The Unaccountability Machine: Political Madness By The Numbers

(This column is posted at, Steve’s Tumblr, and Pillowfort.  Find out more at my newsletter, and all my social media at my

I just read “The Unaccountability Machine” by Dan Davies. If you know me and when I get obsessed, be aware I’m about to become insufferable for awhile.

The core of the book is that our institutions have seemed to go mad, and the author finds explanations in the oft-ignored realm of business cybernetics. This isn’t science fiction, it’s cybernetics in the feedbacks/system sense, and how it relates to organizations. A core element is that members and parts of organizations become unaccountable in ways that lead to bad and mad decisions.

The financial crash of 2008. Any number of organizational meltdown. And of course, politics.

One of his points – and believe me, I’ll be dissecting this book on and off for a time – is that when your goal is a single measurement, an organization will go insane. When “line go up” is your only goal, problems occur – if not for you, everyone in your path. People are held unaccountabile for bad choices when “line go up.”

You may be thinking about any number of corporations and stock prices. But also I thought about American politics in light of (checks his calendar) about seventy percent of my life. Now I have my own quite pronounced political beliefs, but I’m going to set them aside to discuss a number.

The amount of votes.

Votes are the goal of democratic politics. It elects people. It gets people power and benefits and determines policy. Everything is about getting someone, often anyone, into office. Politics is a team thing, so as long as one of “Your Team” is in office, you can reach your goals.

This means politics in modern times isn’t just the old repression/gotv routines and campaigning and winning people. It means calculations and triangulations, test-marketing, lawsuits, etc. Anything to Just Get Enough Votes.

Anything for Line Goes Up, sometimes just a bit. Even if it makes you do some crazy things.

I remarked once about a certain political activist organization that it was a “winning machine” – and that wasn’t a compliment. Said organization later got itself entangled almost suicidally in various legal troubles and scandals. I wasn’t sure that they didn’t get the mission, but that they got it too well.

Their goal was Line Goes Up, vote-wise, and they’d do anything.

But also let’s say that you’ve made certain decisions to get votes that, perhaps like this organization, aren’t legal or ethical. Then you want to win no matter what to cover your backside or to soothe your conscience or whatever. Line goes up becomes an imperative, and you’ll deal with the bad things later or maybe you just ignore them or hand-wave them away.

Or maybe your opponent(s) are bad people – or you’re told they are. You want to win to protect yourself! Also anyway telling people those folks are threats makes the voting Line Go Up. Keep telling, keep talking, keep escalating, what’ll go wrong.

Kinda seems like politics, if you’re not careful, doesn’t become about helpful results. It takes a lot of effort to make it meaningful not “what three things can I say to get 0.5% more votes?” It’s so much easier to find what buttons to push – and hey, you’re a good person, right? What could go wrong.

Lots of things. Like many of my columns I want to mention the Latest Thing, but each week is a new Latest Thing. All in the name of Line Go Up.

So as we look at the 2024 election where my prediction is that I don’t know what the hell is going on anymore (look at France and the UK in 2024), I wonder if we’re in the political equivalent of a financial meltdown like 2008. My own (obviously correct) political views aside, it seems like Line Go Up is so important, any and all fallout is ignored, and the most batshit things are tried – and sometimes work.

But the batshittery, the triangulation, all of that might be hitting a breaking point. I’m certainly seeing that as I write this in July 2024.

As for a solution, well we’d have to step back from Line Go Up and ask what we want as society, as people. We’d have to make the Line a tool, one of many. But in this current state, I’m not holding my breath.

Well managed to do that without leaning into my own beliefs. Perhaps those will come later, maybe in the rebuilding.

Steven Savage

Time And Temperature

(This column is posted at, Steve’s Tumblr, and Pillowfort.  Find out more at my newsletter, and all my social media at my

We’re all aware of the obvious, in-your-face elements of climate change. Hurricanes coming earlier, more powerful, more often. Heat records falling all over. We see the big numbers and the obvious, media-friendly displays of what we’ve done to the world.

But I’d like to talk about the more subtle things. The ones we may well miss because of the Big Numbers. The ones that build up.

So let me talk about exercise.

I walk 60-120 minutes a day for exercise. It’s great, it’s refreshing, and when done at a brisk pace, very effective. I mean I think I need to do some ellipticals to work on my arms, but brisk walking is my preferred method.

Now when heat waves hit, that means my walking time is either early in the morning or late at night. My schedule is changing because of climate change, which changes everything else in my day and in my life.

Now I wake up 30 minutes early OR have to sign off from my other projects to walk at night. It changes when I log onto and log off of work, affecting my co-workers. It affects what I eat and when, if I order or go out, and so on. It changes how I interact with friends. All based around the fact I have to build my workouts around the heat waves.

Simple, of course, but there’s more. Small numbers add up for my exercise, but also for other changes made due to heat. It adds up for others as well, and between all these small changes, the world changes. Maybe not in spectacular ways, but ways that are important and ways we may miss.

Imagine how climate change affects when people commute, shop, work, sleep. Where what you do and what you can do shifts. You don’t want to deal with the heat, so you don’t do one thing and do another, or you shift your schedule up. Go to work later or earlier. Buy this not that.

Consider how maybe some things are “too hot to do X” or even equipment and vehicles won’t operate in certain times of day – as we’ve seen in recent news Our risk profiles change what we do when or can do when. Life changes.

With a more extreme client we get more “extreme extremes.” What happens when a sudden heat wave derails plans, requires things to shut down, or just disrupts a major holiday? How do we plan next time just in case – and we shift entire industries and airports and states around without noticing.

It all seems petty, but that’s why it’s important as petty things add up. One day you’re skipping a barbecue for the 4th of July, but when airlines are suddenly dealing with unfilled flights and shipping goods becomes harder, you notice, little changes piling up.

As we watch the “Big Numbers” a million small changes are going on in our lives, our culture, our economy, all driven by climate change. The temperature changes the time we do things and take time for.

So what are the repercussions of that for relations, for lives, for the economy?

I don’t know, but maybe we need to be asking outside of Big Numbers. Maybe we need to look at the small numbers adding up too.

Steven Savage

The Scale of Victims

(This column is posted at, Steve’s Tumblr, and Pillowfort.  Find out more at my newsletter, and all my social media at my

It sure seems there’s a lot of IT security breaches lately. In fact, it’s to the point where I can’t remember which one inspired this column. It’s probably just as well, since you can map whatever horrific violation of privacy you heard of this week onto this column. There, I’ve sort of written something relatively timeless because people are dumb.

One of the things I wonder about is why more CTOs, CIOs, and so forth aren’t being taken to court, followed by reporters, and in general held freaking responsible for their companies having lousy security. Yes there’s all sorts of shielding from accountability, but you think we’d see some effort, but I think one thing protecting them is that the company is seen mostly as a victim.

I’d argue that’s technically right, the companies were attacked by some external force. But treating companies as equivalent of people ignores their responsibilities. People, individual moral agents, can be victims, but corporations are not people and not moral agents, and treating them as victims like people lets them out of responsibilities. Sorry, Mitt Romney.

Think about a person who is a victim of a crime. Though people often try to blame victims, those blamers are usually both wrong and assholes (and sometimes justifying their own crimes). A person who is victim of a crime is a victim in that someone else chose to behave criminally.. Even if said victim enhanced their own danger it doesn’t remove the culpability of the criminal, who violated social and legal norms that people are expected to follow.

When I watch people shrug as corporation after corporation has customer records placed on the dark web, I see comments about how crappy their security is, but it doesn’t seem particularly judgmental. This impresses me as an echo of the don’t-blame-the-victim mentality.

But corporations are groups of people – organizations. That organization makes certain agreements and promises in order to exist. Security of data is, obviously, part of them. If one’s data is breached, despite the criminals actions, you also take responsibility as you are responsible. If you’re leadership, you should be on the line because you made a promise that this probably won’t happen.

Organizations are about promises and responsibility. Screw that up, and no matter why, someone has to pay as your failure hurt the organization and the people involved. You don’t have to restrain yourself on going after the people who did the actual crime, but corporations have made promises. If you can’t keep them, you’ve got a problem.

In fact, I’d say a corporation that suffers a data breach or similar failure must be investigated to see if it violated social norms. If the corporation made guarantees it could not and did not keep, if good faith effort was not made, the corporation was responsible. There is a failure of the company that echoes the action of the criminal, it too violated norms.

Of course we all know that if we at all ask this we’ll find a lot of corporations have done terrible at security. It’s all cost cutting, half-assed integration, and big bonuses. A lot of companies, if they were really investigated for security problems, would be locked down and sold off for being terrible.

(And yes, I work in Healthcare, which has insanely strict rules, but everyone should for everything, and we remember that these rules protect people.)

We don’t need to act like corporations are victims like people. If they can’t keep their promises, if security violations reveal they’ve done a poor job of protecting people, they’re part of the problem. Some of them should pay. Some shouldn’t exist.

Steven Savage