Friday, June 13, 2008

This is just a bit more from Nicolas Carr's article in Atlantic Monthly. "Is Google Making us Stupid?"
Taylor’s tight industrial choreography—his “system,” as he liked to call it—was embraced by manufacturers throughout the country and, in time, around the world. Seeking maximum speed, maximum efficiency, and maximum output, factory owners used time-and-motion studies to organize their work and configure the jobs of their workers. The goal, as Taylor defined it in his celebrated 1911 treatise, The Principles of Scientific Management, was to identify and adopt, for every job, the “one best method” of work and thereby to effect “the gradual substitution of science for rule of thumb throughout the mechanic arts.” Once his system was applied to all acts of manual labor, Taylor assured his followers, it would bring about a restructuring not only of industry but of society, creating a utopia of perfect efficiency. “In the past the man has been first,” he declared; “in the future the system must be first.”

Taylor’s system is still very much with us; it remains the ethic of industrial manufacturing. And now, thanks to the growing power that computer engineers and software coders wield over our intellectual lives, Taylor’s ethic is beginning to govern the realm of the mind as well. The Internet is a machine designed for the efficient and automated collection, transmission, and manipulation of information, and its legions of programmers are intent on finding the “one best method”—the perfect algorithm—to carry out every mental movement of what we’ve come to describe as “knowledge work.”
This quote brought to mind a time when I was "Taylored." I had been working at a manufacturing company operating a punch press, bending and folding parts to shape for pump oilers. The most important and mindful part of the work was to keep my fingers cleared after the piece of metal was in place and as the mechanism drove down in a whir, crush and wham to force it to shape. The machine was set in motion by a foot pedal, leaving the hands free. I would grab a part from a bin on the left, nest it in place and then be prepared to use my right hand to remove it and throw it into the finished bin. A finger or even a whole hand could disappear in a bloody pulp in a spit second, so there was a mechanical arm that swept across to force your hands clear in case your foot on the pedal got carried away in some ill-timed rhythm of its own. Each set-up was a fascinating execution of mechanical ingenuity and the room was filled with the clacking, crushing cacophony of many similar devices.

One day I looked up for a moment to see a man in white shirt and tie standing over my shoulder with a clip board in one hand and stop watch in the other. He was timing my actions and watched for a few minutes before he spoke. "You are really going fast, much over quota. How do you do it?" he asked. "I can't stand to be bored," I replied. "Besides, this is my last day." He asked why. So I told him that the other workers had noted that if we worked fast, the management would raise the targets for their performance, but do nothing to improve their pay or working conditions. The result was an oppressive and discordant working atmosphere.

What Taylor failed to understand is the human heart... that the actual distance between two points when observed in human life is never a straight line. We just aren't made for absolute efficiency. The Ancient Chinese, called it "happy wanderings." And happy wanderings are my wish for you this day. If you wander around this blog, use the search function at the top left to search for "rule of thumb." The rule of thumb was the way tools were designed to fit the individual user. If we want a society that fits no one. We can go to Taylor's methods and force conformity. We can even hide the men in the white shirts so we don't even know they are there, watching every move, timing every motion. In the meantime, my small town of Eureka Springs has been described as the town where misfits fit and essentially we are all misfits in one way or another.

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