Two Important Metaphors for life in the century of complexity and the digital environment.
Today, each of us lives within what I call a frankenstack. An assemblage of information technologies duct-taped together with a mess of protocols, and forming what philosophers call a rhizomatic structure.
1/ Consider the difference between an onion and a piece of ginger. The ginger root is the motif for what philosophers call a rhizome. The onion for what they call an arborescence.
2/ With an onion, you can always tell which way is up, and can distinguish horizontal sections apart from vertical sections easily by visual inspection.
2/ With a piece of ginger, there is no clear absolute orientation around an up, and no clear distinction between horizontal and vertical.
3/ According to the linked Wikipedia entry (worth reading), a rhizome “allows for multiple, non-hierarchical entry and exit points in data representation and interpretation.”
4/ If you tend to use the cliched “hierarchies versus networks” metaphor for talking about old versus new IT, you would do well to shift to the rhizomatic/arborescent distinction.
5/ Both onions and ginger roots show some signs of both hierarchical structure and network-like internal connections.
6/ The difference is that one has no default orientation, direction of change, or defining internal symmetries. Rhizomes are disorderly and messy in architectural terms.
7/ The diagram above shows a partial view of my personal frankenstack: a mess sprawling over wordpress, slack, mailchimp and dozens of other technology platforms.
8/ As a free agent solopreneur with a weird mix of activities, my frankenstack is probably more complex than most, but not as complex as some power-users I know.
9/ If you work in a large organization defined by an enterprise IT system, your frankenstack is likely more arborescent than mine. More onion-like.
10/ But this is not going to last much longer. Already, bleeding edge enterprise IT platform architecture is acquiring the rhizomatic characteristics of the consumer web.
11/ Why is the rhizome a better mental model for IT infrastructure than either hierarchies or networks? The answer has to do with the curse of dimensionality.
12/ All of us today live informationally high-dimensional lives. We manage many complex information stocks and flows that merge and mix in a labyrinthine permissions/security matrix.
13/ Hierarchies and networks are both clean, legible architectural patterns. Applying them to high dimensional situations is highly budrensome and largely useless.
14/ Consider an organization with a strictly hierarchical org chart. You could model it with a single variable: who reports to whom. “Level” is a dependent variable.
15/ Or consider an organization that’s a strict network topology. You could model it with a graph: who is connected to whom. “Degrees of separation” is a dependent variable.
16/ Now start to throw in complicating factors. In orgs, you could have dotted-line relationships, floating assignments, full-time/part-time boundaries, staff vs. line etc.
17/ In a network, you could have different complicating factors: asymmetry vs symmetry in follows, algorithmically maintained feeds that drive interactions, and so forth.
18/ With each complicating factor, more new variables enter the picture. The dimensionality increases. However, not all dimensions are equally important.
19/ So you end up with a mess of organizing constructs: hierarchies, networks, group boundaries, permission levels, version histories, event histories, and so on.
20/ If you tried to extend a platonic concept like “hierarchy” or “network” you’d end up with impossibly high-dimensional structures that are empty for the most part.