the tech world are rebelling against.  When one becomes an authority, one must begin to behave differently.  One is expected to have a certain realm of competence, and when one acts authoritatively, one imparts this sense of confidence to others: to developers, as well as the managers who must oversee developers and justify their activities to upper management.

Upper management is already always a bit suspicious of the software craft.  They tolerate certain behaviors in their IT staff based on the assumption that they can get things done, and every time a software project fails, they justifiably feel like they are being hoodwinked.  How would they feel about this trust relationship if they found out that one of the figures their developers are holding up as an authority figure is writing this:

"None of us (in software) really knows what we're doing. Buildings have been built for thousands of years and software has been an art/science for um, significantly less (yes, math has been around longer, but you know.) We just know what's worked for us in the past."

This resistance to putting on the role of authority is understandable.  Once one puts on the hoary robes required of an authority figure, one can no longer be oneself anymore, or at least not the self one was before.  Patrick O'Brien describes this emotion perfectly as he has Jack Aubrey take command of his first ship in Master and Commander.

"As he rowed back to the shore, pulled by his own boat's crew in white duck and straw hats with Sophie embroidered on the ribbon, a solemn midshipman silent beside him in the sternsheets, he realized the nature of this feeling.  He was no longer one of 'us': he was 'they'.  Indeed, he was the immediately-present incarnation of 'them'.  In his tour of the brig he had been surrounded with deference -- a respect different in kind from that accorded to a lieutenant, different in kind from that accorded to a fellow human being: it had surrounded him like a glass bell, quite shutting him off from the ship's company; and on his leaving the Sophie had let out a quiet sigh of relief, the sigh he knew so well: 'Jehovah is no longer with us.'

"It is the price that has to be paid,' he reflected."

It is the price to be paid not only in the Royal Navy during the age of wood and canvas, but also in established modern professions such as architecture and medicine.  All doctors wince at recalling the first time they were called "doctor" while they interned.  They do not feel they have the right to wear the title, much less be consulted over a patient's welfare.  They feel intensely that this is a bit of a sham, and the feeling never completely leaves them.  Throughout their careers, they are asked to make judgments that affect the health, and often even the lives, of their patients -- all the time knowing that their's is a human profession, and that mistakes get made.  Every doctor bears the burden of eventually killing a patient due to a bad diagnosis or a bad prescription or simply through lack of judgment.  Yet bear it they must, because gaining the confidence of the patient is also essential to the patient's welfare, and the world would likely be a sorrier place if people didn't trust doctors.

So here's one possible analysis: the authorities of the software engineering profession need to man up and simply be authorities.  Of course there is bad faith involved in doing so.  Of course there will be criticism that they frauds.  Of course they will be obliged to give up some of the ways they relate to fellow developers once they do so.  This is true in every profession.  At the same time every profession needs its authorities.  Authority holds a profession together, and it is what distinguishes a profession from mere labor.  The gravitational center of any profession is the notion that there are ways things are done, and there are people who know what those ways are.  Without this perception, any profession will fall apart, and we will indeed be merely playaz taking advantage of middle management and making promises we cannot fulfill.  Expertise, ironically, explains and justifies our failures, because we are able to interpret failure as a lack of this expertise.  We then drive ourselves to be better.  Without the perception that there are authorities out there, muddling and mediocrity become the norm, and we begin to believe that not only can we not do better, but we aren't even expected to.

This is a traditionalist analysis.  I have another possibility, however, which can only be confirmed through the passage of time.  Perhaps the anti-authoritarian impulse of these crypto-authorities is a revolutionary legacy of the soixantes-huitards.  From Guy Sorman's essay about May '68, whose fortieth anniversary passed unnoticed:

"What did it mean to be 20 in May ’68? First and foremost, it meant rejecting all forms of authority—teachers, parents, bosses, those who governed, the older generation. Apart from a few personal targets—General Charles de Gaulle and the pope—we directed our recriminations against the abstract principle of authority and those who legitimized it. Political parties, the state (personified by the grandfatherly figure of de Gaulle), the army, the unions, the church, the university: all were put in the dock."

Just because things have been done one way in the past doesn't mean this is the only way.  Just because authority and professionalism are intertwined in every other profession, and perhaps can longer be unraveled at this point, doesn't mean we can't try to do things differently in a young profession like software engineering.  Is it possible to build a profession around a sense of community, rather than the restraint of authority?

I once read a book of anecdotes about the 60's, one of which recounts a dispute between two groups of people in the inner city.  The argument is about to come to blows when someone suggests calling the police.  This sobers everyone up, and with cries of "No pigs, no pigs" the disputants resolve their differences amicably.  The spirit that inspired this scene, this spirit of authority as anti-pattern, is no longer so ubiquitous, and one cannot really imagine civil disputes being resolved in such a way anymore.  Still, the notion of a community without authority figures is a seductive one, and it may even be doable within a well-educated community such as the web-based world of software developers.  Perhaps it is worth trying.  The only thing that concerns me is how we are to maintain the confidence of management as we run our social experiment.

Memes and Goat's Milk


What does eighteenth century naval warfare have to do with life today?  Nothing, as far as I can tell, yet one of the pleasures of reading Patrick O'Brian's novels about Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin -- one of the great portraits of male friendship in English literature -- is the anachronistic affinities one finds between the bygone world of wood and canvas and quotidian modern life, thanks to Mr. O'Brian's ingenuity.

Take, for instance, this passage from Master And Commander in which Jack, while at sea, is obliged to sign a legal document drafted by his predecessor, the previous captain of the sloop Sophie:

My Lord,

I am to beg you will be pleased to order a Court Martial to be held on Isaac Wilson (seaman) belonging to the Sloop I have the honour to Command for having committed the unnatural Crime of Sodomy on a Goat, in the Goathouse, on the evening of March 16th.  I have the Honour to remain, my Lord, Your Lordship's most obedient very humble servant ....

Like the modern reader, Jack is not pleased with the rules and procedures one must comply with in the course of fulfilling one's duties.  For his friend, Stephen, the matter is simply one that inspires perplexity.

'It is odd how the law always harps upon the unnaturalness of sodomy,' observed Stephen.  'Though I know at least two judges who are paederasts; and of course barristers ... What will happen to him?'

'Oh, he'll be hanged.  Run up at the yard-arm, and boats attending from every ship in the fleet.'

'That seems a little extreme.'

'Of course it is.  Oh, what an infernal bore -- witnesses going over to the flagship by the dozen, days lost ... the Sophie a laughing-stock.  Why will they report these things?  The goat must be slaughtered -- that's but fair -- and it shall be served out to the mess that informed on him.'

'Could you not set them both ashore -- on separate shores, if you have strong feelings on the moral issue -- and sail quietly away?'

'Well,' said Jack, whose anger had died down.  'Perhaps there is something in what you propose.  A dish of tea?  You take milk, sir?'

'Goat's milk, sir?'

'Why, I suppose it is.'

'Perhaps without milk, then, if you please.'

The connection to be found between this passage and today's headlines is no doubt as obvious to you as it is to me, reader.  The notion of contamination which runs thematically through this brief anecdote is a clear analog for the theory of memes.   Terms such as "viral", often used to describe memes, reveal the epidemiological roots of memetic theory.  While the vectors are different, the notion that the sin of seaman Isaac Wilson has somehow been transmitted to the hapless goat, for which reason the goat "must be slaughtered," mirrors the theory that ideas such as "freedom", "God", and "revolution" can be transmitted from person to person, carrying with them certain properties that will affect the behavior of the infected.

At the same time, this anecdote reveals one of the chief problems with memetic theory.  The idea of memes depends on a peculiar notion about the identity of memes when they inhabit different hosts.  But is this identity really something we can take for granted?  Is the "freedom" meme really the same from person to person?  What is missing from the meme theory is an acknowledgement of the inherent ambiguity of all ideas.  One man's meat is another man's poison, after all.

For instance, what is the intent behind serving the slaughtered goat, the unwarranted victim of seaman Isaac Wilson's wantonness, to the seamen who informed on him?  Is it a reward for their dutifulness with regard to the Royal Navy or a punishment for their faithlessness with regard to their comrade?  Is the intent to let them taste a bit of Mr. Wilson's humiliation, or to fill their bellies with a rare treat?

Memetics seems to completely ignore the much more interesting phenomenon of the association of ideas -- perhaps necessarily so, since while the affinity between various notions and concepts, the way one idea leads to another, depends on the malleability of thought, memetics depends on its immutability.

The point is brought across in Stephen Maturin's aversion toward the goat's milk.  Why does he refuse the milk?  Because, in his mind, he associates it with Mr. Wilson's goat.  One idea leads naturally to the other and the properties of Mr. Wilson's crime are mysteriously transferred to the goat's milk -- an entirely different goat, certainly.

kant Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), normally thought of as a dour man though a great philosopher, is duly famous within certain disreputable circles for inserting the goat's milk meme into his seminal work, the Critique of Pure Reason, sometimes known as the First Critique.  In Section III of the Second Part of the Doctrine of Elements, after he has explained the meaning of the term transcendental logic,  and after he has assented to the traditional definition of truth as the agreement between knowledge and its object, Kant drops this witty passage:

To know what questions may reasonably be asked is already a great and necessary proof of sagacity and insight.  For if a question is absurd in itself and calls for an answer where none is required, it not only brings shame on the propounder of the question, but may betray an incautious listener into absurd answers, thus presenting, as the ancients said, the ludicrous spectacle of one man milking a he-goat and the other holding a sieve underneath.

Kant alludes to the fact that this particular meme has classical antecedents, and indeed one can find it in Lucian's (c. 125-180 AD) Life of Demonax (c. 70-170 AD).   That particular version of the meme was later replicated in Erasmus's (1466-1536) collection of Adages

When [Demonax] saw a pair of philosophers, each as ignorant as the other, disputing together, one propounding absurd questions and the other giving crazy answers, entirely off the point: 'Why friends,' said he, 'is not one of these fellows milking a he-goat and the other putting a sieve under it?' 

To Polybius (c. 203-120 BC), in turn, is ascribed the following version of the trope:

But I fear that the well-known adage may apply to me unknown to myself: "Which is the greater simpleton, the man who milks a he-goat or he who holds a sieve to catch the milk?" For it may be said of me that by confuting in detail what is confessed to be a lie, and doing so at great length, I am behaving in a very similar manner. So I shall be told I entirely waste my time in speaking of this matter, unless indeed I wish to record dreams and take into serious consideration the visions of a man with his eyes open.

Erasmus ascribes this same variation to Diogenes of Sinope (c. 404-323 BC) (aka Diogenes the Cynic).

Another variation can be found in Boswell's Life of Johnson, though in this case, we move from goats to bovines, and interestingly Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) is mocking the Scottish philosopher (1711-1776) whom Kant credited with waking him from his dogmatic slumber.

Hume, and other sceptical innovators, are vain men, and will gratify themselves at any expence. Truth will not afford sufficient food to their vanity; so they have betaken themselves to errour. Truth, Sir, is a cow that will yield such people no more milk, and so they are gone to milk the bull.

(I recommend that the curious reader not attempt googling on the phrase "milk the bull", since this seems to have taken on a different meaning in recent times.  "Milk the he-goat", however, is quite safe for searching.)

An obvious question is raised by these variations on a meme.  While they are obviously dependent on one another, and perhaps some sort of history can be traced showing how the trope has been transmitted over time from this thinker to that one, are they in fact the same meme?  Do memes admit of variation, or must a meme always have the same form?  In the latter case, are we then dealing with two memes, for instance the Polybius version and the Demonax version, with the Demonax variation later mutating into the Samuel Johnson version, or is it the case that each host (Demonax, Diogenes, Polybius, Erasmus, Johnson, Kant, O'Brian [1914-2000]) actually possesses a different meme altogether?

The rules by which a meme is transmitted from host to host is a central concern for memetics, and the problem of identity will remain a problem for it.  More interesting, from my point of view, is the problem of similarity.  What are the rules by which we associate certain ideas with other ideas?  Why does Stephen Maturin associate goat's milk with a seaman's indiscretion, to the point that he will not drink the milk?  How are we able to find a resemblance between these different variations on the he-goat anecdote, derived from different sources, to the point that we associate them all together?

In the First Critique, Kant raises a similar question about the character of experience.  Why should it be that events happen in a certain sequence?  Why do causes always precede their effects, instead of the other way around?  For Kant -- and for you too, perhaps, if you have read the Critique -- this is a perplexing and ultimately uncanny feature of our experience of the external world.  That events should happen in a certain sequence, and not in another, Kant calls Affinity (in philosophical jargon, it is known as the transcendental affinity of the manifold of intuition).

While Kant would not -- for those interested, this is because according to Kant inner sense is not associated with a manifold --, we might ask the same question about the way in which one idea follows from another in the stream of consciousness.  What are the rules by which, say, the idea of a madeline leads a man to think back on his childhood and wonder about the nature of remembrance?  Like memes, the flow of ideas have a viral, irrational, and uncontrollable character to them.  It is something like the way in which you get on the Internet to look up how to throw a cocktail party and end up, hours later, reading about cooking with monkey.  Whereas memes are objects of a germinal science about how ideas are transmitted between people, shouldn't there also be a science concerned with the logic by which ideas are linked together within the same person?

But perhaps this is not possible, since a universal logic of how ideas follow upon one another depends on all people being basically the same, and this cannot be guaranteed.  Certain people find affinities and make connections that others simply do not.  The point is well illustrated in T. S. Elliot's (1888-1965) play The Cocktail Party -- again, contamination is a central theme, here.  The setting is simple enough.  Edward and Lavinia host a cocktail party, and Alex, a guest, explains current affairs in colonial Africa.



Edward: But how do monkeys cause unrest?

Alex: To begin with, the monkeys are very destructive ...

Julia: You don't need to tell me that monkeys are destructive.  I shall never forget Mary Mallington's monkey, The horrid little beast -- stole my ticket to mentone and I had to travel in a very slow train and in a couchette.  She was very angry when I told her the creature ought to be destroyed.

Lavinia: But can't they exterminate these monkeys if they are a pest?

Alex: Unfortunately, the majority of the natives are heathen: they hold these monkeys in particular veneration and do not want them killed.  So they blame the Government for the damage that the monkeys do.

Edward: That seems unreasonable.

Alex: it is unreasonable, but characteristic.  And that's not the worst of it.  Some of the tribes are Christian converts, and, naturally, take a different view.  They trap the monkeys.  And they eat them.  The young monkeys are extremely palatable: I've cooked them myself ...

Edward: And did anybody eat them when you cooked them?

Alex: Oh yes, indeed.  I invented for the natives several new recipes.  But you see, what with eating the monkeys and what with protecting their crops from the monkeys the Christian natives prosper exceedingly: and that creates friction between them and the others.  And that's the real problem.  I hope I'm not boring you?

Edward: No indeed: we are anxious to learn the solution.

Alex: I'm not sure that there is any solution.  But even this does not bring us to the heart of the matter.  There are also foreign agitators, stirring up trouble ...

Lavinia: Why don't you expel them?

Alex: They are citizens of a friendly neighboring state which we have just recognised.  You see, Lavinia, there are very deep waters.

Edward: And the agitators; how do they agitate?

Alex: By convincing the heathen that the slaughter of monkeys has put a curse on them which can only be removed by slaughtering the Christians.  They have even been persuading some of the converts -- who, after all, prefer not to be slaughtered -- to relapse into heathendom.  So, instead of eating monkeys they are eating Christians.

Julia: Who have eaten monkeys.

Alex: The native is not, I fear, very logical.