A General Theory of Bigness and Badness

So, a glib take you’ve probably heard is that the problem with Big Government, Big Business, Big Etc. is not the government or the business or the etc. but the “Big”. This is extremely superficial and is essentially elevating a trivial idiosyncrasy of the English language to an important structural principle of the universe, which makes about as much sense as nominative determinism. I think it’s true anyway. Here is my theory of why:

Large groups of people are increasingly hard to coordinate. Getting a group of one person to be value-aligned with itself is literally trivial, 4 people is easy, 12 people is doable for fairly complex values, 50 gets difficult, etc. For a very large organization getting the whole org focused on a complex, nuanced goal is basically impossible.

So the larger an organization gets, the more its de facto goals become simplified, even if it keeps paying lip service to nuanced goals. Theoretically it should be possible to keep nuanced goals at a large scale, but it would take more and more effort per person as you get bigger, and I suspect it would reach “you must spend 110% of your time working on tasks to keep yourself value-aligned”, i.e. impossible-in-practice, somewhere in the 150-1000 employees range.

So that’s part one of the theory: goals get simplified and nuance disappears as the organizations get bigger. By itself this is sufficient to strongly suggest that big organizations are bad in and of themselves. But there are some corollaries which make the case stronger.

Corollary the first: Flatness of hierarchy does matter. The deeper the hierarchy, the more large sub-organizations exist within the large parent organization. The same forces that push the parent org to have a simple goal push each sub-org to have a simple goal. This can explain the rampant bureaucratic infighting in large hierarchical organizations; each sub-org is following its default goal and those come into conflict. This is approximately the Hanlon’s Razor (“Never ascribe to malice that which is adequately explained by incompetence”) analog of  The Gervais Principle.

Corollary the second: “Big” may not imply “evil” but it does forbid “good”. Only simple goals are sustainable for large orgs. But not all simple goals are equally “reproductively fit”. For for-profit companies the most reproductively fit goal is “make a profit”. For political parties it’s “get (re)elected”. For bureaucracies it’s “maintain/expand our budget”. For charities…probably it’s “keep our incoming donations high”, but I’m not confident in that. The bigger the organization, the harder it is for well-intentioned members, even well-intentioned leaders (CEO Larry Page and and President Sergey Brin, President Barack Obama, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell, …) to keep the organization out of the “low-energy well” that is the default self-perpetuation goal. Organizations which are kept on task for an unselfish core goal will do poorly relative to their peers and tend to die out.

In summary: No manager could possibly keep a large organization on target for a complex goal, and attempting to keep a large org on target for a simple but unselfish goal will rapidly kill the organization. This applies fractally to sub-organizations and super-organizations.

Does this teach us lessons about what to do? Well, it cautions us against trusting that large organizations consisting of benevolent people will act benevolently. It makes me somewhat more skeptical of OpenAI. But nothing specific, no.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s