Towards Management Metamodernism
Defining the fundamental challenge of lorecraft
Part 7/7of the On Lore series.
We’re finally ready to wrap up this completely unplanned
yakshave essay series on lore and lorecraft.
In the last 6 parts, we’ve explored a variety of aspects of this emerging, extremely young, extremely online, and extremely millennial school of management. You can review the series index page to get the overview. I’ve also just put together this draft deck covering the major points and highlight bits (I’m planning to do some heavy editing, but it’s in good enough shape to browse).
I’ve also decided to un-paywall the entire series, so feel free to share at will.
In this concluding part, I have just a few final closing thoughts beyond what we’ve already covered.
Over the past 7 weeks, I’ve completed a messy exploration of lore and lorecraft, taking ideas from emerging thinkers as my provocations, and digging into the baggage of my own past to come up with something useful to add to the conversation.
It’s a curious feeling — for the first time in my life, I’m responding to ideas that are largely from people much younger than me, rather than much older or dead.
Predictably, many older readers are reacting with comments like “this is just X; you invented X” imagining they already understand what’s brewing via some familiar, comfortable frame, when they don’t really.
Admittedly, as a middle-aged Gen-Xer, my perspective on this stuff is necessarily thoroughly compromised by precisely the incumbent ideas that lorecraft seeks to disrupt. But hopefully, I’ve been alive enough to that to be able to transcend my baggage to some degree.
Lorecraft hopes to disrupt incumbent management science using as its vehicle the organizational potential of a bunch of new technological modes. Modes that, prima facie, do not appear to suck quite as much as those have shaped our default expectations of organizational life.
Simple example: Working from home in a primarily online organization eliminates, for instance, the biggest source of suckage in work-life: the commute. If the only thing lorecraft achieves is stabilize work-from-home as a viable pattern, it will be worth it.
Thanks to a century and half of evolution that has resulted in a world where industrial modes of organization are the only ones around, it is hard to even entertain the possibility that radically different modes might be possible. Industrial modes are like water to us, to use David Foster Wallace’s term from his famous commencement-speech-turned-essay.
Lorecraft is about trying to see the water, and imagine something different.
Management Science as Television
Another DFW essay, E. Unibas Pluram, offers us a useful lens for understanding what’s going on here: Lorecraft is — or aspires to be — Management Metamodernism, the organizational analogue of the literary movement his essay helped provoke into existence.
In his prescient essay (written in 1993), Wallace argued for the need to find a literary mode that breaks free of cynicism and irony without either degenerating into naiveté or surrendering to simple reactionary tendencies.
His argument was based on an account of late-stage television as a force that had thoroughly pwned literature by both shaping the mass of society that way literature once did, and internalizing an ironic response to itself, putting it beyond the reach of ironic subversion by other cultural forces.
Roughly speaking, Wallace’s dense, hard-to-summarize argument goes as follows:
First there was literature
Then there was unironic television
Then there was literature trying to subvert television with irony
Then there was ironic television that pwned literature
Then television ate the world
And this is a bad thing and something ought to be done about it
I haven’t really done justice to the argument, so you should really read Wallace’s essay if you want to understand it, but this quick gloss is enough for the analogy I want to set up: post-WW2 management science is a kind of TV.
Wallace’s argument proved to be enormously influential, and many of the observations in the essay seem like eerie anticipations of where social media has brought us today, fifteen years after Wallace’s death.
The literary responses to the problem posed by Wallace (which are not, in my opinion, particularly successful) are variously referred to as post-postmodernism or metamodernism, and exploring them is beyond the scope of this little essay (and my own limited familiarity with/interest in the literary world).
But the point I want to make is that there is a near exact parallel to this story can be found in the evolution of management science.
Like early (1950s) television, early Druckerian management science is unironic and sincere, and uncritically presents the post World War 2 organization and its behaviors as Good. This was the world of the Organization Man.
And just as television did, modern management science co-opted and absorbed critical and subversive responses that began appearing in its early decades. These responses ranged from revolutionary political responses to satirical business cartoons. And of course, television shows about working life that appeared almost immediately.
By the early 90s, we were all consuming management science the same way we consumed television — with an air of ironic superiority, armed with Dilbert jokes. By the early aughts, all college-educated white-collar workers inhabited a highly literate and sophisticated postmodern culture of ironic management knowledge. You learned the ways of the workplace not through books about management or MBA programs, but through participation in the culture of making fun of those books and programs, and rolling your eyes at them.
That’s not the interesting thing. The interesting thing is this:
The books were written, and the programs designed, with an awareness of this, and actively aimed to feed the ironic consumption, just like TV.
The result was management science fueling a strange little cottage industry that completely captured managerial attention, very like television. What Walter Kiechel called a “literary-industrial complex.” Busy managers and executives consumed vast quantities of airport business books and summaries and critical reviews of those books. Today the complex has expanded to podcasts (2x speed), pious twitter threads by entrepreneurs and executives, and a growing quantity of programming right here on Substack.
By the late aughts, when I wrote the Gervais Principle, my own little career-defining indie contribution tot his cottage industry (appropriately enough based on a television show about a fictional business; DFW would have approved), irony was the default consumption posture within management and leadership ranks.
You consumed management ideas from the literary-industrial complex the same way you consumed television — in a mode of knowing, literate ironic sophistication. And the more those ideas flattered the consumption conceits, the better it did.
You could argue that organizations in this postmodern era, which we’re still in, work by the following rules:
A leader “interprets external reality for the organization” (A. G. Lafley) by making kool-aid. A pure leader cannot afford to drink their own kool-aid
A manager manages the psyches of rank-and-file to extract work in harmony with the leader’s view of reality. A pure manager cannot afford not to drink the kool-aid
Rank and file have no particular organization-cultural imperative to drink or not drink the kool-aid, so long as they at least pretend to be have drunk it. A range of postures ranging from clueless sincerity to bleak cynicism can work.
This roughly maps to the three organizational archetypes I talked about in the Gervais Principle: sociopaths, clueless, and losers.
Notably, “interpret external reality” in the A. G. Lafley sense does not mean directly observing it. It means consuming the output of the literary-industrial complex!
Just as Wallace noted, in 1993, that literary writing was increasingly substituting TV-watching for observation of life (which, as he pointed out, was understandable, since life itself was about sitting on a couch watching television), by 2007 or so, on the threshold of the global financial crisis, “external reality” to leaders meant the output of the literary-industrial complex.
External reality was full of “disruption” not because you’d observed it yourself, but because you’d read Clayton Christensen’s book about it (or more likely, various rehashings and thousands of references to “disruption” in business writing), and made jokes about how it was the flavor of the month.
Disruption as an idea was important regardless of its truth simply because everyone knew everyone was talking and thinking about it, like a popular TV show.
But somehow, actual management yoked to a terminally solipsistic literary-industrial-complex culture kinda worked. Just as somehow, a literary culture yoked to a terminally solipsistic television culture kinda worked. At least for a while.
Kool-Aid vs. Lore
So management science today is about leaders producing a view of “external reality” from the raw material of a kind of “management television” — the output of the literary industrial complex — to create reality distortion fields within which everybody else must function.
This is kool-aid, the top-down evil twin of lore.
Of course, in practice, there are no pure leaders brewing kool-aid or pure managers uncritically consuming it. Good leaders and managers try to function as complex superpositions of pure leaders and pure managers, simultaneously drinking and not drinking their own kool-aid.
If they succeed, it doesn’t matter what the rank-and-file distribution is like, on the spectrum from clueless sincerity to bleak cynicism. This weird culture of management shaped by television-like external realities “works” regardless.
Except of course, when it doesn’t.
And one of the contexts where it doesn’t is when you try to work with organizations that differ so significantly from the traditional industrial type that basic ontologies unravel.
The online, decentralized organization, of which the DAO is a prototype, is precisely such a context — one that is consuming increasing quantities of organizational energy.
Here is a table of the differences:
When you don’t have traditional leaders and managers in a complex superposition of drinking/not-drinking the kool-aid, either everybody enters such a complex superposition, or nothing works at all!
This is in fact precisely what lorecraft should aim for.
Lorecrafting is the art of putting everybody in this state of complex superposition together.
This means that it is a kind of management culture that corresponds to the kind of literary culture David Foster Wallace argued was necessary in E Unibas Pluram — what has since come to be known (to the extent it exists at all) as metamodern or post-postmodern.
The difficulties literary, television, and social media cultures have faced in breaking free of a postmodern mode and arriving at a functional metamodern or post-postmodern mode suggests that lorecrafting is going to struggle just as much in arriving at a metamodern management science.
Can this be done?
I guess we’re about to fuck around and find out.