Understanding the Industrial Age

Dee Hock

I have long puzzled where mechanistic organizational concepts so wasteful of the human spirit and destructive of the biosphere originated, and why we are so blind to their reality. Their genesis has a long history, reaching back to Aristotle, Plato, and even beyond. However, it was primarily Newtonian science and Cartesian philosophy that fathered the modern version of those concepts, giving rise to the machine metaphor. That metaphor has since dominated the whole of our thinking, the nature of our organizations, and the structure of the Western industrial society to a degree few fully realize. And it has rapidly infected the rest of the world. It declared that the universe and everything in it, whether physical, biological, or social, could only be understood as a clock-like mechanism composed of separable parts acting on one another with precise, measurable, linear laws of cause and effect. If we could dissect and understand all the parts and the laws governing them, we could reconstruct the world and all therein as measurable, predictable, orderly machines, presumably much more to our liking than the world we experienced.

For nearly three centuries, we have worked with exceptional diligence to structure society in accordance with that perspective, believing that with ever more reductionist scientific knowledge, ever more specialization, ever more technology, ever more efficiency, ever more linear education, ever more rules and regulations, ever more hierarchal command and control, we could learn to engineer organizations in which we could pull a lever at one place and get a precise result at another and know with certainty which lever to pull for which result. Never mind that human beings must be made to behave like cogs and wheels in the process.

For more than two centuries, we have been engineering those institutions and pulling the levers. Rarely, very rarely, have we gotten the expected results. What we have gotten is all too obvious: obscene maldistribution of wealth and power, a crumbling ecosphere, and collapsing societies.

Just as the machine metaphor that arose from Newtonian science and Cartesian philosophy was the father of today’s organizational concepts, the Industrial Age was the mother. Together, they dominated the evolution of all institutions. The unique processes of the age of handcrafting were abandoned in favor of mechanistic, dominator organizations, which, in order to produce huge quantities of uniform goods, services, knowledge, and people, amassed resources, centralized authority, routinized practices, and enforced conformity. This created a class of managers and specialists expert at reducing variability and diversity to uniform, repetitive, assembly-line processes endlessly repeated with ever increasing efficiency. Thus, the Industrial Age became the age of managers.

It also became the age of the physical scientist, whose primary function was to reduce diverse ways of understanding to mechanistic knowledge through uniform, repetitive laboratory processes endlessly repeated with ever increasing precision. In time, universities obtained an oligopoly on accreditation and the production of both classes. It has led to one of those immense paradoxes of which the universe is so infinitely capable. A paradox that is having profound societal effect. The highest levels of all organizations, whether commercial, political, social, or educational, are now primarily formed of an interchangeable cognitive elite interwoven into a mutually supportive complex with immense self-interest in preservation of existing hierarchal forms of organization, and the ever increasing concentration of power and wealth that they inevitably bring.

At the same time, that complex is spawning an incredible array of scientific and technological innovation; immense engines of change creating enormous diversity and complexity in the way people live, work, and play, which in turn demands radically different concepts of organization; concepts by which power and wealth are more equitably distributed and commonly shared. Concepts by which human ingenuity is unshackled and harmony with the human spirit and the ecosphere restored. As a society, to borrow from Shakespeare, we are “hoist with our own petard.”

The essential thing to remember is not that we became a world of expert managers and specialists, but that the nature of our expertise became the creation and management of constants, uniformity, and efficiency, while the need has become the understanding and coordination of variability, complexity, and effectiveness, the very process of change itself. It is not complicated. The nature of our organizations, management, and scientific expertise is not only increasingly irrelevant to pressing societal and environmental needs, it is a primary cause of them.

Copyright ©1999 by Dee Hock

The above text is quoted from: Dee Hock’s Birth of the Chaortic Age, Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc., San Francisco, 1999. You can buy his book in bookstores or on the net. He is affiliated with a very interesting group of humans at: http://www.chaordic.org/