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Who elected these guys anyway?
Have you ever had an idiot manager?
Someone you have to listen to and take direction from, but you find it impossible to comprehend how they got promoted into a position of leadership.
Maybe they're best buddies with someone more senior. Maybe they stuck around long enough and kept asking. Maybe the person above them is equally incompetent and didn't want to be threatened by someone smarter than them. Either way, you're stuck taking orders from Michael Scott, and you're not particularly thrilled about it.
Authority is an extremely useful tool for the survival of the human superorganism. If we had to struggle alone in the wilderness for our whole lives, we wouldn't have gotten particularly far. Authority, and trust in authority, allows us to safely abdicate some of our decision-making to someone who we believe will do a better, or at least sufficiently good, job of handling that part of our lives for us. And someone who can hopefully lead enough of us in some area to accomplish something that could not be done individually.
Because authority and trust in authority are such essential tools for our survival, our instinctual disrespect towards authority we perceive as illegitimate is also an essential tool. We wouldn't make it particularly far if any idiot could stand up around the campfire and say "I'm in charge of hunting now," and we just blindly followed them as they tried to catch mice instead of hares. We need that instinct to lean over to our neighbor and whisper "did that guy say mice?" so we can assess who we should listen to and make changes as necessary.
We're each involved in a multitude of power structures, some legitimate, others illegitimate, and we're constantly testing the legitimacy of those structures with our peers. When we start to suspect some authority is illegitimate, we'll begin testing it more aggressively and assess the other options at our disposal. Sometimes we can replace them, sometimes we can only resist or ignore them, but an authority believed to be illegitimate can only last so long.
How do you tell when you have an idiot manager?
Some of the evidence is direct. They send you an Excel sheet and their formulas are all broken. They say they want you to "help" finish something, but it's obvious they have no idea how to do it themselves. They can't answer basic questions you have about why you're supposed to do something a certain way.
Other evidence is indirect. They can't calculate the 20% tip on a receipt at lunch. Their emails are full of grammatical errors. They constantly show up late or spend a suspicious amount of time "working from home." They mention something about the ice wall around the edge of the world. None of these things directly disqualify them as a manager but they do make you a little suspicious.
Indirect and direct evidence both require contact. You need to experience their actions in some capacity and have the ability to compare their actions with your intuition of what a proper authority should do. Our instinct to question illegitimate authority can't get triggered without evidence. It's why you're more likely to doubt the capabilities of the person you work for than the person two more rungs up the ladder. You can't get as direct of contact with that higher up person, so you have less evidence to question their authority on.
As you get more evidence, the frustration naturally builds. Eventually it must turn into some form of response. You can take the more passive route of laughing about them with your equally tuned in coworkers. Or you can take the more active route of quitting or trying to get them fired. Either way, it's impossible to suffer an authority you perceive as incompetent or illegitimate. It's just not in our nature.
Well, unless you're the type to just smile and assume that since they're your boss they know best and you should listen to them. The Clueless, as Venkatesh Rao calls them. You wanna be a good employee, right Dwight?
Last week I talked about the problems with a religious faith in Science. As we've gained greater legibility of the scientific process and the various motives, actors, and interpreters involved, we've had to develop new tools for filtering the scientific knowledge sent down to us.
One of those tools is recognizing that the trusted institutions of old might not be as trustworthy as we'd like. The USDA has certainly gotten things right, but they've also gotten many things wrong. Being a government organization is not sufficient for them to be a trusted authority. They must be evaluated based on the track record of their recommendations.
For most of history it's been exceptionally hard to evaluate the competency of anyone you don't have direct experience with. When the Food Pyramid came out in the 90's, what tools did we have to question it? Was there any way for normal citizens at home to get access to research papers to fact check recommendations?
Thanks to the Internet that's all changed. We can easily dig into the legitimacy of any authority trying to direct our actions, and attempt to suss out whether we should listen to them or take extra long lunch breaks.
It's never been easier to try to figure out who's legit and who's full of shit, which is creating serious problems for people who need a heroic dose of ex-lax.
How does one earn a position of authority?
At the highest level it breaks down into two categories: internal selection and external selection. Internal selection is when those who are being impacted by the person in charge select that person to lead them. External is when the person in charge is selected by someone who's not affected by their leadership.
Democracy is a form of internal selection, monarchy or autocracy external. A flat organization with fluid team composition like Valve is internal. A typical corporate hierarchy is external.
Neither model automatically conveys legitimacy. You could democratically elect a leader for your group and then realize you made a terrible mistake. Corporate could appoint a new boss for your team and they could turn out to be amazing. The source of authority does not determine legitimacy. But the source of authority is extremely important once legitimacy or illegitimacy has been established.
What makes the idiot manager so frustrating is how little you can do about them. You didn't choose them, they were chosen for you. And now your only options are to abandon ship or risk getting fired for insubordination by going behind their backs to remove them. Your options suck. At least for a more democratically selected authority, you could vote to remove them or wait for their term to expire. But with the idiot manager it's easy to slip into just goofing off in slack all day and waiting for your next paycheck to hit. You are, in a way, trapped.
Illegitimate or incompetent authority thrives when its subjects are trapped. What motive is there to be a more competent leader when your followers have no power over your status, and when there are no consequences for your actions? When you have no skin in the game, no consequences for your failures, there's no reason anyone should expect you to improve.
If some sort of resistance is organized against a despot, they won't try to improve or understand the concerns of their subjects. They'll react with force, attacking the challengers by killing them, firing them, or digging up whatever embarrassing stuff they tweeted 10 years ago. Force is the preferred tool for an illegitimate authority to maintain their status. They know they'll lose if they rely on a more democratic affirmation of their power, so they need to try to convince their subjects that resistance is hopeless.
It's impossible to ignore the growing distrust in legacy media institutions. There used to be the concept of being an "informed citizen" and the way to be informed was to follow the news. But as we gained greater legibility into the underlying facts of what was being reported on, we started to realize that we weren't so well informed after all.
The Gell-Mann Amnesia Effect was coined in 2002 by Michael Crichton:
Briefly stated, the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect is as follows. You open the newspaper to an article on some subject you know well… You read the article and see the journalist has absolutely no understanding of either the facts or the issues… You read with exasperation or amusement the multiple errors in a story, and then turn the page to national or international affairs, and read as if the rest of the newspaper was somehow more accurate about Palestine than the baloney you just read. You turn the page, and forget what you know… In ordinary life, if somebody consistently exaggerates or lies to you, you soon discount everything they say… But when it comes to the media, we believe against evidence that it is probably worth our time to read other parts of the paper… The only possible explanation for our behavior is amnesia."
But something seems to have shifted. We no longer have amnesia about the failures of these incompetent managers. Our ability to sniff out illegitimate authority has improved, and we have more options for responding to them. Or discarding them entirely.
I can never resist a good food pyramid reference like the one a few sections ago. It's the perfect encapsulation of government incompetence at giving useful advice, and the extent to which lobbying and corporate interests have influenced policy. The new healthy eating pyramid isn't much better, either. Apparently daily exercise will somehow fix a bad diet, and the foundation of a good diet includes bread, sunflower oil, and apples:
But lucky for you, you don't have to work for this idiot manager anymore. You have other authorities you can follow to hopefully lead you in a better direction.
One person I've always respected in the health and nutrition space is Dr. Rhonda Patrick. She has a Ph.D in biomedical science, and she's been sharing her ongoing research into health freely for years on her blog, YouTube channel, and podcast.
While she has a Ph.D, I don't think that's what makes her a good authority. What qualifies her is her endless search for better information, humility about her beliefs, and willingness to be wrong or adjust her previous statements. She is the consummate health authority. And her authority is entirely democratic. The USDA, Harvard Medical Center, or NYT Health Section didn't put out a statement saying "you should listen to Dr. Patrick for health advice." She just started sharing health information and people followed. Through a hive minded aggregation of influence she became an authority purely through our collective interest and trust in her.
Consider for a moment how odd that is. Authority in the health domain has always been a multi-step process of appeasing some higher power to bestow authority upon you. You rise through the ranks of an institution like Harvard or the FDA, and then once you reach a certain level of seniority you receive authority as a perk of the job. It doesn't matter if the people receiving your advice like you or if your advice is even good. As long as you keep pleasing the monarch, you get to keep your baronship.
Now imagine someone who didn't do any of that started challenging your authority. Someone who may have some of the requisite credentials, but never jumped through the hoops you did. Someone who seems to get to investigate any topics they want, not the topics they're told to. Someone who seems to be free of all the baggage you had to put up with to earn your status, and worse, who seems to be getting treated as more authoritative than you. You'd be pissed! She's writing on a WordPress blog for god's sake, you're published in the HARVARD MEDICAL JOURNAL. She's obviously some sort of snake oil salesman because the real researchers go through the same process you did to earn their influence. Right?
The legacy gatekeepers of health information will naturally feel scared of people like Dr. Patrick because she challenges their authority. She's a shining example of the fact that you don't need to rise through the ranks of the old guard to make an impact on people's health decisions. Authority can be earned now. It doesn't need to be bestowed. And if you have to compete with someone who people like and who knows what she's talking about... that's a lot harder than kissing the ass of your boss.
This is certainly why we're seeing many of the best reporters leave publications like the NYT and WaPo to start their own Substacks. If you're a good reporter, you can stand on your own reputation. You don't need to be given authority, you can earn it. And that's why it's completely natural for these legacy institutions to seem to want to destroy Substack and preserve Twitter's content moderation. They know they're going to be out of a job eventually because they can't be democratically chosen for positions of authority. They need the monarch.
But humans naturally prefer democracy. If one guy in the neighborhood declared he was king of the HOA and everyone had to listen to him, you'd all laugh and ignore them. We only accept monarchs and autocrats when it's impossible or extremely inconvenient to remove them. When we can democratically elect someone into a position of authority, that's what we'll trend towards.
The battle for information and authority can be clearly divided between the monarchs and democrats. Anyone who thinks authority should be bestowed is a monarch. Anyone who thinks authority should be earned is a democrat. We could also call them authoritarians and populists, too, but those words tend to be a bit loaded.
The older more monarchy-style media writers lashes out against people like Joe Rogan because he did something they couldn't. He was democratically elected into a position of massive authority, without relying on any credentials or gift from on high. No journalism degree, no years of being a junior writer trying to get his big break, he just got high and hung out with people he thought were cool for over a decade and people started listening. He doesn't even have any marketing as far as I know. And while the NYT makes you call in to cancel your subscription (or at least did for a while), Rogan makes no attempt to force you to stay in his fiefdom. He doesn't even seem to care very much.
Rogan certainly has his own problems but he's at least honest about them. He apologizes for getting things wrong, often insists that he's an idiot who doesn't know anything, and makes it very clear that he's an entertainer, not a newsperson. But maybe that's part of why he's trusted. He's not trying to talk down to you as some anointed scribe of the First Draft of History. He's just a dude with a podcast.
I think the popularity of Rogan hints at a direction we're moving in with authority in general. We know no one is perfect. We know everyone has said things they regret, and everyone gets things wrong. We don't expect perfection, we expect honesty. And we trust people we elected into positions of authority more than those who feel entitled to it.
I suspect in the late 1700s there were plenty of nay-sayers who thought the masses were too stupid to elect their own leaders. They needed to be RULED, dammit. You're going to let them elect anyone? But despite its flaws, America still turned out pretty great, and the way to make it better is to lean harder into the power of democracy. Not retreat away from it.
We'll need to figure out new rules for engagement. If we can't rely on "USDA Health Advisor" as a guarantee of legitimacy, what can we rely on? If the old systems have failed to allocate authority effectively, what new tools can we come up with to sift true misinformation from information the monarchy doesn't like? The solution isn't to give up and say we can't be trusted with unfettered access to information. It's to figure out how to help people make better sense of all that information themselves.
On an individual level, we need to decide whose authority to respect and whose to discount. Are they making an honest effort to figure things out along with us, correcting their mistakes and building trust from the ground up? Or are they acting like some insolent parent, insisting we follow "because they said so."
We're on the frontier of figuring out trust and authority in the information age. I hope you packed your wagon.
Thanks GQ for the screenshot from The Office.