002 The Myth of the Machine

There is an underlying tension
in the conversations
we are having
and will continue to have
throughout this book
In many of these conversations
I am attacking
what I see as the
distorting effects
of what I call
machine thinking
This chapter itself
is concerned
with undermining
the fundamental premises
such a mode of thought
And yet
have to acknowledge
that the world we live in
a world in which there is
much we enjoy
much we rely on
much we would be reluctant to abandon
in large part
a child
of this mode of thinking
If we are
going to wander off
a kind of romantic fantasy
we have to acknowledge
however reluctantly
I still find it hard to accept
machine thinking
is part of what it is to be human
perhaps even
a necessary part
of how we organise
and conduct our lives
the reality of machine thinking
is only
part of what it is to be human
something we need to recognise
something we need to be prepared to use
something we need to find ways
of slipping around
when it gets in the way
still only a part
The freedom to be
our complicated selves
The messy
often unpredictable
ways we have of being human
need a space to be
need a place to be recognised
and valued
in any world we create
Where that space is squeezed
when our differences
are denied
when we have little choice
but to try to fit
into the neat boxes
of machine-like systems and organisations
we are forced into
secret forms of resistances
petty forms of sabotage and subterfuge
in order to retain our sense
of human being
often incoherent
to retain our sense of possibility
creates another kind of confinement
a mindless state of being against
without knowing what we are for
Another blind alley
Another place where
little movement
is possible
Understanding the nature
of machine thinking
is necessary
if we are
to maintain
the freedom we have
to reclaim
any freedoms we may have lost
to avoid the perils
of mindless rebellion
And the place to start
is to look at
real machines
and what they are
what they do
what their limitations are
The Encyclopedia Britannica
has some illuminating things to say
It begins by saying
that a machine is a
“device, having a unique purpose, that augments or replaces human or animal effort for the accomplishment of physical tasks.”
So far so good
Machines extend our capabilities
They are extensions of ourselves
(So why so often do human beings seem to be
extensions of machines?
Think of the production lines
where people appear to be
adjuncts of the machine
working at a pace
and in a manner
dictated by the machine system
rather than
their desires
and needs of the moment)
Already we have a dichotomy
The machine as a liberating extension of ourselves
The machine as a method of control and domination
and another
The machine as a device having a unique purpose
The human as a being having multiple and changing purposes
we can see
the beginnings
of the tension
what we could call
a human centred view of human beings
and how they organise themselves
and a machine-like vision of people
and the way they are organised and controlled
So let’s continue
The article goes on to say
“This broad category encompasses such simple devices as the lever, wedge, wheel and axle, pulley, and screw.”
These are what as known as simple machines
and would seem to have little to do
with machine thinking
that we may be seen as such simple elements
as part
of a more complex machine
I remember many years ago
working as a clerk
in an insurance broker
in the City of London
We all had very simple
roles and functions
and played our part
in a set of predefined processes
As the Encyclopedia Britannica
goes on to say
“All machines have an input, an output, and a transforming or modifying and transmitting device.”
I can remember very little of what it was
I actually did
Most of it seemed to involve
getting inputs of bits of paper
which were sorted and filed
and then passed on
to someone else
It was a curiously soulless machine
we were working in
a very successful money making machine
that from where I sat
did little that was productive
apart from taking
large commissions from insurance companies
for every transaction we handled
The jobs a my level
required little skill
except for very basic literacy and numeracy
and were essentially mindless
we just had to do the right thing in the right sequence
I would guess that most of those jobs have now disappeared
and that
my job
is now a tiny process
in a computer program
I hope so
because it isn’t anything a human being
should do
What made the work bearable
was that
like any machine
things went wrong
There were little glitches
and bits of grit
that interrupted
the smooth flows of the machine process
That created the excuse
to wander around
the other cogs in the machine
to sort out
what had gone wrong
These were usually
tiny errors or mistakes
that took a few moments
to correct
but leaving us time
and a justification
pass the time of day
broke up the monotony
of doing what we were supposed to do
None of us at my level
wanted to do what we were doing
Everyone had dreams and plans of doing something else
The only reason we were there
was the pay packet
at the end of the week
It was a curious bargain
For those notes and coins
we accepted some constraints on our lives
We had to be there
from nine till five
with an hour off for lunch
five days a week
We had to keep
our little bit of the process going
at a pace
that kept us invisible
not too fast
because that would have place a burden
on those further up the line
not too slow
or our basic idleness
might have been exposed
Some of the constraints were probably functional
Some had very little to do
with completing the work
If you were male
you had to wear a suit and tie
If you were a woman
you had a bit more freedom
providing you wore a skirt
The relationship between
what we wore
what we did
was pretty obscure
except as an act of authority
a means of defining who we were
a sign of acquiescence
to the machine
This sense of artificial
arbitrary constraint
is what makes many of us
feel like
kicking against
the confinement
of machine-like systems
even though we recognise
that the system can kick back
harder than the little dents
we can make
This is why
I gave an internal yelp of delight
when I came to this short passage
in the Encyclopedia Britannica article
“The most distinctive characteristic of a machine is that the parts are interconnected and guided in such a way that their motions relative to one another are constrained.”
Now the question of constraint
is really interesting
Real machine work
because the parts are constrained
They are designed to be constrained
The constraints of the parts
enable the machine to do
what it is supposed to do
But why do we design organisations
made up of human beings
to resemble machines?
The answer must be
that we see machines as being
explicitly understandable
perhaps most important
a realm of certainty
that we want our organisations
to have these qualities
one of the great machine thinkers
summed up the dream
writing at the time of Napoleon
” Given for one instant an intelligence which could comprehend all the forces by which nature
is animated and the respective situation of the beings who compose it- an intelligence sufficiently vast to submit these data to analysis- it would embrace in the same formula the movements of the greatest bodies of the universe and those of the lightest atom; for it, nothing would be uncertain and the future, as the past, would be present before its eyes.”
What a wonderful world
a world of no surprises
no doubts
no uncertainties
A world running on rails
A bureaucrat’s delight
Everything running as smoothly
and predictably
as clockwork
Some people it seems
actively desire a world like that
actually believe
that it could be like that
a world where there is one best way
and that is how things are done
Frederick Winslow Taylor
the father of scientific management
the high priest of mass production
was a believer in the one best way
A man who believed
that managers should think and plan
and workers should do what they were told
His work
he claimed
was scientific
because it involved
a detailed study
of the processes
involved in doing a particular job
The beginning of
Time and Motion Studies
But there is a curiously revealing
which perhaps
the real motive
for organising people
like machines
In one of his papers describing his approach
he says
“In my system the workman is told precisely what he is to do and how he is to do it, and any improvement he makes upon the instructions given to him is fatal to success.”
Note the key words
“and any improvement he makes upon the instructions given to him is fatal to success.”
There is a bitter joke here
There used to be a successful
Trades Union tactic
called working to rule
It involved people working
in exactly the way
the rules dictated
Invariably the organisation
rapidly ground to halt
Denied the secret of the success
of machine-like organisations
the improvisations and hidden improvements
to its processes and interactions
made by the people actually doing the work
the whole system
got clogged up
by the unanticipated
and unaccounted
daily events
that make up real life
For people who work with real machines
this should be no surprise
They know
that real machines
need attention
and maintenance
if they are to function
as they should
Left alone
all machines
lose their constraints
and malfunction
or breakdown
The Laplacian machine
of perfect predictability
is a fantasy
an illusion
an ideal that exists only in the imagination
Machine-like organisations
are even more of a fantasy
real machines
they depend upon
people moving outside the constraints
to keep the system functioning
the simplicity of the machine model
never matches
the complexity
of either
the internal ecology of an organisation
the wider ecology
the organisation interacts with
So why as a species
do we seem so drawn
to building a world
that appears to work like a machine
There seems to be a cluster
of three motives
It appears to be effective
It provides a sense of certainty and solidity
in a fragile and contingent world
It an efficient means of exercising power and control
over others
The effectiveness of the machine model
maybe simply that it is more visible
and more recorded
The messy
webs of activity
supporting the machine
are by their nature
invisible and concealed
But there is also a sense
that it does seem to deliver
and that
soldiers triumph over warriors
priests over shamans
nations over tribes
big corporations over small entrepreneurs
and I can buy my milk and cigarettes everyday
In a curious way
the world seems to work
for many of us
and in some respects
it works in what can be described
as a machine-like way
(Though we need to remember that there may be other ways
of describing how it works
that fit all evidence better
Think cybernetics
Think ecology
but more of that later)
The desire for sense of certainty
is more easy to understand
Some level of certainty
is something we all want
have to have
in order to function at all
The question becomes
from where this sense of security
comes from
I remember reading
a story
about a group of hunter gatherers
being studied by an anthropologist
When the hunters
made a big kill
they would have a feast
with everyone gorging themselves
until the meat was gone
The anthropologist
in what seemed a curiously unanthropological way
that maybe they would be better off
saving some meat for another day
The hunter gatherers were baffled by this idea
What was the point?
They’d catch another beast the next day
or if not then
the next
or the next
Their sense of security was based
on a sense of their own abilities
and a belief that their environment
would provide
what they needed
For most of us engaged in this conversation
the story has been very different
The bargain that existed
in much of the industrialised world
both West and East
from the late 1940s on
was that if we were prepared
to follow the rules
we would be provided
with a livelihood
and that
much of our lives could be mapped out
in advanced
Of course
many people reached their middle years
that they had not moved
further along the tracks
higher up the pyramid
than they had hoped
but never the less
the map of the railtrack
seemed to be there
and people had a sense
that they knew what to expect
began to break out
in the late seventies
with an even bigger break
when the Wall fell at the end of eighties
an the vast
seemingly monolithic
of the Soviet sphere
under its own contradictions
Now we are left in a strange state
a largely unspoken unease
permeates the atmosphere
a pretence that the old map is still there
and our knowledge
that it isn’t
We know that simply following the rules
is no longer a guarantee of security
We know that we can be
out of livelihoods
but few of us have
the confidence in our own abilities
and a sense of the benevolence of our environment
felt by the hunter gatherers
But bubbling under the surface
there are those
who live
a life of purposive drift
making up their lives as they go along
and the opportunities arise
who have a greater affinity to those hunter gatherers
whose way of life was dominant for most our history
on this planet
than they do to the pyramid dwellers
who have claimed history
as their own
For here we come to the not so secret
dark secret
the machine vision
Getting people
to behave
like parts of a machine
“the parts are interconnected and guided in such a way that their motions relative to one another are constrained.”
is a great way
of the few
exercising power of the many
Of course it’s more complicated than that
It always is
It leaves out all the
physical and psychological intimidation
all the work and energy that goes into sustaining
the myth of the machine
despite the ambitions of some
for power and control
the ultimate irony
is that many of these systems
we have created
in a sense
taken on a life of their own
so that the most powerful politician
or financier
or military leader
or business mogul
can find themselves
at the mercy
of the very systems
they sometimes imagine
they control
But most curiously
the ultimate product of machine thinking
the computer
seems to offer another kind of metaphor
for how we see ourselves and our organisations
(Don’t for a minute think
that I am suggesting that we are like
We’re not
We are beings with bodies
and histories
and experiences)
What makes the computer interesting
quite apart from the impact
it is having
on almost every aspect of our lives
is that it is a possibility machine
Almost any process
that can be imagined
and then described
in terms of the rigorous logic
of digital thinking
can be simulated
on a computer
In the sixties
some the early student activists
in California
used a slogan
“Do Not Bend, Fold, Spindle, or Mutilate Me”
a reference to the punch cards
that held their details
to be fed into
the mainframe computers
that organised their academic life
They felt that they were being reduced
to products being processed
by the university machine
rather than free beings
extending their knowledge and capabilities
At that time
the computer
was seen
as the ultimate expression
machine rationality
an instrument of control and domination
the bureaucrat’s dream
come true
But even then
some of
the dreamers
the free spirits
the rebels
were drawn to the magical properties
of the computer
and the opportunities
it open
to create spells in its rigorous logic
that promised something very different
from the tyranny of the machine
it promised freedom
An interesting kind of freedom
that depended upon
an understanding of the rigid constraints
of a digital system
an ability to work with
and around
those constraints
to turn what was essentially
a machine modeled
on a hierarchical bureaucracy
into a magical possibility machine
So now we have an extraordinary range
of devices
from mobile phones
to networked computers
which can be used
as instruments of control
and domination
and equally
can be used
as a means of supporting
more spontaneous and responsive
ways of managing and organising
our lives
The myth of the machine
is being broken
by the actions
of many people
scattered all over the globe
Connections are being made
allow new ways of being
and thinking
and acting
to evolve
Despite the power
of machine thinking
machine-like organisations
and the variety of interests
that cling on that view
in spite of the perils
that the domination of that way of being
for our very life on this planet
(for although we talk of
preserving the planet
the planet
and life
are perfectly capable
of looking after themselves
It is we who are threatened
by our follies
not the planet)
But despite all that
I see glimmers of hope
in the bustle and interactions
of people
acting like human beings
working towards
becoming human
drifting towards a way of being
that recognises
the connections between each of us
and the world we have made
and the world that makes itself
If we can learn to pay attention
to what is going on
just maybe
things will be OK
What do you think?
I don’t know
I can only
and hope
and speculate about what I see
and carry on
trying to connect to you
in the conversations
we are having