Substance and form

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In which the curmudgeonly old sod puts the world to rights.
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The existential dilemma — the paradox — of form and substance was first adverted to in Otto Büchstein’s now largely forgotten tragicomic opera La Vittoria della Forma sulla Sostanza (often performed, if performed at all, in German, as Die Eroberung der Form durch Substanz).

Form versus substance in a nutshell

Form is the map: simplified, rationalised, modularised: it establishes, through followable rules, a safe passage through the incomprehensible thickness of the jungle. It tries to reduce complexity — scary, unmanageable, non-linear — to mere complication — fiddly, but tameable by punctilious attention to detail — by prescribing fixed rules and procedures — process — which may be followed even by those with no particular experience or expertise of the territory. As long as you can read, and are generally disposed to quickly and quietly doing what you are told, the only question which is asked of you in such a formal system will be: did you faithfully follow the rules?

Substance is the territory: the fractal, inchoate, indeterminate, dancing, organic mass of messiness in which we are consigned to play our mortal games. Without a map, there is only one way to navigate the territory: by knowing it. Given that it moves — like some diabolical, shapeshifting labyrinth, doors disappear, staircases vanish, chambers and oubliettes wink in and out of existence— knowing it is hard, and takes continuing application, investment, time, patience, energy and skill. A map is a proxy for knowledge, not a substitute: one who has the knowledge, and knows the territory — an expert — will bridle upon being told to use a map.

Put it this way: would you use a map to navigate from the station to your own home? There is a logic to this: the power of big data is their emergent properties: you can extract, from a mass of data, qualities you can’t see from individual instances. That one kettle goes on at 4:30 in the afternoon signifies nothing in particular; that fourteen million do tells you it’s half time in the football.

This is a correlation, though, not causation, and it won’t flow the other way. Just because you put the kettle on at 4:30 doesn’t mean you were watching the football, however likely it might seem. Probability is an is, not an ought.

Hume: you cannot derive an “ought” from an “is”.

The JC: you cannot derive an “is” from an “ought”.

Some ad hoc categorisations of the “formal” and the “substantive”

Substance Form
Lord Denning The doctrine of precedent
Heuristics Algorithms
Structuring internal audit
Legal Compliance
Anything fun or interesting in the world HR, COO, Management consultant, middle management

Format as a priority over purpose

The paradox of fashion. The community will from time to time be gripped by a delusion that an innovation has worth in and of itself, regardless of the purpose to which it is put, or the value that it generates. This is part of the explanation for the front part of the Gartner peak inflated expectations curve: people are fundamentally mediocre, unimaginative, but very good at glomming onto another idea and riding it on a wave of collective credulity. The dot-com boom, the NFT phenomenon, and the current conviction that blockchain will change the world are examples of this.

See also Fashion as the fastest layer in the pace layering model.

As the culmination of 20th century rationalism

The ultimate expression of modernism. Le Corbusier, Robert Moses, Seeing Like a State and the modernist self-perpetuating autocracies of the international capital markets.

Formal structure is rewarded progressively: it is axiomatic that the further up the formal hierarchy one rises, the more valuable to the organisation you are, and the better remunerated you must be. The irony is that actual revenue generation and customer interaction happens to the bottom of the hierarchy. The interactions necessary to generate product and therefore revenues necessarily cross hierarchical structures. These interactions and relationships are that necessarily informal and are not well monitored or understood by the formal structure. They will typically take place in junior and operational departments. From a formal perspective these personnel are not significant — they are too busy managing client relationships to occupy formal positions in the internal hierarchy — and are therefore usually the first candidates for juniorising and offshoring.

Dust those who seek the substantive business of the organisation are typically underqualified and under-resourced to do it. They will tend to make errors and misapprehend, leading to the imposition of formal controls and structures, requiring more formal oversight and management, and demanding less experience and expertise, therefore further accentuating the drift between formal and informal staff.

The the primacy of the the the top-down modernist creation myth that grows ever stronger as there are more people incentivised to perpetuate it. Inward-looking management becomes ever more gilded, expensive, bureaucratic and inflexible. The occasional failures of its model, largely due to to fringe in experience or or or in flexibility to adjust to dynamic situations, continues to be blamed on on the the operationalised neatware.

In practice one expertise that operational teams must acquire quickly is the imagination and skill to work around centrally imposed policies in order to keep the operation running. The irony being that these informal, ad-hoc adjustments and accommodations are likewise not parent to the formal central infrastructure which carries on in in the conviction that he machine as designed is working optimally.

Information theory separation of information value from meaning.

Dennett’s functionalism defining away the need for subjectivity.

At the heart of all science, including evolution, there is a fundamental elephants and turtles problem: You are forced into an a priori conjuring trick to get them started.

Bitcoin as the point where are form triumphs and substance is completely eradicated.

Cross-cutting political risk towards the subjectivation of everything and the “century of the self”

See also