Bush vs. Taylor (long)

Gregory Alan Bolcer (gbolcer@gambetta.ICS.uci.edu)
Sat, 28 Feb 1998 12:08:26 -0800

I was having an email debate concerning the Information Age
and the potential advantages and realized I'd much rather
ping it off of you guys. This came about from an article
that appeared in The Atlantic Unboud, the online presence of
The Atlantic Monthly. For those of you who don't know, The AM
is the original resting place for Vannevar Bush's 'As We May Think'
often cited as the originator of hypertext. Jack Beatty is
a pretentious Easterner in addition to being a senior editor who's
opinions I sometimes (dis)repsect. The original question was, who
has more potential for impact in the information age? Vannevar
Bush or Frederick Taylor? For those of you who don't know who
Taylor is, he is the inventor of 'scientific management' and often
credited as Ford's inspiration for the assembly line. More relevant
to the information age, does ubiquitous access to information solve
coordination, cooperation, collaboration, and control policies or
does it complicate them? For my feelings on the subject, try
sorting through all those AltaVista links on any subject.

The Taylor article can be found here:

The Original V.Bush article is here:

Martin Greenberger's 20 year revisit is here:

(In the true traditon, if one of you wanted to write a modern
day revisitation about the WWW and the Internet, I can put you
in touch with the editor.)

A short intro/overview is here:

Beatty's current column 'Author of Modernity' is here:

(incidentally I don't /ForkRecommended/ either 'One Best Way'
nor 'The World According to Peter Drucker' as they are very
specific interest and I'm am not so sure of the writing.)

And related only to the Dylan debate:

My response to Beatty's column which somehow turned out
longer than the original column.

Technology as a social construction

Beatty's cursory review of Taylor's principles of scientific management
results in his premise that efficiency is only achievable at the
price of demeaning workers, and further, is only applicable to the
industrial age. He doesn't draw the parallel Taylor himself drew
attention to, the difference between planning and execution. The premise
of his criticism seems to be founded on the idea that the
execution of Taylorist principle in the industrial age was demeaning to
workers, thus the principle is invalid. Beatty then uses Lenin's and
Mussolini's acceptance of his principles as further proof of its
authoritarian nature, being that fascism and communism are failures
equally because of their ideology as well as their execution (no
puns intended). Like fascism and communism, Taylorism failed on
flawed assumptions about human nature, however, his understanding of the
problem of efficiency was extraordinary. It's 60's era office automation
definition came to be known as micromanagement, but Patton, creator of
US tank policy, had it right:

"Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do and they will
surprise you with their ingenuity." --General George S. Patton Jr.

Compare this Beatty's comment:

The contemporary workplace increasingly consigns the Taylorist tasks to
machines, leaving people free, in theory, to exercise human powers
like initiative, synthesis, flexibility, judgment, and imagination.

US Tank policy was a grand planning of something more complex than any
cooperation, collaboration, and communication problem up to that time.
Putting it in terms of the modern day information revolution, the WWW
and the Internet seem to have gotten the communication part
down, but what of the cooperation and collaboration? Does the
communication infrastructure really enhance these? The goals of the
information revolution and 'scientific management' are the same: the
efficient use of resources. Whether that resource is industrial or
informational in nature is moot. Though executions of Tayloristic
principles were demeaning to workers, the ideas of efficiency stay
the same.

Taylorism is applicable to the information age. Patton had another
quote, "Ignorance is pre-meditated evil". What is ignorance? Not
having the right information, at the right place, at the
right time. As someone who remembers when there were less than a dozen
Web severs around the world while I search through the thousands of
useless AltaVista noise, all information, to all places, at
all times is not an efficient communication mechanism. One has to
perform research matching. Who do I need to talk to? What do I need
to accomplish this? Which resources are available to me to solve
this problem? Finding the resources isn't enough, one also needs to
consider how to utilize them efficiently.

Taylor has had a tremendous effect in the information age, or at least
in software which is somewhat inseparable. Software engineering ecomomics,
metrics, process. Taylor studied timing and motion. What actions
preceeded others and at what intervals to ensure the desired outcome.
This is called process, or its business euphemism, workflow. People
are empowered by information, not constricted by it. Taylorism, but
not necessarily Taylor, was interested in turning
humans into mind-numbed robots, machines, automatons. He couldn't
have followed it to its logical conclusion, too much
structure on work will cause people to rebel. How many people would
willingly allow their daily keystrokes to be monitored as a measure
of their efficiency?

The US Military having a top-down, tightly controlled organizational
structure at one point was really interested in process for a short
while. War in the information age would have a microchip in
every jet, tank, soldier, weapon, and even bullet, all lovingly
optimized and allocated, double-checked and modeled, monitored and
optimized again, to ensure nobody shot themselves in their own or any
other's feet. The thing of it is, when it comes down to it, whether it's
a man or a machine that says 'take that hill', and it's clearly
hopeless, it's not going to happen. People, when executing a plan,
procedure, or a process, will rely on their own problem sovling skills
when the best laid ones are cast aside, and there is no substitute for
having the best people.

People's activites are non-deterministic. We have the ability to learn,
feel, fuck-up. We have the ability to comprehend history and build up
experience. We learn from examples and mistakes, all of
which may allow for highly productive and sometimes innovative work.
Groups and organization have these same abilities, but to a lesser
degree to learn. There is not one best way in the Taylor sense,
the best way changes over time. Systems evolve. People evolve. The thing
of it is, when people evolve, their activity may not go according
to plans. This may be a good thing, or it may not. Systems that
require consistency of outcome and high standards of quality will want
little deviation. Systems that are less formal or rapidly changing
may require a little more flexibility.

The trend up to fairly recently was to force people into a computing
paradigm. This is one of the lasting effects of the Manhattan Project.
Computers originally were people, aligned in desks to
'compute' some small portion of a large mathematical equation. Each
intermediate solution was then appropriately routed, corrected, assembled
into a solution and the routing logic changed as the
situation dictated. It was an assembly line of information products. The
people were arranged to execute pre-planned tasks cooperatively
problem solving. Real work in the real world doesn't match
this level of structure and often cooperation policies are entirely
informal. Does that mean, as Beatty suggests, that they have no place
in the information age? Of course not. Individuals may need the
Taylorist principles of guidance for learning and automation for
tedious, repetive, and time consuming tasks; groups may need
coordination policies enforced to eliminate working towards cross
purposes and duplicated work. Groups of people are complex and do
complex things, sometimes beyond comprehension when they don't
communicate with each other.

Trends are reversing. Humans are now forcing human behaviors onto
computer systems. Intelligent agents help automated some of the tedium
or forgetfulness; Socially driven protocols are replacing network
protocols; diplomacy and negotiation between computer agents is
replacing incompatibility and inconsistency. Cooperation,
collaboration, and communication systems are now being dictated and
influenced, not by the underlying technology, but how people work.
People use a number of tools to create, manage, and maintain relationships.

Taylorist execution failed because it caused a disruption of social,
political, and motivational processes. Also, exceptions to carefully
laid plans often interrupted the whole assembly line and were
hardly recovered from gracefully. Taylor made blunt assumptions about
the laymen which seeped into his view of scientific principles being
applicable to the sweat of one's brow. Unlike Patton, he
assumed workers were unmotivated and incapable of intuitive
decision-making at the local level. Unable to describe their own
position, where they related to others, and never able to improve their
work without the help of management. This is generally not true of the
average worker in the information age. They have more off-the-shelf
software and access to information immediately available than most
governments only a decade ago. A little structure, a little guidance,
a little coordination. Are these things that should be abandoned?