Friday, August 29, 2008
“Remington Rand officers believed that they understood the Eckert-Mauchly business. After all, UNIVAC was just another business calculating system, albeit larger than they were used to selling. The problems UNIVAC sought to solve were the same; potential customers for the UNIVAC were companies Remington Rand had done business with for decades. So the effort to meld EMCC into Remington Rand did not seem to be large.” Norberg's history of the first decade of commercial computing aims to counteract the dominance of IBM in most histories of computing. Shortly after the public unveiling of the ENIAC in 1946, Eckert & Mauchly resigned from the Moore School over a patent disagreement and formed what would become the Eckert Mauchly Computer Company (EMCC). EMCC planned on building the EDVAC II (the name was quickly changed to UNIVAC), and formed contracts with the National Bureau of Standards and Prudential Life Insurance. But an under-estimation of production costs and limited financial options put EMCC far into the red by 1949. Remington Rand, the typewriter/tabulator company, acquired EMCC in 1950 and allowed EMCC to operate as a relatively autonomous division. In 1950 Remington Rand also acquired Engineering Research Associates (ERA), another early computer company that was financially struggling, and also operated it as an autonomous division. Remington Rand's unwillingness to integrate these computer companies more fully into its existing business operations was nearly disastrous, as poorly coordinated sales activities, redundant research programs, and horrible production control slowed down progress in the open field of commercial computing. This allowed IBM, which was much more tightly organized, to leap ahead by the end of the 1950s, despite its delayed start and machines that arguably were not far superior. Sperry Gyroscope merged with Remington Rand in 1955, and in 1956 a separate Univac division was created, finally rationalizing the firm's computer production. But the IBM/360 was already on the horizon by that point, and no other computer company but IBM steered the future of the industry. Norberg's historical narrative makes it clear how these first computer "start-ups" differed from the internet boom of the late 1990s. Entry into the mass production of high-technology goods trapped a number of innovative thinkers and engineers (such as Eckert & Mauchly), and success remained highly dependent on well-funded and coordinated R & D departments as well as access to large amounts of corporate finance capital. Norberg's book also makes it clear that there was a significantly sized computer industry by the end of the 1940s, with many companies planning machines based on the EDVAC design. Though the popular awareness of the computer wouldn't peak until about 1960, the industry foundations were being set much earlier.
“Intimacy and neighborliness were not features of everyday life at Eden-Olympia. An invisible infrastructure took the place of traditional civic virtues. . . . Civility and polity were designed into Eden-Olympia, in the same way that mathematics, aesthetics and an entire geopolitical world-view were designed into the Parthenon and the Boeing 747. Representative democracy had been replaced by the surveillance camera and the private police force.”
Super-Cannes refers to the region above Cannes that has recently been filled with business parks and planned communities, of which Eden-Olympia is the most prominent. In these futuristic spaces, the elite of global capitalism live out their lives within a single corporate ecosystem, as both the modern offices they work in all day and the immediately adjacent gated communities they sleep in are owned and managed by the same firm. Ballard is fascinated with how the Cote d’Azur has been transformed from tourist destination and home of the traditionally wealthy into the silicon valley of France, if not all of Europe. There is a specifically European contrast between this 21st-century capitalism and old-world leisure. The difference is mapped in literary terms by repeated references to the meltdown of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s marriage (and its brutal fictional counterpart in Tender Is the Night) on the coast. Ballard's novel also describes the dissolution of a marriage, but never lets capitalism and its spaces become anything less than central agents in that breakdown.
From the beginning of the novel, Eden-Olympia is scarred by a trauma that will not remain repressed, a mark on its gleaming modernist architecture (or as in one scene, the bullet shell sitting on the bottom of the pool). The year before, one of the staff doctors for Eden-Olympia, Paul Greenwood, went on a shooting spree, killing executives and staff members before committing suicide. The murders nearly toppled Eden-Olympia, threatening the withdrawal of its investors and corporate tenants. The story begins with Paul and Jane Sinclair moving into Eden-Olympia when Jane agrees to become the replacement for the doctor. Jane quickly disappears from Paul’s life and the novel into her work, as well as heroin addiction and lesbianism. The narration is told by Paul, a pilot who broke both legs in a recent plane crash, leaving him weak and restrained by the prostheses on his legs (this fact alone identifies the book as a Ballard novel, obsessed with damaged bodies and machinic couplings); but his disability also leaves him free, like Jimmy Stewart in “Rear Window,” to play at private investigator/community surveillance system. Paul becomes obsessed with figuring out why the previous doctor turned homicidal, and discovers a “therapeutic” underground to Eden-Olympia involving beatings, child prostitution, drug dealing, and even murder. The corporate psychiatrist lays out, in perhaps too direct of terms, how the demanding work and planned security of the community have led to medical and psychological weaknesses that can only be cured through psychopathic play. The idea of the super-wealthy indulging in sadistic, even evil, activities isn’t particularly shocking or original (the film “Eyes Wide Shut” explores similar territory, and Bret Easton Ellis's "American Psycho" equates sociopathic logic with Wall Street investments). Without a doubt, many of the new rich have these vices, or have the money and power to indulge in them, but I wonder if dwelling on these criminalities steals attention from more important and changeable aspects of corporate capitalism. The need to make concrete the crimes of increasingly abstract global corporations by focusing on individuals committing specific acts of violence creates the right pathos, but perhaps little understanding. We never actually get to see what the denizens of Eden-Olympia do at work, perhaps reflecting the informatic nature of their labor. But perhaps I’m just overly hostile towards the allegorical approach.
As in McCarthy’s novel, the setting is the strength here. In fact, the aesthetics of Eden-Olympia provide the most direct account of contemporary corporate capitalism: not the labor of corporate subjects (which as I alluded to above, has become difficult to observe or conceptualize), but the world produced by and for them (this is to equate the product with the process, or to imagine a world so thoroughly incorporated that the home kitchen reveals as much as the office about capitalism). The description of Paul's wandering around the grounds of Eden-Olympia, walking down nature paths that abruptly end in a fence because they were intended only to be looked at, not actually walked down, and his forensic attention to the home assigned to him and his wife as the scene of a crime demonstrate Ballard's grasp of the surfaces and spaces of an emerging corporate world. Keeping those surfaces as clean as possible, security guards play a major role in the narrative. The ever-present quest for security (and the inevitable failure of such a quest) is clear in how characters rarely are able to take any action without a security guard at their side.
“The frailty of everything revealed at last. Old and troubling issues resolved into nothingness and night. The last instance of a thing takes the class with it. Turns out the light and is gone.” Following an unexplained world catastrophe (presumably a nuclear war), a man and his young son wander “the road,” hoping to reach the coast and a more inhabitable land. Ash falls constantly, blotting out the sun and making plants no longer grow, and bands of cannibals wander by, hunting for food. If the post-apocalyptic setting sounds familiar, the novel isn’t. McCarthy largely avoids a direct narrative structure or conclusive resolution. Rather than leading to a dramatic story, the end of the world presents the setting for a novel-length description of minor acts of survival, as McCarthy devotes his time to presenting the man and his son’s repeated searches for food, warmth, and protection. Just as his characters must survive on almost nothing, McCarthy forces himself to grab his readers attention for an extended period with the least of narrative details. In this restricted scope, the book has a particularly existential feel, not far removed from Camus’ account of Sisyphus endlessly rolling his rock up the hill, only to have it roll down again. The conceit of apocalypse is beneficial for McCarthy, since it detaches this description of the business of existence from any assertions about nature: if the novel closely resembles nature writing, it takes place in a world where nature doesn’t exist. A recent exhibit at the New Museum in New York, “After Nature,” explores what happens when man’s intervention in nature is so extensive that nature is no longer natural (it never was, but now it clearly appears as such), and also gloomily asks what if this “new nature” is hostile to humanity or is inhabitable only through the transformation of the concept of the human? The title of the exhibit is drawn from the German novelist W. G. Sebald, whose dark novels of historical destruction match the tone of McCarthy’s book. “The Road” imagines a post-industrial, post-productive world, where the man and his son scavenge for the few remaining canned goods and what little nature offers. Describing such decay inevitably leads towards nostalgia for when the world was blooming and productive (the ideology of the “Golden Age”), but McCarthy’s ideas are mediated through this new ecological logic, in which man has produced his own fate rather than suffers from some tragedy of the world. This is a key turning point in McCarthy’s work as well as the fashionable trend to make metaphysical claims about the essential destructiveness of nature. If the world seems cruel and uninhabitable, it is because it has been made so by men. Even so, McCarthy holds out hope that humanity can survive (and perhaps not much more) within its own creation.
Monday, August 11, 2008
“The managerial philosophy that emerged . . . sought to achieve better control of business processes and outcomes by imposing system, in great part through formal communication. . . . These systems were established, operated, evaluated, and adjusted – that is to say, managed or controlled – all on the basis of flows of information and orders.” Yates argues that between 1880-1920, businesses began to adopt a more standardized, formalized, and efficient form of communication that allowed greater managerial control. Informal, oral communication was increasingly replaced by memos, copied documents, and complex filing systems, in effect creating the office and clerical work that are so ubiquitous today that we hardly notice them. Yates describes how new information technolgoies were adopted by businesses, and how new genres of organizational communication built upon or were supported by these specific information technologies. Systemic management was broader and anterior to the much more famous scientific management of Taylorism. Yates argues that scientific management was more limited in scope - fixating on the factory floor and blue-collar work and often focusing on the individual/part instead of the entire system - whereas systemic management affected white-collar workers and management much more immediately because the creation of an impersonal system of communication not only threatened the individuality of the employee but the manager as well. Yates' immediate opponent in this book is James Beniger and his theory of a control revolution. Beniger claims that our information society is not a recent development, but actually can be traced back to a crisis of industrial control in the 19th century that led to the heavy investment and interest in information technologies allowing control through feedback. Yates wants to avoid all of the determinisms of Beniger's argument (i.e., that technologies drive social change or that technologies serve one monolithic function, such as control), and uses her case studies to show that the conditions and motivations for systemic management often existed well prior to their actual implementation. The communication technologies often were already present but remained unused or marginally applied until a key figure in management began to promote them. Systemic management created new uses and demands for these technologies, which in turn were further developed and further supported systemic management. Yates' concrete, historical work closely follows the minute, contingent adoption of system in specific firms. This scope and method is consistently held to throughout the book, and is certainly a maintainable position. But given that Beniger is the explicit interlocutor in both her introduction and conclusion, her refusal to address certain theoretical questions about the nature of systems or information (and information technologies) means that her disagreement with Beniger is more of a non-encounter. Yates is right in criticizing Beniger's totalizing and reductive interest in control, which leads him in the opening chapters of his book to make rather grandiose, if not outright cosmological, claims about life as an information processor. But Yates' discussion of system and communication could easily be used to support a more theoretical claim about systems, and her argument perhaps implicitly relies upon such a theory (how exactly each new information technology or informational genre acts upon individuals never becomes a contested issue in her work). In the 1960s, general systems theorists as well as cybernetic organizational theorists attempted to produce such theories. More recently, Niklas Luhmann's systems theory as well as Bernard Siegert's analysis of the postal system also have presented acute ideas about how systems rely upon and operate through communication. I would be tempted to compare the difference between Yates and Beniger to an example from the history of cybernetics: the distinction between Ludwig von Bertalanffy's general systems theory and Norbert Wiener's cybernetics. Bertalanffy came up with his theory of systems in the late 1930s, and it was a major influence on Wiener's work. Bertalanffy (self-interestedly) asserted later that cybernetics is merely one aspect, or a more narrow speciality, of general systems theory. Just as Yates wants to contain Beniger's focus on control through feedback as merely one aspect of systems communication, and a merely optional or historically contingent aspect at that, Bertalanffy reduces feedback to being merely one possible operation in system reproduction.
Sunday, August 10, 2008
“No one has ever observed a fact, a theory or a machine that could survive outside of the network that gave birth to them.”
A prerequisite and founding text in science studies, Latour's book strips science of its universalist glamour by "following" the concrete everyday practices of scientists that result in a statement being accepted as a scientific fact. In this approach to science, Latour deliberately avoids relying on nature, society, truth, rationality, and objectivity, or restricts them to appearing only after the controversy has been settled. There is no referent in reality or epistemology that guarantees the claims of science, merely the power of a network of enrolled human and non-human actors. Something becomes a scientific truth because these texts, these inscriptions, and these actors can be enrolled by an actor who borrows their force or speaks on their behalf, and because of this support, it may be too difficult or costly for an individual to dissent, though dissent always remains a possibility. Yet this is not to say that science is false or purely relative; rather, science is "constructed" through these texts and inscriptions. But we need to detach "construction" from that unfortunate term, "social construction," which usually means cultural relativism and which loses the connotation of materially building something. In describing the concrete historical practices that led to the acceptance of new scientific truths, Latour isn't aiming to dissipate science into ideological air or reduce it to being an expression of culture, but rather to show the difficult material coordination necessary to construct and support scientific facts. If expensive laboratories and R&D departments merely produced an ideology, we could simply ignore them or study the economic or political forces underwriting them. But because they construct facts through concrete actions, dissenters are forced to open up the "black-boxes" of the statements and instruments those institutions use.
Friday, August 8, 2008
In postwar management theory, “partisans were divided into two philosophical schools, post-Taylorite bureaucrats and post-Mayoist corporatists. The bureaucrats remained convinced that the most rational government came from hierarchical controls, specialized tasks, and professional managers. In these respects, they were latter-day Taylorites who remained true to the basic premises of scientific management, especially its disdain fro the judgment of the unprofessional and its positivist dream of the manager as a scientist. Yet in seeking the harmony that their mentor had promised but did not deliver, they were trying to go beyond Taylorism and were searching for new theories and techniques of bureaucratic governance that could eliminate its dysfunctions. In the late 1930s and early 1940s, their positivism was leading them toward what they believed were value-free disciplines that could yield principles and tools for a more effective science of management; they turned toward methods of mathematics that could eliminate politics from decision making, models of economics that could explain the virtues of bureaucracy, and metaphors of cybernetics and computer science that could facilitate communication and control. . . . The corporatists, in contrast, were latter-day Mayoists who wanted Mayo’s corporate communities but doubted that harmony could be achieved without decentralizing power and unifying tasks. They searched for explanations of the dysfunctions of bureaucracy and for ways to flatten hierarchies, utilize individual talents, integrate firm and employee, and create industrial clans. This quest led them to the social sciences, especially psychology and sociology. In the late 1930s they conducted experiments on democratic styles of leadership, and during the war they observed trials of participative management schemes. By the 1950s they often used concepts like self-actualization to explain the conflicts caused by Taylorism and to guide them to harmony at work.”
The book summarizes postwar attempts to surpass Taylorism and scientific management and a number of important, though not well known, schools of management theory. It begins with operations reserach, which developed during the war and then spread out into business in the 1950s and 1960s. Operations research, along with systems engineering and systems analysis, was the closet in form to scientific management. It used mathematical analysis and trained scientists to analyze and improve the form of existing operations, and often placed decisions about such operations within a wholistic description of the larger corporate system. The book then turns to Herbert Simon's theory of satisficing. Simon believed that individuals never work with perfect and complete information and rarely achieve perfect maximization, but instead make do with "satisficing." He developed theories and actual programs for heuristic, or rule of thumb, reasoning, which deals with complex problems by breaking them up into a series of simpler subproblems. He developed a theory of bureaucracy based on this assumption of limited or costly information, and directly opposed neo-classical (or is it neoliberal?) economists who based their calculations on economic rationality and the maximization of profit. Simon later drew on cybernetics, and helped developed the Carnegie-Mellon school of adminstrative behavior which used computer simulations to aid in business decisions and organization. The book then turns to the extremely influential management theorist Peter Drucker. He situates Drucker's work in the Viennese corporatism that Drucker grew up around, and summarizes Drucker's "management by objectives." Drucker was influenced by Schumpeter's account of the capitalist entrepreneur, but instead of mourning the passing of the entrepreneur, tried to find a balance between entrepreneurial innovation and corporatist sociality. This led to paradoxical claims about the primary importance of profit, but the equal importance of serving social functions. Later sections of the book describe sensitivity training (which interestingly developed out of progressive education), "job enrichment," and the American idolization of Japanese management. Waring concludes that none of these theories truly transcended Taylorism: they presented new techniques and agents, but still placed skilled management at the top of their values.
Wednesday, August 6, 2008
"[I]n the depths of her soul, she was waiting for something to happen. Like a sailor in distress, she kept scanning the solitude of her life with anxious eyes, straining to sight some far-off white sail in the mists of the horizon. She did not know how it would come to her, what wind would bring it to her, to what shores it would carry her. . . . But every morning when she awoke she expected it to arrive that day; she listened to every sound, periodically leapt to her feet with a start and was surprised when she saw it had not come; then, at sundown, sadder than ever, she longed for the next day."
Nothing needs to be said to explain or praise this book, which I was surprised to remember quite well from my first reading of it when I was 18. The American novelist Richard Yates discovered the book while writing his own first novel, Revolutionary Road, which shows the influence. It is striking how Flaubert's innovative "realism" (which I would argue, and as Pierre Bourdieu points out, often resembles total style) and petit-bourgeois subject is reflected in Yates's "writerly" (i.e. Iowa/MFA) realism and postwar middle-class setting. Both Madame Bovary and the frustrated suburbanites of Yates's novel are unable to simply be their class: they must instead continuously and self-consciously mark their class position. But both are their class precisely by imagining that they are not their class. As Catherine Jurca has pointed out, the middle class is easily identified by its attempt to deny its own middleclassness. Self-reflexiveness, rather than producing some kind of historical-economic insight, merely distorts and distances them from their class and cultural position. Flaubert and Yates's realistic description of this self-reflexiveness therefore must transcend the narrow tools of realism that most of their contemporaries use because this class relies upon a self-observation that always already has incorporated the unreal into the real. The novelist cannot make any simple distinction between class reality and subjective, ideological mystification of that reality because the latter is a necessary operation and attribute of the former.