S01E01 Where do managers come from?
Restoring optimism in technological progress, modernism and the clockwork worldview of seeing the world through a reductionist, linear, and determinist lens
Moonshots & housekeeping
I believe that humanity is underachieving. Where is the flying car from the Jetsons? The regenerative medicine from Star Trek? The abundant energy from Asimov’s novels? I also believe that the barriers to progress are not technological or economic — they are cultural. And that means we can fix them.
As a species, we seem to have abandoned optimism. Inflation is eroding trust in our economic and monetary system. People are ruining invaluable art out of fear of an environmental catastrophe. Where we used to revere innovators, we now refer to them as tech bros.
The thesis of this publication is that we have lost our optimism in progress and technology because our worldview is failing us. A worldview is a belief system that shapes our understanding of the nature of the world and our place in it. If we cannot make sense of our place in the world, it is not surprising that we have lost hope.
Restoring optimism is a pretty ambitious undertaking, as far as newsletters go. To maintain a semblance of focus, I will divide this newsletter into different seasons. In the first season, I will introduce the complexity worldview and shine its light on the most fundamental human technologies. Not the wheel or fire, but our ability to organize and coordinate.
The first season’s thesis is that our prevailing organizational approach is behind the times. There are many ways to approach human organization, but I will use the lens that I know best: digital transformation. Software is encroaching on all aspects of the world. We have been in this digital paradigm for some time now, and it is becoming clear which organizational principles enable agility, and which approaches lead to inertia.
S01E01: where do managers come from?
Paid managers and management theory first appeared in the late 19th century, during the so-called Belle Époque, or the Gilded Age as it was called in the US. This was a time when scientific progress was making inroads into daily life. Railroads, mechanization, and the telegraph had recently been established, while new primitives were gaining ground: mass production, the assembly line, and of course, electricity.
“At the end of that century of peace, things were improving ever more visibly, ever more rapidly. Forty years of peace had strengthened countries' economic foundations, technology had accelerated the pace of life, and scientific discoveries had filled the spirit of that generation with pride.”
— Stefan Zweig, The World Of Yesterday
The Belle Époque was a pivotal moment in history not only because it ushered in two world wars. It was also the culmination of modernity. Since this worldview has disproportionately impacted how we think about organization, let’s start by uncovering the roots of modernity.
The optimism that Zweig describes in The World of Yesterday, did not appear out of thin air. And neither did the railroads, factories, or assembly lines. Both the zeitgeist and the technological progress were enabled by fundamental scientific discoveries during the preceding centuries.
Most historians agree that the scientific revolution started with Copernicus’ departure from geocentrism. His discovery struck the first blow to the then-dominant religious worldview. The earth revolving around the sun was the first in a long line of scientific explanations that would replace religious answers to philosophical questions.
In the 17th century, modernity found its scientific synthesis in the Principia Mathematica. Newton’s laws of motion and his law of gravity laid the foundation for classical mechanics and paved the way for the Age of Enlightenment and the pursuit of reason. The Enlightenment was, above all, a philosophy of progress:
“All phenomena are equally susceptible of being calculated, and all that is necessary, to reduce the whole of nature to laws similar to those which Newton discovered with the aid of the calculus, is to have a sufficient number of observations and a mathematics that is complex enough.”
― Marquis de Condorcet, Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind
At first, the pursuit of progress would remain a pastime for intellectuals in salons. From the commoner’s perspective, the 17th century wasn’t all that different from the preceding centuries. If we were to point a time machine at a random 17th-century person, we would likely find a peasant occupied with more earthly duties than the pursuit of science.
At the end of the 18th century, modernity would finally start to touch the lives of people outside the elite. The French Revolution brought about political and social reform, while the Industrial Revolution ushered in technological change. Although the emergence of modern science changed how we think about the world, this happened at a glacial pace. It took centuries after Newton for the ramifications of modern science to spread across the world and seep through the different layers of society. Slowly but surely, modernity was becoming the dominant worldview.
The Belle Epoque was the pinnacle of modernity. The world had seen a glimpse of the technological advances that the pursuit of reason could bring, and it had not yet met any of its limitations. Combined with a period of geopolitical stability, this led to the widespread belief that technology and science were helping society gain perfect control over the world.
This confidence in humanity’s ability to control the environment has shaped the modernity worldview as well as management theory. It is a worldview best characterized by the metaphor of clockwork: a complicated system, but a regular and predictable one thanks to our growing understanding of natural laws.
The clockwork analogy seems to follow logically from Newtonian mechanics. Modernists saw the universe as a machine, with the different components governed by universal laws such as mathematics and physics. By applying the proper natural laws, they should be able to control and predict the cosmos as reliably as clockwork.
If you accept these mechanistic assumptions, it makes sense to try to shape the world through reductionist, linear, and deterministic principles. These are interrelated concepts, each contributing to the clockwork worldview. I’ll briefly review them one by one.
Reductionism is the idea that a complex system can be understood by breaking it down into its individual parts and studying them in isolation. This reductionist approach ignores the connections between parts and how they impact a system.
Linear thinking is the thought process that cause and effect are always in a straight line, and that one event always leads to another. Linearity is closely related to proportionality and predictability. In a linear system, when a small push produces a small response, double the push should produce double the response.
Determinism is the idea that everything that happens in a system is determined by causes that can be known in advance. Pierre Laplace was a French polymath who famously stated that if a super-mind knew the position and speeds of all the particles in the cosmos, this mind should be able to predict the future with certainty. This is the determinist worldview taken to its extreme.
The premise of Season one is that these concepts oversimplify complex systems and lead to a false sense of control. Nevertheless, we need to grasp mechanistic reasoning to understand when it is useful and when it reaches its limitations. In episode 2, I will explore the impact of this worldview on how we think about organization.
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