Wednesday, November 06, 2013

The birth of the hive mind

The July/August of Gilbert magazine had a telling piece written by G. K. Chesterton many years ago.

The Worship of the Insect

Mr. Bernard Shaw (who still keeps the world alive more than any other single man) has declared that with the present human animal there is and can be no progress; that he wants a new kind of manpossibly one with two heads. With all my admiration of Mr. Shaw’s eternal vigour and sincerity, I cannot help thinking this rather like the conduct of a mother who, after trying a very cold logical education on her child from six years, should suddenly surprise the street, not by giving up the system, but by flinging the baby out of the window and saying, “Bring me another child.”

Of course, man will not fit Mr. Shaw’s religion of bald candor and the cleansing of life from romanticism, because he is a mammal; the mammals are in the Cosmos the romantic order; the order that has tended to hunting and falling in love; but the curious thing about this new scientific and sociological fancy is that it has tended, more than to anything else, to go outside the mammalian altogether. The new sociologist sees his ideal in another great branch of life; in another great biological civilization. He sees his ideal in a race of creatures whose civilization (for most emphatically, of course, it is a civilization) is marked iron regularity, by the everlasting sacrifice of the individual to the State and the everlasting sacrifice of the present to the future. They are the great rationaliststhe only rationalists; they are the insects. The worship of the insect is the new efficiency. The sociologist of the hour goes forth to conquer like Napoleon, emblazoned with bees.

Mr. H. G. Wells again puts the future, apparently with joy, into the hands of a race of serious, capable scientific experts who are quite obviously insects, except for a slight inferiority in the matter of legs. The sentence of Solomon (written I am sure, during his days of decadence and impiety), “Go to the ant, thou sluggard,” is clearly their motto.

Mr. Sydney Webb, to take another deservedly eminently man, though very far from being a sluggard, may be said to have gone to the ant.
It is worth noting that all of these eminent men would later praise Stalin’s totalitarian state. They had been looking for a New Civilization with New Men and the Soviet Union promised them just that. Is it possible that the regimentation of the Soviet nation/prison was a (good) feature in their eyes, not a bug?

A further point worth noting: Chesterton wrote this in a newspaper column in 1903.

The man was a prophet.

Not all of Chesterton’s targets were socialists. If many socialists loved the vision of a society tightly organized like an anthill, many conservatives and businessmen shared the same vision. They were in thrall of factories full of unmammal-like men and women; worker bees with the emphasis on bee. No wonder Taylorism proved so seductive to the business and managerial class.

Michael Malone tries to rescue Frederick Winslow Taylor’s reputation here.

Why Progressives Always Get Tech Wrong

What Taylor realized, and proved, was that work was a measurable activity that could be systematically made more productive using scientific techniques. But Taylor also argued that workers should be rewarded commensurately with their increased productivity something management didn’t agree with . . .and paid for with labor strife for the next half-century. Industry largely learned its lesson and when it forgot there were forward-thinking entrepreneurs to remind them: like a young David Packard, who told a gathering in the late 1940s of the nation’s biggest corporate executives that if they didn’t trust and empower their employees even more in the years to come, they were doomed. History proved him right. And smart CEOs changed their practices because, in the end, they valued profits over power.
While he may be right about Taylor’s intentions, the implementation of his ideas usually failed to live up to the ideal. For every Dave Packard, corporate America had a dozen Robert McNamaras or Carly Fiorinas.

From Taylorism to Reengineering to ERP the private sector managerial class has fallen for one fad after another that promote command, control, uniformity, and the massacre of the drones.

Insect worship helps explain why hip Apple loves to build their expensive trinkets in the world’s largest Stalinist state.

A foreman immediately roused 8,000 workers inside the company’s dormitories, according to the executive. Each employee was given a biscuit and a cup of tea, guided to a workstation and within half an hour started a 12-hour shift fitting glass screens into beveled frames. Within 96 hours, the plant was producing over 10,000 iPhones a day.

“The speed and flexibility is breathtaking,” the executive said. “There’s no American plant that can match that.”…

That’s because nothing like Foxconn City exists in the United States. The facility has 230,000 employees, many working six days a week, often spending up to 12 hours a day at the plant. Over a quarter of Foxconn’s work force lives in company barracks and many workers earn less than $17 a day. When one Apple executive arrived during a shift change, his car was stuck in a river of employees streaming past. “The scale is unimaginable,” he said.

Foxconn employs nearly 300 guards to direct foot traffic so workers are not crushed in doorway bottlenecks. The facility’s central kitchen cooks an average of three tons of pork and 13 tons of rice a day. While factories are spotless, the air inside nearby teahouses is hazy with the smoke and stench of cigarettes. Foxconn Technology ( has dozens of facilities in Asia and Eastern Europe, and in Mexico and Brazil, and it assembles an estimated 40 percent of the world’s consumer electronics for customers like Amazon, Dell, Hewlett-Packard, Motorola, Nintendo, Nokia, Samsung and Sony.

“They could hire 3,000 people overnight,” said Jennifer Rigoni, who was Apple’s worldwide supply demand manager until 2010, but declined to discuss specifics of her work. “What U.S. plant can find 3,000 people overnight and convince them to live in dorms?”

“How the U.S. Lost Out on iPhone Work”, New York Times, January 21, 2012
This love of the ant is not a by-product of the marketplace. It is a cognitive bias, a mental and moral weakness that convinces bureaucrats (government and private sector both) that the world, country, company or factory would be better off if the people would just stop acting like mammals.

A telling story from GM’s failed partner ship with Toyota illustrates the blind spot:

Jeffrey Liker, author of “The Toyota Way,” (McGraw-Hill, 2003), says that GM couldn’t figure out how to absorb company-wide the positive cultural lessons it was learning in Freemont.

“I remember one of the GM managers was ordered from a very senior level, a vice-president, to make a GM plant look like NUMMI,” says Liker in the radio story. “He said, ‘I want you to go there with cameras, and take a picture of every square inch, and whatever you take a picture of, I want it to look like that in our plant. There should be no excuse for why we’re different than NUMMI, why our quality is lower, why our productivity isn’t as high, because you’re going to copy everything you see.’ Immediately this guy knew that was crazy. We can’t copy and play motivation, we can’t copy good relationships between the union and management. That’s not something you can copy. You can’t take a photograph of it.”
The Hive mind revisited

The continuing appeal of the hive mind

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