The peer-to-peer connectivity we celebrate on the Net is not a recent invention. Within groups of restricted size -- small companies, intentional communities, old-fashioned neighborhoods -- it is common to find individual communicating freely with individual across the entire group.
As communities grow larger, however, the significance of peer-to-peer connectivity becomes uncertain. We cannot simply extrapolate from the small group. After all, the telephone gives us near-perfect connectivity across the entire country. But if we were all to begin calling each other, chaos would ensue. That is why structure is inevitably imposed: conventions and etiquette, social boundaries, personal interests, connection costs, privacy laws, time constraints -- innumerable factors lead to patterns of network use that look quite different from any naive ideal of peer-to-peer connectivity. Try reaching the CEO of your telephone company. (Or just try penetrating the computerized, automated answering system to reach a customer- service agent.)
The need, then, is to develop some sense for the social structures likely to take shape around large-scale networking technologies. A good place to start is with the corporation. Corporations are dynamic entities, often multiplying many times in scale over several years. Here we can watch the efforts of integral, highly networked communities to continue functioning integrally as they expand. We can observe their unaccountable transformations. And when we do, we begin to see the extraordinarily difficult human challenges posed by expanding networks of interaction.
It has been an oddity of the Internet's early phases that it evoked such a rush of unqualified optimism about the inevitable benefits of raw "connectivity." The Net was going to free the individual from the System. That optimism has already darkened a bit, if the Net discussions going on as I write are any guide. But the corporate experience suggests more than a few peripheral shadows around the earlier hopes. As we consider the evolution of networking technologies, we also need to consider the evolution of totalitarianism. By means of networks, the System has a remarkable ability to take hold of us in an ever more absolute -- and ever more invisible -- manner.
Remarkable energies are poured into the high-tech start-up (crystallizing -- once the company grows old and tired -- into the inevitable tales about the wondrous accomplishments of the Heroic Era). The founding employees identify with the new business. The company is something they helped form, an instrument for carrying out their purposes, for realizing their particular vision of the future. The company is simply ... them. This explains why they are willing to invest such extraordinary time and energy in the undertaking. Their own interests and goals find expression through the company.
There is something of the organic principle in these organizations. The organs of the human body do not primarily relate to each other mechanically and externally, but rather bear within themselves the imprint and the functioning of the whole, while at the same time the whole embodies the health and fulfillment of each organ. So, too, the individual employee in the well-honed start-up internalizes the principles and aims of the entire "organism," freely bringing them to bear upon her own tasks without outside coercion. But at the same time, the organization as a whole is an integrated expression of the will of its employees.
The result is an uncommon flexibility and a knack for intelligent improvisation. In a strong start-up you often find every employee prepared to leap into whatever breach opens up, without regard for job description, status, or explicit marching orders. Motivation is high, and the creative juices flow. Since everyone knows everyone and has at least some familiarity with all aspects of the operation, the whole organization fluently and intelligently adapts itself to the changing shape of its competitive world.
A second symptom accompanies the first. The aim of the entire effort is no longer a good or service, the achievement of which requires, among other things, economic discipline; rather, the economic "bottom line" itself becomes the controlling focus of the company. But this is to turn things upside down and inside out. It leads to episodes like the one James O'Toole reports:
I once asked a PepsiCo vice president if anyone in that corporation had ever raised the issue of the morality of promoting junk food in ghetto areas where kids weren't getting enough basic foods. He answered, "If anyone would ever be so foolish as to raise the question, he'd find himself out on the street." /1/
Needless to say, employees sense this reversal of ends and means, this loss of human purpose, and come to see the company as competing against their own goals and interests. To ask, why am I doing this work? -- what human vision of the future are we as a company striving to realize? -- is hereafter to sound a rather uncomfortable, dissonant note within the organization. It is easier to say, "I just work here," and to seek one's deeper satisfactions elsewhere.
I should mention in passing that the transition we're talking about seems inevitable, given the structure of the corporation -- particularly the ownership structure. Just consider: when it dawns upon the employee that he and his fellows and their entire purposeful undertaking can be sold off to the highest bidder without any input from all those who made the beautifully efficient start-up venture purr -- well, that's when everyone begins referring to the vaguely defined corporate string-pullers as "they." Which is certainly no surprise. Can any meaningful human endeavor today remain meaningful when the "bottom line" is that the participants must operate as chattels? /2/
And so I believe it is. But now another issue stares us in the face: this strange difficulty in carrying the strengths of the start-up into the maturing organization. Despite the blood oaths of those early heroes -- owners, managers, and employees alike -- "not to let it happen here, because we're different," the stiffening of the organization and the alienation of its personnel always seem to happen. And whatever the aforementioned role of the underlying corporate structure in this inevitability, much else is at work. The company gains a life of its own. It is experienced -- by owners as well as employees -- as the resistance that must be overcome in order to achieve human purposes, rather than as the natural instrument for those purposes.
This is extraordinary, given the strength of the original desire by all parties to avoid precisely such an outcome. What "independent" forces are at work here, sabotaging the wishes of everyone involved? But before attempting an answer, we need to look more closely for a moment at the structure of the behemoth -- the organization going through what Bernard Lievegoed calls the second phase, or phase of differentiation. /3/
Where the pioneer (start-up) phase acquires a certain organic character, the differentiated phase (corresponding to traditional "big business") shifts toward mechanism. Every task is analyzed into its subparts, and these parts are placed in well-defined external relationships to each other, so that the workplace becomes the rationally organized sum of its aggregate parts. A flexible structure based on personal relationships yields to a strict hierarchy of delegation and control. Lievegoed lists a number of traits of such organizations (some of which were more prominent in large corporations at mid-century than they are today):
You may already have said to yourself what I'm now going to point out: if you wanted to "perfect" precisely this sort of organization, pushing it as far as it could possibly be pushed, you would want a network of computers. The corporate network offers unprecedented powers of monitoring and control, exquisite standardization enforceable through software, extensive replacement of human functions by machine, and an effortless way to concretize the organizational chart -- by simply engraving it upon the computer network.
The computer, it seems, has a split personality. It is no accident that we see a flood of books either celebrating the computer's power to usher in a new era of democracy, teamwork, and creative ferment, or else bemoaning its reinforcement of centralized, hierarchical power. But in reality the computer has no personality at all. It all too readily accepts our personality.
This explains a certain confusion. Many observers -- especially those who actually use the Net -- are convinced that "cyberspace" is an intrinsically egalitarian, democratizing, community-intensifying medium. But this is to project the historical truth just stated onto the technology, while at the same time betraying a poverty of imagination. Feeling in their bones the untenability of old tyrannies -- and exulting in the prospects for their demise -- these observers simply cannot picture to themselves the future triumphs of a metamorphosed spirit of oppression. Sauron, they seem to think, knows only one form.
If you really want to see the multiple faces of the computer's split personality -- or, as I have been arguing, its split potentiality -- then you need to look toward the peculiar opportunities and temptations of the future. It is conceivable that we are witnessing the twilight of the familiar dictatorial state. But if that is so, then the proper question -- the only historically justified question -- is: "What new forms will the totalitarian spirit be likely to assume in our day?" And I will argue that the answer to this question serves just as well for a second question: "What hitherto uncontrolled forces smother the promise of the start-up venture once it reaches a certain size and maturity?"
The problem we're up against in both cases is hard to put a dramatic name to. In fact, this very difficulty partly defines the problem. But I will attempt to name it anyway. We're talking about the danger of things that run by themselves.
The dangerous face of oppression today is the faceless one, the nameless one, the one for which none of us seems to be responsible. So we pay it no attention -- which is exactly what lets it go its own way.
Who can any longer be said to run the U.S. government or any of its departments? Or the large corporation? In the words of a director and president of Shell Oil when asked how it felt at the top of his company, "It's like sitting on the back of a huge brontosaurus and watching where he's going. /4/ Jokes about oil and old dinosaurs aside, one senses this same incomprehension and helplessness throughout all our institutions today. The politician's ritual promise to take charge and move the System is taken by the rest of us with resigned good humor.
What has become of the great political and business leaders of the past few centuries who, by force of their (sometimes despotic) personalities, placed their own imprint upon government and business? First they became organization men, and then they became the passive tools of their own media images. So, now, even the strongly hierarchical organization runs by itself. Which is to say that, effectively, the hierarchy isn't functioning as a hierarchy. It's not really directed from the summit. Something else is going on.
That's why the only way you can reach the top of the pyramid is by becoming faceless. The hierarchy runs under a power that can never quite be pinned down. Who really knows who "they" are? To hear everyone talk, "they" are everywhere, and yet no one you actually speak with seems to be one of "them."
It is this latter threat that most of us fail to recognize clearly enough. There must be, as I said, a reason for the heretofore inescapable conclusion of the new venture's exciting start. Whatever that reason is, it is powerful enough to defeat the most concerted will of the most intelligent and well-meaning people -- and to do so time and again, despite all the hard-earned lessons of the past. It is just a fact today: the organization takes on a life of its own; it begins to run by itself.
Furthermore, here is where the computer menaces us with a chilling potential. For while the mechanical devices of the Industrial Age also ran by themselves -- endowing us with fantasies of a clockwork universe -- the computer runs by itself with an attitude. It not only runs like a traditional machine, but also receives a dimmed-down, mechanical -- yet technically effective -- shadow of our inner life, and then sets that to running by itself. /6/
And so the power of the computer-based organization to sustain itself in a semisomnambulistic manner, free of conscious, present human control -- while yet maintaining a certain internal, logical coherence -- is increased to a degree we have scarcely begun to fathom. We are rapidly fashioning a diffuse "body" that far exceeds the traditional corporate dinosaur in its ability to incarnate an autonomous and anti-human spirit.
The human community has yet to make itself master even of the moderate-sized corporation. But already we are hailing the Net for its globalizing tendencies. The question is whether we are recasting an unsolved problem on a scale that leaves us altogether without hope.
But our aim cannot be to preserve the start-up. Organizations must be allowed to mature. The need is to raise the start-up -- or the differentiated organization into which it has evolved -- to a higher level. Relationships, functions, and tasks that have become mechanical must now be made organic -- but more consciously, and at a more complex evolutionary stage than in the start-up.
If the start-up can be considered a collection of loosely cooperating cells, the integrated organization (as Lievegoed calls it) is more like a higher organism with major subsystems ("organs"). Where functions of the pioneer phase overlapped and were not clearly delineated (and then became rigid and isolated in the differentiated company), they must now be carried out by complex, interpenetrating functional centers. Where coordination was achieved by direct and informal personal contacts, it now requires sophisticated networking and horizontal cooperation. Where the organizational structure was flat, it must now be exceedingly intricate -- yet ever-changing in form, and flexibly adapting to shifting needs. Where individual effort was decisive, now the company depends upon teamwork. In general, the pioneering, seat-of-the-pants style, which gives way to detailed planning and organization in the differentiated phase, must now evolve into the clear formulation of policy (principles) and the management of innovation. After-the-fact evaluation of performance against policy replaces before-the-fact control. /7/
Those who have worked, as I have, in the sizable and effective engineering departments of computer manufacturers will find this description familiar. Given the competitive pressure upon them, software and hardware design teams must work this way, or they'll soon be out of business. These teams have a lot to teach us, not only about how computers might be used in the integrated organization, but more generally about the human shape of such organizations, with or without computers.
One hopes that the thriving start-up ventures of the past couple of decades, and the successful engineering teams inside mature businesses, both signal the beginning of an effort to take the company consciously in hand and mold it into an instrument for accomplishing the purposes of its human community.
But it is nearly unthinkable. When the layoff or the merger comes, can we have Human Resources operating on the basis of teamwork that arises from, and penetrates back through, the entire company? Hardly so, for the layoff and merger are only possible in the first place (in their common forms) because the company as a human commmunity has already been discounted.
Take, for example, the "humanly unproblematic" nature of the hardware and software engineering task. That is exactly the problem: the human being has largely been removed from both the engineering cycle and the finished product. The product is conceived as something that stands complete and objective by itself, quite independently of the human expression going into it. The terms of that expression are therefore narrowed down to the strictly technical.
A complementary consideration applies to those who purchase and use the computer-based product. This product has now become a kind of intelligent, empty template with the active power, in running by itself, to shape a human community to its emptiness -- that same expressionless emptiness governing its manufacture.
Such, then, are the results when the engineer coding away at her terminal considers her task a technical one only, and when there are no means within her own work life for integrating broader issues of purpose and value.
I discuss elsewhere what can happen when decision support software is misused within the corporation. /8/ But it will almost inevitably be misused so long as it is being designed by engineers who see it as consisting of so much "logic," and who themselves are functioning within their companies solely as technicians. All attempts to mend this situation will amount to the most scanty patchwork until -- well, for one thing, until Human Resources can interact meaningfully with Engineering in a single, integrated organization. And until the task of writing software becomes at least as humanly problematic as managing the Human Resources department.
Moreover, within the corporation, computer networks readily transform interpenetrating, organic relationships into a web of outer, mechanical ones. Human interaction within these networks easily verges upon the exchange of data that a computer can manipulate. What looks like a resonant pattern of personal exchange is often less notable for the unlimited "connectivity" it embraces than for the way it painlessly and unnoticeably filters a deep, personal dimension out of the corporation's functioning -- exactly the dimension that must be brought to uncommon clarity if we are to overcome the smothering powers of the inertial organization and preserve its youthful hopes.
It is easy, when caught up in the excitement of an inchoate, miraculously growing, ever-surprising, global electronic network, to revel in the "play" and unexpected freedoms it allows. But this enjoyment of the untamed, experimental, and still largely unproductive Net tells us no more about its mature potentials than the small, freewheeling start-up venture tells us about the corporate behemoth. If the Net is to become as useful in our major undertakings as so many expect, then it will be mapped into our highly elaborated organizations. And only if we have made those organizations our own, learning to express ourselves through them, will we succeed also in expressing ourselves through the Net.
On the other hand, if we persist in the cultivation of a purely technical stance toward our work and our technology, we will find that, like the corporation, it takes on a life of its own, which is at the same time our life -- but out of control and less than fully conscious. In an age of universally distributed, technically intelligent tools, this autonomous life may exercise a totalitarian suppression of the human spirit that will be all the more powerful for its diffuseness and invisibility. We might, in the end, find ourselves wishing for the "good old days" of strong, dictatorial rule. At least then we knew where the enemy was.
Probably not in any of those giant, self-propelled -- and mostly high-tech -- industries commonly thought to be carrying us into the future. I would look first of all in small, out-of-the-way places -- businesses where the aim is not growth, but rather to provide products or services that a particular clientele seeks as a matter of belief or principle. There are, for example, those who value healthy food, free of poisons, grown within a healthy human community, and distributed and sold through healthy enterprises -- all linked together by a consciously shared and worked out set of intentions. The costs will be greater, some may say, but that is foolishness, for you can only measure your costs against what it is you want to create and obtain. The question is, "what do we find important?" and the businesses I have in mind will be driven by this question.
There are such businesses now, some of them thriving -- and not only in food production. There are many small publishers who will accept a manuscript, not simply because the book will sell, but because they believe the book is important for mankind's future. There are personal care and health product companies whose businesses are guided, not by glamorous images and celebrity endorsements, but (radical as it may seem) by deep convictions about what is healthy. There are environmental services that are an expression of love for the natural world.
I have heard it said of a group of telecommunications executives meeting to discuss the "national information infrastructure" that these folks are in business; they're not in it for their health -- a strange truth when you think about it. There is hope for a business only when its officers and employees are in it for their health.
Success and growth for such a business can be measured solely by the achievement of its purposes, not its quarterly stock price gain. One hope for the future is that we may learn to see more of our lives governed in this way by our own, meaningful purposes. The esthetic and functional design of home and workplace (architectural and building trades); the balance between man and machine in our activities (virtually every occupation); the varieties of recreation that can truly revitalize us -- these and many other domains may become fields for the conscious attempt by businesses to achieve what matters.
I would also look toward the nonprofits -- what Peter Drucker calls the third, or social, sector. In many of these a social purpose is the whole raison d'etre, and the idea of stewardship is therefore successfully substituted for the idea of plundering the market. This largeness of purpose provides fertile ground for growing an organization that is fully an expression of, and controlled by, its wide-awake human constituencies.
I would look for the expansion of "socially aware" banking and investing. The hope here is not that more politically correct businesses will be supported, but rather that any business will be supported only by those who are specifically concerned about its overall goals, its use of resources, its internal organization and treatment of employees, its effect upon the environment, its role in its immediate neighborhood, and every other aspect of its operation.
This hope applies not only to our investing, but also to our consuming. In a growing number of markets people are buying products with a "social conscience" -- from ice cream to cosmetics to toys. That the real social value of some of these choices remains controversial does not matter, for unanimity of opinion is not the goal. What is important is the free expression of conscience. Indeed, where the social issues are complex and not fully understood (and one can hardly imagine social issues to be otherwise), the proposed solutions had better be controversial. But this concerned and free expression is a prerequisite for the emergence of any true solutions.
We can, therefore, welcome the efforts to certify and label products, so that the consumer has some basis for his choices. For example, an effort is underway to begin identifying timber grown by sustainable methods. Many other products, from tuna fish to computers, have been labeled with respect to various environmental concerns. Although we can expect such practices to be employed cynically and misleadingly by some -- and there are no easy standards in any case -- these beginnings at least point in the right direction.
I would look for organizations able to take a playful, "nonserious" attitude toward any new technological device: taking the time to get to know it, to "massage" it and be massaged by it, and finally determining whether and how they can shape it to their own will rather than yielding to its will. This, of course, is the truly serious stance, for it implies respect for the powers embedded in every tool.
I would not look toward businesses that leap into a market opportunity just because it's there -- letting themselves grow explosively as the opportunity allows, until the whole market suddenly collapses (as tends to happen when you are dealing with artificially created "needs") or changes its character. Then the company is left with thousands of orphaned employees, not to mention a huge inventory of wasted resources. Large companies can aim to be nimble and adaptable -- and this is surely good -- but the first rule of adaptability should be: adapt yourself to a real human need, involve those whose need you are meeting in your own planning, and let your production be guided as much as possible by the expectations and long-term commitments of this entire community.
All this, of course, requires that in my roles both as consumer and as employee, I be willing to participate in the fashioning of business. In this regard, the consumer movement of the past few decades is a positive development, but it needs to enter into a more intimate, cooperative, and productive relationship with the producers of goods and services. Businesses seeking to produce enduring value for consumers can only succeed to the extent that consumers accept a responsibility to support them.
One can, incidentally, see at least a distant hint of such a collaborative relationship in the X Consortium, which is responsible for some of today's most important and most "open" networking and graphics software. A group of high-tech companies support the Consortium in its development of new products; these products go through a phase of public review, and then, upon completion, they are placed in the public domain. The participating companies -- and anyone else who wishes -- use the public-domain software as the basis for their own, enhanced, commercial products. One reason companies support the Consortium is that, by participating in the early phases of product development, they get a head start on developing their own, improved versions of the software -- this in a market where a few months can make the difference between profit and loss.
Personally, I suspect the time will come -- however remotely -- when the idea of racing to market in order to beat a competitor by a few months will seem terribly odd. I cannot readily imagine any human need that is served by such a race. In fact, the race seems to indicate a process that is running on by itself, without reference to need. If the slightest slackness on my part means that someone else is going to beat me to market, then clearly there's no reason for me to worry about the supposed need remaining unmet! So I must in fact be worrying about something else: keeping up with the treadmill. If I must bend my entire organization -- and huge financial resources -- toward being first on the market by a few months, then I've devoted my organization to a margin of good that is so infinitesimally thin as to be meaningless. I've also almost guaranteed a margin of bad somewhere down the road -- in the form of corporate "restructuring" when the product directions that once seemed so important lose their relevance or appeal. And in the meantime my employees will recognize, consciously or not, that they are participating in a mechanism of cancerous growth from which meaning has largely been eliminated.
Most of the signs of hope I've listed above imply at least a partial detachment from the pressures of an economic treadmill running under its own power. I have no doubt that these signs must seem like folly to many. And so they would be folly in most "normal" business contexts. But I never wanted to suggest that our future lies in what is now normal business. As things come to run more and more by a logic of their own, any human alternative can only look more and more like illogic and folly.
1. O'Toole, 1985: 301.
2. Peter Drucker's contention in The Post-Capitalist Society that employees own corporate America through their pension funds is quite irrelevant here. Such abstract ownership has no bearing on the critical issue: the concrete relations of responsibility between employees and the organizations in which they invest their creative and productive lives.
3. Lievegoed, The Developing Organization. This book was first published in 1969 (before the onset of the computer's transformation of work). Throughout this chapter I draw upon Lievegoed's analysis of organizational phases, in addition to my own, ten-year stint with computer manufacturers.
4. Quoted in Bos, 1983: pp. 14-15.
5. As to the computer's reactionary usefulness: Joseph Weizenbaum, referring to the conviction of some that computers came along "just in time" to reinforce institutions like banking, welfare, and credit reporting, claims that this misses the point. "These institutions ... may have needed to be transformed, perhaps in revolutionary ways. I believe the computer has not worked to revolutionize the world as we know it so much as to shore up existing, decaying systems." (Weizenbaum, 1986.)
6. The chapter "Incomprehensible Programs" in Weizenbaum's Computer Power and Human Reason is an effective, if frightful, characterization of computer programs "that run by themselves." Weizenbaum also deals with the implications of such programs within an organizational context.
7. Increasingly in our day the challenge is to move directly from the pioneer to the integrated organization -- or (in the case of large start-ups) actually to begin with an integrated style. The differentiated organization holds steadily fewer attractions for us -- a hopeful sign.
8. See chapter 10, "Thoughts on a Group Support System."
9. Jacques Ellul makes this point in great and persuasive depth in The Technological Bluff.
Steve Talbott :: The Future Does Not Compute, Chapter 8