David Graeber’s “The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy”

When I gave my talk at CAST 2014 in New York, “Standards – promoting quality or restricting competition?” I was concentrating on the economic aspects of standards. They are often valuable, but they can be damaging and restrict competition if they are misused. A few months later I bought “The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy” by David Graeber, Professor of Anthropology at the London School of Economics. I was familiar with Graeber as a challenging and insightful writer. I drew on his work when I wrote “Testing: valuable or bullshit?“. The Utopia of Rules also inspired the blog article I wrote recently, “Frozen in time – grammar and testing standards” in which I discussed the similarity between grammar textbooks and standards, which both codify old usages and practices that no longer match the modern world.

What I hadn’t expected from The Utopia of Rules was how strongly it would support the arguments I made at CAST.

Certification and credentialism

Graeber makes the same argument I deployed against certification. It is being used increasingly to enrich special interests without benefiting society. On page 23 Graeber writes:

Almost every endeavor that used to be considered an art (best learned through doing) now requires formal professional training and a certificate of completion… In some cases, these new training requirements can only be described as outright scams, as when lenders, and those prepared to set up the training programs, jointly lobby the government to insist that, say, all pharmacists be henceforth required to pass some additional qualifying examination, forcing thousands already practicing the profession into night school, which these pharmacists know many will only be able to afford with the help of high-interest student loans. By doing this, lenders are in effect legislating themselves a cut of most pharmacists’ subsequent incomes.

To be clear, my stance on ISTQB training is that it educates testers in a legitimate, though very limited, vision of testing. My objection is to any marketing of the qualification as a certification of testing ability, rather than confirmation that the tester has passed an exam associated with a particular training course. I object even more strongly to any argument that possession of the certificate should be a requirement for employment, or for contracting out testing services. It is reasonable to talk of scams when the ability of good testers to earn a living is damaged.

What is the point of it all?

Graeber has interesting insights into how bureaucrats can be vague about the values of the bureaucracy: why does the organisation exist? Bureaucrats focus on efficient execution of rational processes, but what is the point of it all? Often the means become the ends: efficiency is an end in itself.

I didn’t argue that point at CAST, but I have done so many times in other talks and articles (e.g. “Teddy bear methods“). If people are doing a difficult, stressful job and you give them prescriptive methods, processes or standards then they will focus on ticking their way down the list. The end towards which they are working becomes compliance with the process, rather than helping the organisation reach its goal. They see their job as producing the outputs from the process, rather than the outcomes the stakeholders want. I gave a talk in London in June 2015 to the British Computer Society’s Special Interest Group in Software Testing in which I argued that testing lacks guiding principles (PDF, opens in a new tab) and ISO 29119 in particular does not offer clear guidance about the purpose of testing.

In a related argument Graeber makes a point that will be familiar to those who have criticised the misuse of testing metrics.

…from inside the system, the algorithms and mathematical formulae by which the world comes to be assessed become, ultimately, not just measures of value, but the source of value itself.

Rent extraction

The most controversial part of my CAST talk was my argument that the pressure to adopt testing standards was entirely consistent with rent seeking in economic theory. Rent seeking, or rent extraction, is what people do when they exploit failings in the market, or rig the market for their own benefit by lobbying for regulation that happens to benefit them. Instead of creating wealth, they take it from other people in a way that is legal, but which is detrimental to the economy, and society, as a whole.

This argument riled some people who took it as a personal attack on their integrity. I’m not going to dwell on that point. I meant no personal slur. Rent seeking is just a feature of modern economies. Saying so is merely being realistic. David Graeber argued the point even more strongly.

The process of financialization has meant that an ever-increasing proportion of corporate profits come in the form of rent extraction of one sort or another. Since this is ultimately little more than legalized extortion, it is accompanied by ever-increasing accumulation of rules and regulations… At the same time, some of the profits from rent extraction are recycled to select portions of the professional classes, or to create new cadres of paper-pushing corporate bureaucrats. This helps a phenomenon I have written about elsewhere: the continual growth, in recent decades, of apparently meaningless, make-work, “bullshit jobs” — strategic vision coordinators, human resources consultants, legal analysts, and the like — despite the fact that even those who hold such positions are half the time secretly convinced they contribute nothing to the enterprise.

In 2014 I wrote about “bullshit jobs“, prompted partly by one of Graeber’s articles. It’s an important point. It is vital that testers define their job so that it offers real value, and they are not merely bullshit functionaries of the corporate bureaucracy.

Utopian bureaucracies

I have believed for a long time that adopting highly prescriptive methods or standards for software development and testing places unfair pressure on people, who are set up to fail. Graeber makes exactly the same point.

Bureaucracies public and private appear — for whatever historical reasons — to be organized in such a way as to guarantee that a significant proportion of actors will not be able to perform their tasks as expected. It’s in this sense that I’ve said one can fairly say that bureaucracies are utopian forms of organization. After all, is this not what we always say of utopians: that they have a naïve faith in the perfectibility of human nature and refuse to deal with humans as they actually are? Which is, are we not also told, what leads them to set impossible standards and then blame the individuals for not living up to them? But in fact all bureaucracies do this, insofar as they set demands they insist are reasonable, and then, on discovering that they are not reasonable (since a significant number of people will always be unable to perform as expected), conclude that the problem is not with the demands themselves but with the individual inadequacy of each particular human being who fails to live up to them.

Testing standards such as ISO 29119, and its predecessor IEEE 829, don’t reflect what developers and testers do, or rather should be doing. They are at odds with the way people think and work in organisations. These standards attempt to represent a highly complex, sometimes chaotic, process in a defined, repeatable model. The end product is usually of dubious quality, late and over budget. Any review of the development will find constant deviations from the standard. The suppliers, and defenders, of the standard can then breathe a sigh of relief. The sacred standard was not followed. It was the team’s fault. If only they’d done it by the book! The possibility that the developers’ and testers’ apparent sins were the only reason anything was produced at all is never considered. This is a dreadful way to treat people, but in many organisations it has been normal for several decades.

Loss of communication

All of the previous arguments by Graeber were entirely consistent with my own thoughts about how corporate bureaucracies operate. It was fascinating to see an anthropologist’s perspective, but it didnt teach me anything that was really new about how testers work in corporations. However, later in the book Graeber developed two arguments that gave me new insights.

Understanding what is happening in a complex, social situation needs effective two way communication. This requires effort, “interpretive labor”. The greater the degree of compulsion, and the greater the bureaucratic regime of rules and forms, the less need there is for such two way communication. Those who can simply issue orders that must be obeyed don’t have to take the trouble to understand the complexities of the situation they’re managing.

…within relations of domination, it is generally the subordinates who are effectively relegated the work of understanding how the social relations in question really work. … It’s those who do not have the power to hire and fire who are left with the work of figuring out what actually did go wrong so as to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

This ties in with the previous argument about utopian bureaucracies. If you impose a inappropriate standard then poor results will be attributed to the inevitable failure to comply. There is no need for senior managers to understand more, and no need to listen to the complaints, the “excuses”, of the people who do understand what is happening. Interestingly, Graeber’s argument about interpretive labor is is consistent with regulatory theory. Good regulation of complex situations requires ongoing communication between the regulator and the regulated. I explained this in the talk on testing principles I mentioned above (slides 38 and 39).

Fear of play

My second new insight from Graeber arrived when he discussed the nature of play and how it relates to bureaucracies. Anthropologists try to maintain a distinction between games and play, a distinction that is easier to maintain in English than in languages like French and German, which use the same word for both. A game has boundaries, set rules and a predetermined conclusion. Play is more free-form and creative. Novelties and surprising results emerge from the act of playing. It is a random, unpredictable and potentially destructive activity. Graeber finishes his discussion of play and games with the striking observation.

What ultimately lies behind the appeal of bureaucracy is fear of play.

Put simply, and rather simplistically, Graeber means that we use bureaucracy to escape the terror of chaotic reality, to bring a semblance (an illusion?) of control to the uncontrollable.

This gave me an tantalising new insight into the reasons people build bureaucratic regimes in organisations. It sent me off into a whole new field of reading on the anthropology of games and play. This has fascinating implications for the debate about standards and testing. We shy away from play, but it is through play that we learn. I don’t have time now to do the topic justice, and it’s much too big and important a subject to be tacked on to the end of this article, but I will return to it. It is yet another example of the way anthropology can help us understand what we are doing as testers. As a starting point I can heartily recommend David Graeber’s book, “The Utopia of Rules”.