1/ Consider the difference between an onion and a piece of ginger. The ginger root is the motif for what philosophers call a rhizome. The onion for what they call an arborescence.
2/ With an onion, you can always tell which way is up, and can distinguish horizontal sections apart from vertical sections easily by visual inspection.
2/ With a piece of ginger, there is no clear absolute orientation around an up, and no clear distinction between horizontal and vertical.
3/ According to the linked Wikipedia entry (worth reading), a rhizome "allows for multiple, non-hierarchical entry and exit points in data representation and interpretation."
4/ If you tend to use the cliched "hierarchies versus networks" metaphor for talking about old versus new IT, you would do well to shift to the rhizomatic/arborescent distinction.
5/ Both onions and ginger roots show some signs of both hierarchical structure and network-like internal connections.
6/ The difference is that one has no default orientation, direction of change, or defining internal symmetries. Rhizomes are disorderly and messy in architectural terms.
7/ The diagram above shows a partial view of my personal frankenstack: a mess sprawling over wordpress, slack, mailchimp and dozens of other technology platforms.
8/ As a free agent solopreneur with a weird mix of activities, my frankenstack is probably more complex than most, but not as complex as some power-users I know.
9/ If you work in a large organization defined by an enterprise IT system, your frankenstack is likely more arborescent than mine. More onion-like.
10/ But this is not going to last much longer. Already, bleeding edge enterprise IT platform architecture is acquiring the rhizomatic characteristics of the consumer web.
11/ Why is the rhizome a better mental model for IT infrastructure than either hierarchies or networks? The answer has to do with the curse of dimensionality.
12/ All of us today live informationally high-dimensional lives. We manage many complex information stocks and flows that merge and mix in a labyrinthine permissions/security matrix.
13/ Hierarchies and networks are both clean, legible architectural patterns. Applying them to high dimensional situations is highly budrensome and largely useless.
14/ Consider an organization with a strictly hierarchical org chart. You could model it with a single variable: who reports to whom. "Level" is a dependent variable.
15/ Or consider an organization that's a strict network topology. You could model it with a graph: who is connected to whom. "Degrees of separation" is a dependent variable.
16/ Now start to throw in complicating factors. In orgs, you could have dotted-line relationships, floating assignments, full-time/part-time boundaries, staff vs. line etc.
17/ In a network, you could have different complicating factors: asymmetry vs symmetry in follows, algorithmically maintained feeds that drive interactions, and so forth.
18/ With each complicating factor, more new variables enter the picture. The dimensionality increases. However, not all dimensions are equally important.
19/ So you end up with a mess of organizing constructs: hierarchies, networks, group boundaries, permission levels, version histories, event histories, and so on.
20/ If you tried to extend a platonic concept like "hierarchy" or "network" you'd end up with impossibly high-dimensional structures that are empty for the most part.
21/ Instead, you switch to only modeling things that have information content, and doing so piecemeal. You end up with "crumpled" versions of high-dimensional structures in low-dimensional spaces.
22/ In my rhizome picture above for example, there are a dozen dimensions (the words in green). But I have a loose, gingery representation in 3d space.
23/ Things are related as they are pragmatically required to be, and interpenetrate and relatively orient as is most convenient, rather than to conform to a platonic pattern.
24/ The archetypal action in a rhizomatic information architecture is cut-and-paste. The spreadsheet is the archetypal integration tool: a sort of generalized clipboard.
25/ There is a relationship here to the idea that the medium is the message, and Conway's law (product structure mirrors org structure).
26/ Our information environments are becoming rhizomatic because our informational lives are becoming rhizomatic, and vice versa, in a chicken-and-egg loop.
27/ Tools with rhizomatic dispositions include, besides cut-and-paste and spreadsheets, things like IFTTT, Zapier, and at the enterprise level, things like microservices.
28/ Rhizomes aren't just about information. They are also about computational capabilities, distribution capabilities, relationships, trust, and permission architectures.
29/ Two of the biggest technologies evolving today -- the blockchain and machine learning -- are fundamentally rhizomatic in their DNA. You have to tread gingerly around them.
30/ Both have the predisposition to follow the contours of information content rather than idealized organization patterns. Neither is architecturally well-behaved and disciplined.
31/ Rhizomes are information dense, topologically complex (things connecting in weird ways), highly heterogeneous and variegated, structurally compact, and with strong form-content coupling.
32/ Unlike pure-paradigm architectures, rhizomes mix and match multiple architectural paradigms along with emergent structures to create high-dissonance information environments.
33/ What is it like to live in a rhizome? Well for starters, there are no default entry or exit points, no "onboarding manual" that teaches you how to survive in one, and no "up."
34/ There is perhaps a distinction between a n00b and an expert, but it is highly localized around specific corners of the rhizome. You can go from n00b to expert and back to n00b in 2 steps.
35/ In a traditional org, you can count the floors between the executive suite and say the shop floor where blue-collar workers build products on assembly lines. Authority falls as the elevator descends.
36/ n00b/expert relationships change slowly and predictably in space as you move. Expertise and authority turfs are simply connected and simply bounded.
37/ In a rhizome, in a move from point A to point B, relative knowledge and expertise might swing wildly. And the value of actions might swing wildly while you're moving.
38/ A rhizome is also a high-friction space. Movement through a rhizome involves an unpredictable stream of transaction costs. Every journey is an obstacle course.
39/ Sometimes there's a good FAQ page, other times a tweet makes a difference between a minute and a week. Discovered structure, rather than inferences from maps, dictates the cost of action.
40/ Sometimes having a programmer friend whom you can quickly email can make the impossible possible. Sometimes an online forum saves hours, sometimes it wastes hours.
41/ Sometimes a single click moves mountains. Other times, you need to move mountains to do one tiny thing. Effort-outcome relationships get out of whack.
42/ Sometimes really important things are trivially easy if you happen to know somebody who knows one weird trick. Other times, common-sense things turn out to be impossible.
43/ In a rhizomatic world, if your expectations and work habits are built around architectural cleanliness, you will get deeply frustrated and be perennially frozen.
44/ If you can only navigate well-paved paths and clean, well-lit spaces, you'll likely spend a lot of time in low-value, or even futile, ritualized behaviors while getting nothing done.
45/ You must be willing to adopt an opportunistic approach to navigating complexity, and switch from ugly hack to elegant beauty, from amateurish fumble to expert flourish, in an instant.
46/ You've heard of analysis paralysis, right? I have a similar concept I call aesthetic paralysis: the desire for elegance in behavior limiting your agency. Superficial beauty is expensive in a rhizome.
47/ This is not to say rhizomes are ugly. Once you accept their inevitability, the act of navigating a rhizome can start to acquire its own beauty.
48/ You start to be less attached to received ideas of importance, order, and logic, and learn to interact with the natural logic of the environment.
49/ You learn to adjust your aesthetic sensibilities to what you're experiencing, so you can actually see what's going on, rather than being bound by aesthetic expectations.
50/ You start to gain what a friend of mine just described as "infrastructure fluency." This is in a way the opposite of architectural taste: an ability to experience the artificial world in its natural language.
51/ Unlike in physical architecture, where there is such thing as an architect's view of reality, the only guide to a true rhizome is a burglar's guide. So stop worrying, and learn to love your frankenstack.