5 The Concept of “Intentional Arrangement”

Intentional arrangement emphasizes explicit or implicit acts of organization by people, or by computational processes acting as proxies for, or as implementations of, human intentionality. Intentional arrangement is easiest to see in Organizing Systems created by individual people who can make all the necessary decisions about organizing their own resources. It is also easy to see in Organizing Systems created by institutions like libraries, museums, businesses, and governments where the responsibility and authority to organize is centralized and explicit in policies, laws, or regulations.

However, top-down intentionality is not always necessary to create an Organizing system. Organization can emerge over time via collective behavior in situations without central control when decisions made by individuals, each acting intentionally, create traces, records, or other information that accumulates over time. Organizing systems that use bottom-up rather than top-down mechanisms are sometimes called self-organizing, because they emerge from the aggregated interactions of actors with resources or with each other. Self-organizing systems can change their internal structure or their function in response to feedback or changed circumstances.

This definition is broad enough to include business and biological ecosystems, traffic patterns, and open-source software projects. Another good example of emergent organization involves path systems, where people (as well as ants and other animals) can follow and thereby reinforce the paths taken by their predecessors. When highly orderly and optimal arrangements emerge from local interactions among ants, bees, birds, fish, and other animal species, it is often called “swarm intelligence.” When this happens with human ratings for news stories, YouTube videos, restaurants, and other types of digital and physical resources we call it “crowdsourcing.” What the animal and human situations have in common is that information is being communicated between individuals. Sometimes this communication is direct, as when Amazon shows you the average rating for a book or what books have been bought by people like you. At other times the communication is indirect, achieved when the agents modify their environment (as they do when they create paths) and others can respond to these modifications. Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” is another example where individuals collectively generate an outcome they did not directly intend but that arose from their separate self-interested actions as they respond to price signals in the marketplace. Likewise, even though there is no top-down organization, the web as a whole, with its more than a trillion unique pages, is a self-organizing system that at its core follows clear organizing principles.[1][2][3]

Today’s web barely resembles the system for distributing scientific and technical reports it was designed to be when physicist and computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee devised it in 1990 at the European Organization for Nuclear Research(CERN) lab near Geneva. However, as an Organizing System the web still follows the principles that Berners-Lee defined at its creation. These include standard data formats and interaction protocols; no need for centralized control of page creation or linking; remote access over the network from anywhere; and the ability to run on a large variety of computers and operating systems. This architecture makes the web open and extensible, but gives it no built-in mechanisms for authority or trust.[4]

Because the web works without any central authority or authorship control, any person or organization can add to it. As a result, even though the web as a whole does not exhibit the centralized intentional arrangement of resources that characterizes many Organizing Systems, we can view it as consisting of millions of Organizing Systems that each embody a separate intentional arrangement of web pages. In addition, we most often interact with the web indirectly by using a search engine, which meets the definition of Organizing System because its indexing and retrieval algorithms are principled.

A great many Organizing Systems are implemented as collections of web pages. Some of these collections are created on the web as new pages, some are created by transforming existing collections of resources, and some combine new and existing resources.

The requirement for intentional arrangement excludes naturally occurring patterns created by physical or geological processes from being thought of as Organizing Systems. There is information in the piles of debris left after a tornado or tsunami and the strata of the Grand Canyon. But they are not Organizing Systems because the patterns of arrangement were created by deterministic natural forces rather than by agents following one or more organizing principles. On the other hand, collections of geological data like the measurements of chemical composition from different strata and locations in the Grand Canyon are Organizing Systems. Decisions about what to measure, how to combine and analyze the measurements, and any theories that are tested or created, reflect intentional arrangement of the data by the geologist.

Other patterns of resource arrangements are illusions or perceptions that require a particular vantage point. The best examples are patterns of stars as they appear to an observer on Earth. The three precisely aligned stars, often described as “Orion’s belt,” are hundreds of light years from Earth, and also from each other. The perceived arrangement of the stars is undeniable, but the stars are not aligned in the universe. Astronomical constellations like Orion are intentional arrangements imposed on our perceived locations of the stars, and these perceived arrangements and the explanations for them that constellations provide, form an Organizing System that is deeply embedded in human culture and in the practice of celestial navigation over the seas.

Taken together, the intentional arrangements of resources in an Organizing System are the result of decisions about what is organized, why it is organized, how much it is organized, when it is organized, and how or by whom it is organized (each of these will be discussed in greater detail in Design Decisions in Organizing Systems). An Organizing System is defined by the composite impact of the choices made on these design dimensions. Because these questions are interrelated their answers come together in an integrated way to define an Organizing System.

  1. Self-organizing is also used to describe phenomena like climate, neural networks, and phase transitions and equilibrium states in physics and chemistry. But when systems involve collections of inanimate resources that are very large and open, with complex interactions among the resources, it seems less sensible to attribute intentional arrangement to the outcomes. The resource arrangements that emerge cannot always be interpreted as the result of intentional or deterministic principles and instead are more often described in probabilistic or statistical terms. And even though it involves animate resources, Charles Darwin’s “natural selection” in evolutionary biology is a self-organizing mechanism where intentionality is hard to pinpoint or absent entirely.

    The rules governing these local interactions can be simple and yet produce highly complex structures. For example, in flocks of birds or schools of fish the rules are: (1) follow things like you, (2) do not bump into each other, but stay close, and (3) move in the same direction as the rest of the group. With just these three rules computer models can create complex three-dimensional arrangements that can make abrupt changes in shape and density while moving rapidly, just as live things do. (Friederici 2009)

    The term “Crowdsourcing” was invented by Jeff Howe in a June 2006 article in Wired magazine, and the concept was developed further in a book published two years later (Howe 2006, 2008). “Folksonomy” was coined by Thomas Van der Wal at about the same time in 2004; see http://vanderwal.net/folksonomy.html and (Trant 2009).

    (Goldstone and Gureckis 2009) present a cognitive science perspective on collective behavior, analyze important themes and controversies, and suggest areas for future research. (Moussaid et al. 2009) analyze self-organizing phenomena in animal swarms and human crowds in terms of information exchange among individuals.

    Self-organizing behaviors in ants, bees, bats, cuckoos, fireflies and other animals have been analyzed to identify heuristics that can be applied to difficult optimization problems in network design, cryptography, and other domains where deterministic algorithms are infeasible. (Yang 2010)

    (Smith 1776)

  2. (Banzhaf 2009).

  3. The concept of a web page is imprecise because many web pages, especially home pages designed as navigation gateways to an organized collection of pages, are constructed from heterogeneous blocks of content that could have been organized as separate pages.

  4. The “plain web(Wilde 2008a), whose evolution is managed by the World Wide Web Consortium(W3C), is rigorously standardized, but unfortunately the larger ecosystem of technologies and formats in which the web exists is becoming less so. Web-based Organizing Systems often contain proprietary media formats and players (like Flash) or are implemented as closed environments that are intentionally isolated from the rest of the web (like Facebook or Apple’s iTunes and other smart phone “app stores”).


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The Discipline of Organizing: 4th Professional Edition Copyright © 2020 by Robert J. Glushko is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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