Cohesion Forces and Tools

This article is part of the series on Autonomy and Cohesion. It is the second part of the basic overview of the balance. If you haven’t read the previous part, I’d recommend doing so before reading further.

Cohesion forces

Liquids and solids are in those states because there are cohesion forces bonding the molecules together. The main cohesion forces currently studied in physics are the van der Waals forces, dipole-dipole interactions, hydrogen bonding, and ionic bonding. In socio-technical systems, there are cohesion forces too. Those forces are way more complex and less studied. Cohesion in socio-technical systems is not only due to natural forces. Tools, technologies, and artifacts can significantly contribute too. They bring direct and also systemic effects. We’ll go to the cohesion tools and technologies after we briefly review some cohesion forces and factors. Cohesion forces and factors are difficult or impossible to influence, which is what makes them different from cohesion tools and technologies.

There are personal cohesion factors like the need for safety, the need to belong to a social group, to reduce uncertainty, and the need to increase self-esteem. Such needs make us form clubs, tribes, communities, organizations, and networks.

Shared values and beliefs are strong cohesion forces, and those can include the shared value of autonomy.

There are also social identity cohesion forces. We tend to identify, sometimes strongly, with sports clubs, ethnic groups, communities, professions, organizations, or religions. In some situations, compassion, loyalty, and empathy play a bigger role. In others, completely different forces. For example, typical personal cohesion forces in social networks are the need for self-expression, validation, and recognition, as well as the fear of missing out.

In every socio-technical system, there are internal and external cohesion factors and forces. The personal cohesion forces work both within organizations and networks, although they have different subsets and strengths. Typical internal organizational cohesion forces are organizational identity, internal operational dependencies, shared resources, synergy, and efficiency. In networks, cohesion forces and factors are proximity, transitivity, and preferential attachment, and in social networks, there are many additional ones, such as shared interest and shared aversion.

Which brings us to the external cohesion factors.

What spawns many social and political movements into existence is having a common enemy. As long as it exists, it is often a strong enough force to keep the movement’s cohesion despite common disintegration factors like egos, personal agendas, and incompatible values. In an organization, there is a good supply of external cohesion factors from their environment and the markets in which they participate. Two departments of the same organization may have no operational dependencies whatsoever and yet be dependent on external media such as the markets, radio, television, and word-of-mouth amplified by social media.

If forces and factors are what make us bond and coordinate, but we can’t influence much, then what it is that we use to coordinate better, or more generally, how the tools and artifacts we create, buy, and use affect the balance between autonomy and cohesion.

Tools, technologies and artifacts

A clock is a cohesion tool. We use it to coordinate train schedules, meetings, and New Year celebrations. It works because it itself has internal cohesion. Many design decisions and practices contribute to that. For mechanical clocks, those include the shape and size of gears and their teeth, how gears are aligned to fit together, and how the escape wheel controls the accurate release of energy. In short, the gears are designed to work reliably together. But they are designed by somebody, not by the clock. Now, compare that with a living cell. If there was no membrane, there wouldn’t be a cell. And here it gets really interesting. The membrane makes it possible for elements of the cell to enter into chemical reactions and produce the components of the cell, including the membrane itself. The membrane is a selectively permeable boundary. If that wasn’t the case, the elements wouldn’t have what they need to react. They need water, oxygen, sodium and other elements, which the semi-permeable membrane allows to pass in. But importantly, the membrane makes the cell a unity in space, a whole. If it wasn’t for it, the elements wouldn’t enter into the reactions needed to continuously produce the cell, including its membrane. I’ll be coming back to this circularity, but it is already essential when we consider the most amazing cohesion tool: language.

Similar to the living cell, language produces itself. We correct language with language and use language to talk about language. We can respond to “put this chair there” based on a history of previous coordination and following a pointing finger. But more impressively, we can ask, “what do you mean by…” referring to a previous utterance of our interlocutor. Language produces itself, but it also produces other cohesion technologies, such as stories. Oral language is a medium that can produce new media, and each new medium uses the previous as its content. One such game-changing medium is writing. The bonding can now span space and time. Language can evolve into specific forms, such as maths, so people using it can think differently, coordinate in new ways, and create even better technologies.

Language is the omnipresent coordination tool, but we have devised specific ones for different domains. We have rituals, norms, rules, and protocols. An extended hand invites a handshake, and a wrapped gift begs unwrapping. We agree to drive on one side of the road and stop at a red light. To belong to a society, we cede part of our autonomy and follow norms and laws.

Cohesion technologies can vary widely. For a party, it can be the style of music or the agreed dress code; in organizations, cohesion is achieved with goals, plans, decisions, reports, and meetings; on social media, it can be cat photos, memes and conspiracy theories.

Some cohesion technologies reduce autonomy too much, while others do not. However, dependence is dynamic and influenced by culture and values.

There are, however, some cohesion technologies that only reduce autonomy in agreeing to follow some conventions and rules when using them, but otherwise, they can increase the autonomy of their users. We’ll see a few examples in another article in the series.


First published on Link&Think.

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