The Ecology of Decisions, or
"An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of
the Wealth of Kitchens"

by Phil Salin

This article appeared in the Spring 1990 issue of Market Process, a publication of the Center for the Study of Market Processes at George Mason University


The main purpose of this work is to re-examine the way we perceive decisions and think about conscious choice. In order to teach people how to make better decisions, or be more "intelligent" at allocating scarce resources, I argue, we need to have a better model of how decisions work as real processes, and what "intelligence" really is.

Section I, "Understanding Decisions" discusses traditional ways of studying decision making, and proposes a more descriptive approach.

Section II, "The Wealth of Kitchens" is an exercise in educating one's perceptions as to what decisions really are, and how they really work as a process.

Section III, "The Oikonomikos of Information" summarizes the main theoretical conclusions which follow from Section II.

I. Understanding Decisions

A host of practical difficulties emerge when we try to understand the relationships between observable events, the decisions which affect and are affected by observable events, and the many underlying beliefs, perceptions, values, goals, and skills which affect our decisions while remaining, for the most part, invisible to ourselves and others. Beneath the world of conscious belief and values, there is subconscious, tacit knowledge. And beneath that are the larger realms of what might be called "implicit knowledge," knowledge which is embodied in tools and objects and which we don't directly "know" at all, but only use.

The overwhelming number of invisible and subjective factors in decision making makes the methodical study of decisions and decision making extremely difficult; even the simplest decision is subject to immense variations in interpretation.

Many social scientists have attempted to avoid as much as possible dealing with the ordinary, natural ambiguities of human decisions, preferring oversimplified but "rigorous" mathematical models of behavior or decisions to other forms of inquiry and analysis. Traditional interest in decision making has tended either to shy away from subjective factors (behaviorism and econometrics are extreme examples), or to over-formalize subjective factors to the point where they have effectively vanished as real things, and been replaced by unreal oversimplifications; expected value models of decision making, and the theory of utility maximization are perfect examples, as are psychological theories which reify aspects of human nature into synthetic measurements such as the "need to achieve," or "I. Q.," and then attempt to treat them as primary objects of analysis.

Unfortunately, while theories built upon oversimplified or counterfactual assumptions can often be quite interesting, it is arguably the primary task of social scientists, as contrasted with social science fiction writers to design theories whose assumptions, workings, and conclusions all reflect, to the greatest extent possible, the actual diversity, subjectivity, and changeability of the many "facts" and processes which organize the attention and actions of real decision makers in real settings.

Rather than ignoring or abstracting away from them, I have attempted in this paper to identify and describe as many implicit or subjective factors relevant to decision making as possible. My intent is to make real decision making processes easier to perceive and understand, by showing what kinds of implicit and subjective factors causally affect all decisions, and through those decisions, observed changes in the world around us.

Thus, the attempt here is to combine theory with case study, aiming to discover better ways of observing and modelling exactly what it is that decision makers know, and how they know it, i. e., by what real processes they learn, pay attention, perceive new opportunities for making decisions, and act in new ways as a consequence of those perceptions.

This descriptive epistemology of the ways in which ordinary people go about making ordinary decisions in ordinary settings requires us to engage in a kind of detailed observation and descriptive technique which is analogous to that found in the writings of naturalists and ethnographers, who also try to study the behavior of organisms in their natural environments.

My task will be to develop a theoretical framework which can accommodate and do justice to the real, unavoidable complexity of the ordinary decision processes we are attempting to understand. The basic underlying framework drawn upon has already been developed by biologists and others who study evolutionary processes. Thus, the main point will be to see how and where evolutionary processes normally come into play during ordinary decision making and organizing; and to overcome traditional views of decision making as some kind of "maximization" process, in fact or "as if."

Evolutionary processes play a fundamental role in our mental lives as well as in our biological lives. These processes affect ordinary decisions continuously and in many ways, but the interpretive problem of untangling the many selective pressures relevant to any particular decision can be formidable. Evolutionary processes are always at work, but we are not always able to see how and where, in any one setting. The best we can ordinarily do is to get a good idea of how multiple simultaneous selection processes can in general interact, and how, in specific decision environments, they actually do interact.

Where can we go to begin developing and conceptually testing theories of general applicability? We need a test environment which is readily available and easy and inexpensive to use. The environment should be a familiar one, and not too simple--all the typical ambiguities, subjective and implicit factors must be present.

I have chosen the realm of kitchens--of meals, dishes, cooking, cooks, and diners. The rationale is, first, that every reader will be familiar with this organizational environment of decision making. Second, and as a consequence, every reader will be able to test our observations and speculations against the data of his or her own experience. Third, every reader can easily and cheaply develop his or her own tests and experiments and hypotheses in this area. Fourth, since I maintain that the kinds of decision processes we observe every day in kitchens are the same ones that form the basis of decision making everywhere, anything we learn from studying how people make "good" decisions in kitchens will have broad and general relevance.

I believe that most of us already intuitively understand these everyday decision processes--we just need to get used to seeing them and thinking about them more directly, and to transfer this understanding into the wider, more ambitious realms of decision making and decision theory.

II. An Inquiry Into The Nature And Causes Of The Wealth Of Kitchens

Suppose the early modern economists, instead of starting with the great macroproblem of the balance of trade between nations, and then slowly working their way downward through domestic trade, through industry analysis, through the theory of the firm, through the theory of the household, down all the way to the theory of the decision, had instead started with a "theory of decisions made in ordinary environments?" That is all I am proposing to do here--to observe what kinds of decisions occur daily and everywhere in kitchens. What are the important component parts which make up the "Wealth of Kitchens?" Our discussion is intended to arouse the perhaps habituated eye to the richness and variety of information which is Cook with Square Rolling Pinnormally available in kitchens, and to some of the more salient features of the ways in which that information normally, easily, and mundanely gets "processed" there.

The Rich Information Environment of Cooking

We are not apt to consider an ordinary household to be as complicated a setting as it really is. Only if we sit down and begin to enumerate the familiar details does it begin to dawn on us that a kitchen is a highly complex environment involving a variety of reservoirs of information. The information reservoirs are brought into play during the processes of designing meals, cooking them and eating them, and include, for example, all the kinds of things listed in Figure 1.

Clearly, the amount of information involved in such a seemingly simple set of decisions as preparing an ordinary meal is immense. Indeed, one may begin to marvel at how any mere individual could integrate all this information without balance sheets, budgets, computer printouts, a large staff of employees, an MBA, and the advice and consent of a board of directors? Surely, at least a committee will be required, to ensure that all these specialized kinds of information will be properly integrated--a committee staffed by representatives from the department of procurement, the department of logistics, finance, personnel, engineering, manufacturing, research and development, and many other essential departments as well. Perhaps we will need many committees--one for appliance acquisition decisions, another for new recipe decisions, another for strategic nutrition planning, and yet another for cook-diner relations.

  1. The Ingredients
    designed by evolution/manufacturers/food engineers & marketeers; available from markets/convenience stores/speciality stores in standardized quantities, qualities, mixtures, preservative methods and containers; standardized, pre-tested and evolved for shelf life, taste, economy

  2. The Recipes
    designed by recipe creators available from bookstores/packaging/friends/relatives; pre-tested and evolved for economy, taste, ease of following

  3. The Measures and Cooking Implements
    designed by manufacturers/cooking implement engineers & marketeers; available from department stores; standardized, pre-calibrated and pre-tested for "handiness"

  4. The Appliances
    refrigerator, stove, blender, garbage disposal, dishwasher alter which ingredients are economic or convenient to inventory; designed by manufacturers/appliance engineers & marketeers; available from/designed by appliance stores standardized, pre-calibrated and marked for fine control; pre-tested for reliability and safety

  5. The Utilities
    water, electricity, gas, garbage disposal available from power, water, utility companies; needed for heating/cooling/mixing/cleaning/disposing standardized and pre-selected for reliability and safety

  6. The Kitchen
    with its layout, lighting, counters, tables, storage areas, cupboards; designed by architects/kitchen decorators & users; available from construction companies/furniture manufacturers in standardized layouts, heights, depths, volumes

  7. The Helpers
    extra hands, tasters, advisors trained/standardized by culture/parents/others/experience

  8. The Diners
    varying personal tastes, time availability; trained/standardized by culture/parents/others/experience; availability subject to current appetite/requirements of employers

  9. The Dishes & Overall Meal
    how it all fits together; defined/standardized by culture/parents/others; standardized expectations such as "lunch," "dinner," "dessert," "soup;" standardized objectives such as "nutrition," "fast preparation," "eye appeal," "low calorie," avoiding monotony, avoiding food poisoning, "tasty," "not undercooked, not overcooked," "right amount of salt," etc

  10. The Social Setting
    wider significance of meals and miscellaneous constraints; defined/standardized by culture/parents/others; standardized corollary uses (e. g. conversations) and associated rituals; standard seasonal variations, and standard "special occasions;" wide variety of miscellaneous constraints e. g.: feeding scraps to pets

  11. The Budgets
    fitting it all together within acceptable budgets; defined by time constraints/financial constraints/health constraints

  12. The Alternatives
    restaurants, skipping meals; available from other cooks/other uses of time & money and last of all, at the center of the whole process:

  13. The Cook
    novice or experienced, skilled or clumsy, plebeian or gourmet taste; trained by culture/parents/others/experience; responsible for "designing' and "implementing" the meal; responsible for obtaining and storing the required ingredients; responsible for dealing with problems, ordinary or "unexpected" responsible for "making the whole thing work" generally viewed as "the" decision maker...

Figure 1

But it seems not to work that way -- at least not in most of our kitchens. This provides us with quite a puzzle: how can it be that individuals in large organizations are so boundedly rational that they must radically specialize to function effectively, yet in small organizations like kitchens, inhabited by individuals presumably no less bounded in their rationality, one person can seemingly learn and integrate so much? What aspects of the process of cooking might account for this puzzle?

The Process of Cooking? or the Processing of Cooks?

By what processes do cooks skillfully "decide" to bring all these reservoirs of information together?

First, we notice that some of the information reservoirs are used by the cook to direct, organize, and integrate the meal preparation process itself, e. g., recipes, and standard cultural expectations of diners regarding the timing and content of meals.

Second, we notice that, implicitly, each of the information reservoirs provides some additional direction, organization, and assistance to the cook. The standard layout of kitchens makes access to some items especially convenient. The standard calibration of stoves make various exact temperatures available and reproducible. Refrigerators help cooks conserve on having to worry about food spoiling quickly, hence providing slack in scheduling which foods get used when. Standard measures and mixing implements help the cook calculate, not necessarily using algebra, but physically, by using the markings on the measuring instruments. Cookbooks provide helpful suggestions and tips, and sets of usable recipes conveniently prearranged into standard categories: soups, salads, main dishes, vegetables and desserts, carefully indexed for rapid access, on demand.

The key to the marvel of how the cook masters so complex an environment is that he or she doesn't.

The cook is not doing it all by himself or herself; there are various kinds of standardly available, standardized reservoirs of information which are continually being brought into play during the process of meal design, preparation, and enjoyment, even initiating the process in the first place and defining its boundaries.

Third, we notice that although meals, and especially dishes, may vary or change radically from meal to meal, from day to day, or from cook to cook, the process which underlies the integration of all the relevant information does not seem to change or vary that much. Almost all kitchens contain the standard kinds of reservoirs of information, and almost all cooks standardly use them in the standard ways.

Fourth, we notice that even those changes in meals which do occur seem to occur constantly and recurrently, regularly, unchangingly. When we stand back, they seem like no change at all. For example, Apprentice cooks seem to change, to learn from Old Hands. But eventually, the Apprentices become Old Hands, the Old Hands leave the stage, and we come right back to where we started, with an Old Hand teaching an Apprentice. Moreover, whether an Apprentice or an Old Hand, in almost every case, the cook is preparing standard foods in standard ways using standard implements and appliances. The content of the standards seems to change, or evolve, but not the fact of our standard reliance on standardized information resources to perform standard tasks in standard ways.

Fifth, we notice that at no time is all the information comprehensively and explicitly integrated either in the mind of the cook or on paper. He or she proceeds along, a step at a time, sometimes considering specific distant implications of present actions, sometimes concentrating purely on present perceptions of textures, tastes, appearances, and proportions. Thus, we should not let the seemingly unified and unidirectional flow of time deceive us. We are observing here--or participating in--a process which is dynamic in peculiar ways, complexly embedded in time as well as in space. For not only does the cook's attention shift between present and future orientation, but many of the time relations which occur in cooking are structured implicitly by the cook's standard tools and procedures, which don't themselves change, which are in this sense timeless. Recipes may describe the order in which to mix ingredients. Standard forms of meals may suggest the order of serving dishes. Standard seasonal availability and affordability of certain foodstuffs may suggest which "new" dishes to prepare at any given time of year. Recipes may suggest appropriate times to check on how well-done a dish is. Kitchen timers make it easy to remember when to perform the check; meat thermometers make it easy to actually check, at the standard time, in the standard way. It seems we need to distinguish between notions of explicit planning and implicit planning. In this situation, at least, much of the planning seems to be implicit, ready-to-use by the cook. Rather than attributing the planning decision function to the cook, we should at least consider whether the cook is just one more component in a deeply structured planning process.

Sixth, we notice that each of these reservoirs of information, of standardly available tools for cooks is available in standardized forms and sizes, often with standardized variants. This helps economize on fitting the parts together. It also facilitates independent design and production: cabinet manufacturers know roughly what size food packages and cooking implements must have room made for them. Recipe designers know what kinds of foodstuffs are available and how costly they are. But standardization has other implications--most notably for processes of learning, teaching and the support of diverse tastes, needs, and methods. Given that all the parts of the process are standardized, we can economize by starting small, learning only the basics first, upgrading our tastes and expenditures in stages, making do with manual slicing and dicing in some dimensions, and splurging on Cuisinarts in other dimensions; we can vary our usage depending on the time available, money available, guests available, appetites available. With practice, any of us appears able to learn how to develop our potential as effective cooks, to progress from being only Campbell's Soup and peanut butter sandwich preparers to being expert omelette organizers and artful wok wielders, to becoming chefs and masters of the culinary arts. The production, distribution and consumption systems organized around meals appear to be characterized by a marvelous flexibility and responsiveness to local, transient changes. The rich information structure of kitchens seems almost to invite, to seduce us into becoming better decision makers and problem solvers.

Seventh, we notice that each of the reservoirs of information, being only loosely coupled to the others, can evolve somewhat independently. They are, thus, stable sub-assemblies of the type Herbert Simon talks about in "The Architecture of Complexity." They are not, however, necessarily arranged in any hierarchic order; this suggests that Simon may have overstated the case concerning the hierarchic organization of stable subassemblies in organizations. While, as Simon suggested, all large systems may indeed be composed of small, stable subassemblies, not all such large system s need be hierarchic in form. Moreover, there may be many additional stable subassemblies which are available outside large systems, or which pass in and out of the large systems rather freely. These "loose," independent subassemblies might be used differently by different individuals and organizations for different purposes on different occasions.

The design of any one type of unit--such as that of refrigerators--may be tightly coupled to very distant settings--such as that of the factory which manufactures refrigerators, or to the many other settings in which the same refrigerator is simultaneously being used. But the stable units which we observe within kitchens may be only loosely coupled to one another during the local conditions of their joint use. So that we may be misled when we try to study selection processes as if they only occur in the specific cases we are currently observing. No kitchen tool or reservoir of information will ever be completely or perfectly adapted to a single kitchen, i. e., to a single local set of circumstances. But this does not imply that the tool is raw in form, ignorant, unadapted; rather, it is highly adapted to general conditions and requirements which tend to hold in most kitchens, for most cooks, most of the time.

Evolution and Natural Selection in Kitchens

At this point, the many beauties, complexities, and dangers of theories of selection and adaptation become particularly relevant to our discussion. For it seems clear that each of our reservoirs of information, of cooks' tools, is in fact evolving independently, simultaneously subject to multiple and different sets of criteria applied by different users at different times for different purposes. It is precisely to the extent that the forms of tools are standardized that they can be mass-marketed, and hence that there can occur complex mutual adjustments made by suppliers and demanders of tools, such that complex tradeoffs can be made between the precise wants of particular individual users, and the roughly similar wants of many individual users. The nature of these tradeoffs is only revealed in the specific designs of the recipes, refrigerators, foodstuffs, kitchens, cooks' heuristics, and meals which we observe. It is not just to the fact of standardization, but to the specific definition of each standard that we must pay attention, if we are to learn how kitchens are able to achieve the remarkable flexibility and suitability we discern there.

Critical tradeoffs exist in all real designs between economies of specialization and economies of generalization. Such tradeoffs are constantly being made not only by producers, but by consumers as well as part of their ordinary market choices. Our cook, for example, in the process of deciding whether to buy mass marketed or customized implements, foodstuffs, recipes, and even layouts of kitchens, is implicitly providing selective pressure in support of some designs over others.

There is an elaborate theory concerning competition which is "imperfect" from the consumer's point of view: if only the producers didn't insist on "confusing" buyers with such a diverse, changeable range of options for every product. But competition is also "imperfect" from the producer's point of view: if only the consumers' wants and buying habits were not so diverse, producers would not have to worry so much about designing and positioning their products correctly to meet diverse, changeable, inarticulate consumer demands. True, producers' decisions do influence what kinds of designs are made available for consumers to choose among. But consumers' decisions also influence what designs are profitable for producers to make. While making decisions, choosing among suppliers, choosing what to purchase and when and how often, by choosing what to grow at home, and what to prepare at home, and what to buy preprocessed, the cook is balancing various market signals and personal tastes, and giving various signals back to the market, helping to define the relative economies of different designs. We are observing here an iterative, multiply-overlaid evolutionary process of "competition as a discovery procedure."

But it is not as if only one solution is acceptable, only one standard design for any one standard kind of tool. We are able to choose both which standard tool designs to use, and how many alternatives to maintain as part of our "standard toolkit." While some cooks choose to stock their kitchens with a bevy of implements for all possible uses and occasions, others stock them only with a knife, a fork, a spoon, a pot, a frying pan, and a cup which is used both for measuring and drinking. While some of us stock our kitchens with copper, silver and china, others make do with aluminum, stainless steel and melmac. While some of us decide to purchase unbleached wheat flour, Arabian coffee beans, herb teas, and locally grown fresh fruits and vegetables, others purchase Velveeta, Lipton's, and Jolly Green Giant. The same diversity of preferences holds over time: sometimes we decide to prepare a can of soup; at other times we decide we have enough time to prepare a full meal. Sometimes we prefer to eat alone; whereas at other times we want to participate in a dinner party. Somehow, the standard design of kitchens and all that goes with them seems able to handle this diversity of preferences, naturally, easily, at incredibly low economic or human cost.

An amazing diversity, almost an ecology of implements and foodstuffs, recipes, and styles of kitchen usage seems to peacefully and comfortably co-exist, and to be co-evolving in the vicinity of foods, cooks, and kitchens.

Kinds of Co-evolution of Cooking-related Reservoirs of Information

Where and how are the components of the cook's ecology of decision making co-evolving?

Recipes and Foodstuffs. New foodstuffs result in new recipes; new recipes accelerate acceptance of the new food by explaining to the cook how to use them.

Appliances and Diners' Expectations. Refrigerators lead to frozen foods, which lead to desires for large home-freezer sections, which lead to economies of maintaining a diverse inventory, which lead to changes in expectations of diners as to variety and seasonal availability of foods.

Cooks, Incomes and Kitchens. More money allows one to buy new implements and appliances, and maintain more diversity; greater diversity and availability of interesting and useful implements may lead to a greater willingness to make money, in order to buy what one cannot make, and would rather not do without.

The Designs of the Cooks' Tools. To some extent, all the designs will be co-evolving with one another, via intermediate mechanisms, as a result of changing bids, asks, and judgments of all the participants in the different markets for different tools. Fashions will come and go. During some periods there will be no obvious changes. And yet, generally, we should be able to discern broad cases of "progressive" evolution, elaboration, and refinement of tool designs. To reconstruct such cases, it will be necessary to perform a case study not of a particular kitchen, but of a particular tool and of the many kinds of constraints which successively shaped its evolutionary development including its development along multiple differentiated lines, or sub-species. As part of such a case history, it will be necessary to get a feel for the diversity of motives which can guide the decisions of both consumers and producers.

Cooks' Standards and Tastes. Our cook interacts with other markets in addition to public markets. For example, there is the household labor market: the son or daughter, the husband or wife who wishes to teach or learn something. When we choose to learn some skill, some recipe, some level of competence or skill or judgment or taste, this provides a signal about what we consider worth learning, and provides an opportunity for someone else to signal what they consider worth teaching. Or, to give another example, when, during a given occasion for being a "consumer," we celebrate one delicious dish, or gently but firmly suggest that another was "not quite good enough," here, also, we have created a signal, a message. We have contributed to the manufacture of that highly elusive thing, the cook's "standards." But does this mean that even the cook's standards, judgments and tastes may themselves have been manufactured, passed on by tradition, formed independently of specific problem situations within which they are later applied? To some extent, yes. Values, standards, and preferences do often travel far from their origins in time and space, and often are applied unchangingly regardless of local circumstances. But not always. To the extent that the cook himself or herself must eat the products he or she produces, the standards applied will come to reflect personal idiosyncrasies and qualities as well as inherited or learned ones. Thus, to the extent that new personal experiences (gustatory or otherwise) are possible, and in part creatable by our cook, we can say that he or she can design new standards. And to the extent that the cook's new standards--novel dishes, original shortcuts, unusual implements--are externalizable, reproducible, and of use to others, we can say that a real and permanent change has occurred in what we now see as the decision ecology of cooking: something new has been added to the dish pool, to the recipe pool, to the implement pool, to the pool of cooking heuristics, to the pool of standard tools and helpful standards.

Kitchens as Exemplars of Tight Coupling between Theory and Practice

In a world of theoretical and practical information overload, it is hard to decide which theories to study, and which of the infinite number of available facts are the key ones to keep in mind to use in testing those theories. The two kinds of knowledge are often maintained in widely separated locations, described in very different jargons, and generally made hard to compare to one another. But in the realm of cooking, theory and practice are closely intertwined. It is hard to tell where one leaves off and the other begins here, and perhaps that is as it should be. Is a good cookbook a device which tells one "why," aiding the understanding, or a device which tells one "how," aiding the doing? The answer is, in many cases, both. A good cookbook tells us both that cooking too long will cause vegetables to lose taste and texture and how to pick the right duration and temperature. Good cookbooks provide both useful maps of problems and useful strategies for solving them or avoiding them. Milk cartons both hold milk and tell us how quickly it spoils if left at room temperature.

Information is highly organized in kitchens, but the CIS (Cook's Information System) is pragmatically organized around standard patterns of information usage by cooks, standard problems which actually present themselves to cooks, and standard questions formulated in the precise language which tends to show up in the minds of cooks. Because of the lack of artificial separation between the pure science and the applied science of cooking, cooks are able to easily, cheaply, conveniently and reliably test the assertions of cooking theorists and cooking consultants. Cooks can directly compare the quality of the recipes in one cookbook with those of another, develop their own kitchen organizations, perform their own experiments, and draw their own inferences, albeit imperfectly, of course. What cooks give up in theoretical rigor, however, they arguably gain in theoretical relevance--the proof of the pudding, as they say, is in the eating, n'est ce pas? And not in how carefully written the recipe is, or how great an authority has spoken in its favor.

Thus, in kitchens, processes of conjecture and refutation are kept tightly coupled. Perhaps this reveals something about how human beings prefer or have learned to deal with matters of enduring, everyday importance: in cooking, unlike in politics and other bureaucracy-burdened decision environments, we seem to insist on maintaining conditions conducive to good learning, good feedback, and good incentives for producing a quality outcome. We do not try to plan meals five years in advance. We do not try to discover or implement a societal "consensus of opinion" on whether we can all afford to eat lobster, or none of us can, this particular year.

Suppose we accept this notion that kitchens and cooking processes are structured so as to promote efficient learning and decision making, and resilience and responsiveness to the variety of tastes and experience, and the steady stream of life's little surprises. What questions does this raise regarding the many decision-aiding tools which management scientists have developed and promoted over the years? We should at least ask ourselves, if pert charts, cost-benefit analyses, expected value utility rollbacks, linear programs, and management by objectives are really as generally useful as their more extreme partisans maintain, why do not we see these methods or analogues of them being used more often in kitchens? Somehow, in and around kitchens, we are able to "manage a very complex set of processes, and maintain diversity, flexibility, and quality without using decision trees, computers, or strategic cooking consultants.

Can the ways that the various standard decision-aiding tools fail to be used in kitchens shed some light on how they may fail to be adequate in other environments of decision making? And can the kinds of standard practices, habits and methods which everyday cooks actually do use be identified and generalized in such a way that they can be fruitfully applied elsewhere?

III. The Oikonomikos of Information

Our problem is to understand as precisely as possible how it is that diverse items of information actually get integrated by ordinary individuals in everyday life. We participate in such integrative processes all the time, easily, normally, and for the most part, unconsciously. But how can we describe the common features of such processes? Don't they vary from time to time, from person to person, and from situation to situation? Clearly, they do vary a great deal, but perhaps these variations are less unmanageable than they might at first appear. Defining exactly what is being integrated in any one situation, and defining exactly how it is being integrated in that situation can present severe problems at times; but my argument and interest in this section is only to show how such integration can and does frequently and efficiently occur, and to delineate some general qualities of these ordinary information integration processes.

My fundamental hypothesis is that most information is only integrated by human beings implicitly during the act of using standard tools, designs, artifacts, procedures, and concepts. This claim has several corollaries:
A: that most information integrating is not done by decision makers, but through decision makers;
B: that, for the most part, "our" decisions are made by the mental and physical tools upon which we rely, tools which we use, but which use us also;
C: that the information integrating function of tools is often invisible, implicit in the specific designs of the tools, designs which have evolved subject to complex selective pressures;
D: that these standardized designs carry information of many kinds, e. g. of how to use the tools, when to use them, why to use them, whether or not to use them, and with what other tools to use them;
E: that our natural awareness of our explicit calculations and plans continually blinds us to the more frequent, deeper, and wider ways in which we rely on tool-based, implicit calculation processes to structure, process and integrate our explicit calculations and plans.

There is something common to all processes of paying attention--to acting, feeling, thinking, deciding, formulating problems, solving problems, setting goals, pursuing goals, loafing, doing "nothing," searching for errors, or correcting errors--our minds, and bodies require tools to pay attention with. But the tools we pay attention with also impose regularities on our thoughts and actions other than those explicitly recognized or intended. Frequent users of any tool commonly note that the tool has come to feel like an extension of themselves. It is less common to hear that the users become extensions of their tools, but this appears to happen also. We come to identify ourselves with our methods as well as our goals; with our assumptions as well as our conclusions; with our modus operandi as well as our raison d'etre. We have all heard that, "You are what you eat." But this observation holds quite generally: we are what we do, what we strive for, what we love, even what we hate; indeed, we are whatever we pay attention to, and whatever we pay attention with.

There is nothing new or startling in this idea; at least, it is widely available, in widely different phrasings and contexts, as, e. g., "Clothes make the man," or "The medium is much of the message." I am simply pointing out an extension of this point, that, to the extent that real decisions are conceived of and processed within a decision-formulating or decision-processing medium, they will be strongly influenced by that medium. A decision which is formulated and processed by budgets and balance sheets will come out differently than if it had been formulated by decision trees, or supply and demand curves, or regression analyses, or experience curves, or linear programs, or notions of utility maximization.

Decision tools make the decision, one might say. But note, I am not saying these tools are useless. The cliches just mentioned are cliches because they are largely true and valid and inevitable: in most climates, we do have to wear clothes, and the clothes we wear do make us, in part. They provide some information to others, and we do not really resent the fact. We get upset primarily when others treat our clothes "as if" they said everything worth knowing about us. The same distinction holds with respect to the ways in which decision tools can be used and abused. A decision which is processed by only one decision tool suffers from fragility due to the impoverished amount of information which any one decision-aiding tool can grasp or utilize. This is the root of the difficulties which emerge whenever an attempt is made to "systematize" a decision process, whatever the system: there are always diminishing informational returns to reliance on any one decision facilitating tool or method.

This suggests that in any complex decision environment, the best strategy is to learn how to use a range of helpful tools, sometimes singly, sometimes in combination with one another If the ordinary organizational decision maker lives in an environment at least as complex as a cook's, then he, like a cook, needs tools which will help him integrate diverse information from many sources. He needs to have tools which, instead of implicitly excluding some kinds of information as "qualitative," or "hard to put precisely," are instead actively helpful at integrating such information with whatever more precise data happens to be available. And he needs to be able to use many different kinds of tools some specialized, some specially generalized; some mass marketed and cheap, others customized and expensive.

How might we characterize the vast set of common tools we use in everyday decision making and problem solving, in and out of organizations? What are some major kinds of Attention Integrators (AIs) which we use everyday to organize the processes of our attention, our efforts, our actions, our interactions, our decisions and, albeit, often invisibly, the outcomes of "our" decisions?

Five Broad Classes of Attention Integrators (AIs)

An Attention Integrator can be viewed as any information handling method or device or regularity which serves the function of focussing or structuring our thoughts and actions. It seems to be peculiarly easy to forget that our thoughts and actions are always rooted in the huge pool of ideas, distinctions, explanations, interpretations, ways of thinking, perceiving, feeling, remembering, acting, and responding to the pre-classified/pre-interpreted/pre-explained actions of others which posterity has allocated to us at our birth without any prior or comprehensive intent on our own parts. We may add to this pool, or improve it in some respect, but we surely never step outside of it.

1. One type of common Attention Integrator is any object, natural or man-made. Just as a cook uses refrigerators, milk cartons, and kitchen counters, we constantly rely on standard tangible objects and structures to constrain our thoughts and actions, e. g. desks, offices, air conditioning systems, cars, planes, trains, telephones, computers, pencils, and watches. What is available to see, to pick-up, to use, at any point in time and any particular place, appears definite and limited. We are not normally asked to try to pay attention to everything at once. As with kitchens, the sets of objects available to use/pay attention to in a particular place and time may be co-evolved, adapted to particular purposes or requirements.

2. Another type of common Attention Integrator is any internal biological structure, sensory process or regularity in sensory cues. Whatever our conscious mind may believe, our mind is in fact always relying on many regular features of our inner and outer environments in order to function, i. e., to maintain consciousness and give it structure at any point in time. If objects are what we pay attention to, natural biological processes are what we pay attention with.

Some examples are regularities in the designs of our sense and body structures, including those of the brain. Thus, processes of seeing are regularly structured by what objects are out there to see, by what atmosphere or ocean is out there to see through or fail to see through, by the sense organs we carry inside ourselves with which we are available to see, and by whatever processes the brain performs to integrate all these kinds of information with each other, and with information available from other senses, and from memories.

Cooking would not be the same without our particular evolved senses of taste and smell, or without the diverse chemical properties of foods and our sense organs which enable these sensory faculties to function. Similarly, just as the mind uses tangible artifacts and natural objects to have something to pay attention to, our mind continually relies upon our eyes, our ears, and the regular physical properties of light and sound waves in any process of paying attention to the objects present in any particular setting. (cf. J. J. Gibson, The Senses Considered as Perceptual Systems)

Also, although human sense and motor organs, and the standard processes which maintain them may themselves evolve very slowly, the ways in which we regularly use these senses, and the ways in which we integrate their usage into cultural patterns and individual purposes is not necessarily a matter of slow evolution. Traffic lights and symphony orchestras are new, truly new ways of organizing our sensory awareness capabilities, even though the sensory capabilities are themselves very old. The traffic light itself is an object; but the meaning we ascribe to the difference between a red light and a green light is entirely subjective and cultural, predicated on our near-universal biological ability to accurately sense the difference and respond correctly quickly enough.

3. Another type of common Attention Integrator is any idea, image, concept, belief or attitude. A major difficulty with evaluating these standard shapes and shapers of thoughts, feelings and actions is that we cannot directly observe their usage in the same ways or to the same extent that we can observe the usage of artifacts, natural biological structures, and even explicit recipes or budgets. Concepts and arguments may roughly be written down, but the ways in which they are actually used in our minds may not correspond very closely to our written representations of them. Moreover, the meanings and contexts of concepts, beliefs, arguments, and attitudes constantly change although they seem to evolve with experience and rarely do so in ways which are easily noticeable to others or even to ourselves. Nevertheless, whatever the truth may be about how we actually use concepts physiologically, I suggest that these tools also are utilized by most of us, most of the time in standard ways, to impart relatively standardized effects on the thoughts and actions with other kinds of attention integrators.

The usefulness of any one concept or distinction is a highly contextual matter; a joint function of objective tasks and environments, including whatever alternative Attention Integrating devices are available in the environment, also available to be used, and subjective prior learning, including learning how to recognize and utilize various kinds of AIs. Therefore, we would expect the patterns which must exist in the evolution of the meanings of words, of household homilies, and of standard arguments, to be quite complex. But we would expect certain broad patterns to hold: for example, in most times and places we would expect "the extent of the market" for symbols and concepts to develop, expand, and differentiate over time. We would expect new distinctions and perceptions regarding similarities to be continually emerging, looking for comfortable niches in our minds.

But how can such new idea-type Attention Integrators originate? Presumably there are many different ways in which innovative ideas can originate and spread. The invention of words is probably the major route by which new ideas enter the pool of Attention Integrators. Another is through the invention of catchy phrases which take advantage of rhymes, or unusual alliterations, or obvious allusions, to make themselves memorable.

Note that only some Attention Integrating ideas attain objectivity, i. e. usability by others than their creators. For the most part, it is when an idea becomes capable of outliving its originator or original user, and capable of providing similar information integrating capabilities to some new person that we call it an Attention Integrating Tool. The originator of the tool may have known enough to "make do" without it; but the person who has to be taught about a tool and how and when to use it may never know enough to understand its full range of functions, much less how to invent it in the first place. Many delectable dishes, alas, die with their cook/inventor, and so can ideas or distinctions of potential widespread interest, barring timely and effective communication.

4. Another type of common Attention Integrator is any rule, heuristic, procedure, plan, program, recipe, blueprint, method, or technique. These are mostly used to organize or structure our attention, our thoughts, our actions, or our interpersonal interactions over time. Just as a cook uses recipes and cooking rules of thumb, architects use blueprints and building standards, organizations use organization charts and standard operating procedures, decision analysts use decision trees, accountants use balance sheets, and managers use plans and budgets. Natural processes also structure our attention temporally, e. g. regular cycles in night and day, lunar cycles, the seasons, and the various cues and aspects of human maturation and aging; and these in turn structure many of the typical heuristics used by farmers, commuters, doctors, cooks, everyone.

5. Lastly, one important type of Attention Integrator is any specialist or expert. We may select which ones to use, when, and how often, but we do not directly choose what kinds of specialties are available to select among. We can choose to learn from Betty Crocker, or Colonel Sanders, or a famous French or Cantonese chef; but not all possible cuisines are actual and available. Until recently, when one hired an economist, one obtained a Keynesian or a Monetarist. Economists came in many standard brands--Chicago, M.I.T., Cambridge--but not Henry George Institute or University of Moscow, at least not in "respectable" scientific circles. As another example: in the United States, the American Medical Association attempts to regulate the quality of doctors, but it also standardizes them, defines what specializations will be generally recognized, and defines what kinds of knowledge will be considered as worthy of being mastered by each recognized kind of specialist. In private organizations we commonly talk about managers as being specialists in marketing, manufacturing, engineering, research and development, finance and accounting, or corporate planning. A specialist has been disciplined or trained--in theory, and in experience (one hopes). He or she "knows" what to pay attention to, and what to ignore.

But is the specialist's perspective ever complete? Does he or she always pay attention to the "right" things, from the point of view of the client? To consider this point more fully, we turn to a discussion of several key constraints on the design of any useful Attention Integrator.

What Makes a Good Attention Integrator

As in kitchens, the information conveyed by any one action organizing tool, and organized by it, is only partial. Recipes do not tell all, but only some of the relevant facts about a dish. Also, they do not command, but only suggest (cf. James G. March on "Gruneberg Rules"). Thus programs, rules, recipes, plans, methods, techniques and even blueprints are misconceived when they are thought of as being complete or accurate models of our actions or intentions. Rather, and inevitably, they are only tools which in certain respects, often accidentally or unnecessarily look like or remind us of our desired actions or goals.

This point requires special development. Any given Attention Integrator will always be both more and less than a perfect representation of our actual desired actions. This is because any particular tool will have developed subject to constraints that it be a usable, convenient, economical, and reliable representation. The omnipresence of these kinds of constraints on development will result in at least three kinds of modifications of any perfect representation.

First, information which is adequately stored elsewhere, that is, which does not need to be stored in the plan or recipe because it will automatically be brought into play when the plan or recipe is used, will not be stored redundantly in the plan or recipe. For example, recipes do not specify the chemical composition of the foodstuffs called for; they do not need to, for the foodstuffs themselves carry that information.

Second, information which is not useful to keep track of will totally drop out of the information system, or will never be added in the first place. Our models never tell us everything that is there, but only what we need to pay attention to.

Third, models or representations of information which are easily misused tend to be "biased" to compensate for, and thereby prevent, the "expected" misuse. Speed Limit signs at curves in the road are always posted below the speed at which an average inattentive driver in an average slightly-out-of-tune car would be courting disaster.

Thus, usage stylizes even the pictures we use to talk about and guide our actions. Our recipes, maps and models of what we are doing or what we mean to be doing are never either comprehensive, representing all the important kinds of information we are using, or accurate, representing exactly how any one kind of information is being used or unbiased nor would we want them to be. Rather, like all good tools, they have evolved subject to the constraints that they fit snugly both into our minds, and into the external environments within which they have ordinarily been used in the past. Tools of all kinds co-evolve with their users and with the environments in which they are ordinarily used. Tools are not primarily representations of problems or solutions; rather they represent our relationship with problems and solutions, our interpretation of them. We use tools to solve problems, not to model them. A hammer doesn't look like a nail or like the process of hitting. Nor do words look like their meanings, or the ideas they are used to convey. The designs of tools convey information about the actual processes and constraints on their use far more than about how we think we use them.

It's helpful here to consider the normative aspects of designs for tools other than recipes and plans. Consider a hammer. What might a bad hammer be like? What must a hammer not be like in order for it to be good, useful, and helpful in practice, and not just in theory? A good hammer must not fail any of at least three kinds of (selective) tests. A well-designed hammer must be: coordinated with its user (graspable), coordinated with what it must hammer (effective), and coordinated with the relation between user and object of use (convenient), i. e., available and usable when needed.

In general we may say that a tool fails if we can't grasp it, if it can't impart energy or organization to the object or process it is supposed to affect, or if it cannot simultaneously be used by a human being for its effective purpose.

Design failure is easy to see or discover--in recipes and hammers; it is relatively easy to see in most artifacts and heuristics of everyday life. But decision tool design failures can be extraordinarily difficult to see except by individuals who, like cooks and handymen regularly use their recipes and tools and are also fortunate enough to receive direct, regular feedback on adequacy in practice, and not just in theory.

Like artifacts and recipes, ideas and concepts can be judged as better or worse tools. Like all good tools a good idea or classification or explanation should be easy to grasp, effective at grasping some real or useful pattern in the world, and convenient and available when you need it. If ideas are like hammers, then a well-designed idea is "handy" as well as interesting, useable by harried laymen as well as by methodical specialists, and it doesn't break when used in a real, stressful setting. If words are the tools we use to grasp a useful idea when we need it, then "the right word" for an idea, for many of us, had better not have too many syllables, or a peculiar foreign spelling, or too much similarity to another word with a very different meaning. A pedant on hearing a word misused will lecture the speaker on using the wrong word for his meaning; a wordsmith will ponder the reasons why the "right" word is failing to out-compete the wrong word within the speaker's mental environment of decision making.

To return to the question of whether the specialist's attention is ever "complete," e. g. with respect to the needs of a client: the specialist's characteristic thought patterns, concepts, causal attributions, methods, artifacts, procedures, patterns of sensory awareness, motor skills and biases have all been selected for and trained by specialized training and specialized experiences, for use within the context of a much larger available set of decision tools. Specialists are no more perfect representations of reality than any other kind of Attention Integrator. Specialists may fail in any of the standard ways: by failing to be adequately graspable by the client, meaning too expensive or too specialized to understand the client's wider context; by failing to be effective because of an inadequate awareness of actual requirements for successful implementation of recommendations; insufficient ability or willingness to take the time to implement recommendations; and by failing to be convenient by being too busy to be sufficiently available when needed.

Thus, every tool, method, approach, or discipline eventually reaches a point of diminishing returns with respect to any one problem or situation. The advocates of that tool, method, approach, or discipline will not be the first ones to tell us when their panaceas and strictures are no longer worth the costs. They may not know how to notice when and where this is the case.

Effective Integration of Attention Integrators

How can we learn to optimally use "expert" specialists who cannot be relied upon to accurately evaluate the limits of their own usefulness and expertise? And how might we learn to develop and refine our own specializations without simultaneously developing and refining increased narrowness into our perceptions and characteristic ways of behaving?

Both questions appear to require the same kind of answer. Most of us need to make regular efforts to increase the range of Attention Integrators we are familiar with, and which we consequently understand how to use, how not to use, and how to use in makeshift ways when our usual Attention Integrators seem not quite appropriate to the current task. Cooks, we note, are always trying new kinds of recipes, rearranging their kitchens, exploring new ingredients and ways of combining them. They seem to enjoy developing diversity of skills, and progressively refining them, both learning and teaching them in widely varying contexts. Breadth of experience and understanding is not a luxury, but a necessity here. We cannot manage what we entirely fail to understand or know how to perform, for we have no basis on which to discriminate or learn in our choices and actions. We need to ensure that we understand a little bit about everything we want to deal with both for our own sakes and for the sake of those who wish to rely upon our advice. To put this another way: if good meals are made by good cooks only because they are relying on good kitchen Attention Integrators, then good decisions will be made by good decision makers only if they have available for use a diverse and easily integrated set of decision-supporting Attention Integrators. A good decision maker may simply be someone who has become skilled at using a large and diverse number of Attention Integrators, and who perhaps assisted by a few good rule-of-thumb AIs has learned to employ them variably and appropriately depending on the circumstances, i. e., to use them in a balanced and integrated fashion.

Thus, a good decision maker, like a good cook, must be familiar with many artifact or object AIs, many action-organizing AIs, many natural structure or process AIs, many idea AIs, and many specialist AIs, and thereby develop perspective on the relative strengths and weaknesses of any one AI in any one setting.

But which Attention Integrators should the decision maker learn? In what order? Is it any coincidence that there exist standard techniques for teaching and learning useful packages and combinations of Attention Integrators?

Figure 2 lists standard packages of Attention Integrators which we commonly use and commonly recognize as useful in diverse circumstances and settings, in diverse combinations, for diverse purposes. They are arranged in order from smaller to larger units, that is, from small stable units to larger stable assemblies of smaller stable units. They are usable by ordinary decision makers who have neither invented them for the occasion of their use, nor even necessarily adapted them to local circumstances. They are structures of a general kind, which are widely and frequently and variously used. And they tend to maintain their structure, meaning, or content over time, albeit not necessarily perfectly or in all cases.

Standard Meanings: of words, concepts, ideas, measures of value, classifications, perceived similarities, perceived differences, and identifications; become the basis of

Standard Rules: heuristics, Gruneberg rules, attitudes, interpretations, metaphors, images, contrasts, stereotypes, habits, skills, phrases, aphorisms, maxims, norms, customs, courtesies, desires; and are combined and evolved into

Standard Roles: roles, exemplars, styles, models, theories, techniques, methods, procedures, recipes, formulas, blueprints, rituals, strategies, ploys, policies, frames of reference, stories, myths, scripts, schemas, schemata, prototypes, archetypes, designs, plans, business practices, contractual forms, property right definitions, analytical taxonomies, routines, conventions and games; which are collected, summarized, prioritized and organized within

Standard Compilations: handbooks, toolkits, specialists, experts, paradigms, ideologies, academic disciplines, leadership styles, and bibles; reservoirs of advice on what tools to use, when, and how, including:

Standard Advice that a good or just or devout or professional or well-trained Al user is one who gives his all/gives all his attention, and hence, all his allegiance, to a single AI, a single method, a single framework, or academic discipline, or handbook, or bible or leader or ideology or occupational affiliation, etc. and/or:

Standard Counter-Advice that, on the contrary, a wise and good person is one who pays attention diversely, who pays attention to "quality," or "craftsmanship," or "scholarship," or who "takes a balanced view of things;" and who takes the time to learn enough diversity of tools and techniques and academic disciplines to have some notion of what a "balanced view of things" might be.

Figure 2: Standard Packages of Attention Integrating Tools

For the most part, the relation between all these different kinds of ideas and groups of ideas is positional. Each idea exists as part of an overall ecology of attention integrating ideas, within which we formulate problems, imagine potential alternative solutions, and "make" "our" "decisions." But even the decision processes we consciously notice are deeply rooted in other forms of intelligence.

In particular, the "knowledge" or "judgment" which we develop and use for comparing and contrasting different Attention Integrators, and learning which ones to use when, is developed not consciously, but "subconsciously" or tacitly, as a set of skills or habits. [cf. F. A. Hayek, The Sensory Order; Michael Polanyi, The Tacit Dimension. ] The reasons why a seasoned veteran chooses to use one tool or one approach in a given set of circumstances, rather than another are rarely syllogistic reasons, but fruits of subconscious integrations. Such perceptions, intuitions or skilled subconscious judgments can be misleading, or even entirely wrong, but they are not manufactured out of thin air. They are results of real but normally subconscious mental processes or associations.

Thus there are at least two different paths by which each of us integrate information outside of conscious calculations, often simultaneously--via Attention Integrators, and via our subconscious minds. I believe most information is integrated, processed, utilized and stored in these ways, largely independent of our conscious "thoughts." Nor should we find this surprising, since our more distant animal ancestors managed to survive without having any conscious thoughts at all! How many of us are able to visualize, even crudely, the processes by which for hundreds of millions of years, all the diverse non-sentient members of the plant and animal kingdoms were able to make their "decisions" and "manage" their affairs without a single explicit plan or conscious calculation? How many of us fail to see or understand the ease and ubiquity with which they evolved the ability to couple non-conscious, standardized "action programmes" with other, standardized "patterns of information" (stimuli) regularly available in the local environment? When we say an organism has adapted to an environment, a large part of what we mean is that it has learned which patterns of information regularly available in that environment are regularly associated with occasions when it is a good idea to release some previously learned action programmes, and not others (cf. K. Lorenz, Behind the Mirror).

If birds do not know how or why they are building nests, or even that they are doing so, but just do it, one step at a time, we should not be so surprised at how naturally empires get built, and budget requests tend to increase, also one step at a time. We are overestimating the extent of our conscious control of our own decisions and actions when we assume that these and many other regular features of social life are entirely premeditated corollaries of our conscious calculations and easily explicable preferences.

However, our subconscious mental processes do not work with the same fixed and inherited content which characterizes the mental processes of the lower animals. We can influence our subconscious mental processes, just as we can influence our conscious mental processes, via the designs of the many Attention Integrators upon which we rely. There are, then, many potential reasons for feeding our brains with diverse concepts and AIs--even the ones we cannot consciously use we may be able to use subconsciously.

A Holographic Interpretation of Individuals, Decisions, and Organizations

Thus far, we have recognized that we can create standard, reproducible Attention Integrators and that we can use and reuse them. Our ordinary image of ourselves is that each of us has "a" definite identity, or personality, or self, a being with a specific nature who from time to time makes choices concerning which tools to use in which circumstances for which purposes. But if our tools carry out our purposes, it is fair to point out, we are carriers also. In the epistemology of everyday life, each of us, each of our decisions, each of our actions can be viewed as media within which the many kinds of standardized Attention Integrators play and interplay. We are, in a sense, their images or reflections. By the partial accident of their local and simultaneous intersection, they form us, our thoughts, our decisions, our actions, our identities; and we re-form them. Plato, then, was half right: there are forms which are "eternal," in that they outlive individual men. But the standard forms do not exist separately from human affairs: they reflect us as well as we them, and they perpetuate themselves through us, not independently.

Now all this points toward some peculiar concepts of change and causality. For example, when we see an apparent change occur, how do we know that any real change or innovation has occurred? We normally do not have any such knowledge. We are always being fooled by old wine in new bottles, especially since each generation presents us with a lot of new bottles ready to be filled. When hair was short and became long, some of us thought something new was going on. But short hair and long hair, establishments and anti-establishments, periods of "stability" and periods of "change" are standard forms which come and go ... in and out of sight. Similarly, fashions in styles of argument may come and go, from dialogue to lecture, from verbal to written, from trial by jury to trial by inquisition to trial by purchase or sale; the differences between these forms are hardly trivial, but they are not new differences. Others have seen them before us, and perhaps found something intelligent to say about them. History, then, and literature, and "antique" commentaries on politics may not be quite as irrelevant to present circumstances as the myth of the new would have us believe. Not all our decisions are unique. Most are not even unusual. Not just the causes, but the cures for present difficulties, may sometimes be available in the past. Indeed, the present starts to look more and more like a step in a standard recipe, slowly being played out. The apparent newness of our situation starts to look like the apparent newness of any party or meal--the same old faces and dishes, simply combined slightly differently.

I am overstating my case here, to provoke the reader into questioning the extent that individuals ever make decisions or changes, whatever the witness of common sense and our own eyes. I do, however, admit the reality of change, of real decisions--but only after some rearrangements have been made in the ways we look at "change."

New Tensions of Consciousness

>From the perspective of this paper, deep, or "important," or "objective" change is synonymous with new designs, with new Attention Integrators, with new patterns of organization of attention. This is a geneticist's definition. When something drops out of the pool of Attention Integrators--when a distinction vanishes from a language, when a phrase becomes untranslatable, when a masterpiece is destroyed, when a custom loses its meaning--then a significant change has occurred. We will not have that same pattern of attention available to us for future use in situations where, often unexpectedly, it would have proven useful. We will instead have to make do with lesser, or at least different, tensions of consciousness. But when a new design emerges into the pool of Attention Integrators, then even though we witness no change--at least in our standard measures of important changes (such as GNP, average per-capita income, sales, or public opinion as objectively and scientifically measured)--nevertheless, a deep, and potentially revolutionary change has in fact occurred. And the critical juncture is the moment when an individual's idiosyncratic practices and mental schematas achieve objectification and reproducibility. This holds to some extent even regardless of the medium within which the objectification takes place. All that counts is that the new design is available, whether in a vivid image, a memorable phrase, a crisp description, or an artifact which is economical to produce and market. The new idea needs to be only something which a human being can grasp, whether consciously, sub-consciously, or, indirectly via some other Attention Integrator which can grasp it or link to it.

The new Attention Integrator need not be explicitly formulated or even understood by its creator or original user. Its usefulness may only be implicit in whatever artifact or phrase or image or memory it has been reflected into. A hologram-holding piece of plastic looks like just a piece of plastic, but when the right light shines through it, the implicit image becomes explicit, even though no change at all has occurred in the plastic itself.

When the light is turned off, moreover, the "beautiful vision" vanishes. Perhaps some common courtesies, puzzling heuristics, and incomprehensible institutions work in similar ways: we do not know why they work, but we see what kinds of actions cause the beautiful visions to disappear, and therefore refrain from acting "discourteously," or "against the rules," or "against the noble traditions of our noble forefathers," etc.

The Assembly of Quality Decisions

To what extent are most decisions like holograms? Is a good decision outcome like a good holographic image? Is it stored in a distributed fashion, implicit in the quality of the Attention Integrators which the decision maker--a better term would be decision assembler--is relying on? Our cook would probably nod his assent. Also, conversely, when something goes wrong in the outcome, the cook knows that, without being able to show which particular recipe step, or ingredient, or appliance malfunction was responsible, something was probably wrong with one or more of the inputs, with one of the Attention Integrators. This is not always the case, however--sometimes the cook goofs; and sometimes we are dealing with matters which we have not yet learned how to control.

The cook is not always able to evaluate the quality of each of his Attention Integrators each time he wishes to use them, or on those particular occasions when he needs to ensure that, at least to the extent humanly possible, a quality outcome will be the likely result. Consequently, he will as a matter of standard procedure insist on developing and maintaining a great deal of "slack" in his information system; he will always be trying to improve the quality of his ingredients, the reliability of his implements, the tastiness of his dishes, the clarity of his recipes. Such increments of quality can only be generated slowly, and have to be generated throughout his information systems, for he never quite knows exactly what kind of rainy day for which he will need them, what kinds of emergencies with which they will have to cope, and what kinds of solace he will wish to derive from them, during "hard times." Thus, when time and energy permits, our decision maker/cook needs to constantly reexamine the ecology in which he lives. He needs to keep examining each component of the internal and external environment, asking how it can be improved or altered so as to better fit into local needs and local circumstances. The effects of all these piecemeal improvements will normally be indirect; they will be hard to foresee or even to notice as they are occurring. Things will just somehow seem to function a little more smoothly, and perhaps more cheerfully.

Not that our decision maker/cook alone is responsible for the fruitfulness of his diverse efforts. Often we are highly dependent, in our own lives, on the degree of thoughtfulness or carelessness which others have taken in what may have seemed to them like trivial matters. The designers of refrigerators and foodstuffs inhabit our kitchens; and some of the recipes we design will provide cheer or disappointment to people we will never meet.

Postscript and Partial Bibliography

The working draft from which this paper is drawn, "Entrepreneurial Behavior and the Roots of Change" was presented at graduate seminars in Organizational Behavior and Engineering Economic Systems at Stanford University in 1980. Since then it has circulated privately among a few friends, who urged me to publish it; but I felt that additional research and major revisions would be required to better bring out the concepts and arguments. The press of other business (quite literally--two entrepreneurial start-ups, in fact) has prevented me from doing additional work along these lines. I'm grateful to Don Lavoie for providing the motivation and assistance which has finally led to publication.

In undertaking revisions I was confronted with the many ways in which my thinking, my choice of language, and my style of presentation have evolved over the last 10 years. There are points in this article which I would put differently now, and many points of style which I would change. However, I have chosen to leave the text mostly as originally written. To undertake a more major revision would have led, inevitably, to further delays.

The core emphasis on "decisions as integrations of evolved components and environments" rather than "decisions as calculations," emerged from consideration of diverse ideas about thinking and decision making taken from very different universes of discourse. The authors whose ideas most influenced this paper are Hayek, Popper, Polanyi, March, Simon, Gibson, Lorenz, Dawkins, and Goffman. How responsible any or all of these authors are for whatever "new" ideas there may be in "The Ecology of Decisions," is, of course, a matter of judgment. They certainly provided a large part of the ecology of my decisions while writing it.


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Phil Salin is an economist-entrepreneur who has been instrumental in the deregulation of two industries: telecommunications, and satellite launching. His newest venture, The American Information Exchange Corporation (AMIX) is developing a radically new approach to providing online information.


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