Applied Compliance

June 7, 2020

It’s only my opinion, but one of the more interesting things I’ve written (and then promptly lost in a tangled web of SQL dumps while messing around with this site) was a piece on managing people and the different approaches towards setting goals. I thought of these two approaches as engagement and compliance, where the former attempts to create a positive reason for you to do what I want, and the latter simply orders you to do it with the threat (implied or otherwise) of bad consequences.

Because this was before the world ended, the piece mainly focused on using these concepts at work, especially as a relatively inexperienced but still pretty cynical people manager. Unsurprisingly, my spineless neoliberal conclusion was that the best approach was a mix of the two approaches, because both had limitations when taken to their logical extremes, which I explained (as is my way) by creating hilarious straw-men scenarios and clubbing them to death for thousands of words. For a blog post from an un-credentialed keyboard jockey, I thought it was pretty good. Maybe someday I’ll scrape it out of those SQL dumps and piece it back together.

Now, back to today. Since the world ended, I’ve been introduced to two really stark, very non-straw-men examples of these extremes, and wow are they ever terrible. Let’s review.

21st Century Policing, a.k.a., “Compliance Addiction”

In theory, the reason police exist is to keep people safe. Even if the actual reason is something completely different, the actual reason people THINK the police exist (and thus continue to support them existing) is still… to keep people safe. Not some people, not the police themselves, not buildings, but ultimately people.

Over the years, policing has involved a lot of different tactics to keep people safe. As a young white kid in the suburbs, there was a fair amount of “engagement” for a while (I won a basketball and a savings bond for winning an essay contest about not using drugs), and then as I got older things moved more towards the compliance end (I was pulled over four times in one summer home from college for no discernible reason; one time I was told I shouldn’t be out so late), and now that I’m basically an upper class white Dad we’re moving back into engagement for criminal things, and definitely compliance for things like building permits and such.

Based on this, my assumption was that policing had a whole lot of discriminatory bias, but that it was still fundamentally based on the idea of keeping people safe. If the means were immoral, the ends at least were still agreed upon (even if they weren’t reached due to the flaws of the means). In other words, I believed that the police often applied tactics that were wrong, and even worse, applied those tactics differently based on how people looked or where they lived, but I still believed that they wrongly applied those tactics in an ham-fisted attempt to achieve the goal of keeping people safe.

Holy shit was I ever wrong! It turns out that when the largest, most visible police forces in the country were forced to choose between keeping people safe, and ensuring that those people complied with the orders of the police, they overwhelmingly, shockingly, violently committed themselves to the compliance part.

I cannot overstate this. Hundreds, maybe thousands of sworn police officers chose (and continue to choose) to do things like shoot random people standing on their porches with riot control weapons, or beat them senseless with batons, or fire rubber bullets into their faces, rather than accept the non-compliance of those people with the orders of the police. Shooting groups of non-violent people with tear gas (or beating up a reporter, or whatever) for violating curfew again and again and again, knowing full well everything is being documented, is not a subtle example of that choice being made.

That is CRAZY, and shows you just how unshared the goal of public safety is by citizens and, if not a majority of individual cops, the collective of police as represented by things like police unions. Can you imagine if you ran a sales team like this?

SALES MANAGER : We need to boost revenue this quarter, so everyone needs to make 50 sales calls a week.

SALES REP : Great news, I just attended a conference and closed 10x of our quarterly revenue goal.

(SALES MANAGER beats SALES REP with baton)


It’s patently absurd, to the point that no one would ever do it in a business environment. The sales manager would be fired immediately, not just for the inappropriateness of beating a human resource with a baton, but for the obvious lack of dedication to the shared company goal of growing revenue. But that’s exactly where we are. “Safety” isn’t irrelevant to the police, but it is clearly secondary to the idea of compliance with police orders. (Note that equating the two with an unbreakable link — saying that there can be no safety without compliance — is the same thing as putting compliance first, especially if you admit that there is such a thing as compliance without safety, which is obviously true because no cop is Superman).

Maybe that’s where the analogy is just starting to break down, or at least break off into different realities. I’ve always thought of the police as a sales manager — someone vested with authority (by the TRUE authority) to drive a series of goals through a mixture of compliance and engagement of their choosing (within boundaries, of course), but ultimately held accountable to those goals. Instead, law enforcement sees something totally different; that they are the highest authority, the ultimate arbiter of what the goals should even be, and everyone else is allowed to ride along until they disagree.

Facebook, a.k.a. “Algorithm Addiction” (not to be confused with “Addiction Algorithm”, which is also Facebook)

With the police making the religion of compliance look so terrible, it’s almost hard to imagine how damaging an equally extreme engagement strategy could really be by comparison — until you look at Facebook.

Social media is built on engagement, largely because its goal (making money off of users looking at and clicking on ads) is more about engaging people than punishing them. That’s why everything about the platform is about giving you what you want, so long as it leads to you being on the platform more — because the longer you’re there, the more you see and click on ads. The last thing Facebook wants to do is tell you something you don’t want to hear, or show you something you don’t want to see, so it spends all of its time trying to avoid that. In fact, the only time Facebook ever puts any kind of judgement or filter on anything is when their failure to do so starts to make people think the platform as a whole might be a bad place to be. Naturally, they address this by applying high-visibility (but extremely low-impact) things like overly deferential fact checking labels (thanks Daily Caller, for your input) on things that allow people to continue to get the most enraging content possible put before them at all times.

The Facebook problem is sort of the perfect inverse of the police problem, in that while the particulars are completely different, the core issue is the same — we’ve been lead to believe that Facebook is ultimately most interested in building a “good” platform that causes “good” things (just as we assumed police inherently prioritized public safety above all else) and that if the platform started producing BAD things, Facebook would see to change it. But that’s not what Facebook’s goal is. The method — engagement — is the goal. Like the police, Mark Zuckerberg conflates the goal we think he has, and the goal he actually has, because the goal he actually has is bizarre and sociopathic. So we’re told that people connecting and engaging on Facebook always leads to the greater good, and that therefore, we’re all in agreement! We want good things, and connection causes them. So, connection.

Except… it’s increasingly obvious, even to Facebook employees, that this level of connection and engagement on a social network causes bad things, and actually way more of them than good things. The more people push, the more defensive Facebook gets, except they don’t have tear gas and batons.

… yet.