30 April 2008

Facing the Twits

One other random observation from the NETC08 conference: the predominance of, and enthusiasm for, Twitter among the conference attendees. Is it my imagination, or has Twitter become the Facebook-for-fogeys?

Photo from my keynote at NETC08 thanks to Jason Young

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The Politics of Puppetry

I spent the last couple of days in North Carolina, the site of both the National Extension Technology Conference (at which I was afforded the privilege of providing the opening keynote), and the next American Presidential Democratic primary. So when the windstorm that struck the Obama campaign, namely the National Press Club speech from Rev. Jeremiah Wright, hit I could not help but pay some attention. My McLuhany-sense tingled, so to speak.

My first thought was, who manipulated this situation, to pull the very predictable puppet strings of the American massmedia, and therefore of the American voters? It didn't take too long for a puppet mistress linked to the Clinton campaign to be found.

I'm hopeful that the principle of reversal comes into play: push anything too far, and it reverses what were its original effects. In this case, pushing the hate-inducing, divisive messages of the attention-seeking Rev. Wright to the extreme, as was seemingly manipulated by Barbara Reynolds, might well favour Obama in the end, as he has been motivated to come out with an unequivocal and forceful denouncement of his former pastor.

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26 April 2008


Do all unions and their leadership lie and consider themselves apart from the society that provides for their very existence, or is this a phenomenon unique to the likes of the Amalgamated Transit Union (and in my experience, CUPE as well)? "We'll give 48 hours notice of strike action," was a refreshing and welcome, but sadly prevaricating pronouncement by Bob Kinnear and his mafia-like gang. Last night, with a scant one-hour notice, the TTC was shut down, leaving tens of thousands of people stranded on a Saturday night, in the midst of their late night weekend activities. How many people came out of movies, clubs, restaurants, workplaces at all hours of the late evening and early morning to find that their Metropass was about as useful as Toronto City Councillors - an ironic reminder of ineffectiveness, dysfunction and aggrandizing self-interest.

Of course the workers will be legislated back to work by Monday morning, Tuesday at the absolute latest. Wouldn't it be sweet justice if Toronto transit was declared an essential service and the ATU loses the right to strike altogether! (Perhaps McGuinty's kids were out Saturday night and counting on the once better way to get home.)

Which leads me to contemplate the following: Many transit workers take the TTC to get home after their shifts. So what happened to the operators once they parked their buses, streetcars and subway trains at the stroke of midnight? Sauce for the gander.

For the record, I am a coerced, unwilling, and robbed member of CUPE local 3097, whose policies I do not endorse, and whose collective agreement with the University of Toronto I do not honour.

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23 April 2008

Rhetorical Question

Can someone please explain the US political commentary to me? Why is it true that if one of the Democratic candidates cannot "win" in a particular state over the other Democratic candidate, that it is immediately concluded that the particular candidate will not be able to "win" over John McCain in November? Would none of those 1.2 million-plus voters who cast for Hillary Clinton yesterday (or million-plus who voted for Barack Obama) vote for the other candidate rather than staying home or voting Republican on election day?

The political rhetoric during this primary season borders on the inane, and flipping among the various so-called cable news stations and applying half a minute's worth of logic to the noise tends to reveal the source of much of the inanity. The newsmedia need a horse race to draw viewers. To quote William Randolph Hearst from a century ago, "you supply the pictures, I'll supply the war."

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21 April 2008

U.S. Government Manipulates Media - So Is Anyone Really Surprised By This?

New York Times on the U.S. Department of Defense co-opting military commentators across all the newsmedia outlets to feed propaganda to the public in a massive, domestically focused Psyops strategy:
To the public, these men are members of a familiar fraternity, presented tens of thousands of times on television and radio as “military analysts” whose long service has equipped them to give authoritative and unfettered judgments about the most pressing issues of the post-Sept. 11 world.

Hidden behind that appearance of objectivity, though, is a Pentagon information apparatus that has used those analysts in a campaign to generate favorable news coverage of the administration’s wartime performance, an examination by The New York Times has found. The effort, which began with the buildup to the Iraq war and continues to this day, has sought to exploit ideological and military allegiances, and also a powerful financial dynamic: Most of the analysts have ties to military contractors vested in the very war policies they are asked to assess on air.

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08 April 2008

Blogging and Taylorism: Blogger as Pig Iron Shlepper

Frederick Winslow Taylor was the father of Scientific Management, captured in his landmark 1911 work, Principles of Scientific Management. He was also, arguably, a fraud (Wrege and Hodgetts, 2000) - the first cynical management consultant - and the father of all of our modern and contemporary management abuses, dysfunctions and problematics.
Taylor’s 1911 Principles of Scientific Management outlined his basic precepts: (1) Decompose work into tasks, or “elements” and develop “a science” for each one; (2) Select and train workers according to a scientific approach; (3) Create cooperation between workers and managers to ensure the work is being done according to the developed science; and (4) Divide the work between managers and workers, so that each performs the tasks to which they are respectively suited.

Taylor’s scientific management principles were a result of the need created for “professional managers” when ownership separated from management control in the late nineteenth century. Its apparent effectiveness became legendary worldwide: For the first half of the twentieth century, Taylor’s American "way" of doing business was seen as superior to all others.

Taylor’s methods were applied to even lowly jobs such as loading pigs – standard, 92-pound blocks of iron – into shipping gondolas. Many authors, relate the anecdote of the productivity improvements achieved by encouraging workers at Bethlehem Steel in 1899 to work harder and faster in exchange for a higher daily wage, based on piece-work incentives. Taylor’s pig iron loading experiment is characterized as accomplishing tremendous productivity gains: loading a standard of 45 tons per worker at an incentive-fuelled daily rate of $1.69 – for those that made the quota – compared to the average 12 tons loaded at a fixed daily rate of $1.15. However, Charles Wrege and Richard Hodgetts (2000) investigate this now-fabled justification for scientific management by reviewing some of the original logs and journals kept at the time. They discover that the anecdotes were incomplete as retold by Taylor, and subsequently canonized in management folklore and textbooks.

The deficiencies they identify centre on Taylor’s reporting of productivity gains that occurred only under ideal conditions of pig placement and location, perfect weather conditions, and permission given to the workers to toss the pigs into the gondola cars, rather than stacking them neatly. As one might expected, this resulted in significant damage and shorter life for the cars and therefore, higher overall costs to the company. Additionally, workers choosing incentive pay could not sustain the higher production rates for longer than several days per month because of the physical strain.

The total savings achieved through Taylor’s methods were minimal, compared to a completely non-incentive, “rule-of-thumb” method, and neither included, nor compensated for, the additional costs of gondola damage. Despite the unsurprising fact that none of Bethlehem Steel’s competitors took up Taylor’s approach, his principles entered management folklore as a “best practice” of the time.
So why do I recite this history (which is from an unpublished paper of mine, Frederick Taylor is alive and well and living in management process), and what does it have to do with bloggers?

On the weekend, the New York Times ran an article that describes professional bloggers as contemporary sweatshop workers. "A growing work force of home-office laborers and entrepreneurs, armed with computers and smartphones and wired to the hilt, are toiling under great physical and emotional stress created by the around-the-clock Internet economy that demands a constant stream of news and comment." In fact, two pro pay-for-post bloggers have died recently of causes that can well be linked to the mental and physical stresses of their chosen way of earning a living. As the NYT article describes their 24-hour-a-day drive to produce more posts, faster than any other blogger with whom each competes, I am reminded of Schultz, the hapless "best worker" in Taylor's experiment who was driven by economic incentive to shlep more pigs, regardless of the ultimate outcome. But Schultz was smarter than some of today's bloggers: he knew that such exertion could not be sustained, and backed off.

danah raises the issue of work/life balance for all so-called knowledge workers. But for those of us who do not fully appreciate that we, as a society, aren't really in the Industrial Age any more, we're essentially tied to Taylor. We have been well-taught by schools, governments, and the general Western discourse that competition, winning, status and economic success are what matter, possibly despite one's concurrent sensibilities that might paradoxically suggest otherwise.

When (if?) people realize that these often self-imposed imperatives to succeed - almost always measured against a predominantly economic rubric - are throwbacks to the early 20th century and before, they may decide to change their ways. Good ol' Frederick Winslow Taylor taught us how to be paid for piecework, and follow best practices before they were so named. And despite the fact that many aspects of our society are no longer in the industrial age, modern institutions remain stubbornly mired in their Dickensian workhouse roots.

It is, I think, incumbent on those of us to claim to understand the effects of ubiquitous connectivity and pervasive proximity - that to my mind describes the world as we wittingly or unwittingly experience it - to consciously enact a change to the imposed paradigm of constant competition, continual economic expansion, and the myth that there is some sort of dichotomy between work and life.

Ideally (and yes, I understand the critical and problematic issues surrounding what I'm about to say), what one does to maintain one's economic viability should be entirely entwined with living integrally and authentically. The more apparent the issue of co-called work/life balance becomes, the less integrated it is with one's life, suggesting that a reconsideration might be called for.

Took me (what I estimate to be) half my (total) life to figure this out and begin to enact it for myself. Losing the paradigm of "money as scorecard" helps. So does being entirely present and engaged in whatever it is one is doing or with whomever one is at the moment, as well as embracing one's uncertainty with as much gusto as embracing one's passion.

I do have one thing for which to thank all the neo-Taylorists throughout the business world. It was the realization from that Alive and Well paper that inspired me to create my Valence Theory of Organization, that emphasizes balance among economic, socio-psychological, identity, knowledge, and ecological valence relationships for organizations to be most effective.

  • Wrege, C.D. & Hodgetts, R.M. (2000). Frederick W. Taylor's 1899 pig iron observations: Examining fact, fiction, and lessons for the new millennium. Academy of Management Journal, 43(6), 1283-1291.

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06 April 2008

Amber Mac on Net Neutrality in Canada

Although we lagged our neighbours to the south in making this issue an Issue, we've finally caught up as Bell and Rogers have been caught out. Here's Canada's hottest tech commentator, Amber Mac, on the Canadian flavour of Net Neutrality.

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05 April 2008

Requiescat in Pace: Corinne McLuhan, 1912-2008

Corinne McLuhan, the widow of Marshall McLuhan, passed away yesterday, just a week shy of her 96th birthday. The death notice reads:

Died peacefully of natural causes at her home in Wychwood Park surrounded by her family. She was the beloved and loving wife and confidante of the late Marshall McLuhan (1980); dear sister of the late Carolyn Lewis Weinman (1996); devoted and loving mother of Eric (Sabina Ellis), Mary, Teri, Stephanie (Niels Ortved), Elizabeth (Don Myers), and Michael (Danuta Valleau); proud grandmother of Jennifer Colton Theut, Emily McLuhan Boms, Anna and Andrew McLuhan, Claire and Madeleine McLuhan Myers, Arthur, Mark, and Gwendolyn McLuhan; and great-grandmother of Olivia, Charlotte, and Gillian.

Corinne was known for her beauty, grace, intelligence, wit, and Southern charm. She embraced life fully and enjoyed many rich experiences and wonderful friendships along the way. Born in Fort Worth, Texas, Corinne proudly remained an American all her life. She graduated from Texas Christian University and went on to do graduate work in theatre at the leading drama school of the day, Pasadena Playhouse in Pasadena, California. It was there that she met her future husband, Marshall McLuhan, a graduate student at Cambridge University in England, who had travelled to Pasadena to visit his mother, a drama coach at the Playhouse.

The family wishes to extend its heartfelt thanks to Dr. Wendy Brown for her years of unflagging and tender care, and to special caregivers Sally, Bona, Tasie, Amy, and particularly Cynthia, who has stayed at Corinne's side day and night for the last four years. There will be a funeral mass at Holy Rosary Church, 354 St. Clair Avenue West, Toronto on Monday, April 7, 2008 at 1:30 p.m. Interment Holy Cross Cemetery. Arrangements entrusted to the Turner & Porter Yorke Chapel, 416-767-3153.

My experience of Corinne was indeed that of a gracious, warm and lovely woman. During the controversy over publishing of McLuhan for Managers, driven largely by those zealously guarding the business interests of the Marshall McLuhan estate, it was Corinne who saw Derrick's and my authentic intent to further Marshall's thinking in an area to which he, himself aspired, but couldn't quite fully achieve as I think he desired (according to Eric). It was Corinne's direct intervention that finally enabled my book to be published, and for that I will be ever grateful to her.

Marshall has been waiting a long time in heaven to be joined by his loving wife. May her memory be as much of a blessing as was his.

Update (20 April 2008: Here is the obituary from the Globe and Mail.

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