Progress, productivity, quality, independence, value, … Compliance kills almost everything I prize about work as a scientist. Compliance is basically enslavement to mediocrity and subservience to authority unworthy of being followed.
In the republic of mediocrity, genius is dangerous.
― Robert G. Ingersoll
Earlier this week I had an interesting exchange on Twitter with my friend Karen and a current co-worker Si. It centered around the fond memories that Karen and I have about working at Los Alamos. The gist of the conversation was that the Los Alamos we worked at was wonderful, even awesome. To me the experience at Los Alamos from 1989-1999 was priceless and the result of an impressively generous and technically masterful organization. I noted that it isn’t the way it was and that fact is absolutely tragic. Si countered that it’s still full of good people that are great to interact with. All of this can be true and not the slightest bit contradictory. Si tends to be positive all the time, which can be a wonderful characteristic, but I know what Los Alamos used to mean, and it causes me a great deal of personal pain to see the magnitude of the decline and damage we have done to it. The changes at Los Alamos have been done in the name of compliance, to bring an unruly institution to heel and conform to imposed mediocrity.
How the hell did we come to this point?
In relative terms, Los Alamos is still a good place largely because of the echos of the same culture that Karen and I so greatly benefited from. Organizational culture is a deep well to draw from. It shapes so much of what we see from different institutions. At Los Alamos it has formed the underlying resistance to the imposition of the modern compliance culture. On the other hand, my current institution is tailor made to complete compliance, even subservience to the demands of our masters. When those masters have no interest in progress, quality, or productivity, the result in unremitting mediocrity. This is the core of the discussion, our master’s prime directive is compliance, which bluntly and specifically means “don’t ever fuck up!” In this context Los Alamos is the king of the fuck-ups, and others simply keep places nose clean thus succeeding in the eyes of the masters..
The second half of the argument comes down to recognizing that accomplishment and productivity is never a priority in the modern world. This is especially true once the institutions realized that they could bullshit their way through accomplishment without risking the core value of compliance. Thus doing anything real and difficult is detrimental because you can more easily BS your way to excellence and not run the risk of violating the demands of compliance. In large part compliance assures the most precious commodity in the modern research institution, funding. Lack of compliance is punished by lack of funding. Our chains are created out of money.
In the end they will lay their freedom at our feet and say to us, Make us your slaves, but feed us.
― Fyodor Dostoyevsky
A large part of the compliance is lack of resistance to intellectually poor programs. There was once a time when the Labs helped craft the programs that fund them. With each passing year this dynamic breaks down, and the intellectual core of crafting well-defined programs to accomplish important National goals wanes. Why engage in the hard work of providing feedback when it threatens the flow of money? Increasingly the only sign of success is the aggregate dollar figure flowing into a given institution or organization. Any actual quality or accomplishment is merely coincidental. Why focus on excellence or quality when it is so much easier to simply generate a press release that looks good.
We make our discoveries through our mistakes: we watch one another’s success: and where there is freedom to experiment there is hope to improve.
― Arthur Quiller-Couch
This entire compliance dynamic is at the core of so many aspects dragging us into the mire of mediocrity. Instead of working to produce a dynamic focused on excellence, progress and impact, we simply focus on following rules and bullshitting something that resembles an expected product. Managing a top rate scientific or engineering institution is difficult and requires tremendous focus on the things that matter. Every bit of our current focus is driving us away from the elements of success. Our masters are incapable
of supporting hard-nosed, critical peer reviews, allowing failure to positively arise from earnest efforts, empowering people to think independently, and rewarding efforts essential for progress. At the heart of everything is an environment that revolves around
fear, and control. We have this faulty belief that we can manage everything to avoid any bad things ever happening. In the end the only way to do this is stop all progress and make sure no one ever accomplishes anything substantial.
So in the end make sure you get those TPS reports in on time. That’s all that really matters.
Disobedience is the true foundation of liberty. The obedient must be slaves.
― Henry David Thoreau