No to quotas

08092008202There have been a couple of times in the last week or so when quotas have been suggested for solving a problem of “fairness”. They were brought up at the Tuttle discussion about Amplified08 in the context of deciding which networks should be represented at this network of networks forum and again during the panel I contributed to at Web2.0 on gender issues – suggesting that perhaps there should be quotas of, for example, women represented on the boards of companies.

I think that both are wrong, and I said so at the time, but didn’t have a chance to explain properly why I think that quotas are inappropriate.

Don’t tell me what to do.
I see quotas in contexts like these as the imposition of the will of one (usually very small) part of the community on another part. This attempts to make things fair by being unfair – in the 80s we called it “positive discrimination” it wasn’t very positive but it was definitely still discrimination. The situations for which it is being suggested, involve a desired or desirable state which for some reason seems unlikely to come about either organically or else quickly enough. The introduction of a quota says we cannot trust people to do the right thing (ie what we want them to do), so we will force them to. Yeuck! Isn’t this the same patronising paternalism we’re trying to be rid of? In my experience, introducing this kind of bias leads on the one hand to a feeling of disempowerment in those who are supposed to be given an advantage, a fear that the benefit given so arbitrarily could just as easily be taken away and on the other hand to resentment among those who were formerly in a majority, leading to a more entrenched determination that no further ground be given. Much better, in my view, to extract myself from what other people should do and simply for me to be vocal in my rejection of discrimination in any form and to demonstrate that in all my actions.

Quotas work in a hierarchy.
Quota-thinking is hierarchy thinking. Aren’t we moving to a world where the dominant form of organisation is a flatter network? My presentation at Web2.0 tried to show that in a networked world, of itself, the network is gender-agnostic although in practice a networked system tends to favour women who play to their strengths of building rich relationships. How do you impose a quota in a network? Especially one that is almost completely free to join? I can see that in a hierarchical model, there are gatekeepers to the centres of power and authority and that if these are biased that leads to a bias throughout the system. So have a quota for unbiased gatekeepers and you ‘solve’ the problem (unintended consequences aside). But as hyperlinks continue to subvert hierarchy, as we come to see that the shadow-side network is as important as any bureacracy and that unintended consequence can not be brushed aside, why cling on to tools that no longer work?

In the case of the “network of networks” the suggestion that we should ensure that each network is adequately represented at the table displays a complete misunderstanding of the nature of these networks. They have no clear boundaries, very low barriers to membership and very flat structures (if they have any at all) Most of all, they are not mutually exclusive. How do you decide who’s representing what and how? Let’s take the Tuttle Club as an example (just because I know it well) Say we had 30 places at Amplified08. How would we decide who’s going or not? Well, perhaps we’d have to say, those people who aren’t members of other networks need to be prioritised because they have no other chances to get in. But are these really the people we want to be representing us? The one’s who are otherwise unconnected? So let’s go for those who have the most memberships. Ooops – memberships? What does that mean? Or how about the 30 who’ve attended the most number of friday morning meetups. Gosh darnit Lloyd, what do you mean, you don’t keep neat and orderly records of who’s attended?!? And do all of these groups have common ideas of what it means to be a member? Attendance at one meeting, 20% of meetings, contribution to online activity gaaah it’s so silly! Why get into this ridiculous conversation? There’s a solution that already works for each of the networks individually – first come, first served – I don’t get why this can’t work for the bigger group too.

Clearly I’m a muddle-headed white, straight, middle-class, university-educated man who’s never had to deal with discrimination in any form and therefore doesn’t understand this stuff. What a good job I’ve got a blog and don’t have to depend on anyone else to decide whether my thoughts are worth publishing.

8 thoughts on “No to quotas”

  1. I’m thinking it would be nice to have a place to go, like a kind of social cafe or something. People could just get on with doing social media kind of stuff, without have to worry about these power networker types butting in and trying to join everything together. This new structure will serve to do nothing more than recreate the old ways, with a real danger of collapsing several small and just about sustainable groups into one even smaller and precarious umbrella group that represents nobody but themselves.

  2. Excuse this pointless comment – am supposed to be writing some copy and it’s doing my head in, so I thought it better to browse…

    My ill-considered thoughts:

    I agree entirely! Most quota systems exacerbate the discrimination problem they are trying to solve, and in increasingly non-hierarchical contexts they become impossible to implement anyway – so give up now, you fools!

    BUT… as you say, the two examples given are ones where the objective of the quota system is to share out a finite resource fairly.

    HOWEVER… what about fish? Here, quotas have been introduced primarily to preserve the existence of the resource itself (and an unfortunate bi-product is that they then have to share fairly).

    SO… I reckon in these scenarios, there is little option but to put quotas (or perhaps I should say “caps”?) in place. Precisely because the “first come first served” effect will wipe out the resource, for ever. Of course, as you say, this can only be done in a hierarchy. Will the crowd self-impose limits like this in time? Probably not – in these situations, no matter how vociferous the people who “get it” are, it only takes a few dudes with trawlers to bugger it up for everyone. Maybe I should have more faith… (and perhaps you could argue that the only reason the hierarchy have done anything is because lots of people shouted… hmmm.).

    Ho-hum, back to work…

  3. Quotas that ‘force’ people to act in a certain way – failing to trust people – do seem to be out of kilter with emergent networks ways of organising. But is there a quota alternative for the ‘trust people’ way of working which recognizes our conversations and activities can be richer when we have a wider range of perspectives, backgrounds and contexts represented?

    Sometimes simply trusting the emergent behavior of individuals signing up to an eventbrite list, or registering for an event where places are scarce and where the event announcement quickly spreads through the twittosphere doesn’t produce the best outcomes. For example: people may feel compelled to sign up quickly for fear they won’t get a space at the event – and if the networks through which news of an event is circulated are not inclusive, the event will potentially end up biased towards a particular set of voices and ideas represented.

    That is not to say the standard sign up for this, trust people to choose whether they want to come or not as individuals, is wrong. But though it is the ‘default’ for emergent organising – and it’s original set-up (sign up for yourself) doesn’t appear to have any bias designed in – the way it can play out is not morally neutral.

    Before this comment turns into a philosophical exploration of the intrinsic and extrinsic factors that determine the morality of a set of processes, I’ll just try sketching some very loose possibilities for redesigning the emergent sign up process to avoid quotas but to try to promote emergent inclusiveness:

    ***1) The critical question***
    When I come to sign up to an event I have to also answer a question such as ‘What will you be able to contribute to the event?’ (perhaps with some brief preamble telling me what the event is seeking to do).

    My answer to the question will not affect whether or not I am allowed to the event. Everyone who registers can come. But the question may encourage me to be critical about what I bring to /this/ event – making me consider whether or not I should attend.

    ***2) Visualisation***
    When I come to choose to sign up to an event I may see a visual representation of the other people who have signed up to the event (imagine a political compass style diagram). I can identify the clusters of people who have already registered and think carefully about whether I want to register or not.

    The choice of scales for the visualisation (political, sector of work, network membership etc.) could be varied to encourage critical self-choosing on different dimensions.

    ***3)Encouraging Invitations***
    After I’ve registered for an event, tell me who else has registered and ask me to send an invite to someone who is missing from the list…

    Tell me what the event is trying to achieve so that I am encouraged to invite people from different backgrounds / contexts / sectors etc.

    ***4)Seeding the invitation***
    Consciously make sure the invites first go out to under-represented groups – or simply to groups with less developed networks where the message may travel slower.

    (In the case of the network of networks this may be important… if one of the networks is far better connected on Twitter then members of that network are likely to sign up quicker.)

    ***5)Daily quotas***
    Announce that registration will be opening at specific time, or that 10 places will be unlocked to register every day over the course of a couple of weeks.

    That way people with ‘faster networks’ are not advantaged, and those for whom a particular day for registration to open, or a particular time of day for registration to open would be convenient/inconvenient are not advantaged or disadvantaged.

    There are flaws with all those methods – but all are still in essence ‘first come, first served’ and work by trusting people to make their own decisions. Yet my sense is that each method would (to a greater or lesser extent) lead to a different combination of people attending an event.

  4. Thanks guys,

    Andy and Rob, you remind me that this is another playing out of the tragedy of the commons. I was inspired by what you wrote to read Hardin’s original essay again, and I recommend it highly.

    Tim, thanks for your thoughtful comments. My issue is though that I don’t perceive the need that these measures seem to be designed to redress. Why do we need a “different combination of people”?

  5. My impression, from what you’ve said is that ‘in person’ Networks don’t scale very well.

    Do things become less relevant the more people that are involved? Where did I read about the nominal 150 person barrier….blast, can’t remember.

  6. Thought provoking stuff as usual Lloyd 🙂

    In regards to Amplified I think the only reason we stumbled across the quota question at all was because we hadn’t tried to arrange something on this scale before and were treading perhaps too cautiously.

    Since that meeting and with a series of follow up events planned throughout 2009 across the country we’ve set up a blog, a wiki, a Facebook event, and an upcoming page. We’ll set up the eventbrite tickets asap, but at least now anyone can jump in and declare their interest, regardless of quotas. We’ll just make sure that as many people as possible know exactly when the tickets are available.

    Anyone who misses out on Amplified 08 will have a chance to come to Amplified 09 in February which will be twice as large. We’re learning as we do this so undoubtedly we’ll make mistakes. And as ever we’re happy to learn from them 🙂

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