“Reimagining Human Relations in Our Time”: A Report from the Tavistock Institute’s 70th Anniversary Festival

I. Looking Back

I went to the Festival celebrating the 70th Anniversary of the Tavistock Institute for Human Relations (T.I.H.R., aka Tavi) to learn about the past, and came back with a new understanding of the future. The Festival consisted of four days of speeches, panels, theatre and exhibits. We had gathered from all around the world to fete the central institution of our tradition–our origin, the mothership. The richness of it all exceeded my wildest expectations. The people, artifacts, research, and experiences fleshed out a history I only vaguely knew, but what affected me most deeply were the stories I heard: I heard first hand about the rich tradition of embedding action researchers in mines, on ships and in factories, and I heard first-hand accounts of the impact that socio-technical analysis had on promoting industrial democracy and autonomous work groups and generally working towards a society that gave voice to our shared human experience.

In the archives of the Tavi, we see the birth of a way of acting and reflecting in the turbulent workplace of the mid-20th century. The artifacts document how a small cadre of Tavi researchers displayed endless energy and curiosity, and changed the way we understand organizational life. Experimentation and exploration were everywhere, and the results turned traditional hierarchies on their heads. Psychoanalysts learned from factory workers’ wives. Supervisors hacked org charts to reflect the way miners self-organize. Engineers stole ideas for engine room mods from the sailor tinkerers. Union leaders and management remix each others finding in dialogic dance of meaning-making.

The echoes of this spirit remain today. You see it in the passion for action research, the trust of process, and the eye trained to understand the systems psychodynamics of everything from cat food to the adoption system. In the blog entries that follow, I’ll report on what I saw, and reflect on what I learned.

But the thing that stood out most—and that has inspired this blog—is what I didn’t see: I didn’t see a similar engagement with contemporary organizational life.

While Tavi researchers had gone deep into the local, industrial social systems that shaped the twentieth century workplace, similar work on our virtual, remote, distributed, volatile work realities was almost completely absent. Our contemporary human isn’t their industrial human. Even as much of the Tavi’s work actually accompanied the first generation of computers and automation, and even as they’ve wrestled with the social consequences of mass redundancy, human relations have accelerated exponentially, driven by a current of algorithms, blockchains, artificial intelligences, climate crisis, and digitized self-hood, our tradition isn’t keeping up.

I saw before us a stark choice: we either bring our technology—socio-technical analysis, action research, group relations conference learning, and systems psychodynamic ways of understanding—to bear on the contemporary organization, or we ourselves become redundant. The seeds of what we have to do are all there—in the Tavi archive, in the stories of its pioneers and the institutional memory it carries—but even as the Tavi continues its deep engagement with the English public sector and social services, its inattention to private sector dynamics, a globalized economy, and the virtual worlds we digitally inhabit threatens to make all our work irrelevant. And this isn’t the greatest threat: worse still would be a private sector, globalized economy, virtual world without an understanding of its own unconscious processes and systems psychodynamics. Indeed, we can all see how that blindness is wreaking havoc right now.

Contemporary change will happen at the unimaginable velocity of algorithms and machine learning (remember, every machine on earth, so long as it’s connected to the same network, can learn—change, update, turn on you—at the same time). Without our tradition’s own native technology, we won’t even see it coming.

II. Looking Forward

Indeed, Cliff Oswick, the Chair of the Tavistock Council, repeated Karl Weick’s caution against the human tendency to deal with anxiety about the future by foreclosing its possibilities with an imagined determinism.  “We tend to imagine the past and remember the future,” Weick famously said, but when asked whether our past spoke to the turbulent contemporary, Elliot Stern said he was torn between cliches: Was it the case that “the past is a different country. They do things differently there,” or, instead, “We hold these truths to be self-evident…”

The truths we hold self-evident were, for me, the unifying theme of the week: the truths of action research methods and experiential learning; the truths of the complex dialectics of selfhood and otherness, of projection and identification, and of anxiety and unconscious processes. What has changed is where we find these truths: ships’ crews have been reduced from dozens to twos and threes; manufacturing is done by robots; and mining is done across the world (if at all). Not only that, but learning is done by machines; work, labor and value are increasingly engineered on virtual collaborative platforms, enterprise social networks, and human-as-data optimization; and cognition itself is disrupted by algorithmic media that might as well be tapped directly into the neurotransmitters that tell us when we’re feeling stress, pleasure, reward and threat.

All this signals new needs and opportunities for work. The Tavistock was born in crisis: “the officer problem” during World War II and the labor crises of the mid-20th Century to name but a few. As we enter this new era of crisis, the global network of those of us who work in the Tavistock tradition needs to go back to basics: embed ourselves in the mines; learn from the people deepest in the new reality; see whole systems and psychodynamics; and transform the learnings into action-oriented experimentation to discover new modes of human relations, that preserve humanity—and find new humanity—in our post-human era.

III. Arriving in London

In fact, I brought to London a heavy sense of gloom that had come to me from a sobering Digital Media and Learning Conference (DML) in Irvine, CA a few weeks prior. For years, DML had taken an unabashedly exuberant stance to all things digital. Funded by the MacArthur Foundation, and drawing heavily from MIT’s Media Lab and UC Irvine’s Connected Learning Lab, DML brought together pioneering researchers, activist practitioners and visionaries of all stripes to engage with learning, making and civic engagement in the digital era.

It had been during last year’s DML that the Access Hollywood tapes were released and we breathed a collective sigh of relief. The nightmare was over. There was no way he could be elected now. How wrong we’d been. This year, the nightmare cast a long shadow over the bullish sense of optimism and opportunity in our digital era.

No where was this more true than in Danah Boyd’s keynote (video available here). Boyd, founder and president of Data & Society, a principal researcher at Microsoft Research and a professor at NYU, opened DML with a devastating vision for the ways our attention, civil discourse, and democracy itself have been hijacked by forces we don’t fully understand.  Indeed, she set the tenor for the next two days of conversations. To give you a fuller picture, let me excerpt a blog post of hers to make this into a coherent story.  Here’s a highly abridged version of the story she tells:

In 2003, a 15-year-old named Chris Poole started an image board site based on a Japanese trend called 4chan. His goal was not political. Rather, like many of his male teenage peers, he simply wanted a place to share pornography and anime.

[This community evolved and] learned how to game social media, manipulate its algorithms, and mess with the incentive structure of both old and new media enterprises.

Anonymous was birthed out of 4chan, but because of the emergent ideological agendas of many Anons, the norms and tactics started shifting. Some folks were in it for fun and games, but the “lulz” started getting darker and those seeking vigilante justice started using techniques like “doxing” to expose people who were seen as deserving of punishment. Targets changed over time, showcasing the divergent political agendas in play.

For many who are learning these techniques, it’s no longer simply about fun, nor is it even about the lulz. It has now become about acquiring power. A new form of information manipulation is unfolding in front of our eyes. It is political. It is global. And it is populist in nature. The news media is being played like a fiddle, while decentralized networks of people are leveraging the ever-evolving networked tools around them to hack the attention economy.

Boyd goes on to give several damning examples of what she calls “the democratization of manipulation,” from PizzaGate to concerns about Hillary Clinton’s health. I pride myself on my resistance to even the most seductive conspiracy theory, but in the end, I was defeated. Basically, she paints a picture where Russian hackers-for-profit, Russian state actors, disaffected American internet trolls and a self-organizing, online alt right have created a cognitive and civic mayhem, by simple acts of online vandalism and bad citizenship, and magnified beyond our capacity to comprehend by algorithms designed to maximize ad revenue (see, for example, this piece to witness the disconnect between a Facebook leadership team that soberly claims to be “aware of the risks,” while their advertising sales operation profits on them).

(All of this takes on an even more cruel irony because political mischief, theatrics and funny business—from the artistic to the inane—had previously been the domain of the left. From the Situationists to the Merry Pranksters, from Steal This Book to Banksy, it’s still hard for me to believe this tradition had been co-opted by a bunch of hateful vandals and trolls).

It’s not clear to any of us what the actual magnitude of this is, nor is it exactly clear what’s working and what’s not. What is clear is that bullish assessments of the internet as a force for democracy, access and an engaged citizenry have come crashing down in light of the US election and emerging political fault lines more toxic than any previously known. Perhaps unknown and unanticipated forces have plunged us into a collective paranoid-schizoid state: splitting off our own anger and hatred and projecting it onto the other, while adopting a helplessness that belied our general level of socio-economic, educational, etc. privilege. Had we just projected our own id onto internet trolls, discourse vandals, porn-fiends and man-boy gamers? Or were we on the verge of another civil war? Both/And?


In fact, my mood had become so dark that when I’d seen Bladerunner 2049 the previous week, I wondered if, in fact, the cyber-dystopia had already arrived (at least in the US). Perhaps the singularity would look less like the ascent of our robot overlords and more like a peasant revolt, with rust belt and red state voters mainlining Russian propaganda, and the world’s greatest democracy punked by vandals, trolls, and hackers. Perhaps the horsemen of the apocalypse would ride in on algorithms of unimaginable consequence —algorithms intended to optimize ad revenue and instead ushering in the barbarian horde. In other words, I was wondering if the singularity had arrived in a Trojan Neanderthal we elected last November.

So, it was against this background that I arrived at the Tavistock 70th Anniversary Festivities. Truthfully, I wondered whether reflections on seven decades of socio-technical analysis would speak to this new world, but I wouldn’t have to wait any longer than my first session to find a new relevance for old work.

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