Silos of Casino Capitalism

Something called a “silo” kept cropping up in my field research with media reform broadcasters throughout 2012. At the National Conference of Media Reform in 2011 I attended a panel, “Getting Out of the Silo: Editing Video as a Community.” The organizer told me she was “looking to create an intersectional narrative of collaboration” with the panelists. “We are all living in our little silos,” said the general manager of a small television news network explaining how a possible partner rejected his overture for collaboration. Its “the silophication of the company,” said a vice president of a television news network of the process by which internet, television, and marketing divisions were not well-integrated while taking different approaches to the same product.

What is a Silo?

Silophication is most actively theorized by a person who straddles anthropology, global finance, and journalism: Dr. Gillian Tett, a Cambridge trained anthropologist and US managing editor of the Financial Times. Below I build theory through  categorizing Tett’s use of the term silophication in her financial journalism critical of how regulator’s and banker’s silophication led to an absence of information sharing and the presence of a global financial crisis.

Tett sees the “modern age” as epitomized by tensions between integration and fragmentation. “[W]hile technology is integrating the world in some senses, it is simultaneously creating fragmentation too. Moreover, as innovation speeds up, it keeps creating complex new activities that are only understood by technical ‘experts’ in a silo.” (Tett 2009). Tett provides reasons why silos exist (complexity and professional specification) and implores regulators and bankers to silo-bust through hiring holistic thinking anthropology-like personnel to cross silos and share information.

Tett refers to two mutually reinforcing silos, an intellectual silo epitomized by monological and non-holistic thinking supported by the second structural silo of employment departmental balkanization. She admits to this duality of silos describing “structural silos (ie: departments that do not talk)” and “mental silos (financiers with tunnel vision)” (Tett 2009).

Structural Silos

Tett states that financial regulators, the British Financial Services Authority (FSA), has “increasingly succumbed to a ‘silo’ mentality” (Tett 2008a). They “spend their time ticking boxes, within their allotted silos, rather than take a holistic view of risk” (Tett 2008a). Within these homogenized specialist silos, without “common sense and talk” (Tett 2008b) within or across specific fields, the chances of arriving at disasterous “solutions” increase exponentially. These structural silos are workers’ castes reinforced through “career silos” (Tett 2012a). Tett writes about “career silos” referring to how bankers or regulators remain in those castes, resulting in an absence of silo-transcending, information sharing, and empathy across silos (Tett 2012a).

Structural silos are results of the hierarchical organization of the firm, the spatial arrangement of offices within the firm, and the lack of collaboration within the firm. As Thomas Malaby, Andrew Ross, and other corporate ethnographers have recognized, companies can modify their office cultures and use social technologies to transcend structural silos. Business organization have been known to reject hierarchy in exchange for the semi-lateral flow of information across the firm that comes with heterarchy is analyzed by David Stark. This is often the case in new media firms. As Google, Facebook, and other Silicon Valley companies with their California ideologies have shown, it is possible to institutionalize through space, culture, and practice ways of addressing structural silos. This is de rigueur in new media firms but not so in the financial and federal sectors.

Intellectual Silos

In 2010 emails revealed the extent of the deception and greed within the culture of Goldman Sachs investment bankers and Standard and Poor’s credit raters. Tett refers to these leaked emails as primary documents in her analysis of the mental silos behind the global financial crisis of 2008. She writes, “Their world was also in a strange, geeky silo, into which few non-bankers ever peered” (Tett 2010a). By “geeky silo,” Tett refers to the mental or intellectual silophication that defends proprietary knowledge against boundary breakers.

In another example, Tett expanded her notion of the silo to apply outside of finance and its regulation to describe America and American media as polarizing and tribal (Tett 2011). Tett says that the internet is not helping Americans bridge their tribal silos: “social media, far from bridging these silos, is spawning a new form of cyber-tribalism of its own” (Tett 2011). She continues, “Now that Americans feel free to create their own identity online, they increasingly assume that information should be ‘customised’; and as media companies rush to offer these bespoke services, it becomes easier to retreat into an intellectual silo” (Tett 2011).

The phenomenon of the intellectual silo has been identified by a range of scholars, activists, and anthropologists. Going by the name the “filter bubble” which fosters the “myth of digital democracy,” intellectual silos appear to be reinforced by personalization algorithms and by the innate safety of sameness in risk prone fields of cultural production.

Why Silos?

Complexity and specialization, the result of growth in the knowledge management fields augmented by specific technological competencies, is the reason for the proliferation of task, department, intellectual, and field fragmentation today. Tett claims, “If you look around the world today, it is clear that almost every institution, from the army to the banks, is becoming increasingly complex. That, in turn, is creating a plethora of silos, where specialists beaver away, performing an activity that few outsiders understand. Yet the irony is that while these silos are springing up, we also live with systems that are increasingly interconnected; events on a trading desk or isolated battlefield can send ripples across the world” (Tett 2011b). As social complexity scales up, the silos proliferate and grow dangerously less communicative. In core intelligence industries of modernity, from the military to science, energy production, and finance, the silo curse impacts much of the world’s Western elites and by extension the rest of the world.

Tett explains the process: “This problem is not unique to finance. On the contrary, similar patterns can be found in numerous other areas of the modern world, ranging from science to medicine to energy and manufacturing. For as innovation speeds up in the 21st century, specialists are engaged in highly complex activities in numerous silos, that almost nobody outside that particular silo understands, or even knows about – even though the activity in that silos often has the ability to affect society as a whole. There is thus a bizarre paradox in the 21st century world: namely while the global system is becoming more interconnected in some senses, the level of mental and structural fragmentation remains very intense” (Tett 2010b: 129).

Craft specialization has long been our species’ reaction to increasing social complexity. For logical efficiency as well as the domination of worker’s biopower, hierarchically controlled professionalization has been one solution to the problem of knowledge containment. Employment casuality is one result of such efficiency logic on the human scale. But on the present global scale, and with the increasing dissociation of resources and publics through digital abstractions and its derivatives, unchallenged silos and the logics that support them, appear to be able to create global catastrophes.

Solving Silos?

Tett works for the Financial Times so she is a knowledge worker for financial elites willing to pay exorbitantly to access her pithy writing behind an expense paywall. She is also a social actor who doesn’t want to see her clients create another global financial crisis. For Tett this is the “silo curse” she wants to solve for her clients and because her client’s work impacts the wealth of millions of people, poor and rich (Tett 2009).

Tett provides some evidence that by 2009 certain sectors of finance and financial regulation were embarking on efforts to cure the “silo curse” impacting numerous sectors of modernity: “The problem that military and financial systems alike are grappling with, then, is how to combat tunnel vision; or, more accurately, how to persuade players to recognise how tempting – but also dangerous – it is to operate with a one-track mind” (Tett 2011b).

She applauds companies like Goldman Sachs who “try to ensure that different business silos have ways of watching what each other does” (Tell 2008b). Some regulators, for instance, are employing “macro-prudential surveillance (essentially, a posh word for active, holistic regulation). … [This stresses] the importance of joining up the dots” (Tett 2009). Meanwhile, “asset managers are trumpeting the importance of lateral thought and trying to understand what is happening in seemingly disconnected silos” (Tett 2009). To trump the silo curse, improve regulation, and reduce the prevalence of risking investment, Tett argues that bankers and regulators should “be forced to talk about their business with a wide pool of colleagues, including their immediate silo” (Tett 2008b).

Tett claims that “one of the essential investment challenges today [is to] understand the micro-details of modern silos, but [also] see how the macro-pieces interconnect, in a world that is both highly interconnected and tribal.” (Tett 2009). She looks back to her PhD training in anthropology for the penultimate solution. She proposes the development of “cultural translators”, who can explain what is happening in those silos to everyone else (Tett 2009). Tett is suggesting that anthropologist-like employees could help regulators and bankers translate insights from one department to another. For example, she champions “silo-busters” like Dr. Jim Yong Kim, also an anthropologist, as the president of the World Bank for showing the “power of breaking down the intellectual silos that mar much of the modern world” (Tett 2012b).

She concludes: “So, for my money, a better way to frame the debate is not to call for business leaders to be ethical, but to launch a fight against tunnel vision; call it, if you like, a focus on silo busting, both in terms of how companies organise themselves and how business people think” (Tett 2011b).


Tett identifies two iterations of silophication, one structural and another mental. Silos exist because of the complexities of today’s socio-technical world require professionalization and specialization. Silos need to be solved because they result in bad decisions that negatively impact millions of people. One way to solve the “silo curse” is to employ “cultural translators” who can inform specialized knowledge workers about the big picture of their work.

In my work with media reform broadcasters I identified silos: Inter-firm silos that are similar to structural silos in which departments fail to communicate; Inter-audience silos that are similar to intellectual silos in which television viewers balkanize into affinity groups; and intra-field silos, not addressed in Tett’s silo categorization, that refer to institutions within a single field of cultural production, a social movement for instance, who want to but fail to collaborate because of their silophication.

Financial journalists and media reform broadcasters are using the same opaque term, silophication, to describe similar processes. What is the significance of this shared emergent discourse? A methodological question remains. Tett is both a financial journalist and an anthropologist who is using a term used by the subjects of my research. Building theory requires a meta-language developed from records of an indigenous discourse. What to do when the ethnographic subjects and anthropological theorists share the same theoretical discourse?

Tett, Gillian
2008a The danger of letting ‘group think’ spin out of control. Financial Times, March 28.

Tett, Gillian
2008b How talking can help cut the risk of a lemming fall, Financial Times May 16.

Tett, Gillian
2009 Waking up to the ‘silo curse’ is far from the end of the problem. Financial Time. October 9.

Tett, Gillian
2010a E-mail howlers bring murky credit business out of shadows, Financial Times. March 25.–FYTRiALn-4ySBA&usg=AFQjCNEWttbIb-CaTyM61YL6Fn9HMKhLEA&sig2=Nh82w8uZk9l8z5-rc8y5WQ

Tett, Gillian
2010b Silos and silences: Why so few people spotted the problems in complex credit and what that implies for the future. Banque de France • Financial Stability Review • No. 14 – Derivatives – Financial innovation and stability • July 2010 121.

Tett, Gillian
2011 US Tribes and Tribulations, Financial Times, August 5,

Tett, Gillian
2011b The tunnel-vision thing, Financial Times, January 28.

Tett, Gillian
2011c  ‘Preventing a repeat of the financial crisis isn’t about more business ethics, argues Gillian Tett; it’s about fewer silos’ Financial Management. April 19.

Tett, Gillian
2012a Hildebrand affair a blow for Europe’s public bodies, Financial Times, January 12.

Tett, Gillian
2012b Right time for a World Bank renaissance man, Financial Times, March 30, 2012.

Adam Fish

I am a cultural anthropologist and media studies scholar currently teaching and researching in the Sociology Department at Lancaster University, UK. I investigate media technologies, digital finance, and network activism. @mediacultures

8 thoughts on “Silos of Casino Capitalism

  1. Adam, you have just done something very interesting, introduced an idea and illustrated it in the same essay. As I am sure Gillian Tett is aware, “silo” has a long history in discussions of business organization. A Google search for “silo+business” just produced 12,600,000 hits for me and a search for “silos+organizational+structure” brought me to an online project management course whose top page includes the following,

    “Matrix organizational structures emerged in the 1970’s as an effort to restructure inefficient organizational structures to support the more efficient project-based management. Until then, big organizations had tendency to operate in “silos”, rational divisions where basically separated groups of workers would report to a line manager or functional manager.”

    These remarks are not a put-down. An issue I have often pondered is the spread of academic ideas, which, in the pre-Internet age, might require generations, as, for example, when a business school prof would start talking about bands and tribes, drawing on what he took to be authoritative definitions learned decades earlier when taking an anthropology course as an undergraduate. A marvelous thing about the Internet and search engines is that we can now do what I just did, and, when we run across a new term or concept, track down its history in seconds.

    Anyway, I am curious about how many of us react as you have to “silo,” i.e., as something new and cool, while others of us know that Gillian Tett is intervening in a long standing debate, using already established language, to talk about a particular problem in the banking industry, writing for an audience for whom the term “silo” is “right, I know just what you are talking about” instead of “Gee, whiz.”

  2. Ditto.

    I’d recommend “Ethnocentrism of Disciplines and the Fish-Scale Model of Omniscience” by Donald Campbell if you’d like not to reinvent the wheel. But then again you may want to.

  3. Thanks for the Campbell reference. In return, allow me to suggest Andrew Abbott, Chaos of Disciplines.

  4. My bet is that Gillian Tett also knew that a little anthropology can go a long way. Try reading some, you might like it too.

    Economic anthropologists have studied ‘silos’ for about a hundred years. Sometimes silo is confused with other structures more familiar to writers and readers who do not have direct contact with agrarian work, storage methods, or the breadth of economic thought.

    Silo – comes from the Greek for grain storage structure, might take the form of a pit or a tower; its meaning is found in its distinctive use as a place to keep grain, which is the wealth of agrarian labour and necessary to the sustenance and reproduction of the household.

    The Yam silo was often called the yam house by ethnographers of Trobriands; the puzzle was why did Trobriaders store up yam wealth until it rots in the ediface, when they had yams in abundance to exchange?

    The Guro provide a suggestive link to thinking about money. Grain is used both as seed (like capital) or food (like commodities). Silo serves the functionary role of the bank in the broadest sense of the term.

    The Azande silo was an elevated wooden structure for the stoage of grain. Sitting under their shade is hazardous, and the Azande do not normally do it. People know that the structures often collapse under the weight of the grain because with long term use the wood structure rots. Stil, people have been crushed by collapsing grain verandas – a tragedy explained by reference to moral infractions, using the rhetoric of witchcraft accusation.

    Evans Pritchard’s famous question about the relationship between empirical knowledge and rationality pertains to this discussion. Why did the wooden silo collapse just then on those specific people?

    What you have done is shown us that the knowledge economy’s habit of stockpiling information in simple and complex forms of expertise is silos is about the same as ever. You have offered nothing much different than what we already knew about the concept of silos, and I doubt very much that you will revolutionize the discipline.

    So, I’m afraid that your study of journalists, media broadcaster and knowledge managers shows us only that immaterial forms of wealth (knowledge) are fundamentally the same as material forms. To be frank, here’s a modest point might be worth making. Knowledge must be materialized (as data, expert concepts, transferable skills, nominal insights) before it can be transacted, stored, saved, or called wealth.

    Go find your supervisory committee, this is not a place to find a substitute for that. Having read your reply to others on your previous posting, I suggest you spend more time with them, because whomever they are, I’m sure could have set you on a straight course on your big question about the way language can slip around in the midst of finding the best interpretative or analytic frames. That’s core the the anthropological work that we all do, and its both the joy and the frustation of the discipline ‘s real work. And much as I suspect this will disapoint you, it requires no inspiration from Deleuze or others to see the point of struggling with that problem because what is at stake is the integrity of the analysis, and our responsiblity to collaborators in the field.

    Lastly, because I am deeply sympathetic to the level of annoyance that David must feel to have his ideas toyed with so uncharitably, there was no need for an ‘experiment’ to test one’s potential colleagues in order to find out what they already know (It bothers me that something about professional ethics might be added here, but its late where I am right now, and so……….)

  5. “My bet is that Gillian Tett also knew that a little anthropology can go a long way. Try reading some, you might like it too… I doubt very much that you will revolutionize the discipline… Go find your supervisory committee”

    Karen, I hope your rank is also no higher than graduate student.

  6. I started started reading this blog a little over two years ago when a professor appalled by the false statements being made (unchallenged at the time, though demonstrably false) sent me this link: /2010/02/08/receivership-berkley-anthro-or-ddr/. Since then I have seen a lot of, as David Graeber phrased it above, “uncharitable” behavior on this site, including by some of its authors (including abusive, disrespectful, and de facto racist and sexist response in private email responses to things written on this blog), and certainly by respondents in the comments section. (The latter issue was well-addressed by this recent post on this site: /2012/03/04/a-plea-for-anthropology/). But I think the comments above, by Karen and Amy, point to a larger problem or constellation of problems that Savage Minds needs to address, including via a post, especially in light of the ‘uncharitability’ routinely occurring on this site (via both intentional acts of uncharitability and distortion/taking statements out of context and dishonesty, and unintended/unconscious/dysconscious instantiations thereof). And this comment is not unrelated to my previous comment on Kerim’s post on finishing the doctorate quickly (if at all), and what constitutes support or lack thereof in relation to this goal.

    One of the things I find interesting about responses to this post, and especially Karen’s response and Amy’s response to it, is the way(s) in which each is both asking and making a statement (or statements), including implicitly, about where and how anthropologists learn to be ‘uncharitable’ and abusive and how this might be in relation to being a graduate student, graduate school, the hierarchy of the Academy (and the way in which the Academy reproduces, facilitates, exacerbates, enables, institutionalizes, legitimates certain other forms of hierarchy–and abuse).

    So I want return to David Graeber’s comment on and understandable annoyance with the ‘uncharitable’ readings of his words to ask where are people learning this lack of charity? As anthropologists are we willing to seriously ask this question? Is it a consequence of graduate school in general, or just some graduate programs, or both? Is it a consequence of advisor/advisee hierarchies in general, or some abusive advisors, or both? What about gender, race (including ‘anthropology as white public space’), class? Where are some anthropologists learning to be nasty, abusive, dismissive, uncharitable, is Savage Minds doing things to contribute to these abusive interactions, and what can be done to get anthropologists to treat each other (and the words and work and life experiences of other anthropologists, and other people more generally), with the same care and respect that they want to be treated with and to themselves.

    And finally, I think there needs to be a discussion of violence (on this site): on how we, as anthropologists understand and identify and conceptualize and respond to violence. In the two-plus years that I have been reading this site I have seen a lot of violence, and been on the receiving end of some of it. Please, let’s be honest about the forms of violence and abuse going on here: racial, symbolic, gendered, and more. Let us be honest about it so people, anthropologists can stop being so uncharitable: to each other, on this site and beyond.

    And in relation to an honest and productive discussion of academic forms of symbolic violence, Jacqui Alexander’s discussion of her experience at the New School, in her book Pedagogies of Crossing, is instructive.

  7. Fascinating questions you’re bringing up about the word. Just some reflections here from my own experiences with it. During my fieldwork with Public University IT workers (aka, my former day job), I found that they were inheriting language like “silo” from corporate IT discourses. This was helped along by an employment market in IT that seeks particular kinds of “certifications” as a measure of knowledge. These certifications don’t usually involve increases in on the ground technical knowledge of working with computer systems, but rather achievement of professional competence in a particular kind of speech community. Thus using words like “silo” in the “right way” was of direct benefit to workers in terms of promotions, raises, etc. I also noticed that this was the path for a lot of language and ideas about “security” to creep into the public university IT world, and much of it made its way directly into policy that determined the freedoms users (Faculty, Students and Staff) experienced with regards to the use of university owned computers (P2P software policies and such).

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