A useful fiction

A Reading Note

Among the threads that Saval traces in Cubed is that of the evolution from Taylorist “scientific management” (with its emphasis on mass-production and unskilled labor) to post-Fordist methods (with a stated preference for flexibility and innovation). But Saval notices that this supposed evolution rests on a shaky interpretation of the past:

Knowledge work itself came from a historic shift, one that [Peter] Drucker, like so many, traced to Frederick Taylor. But his version of history was marked by a curious and useful elision. In Drucker’s account, Taylor came upon a working world characterized by rote, nearly mindless, activity. It wasn’t so much planned as willed: the workers simply worked harder rather than “smarter.” Until Taylor, that is: “Taylor, for the first time in history, looked at work itself as deserving the attention of an educated man.” Drucker’s subsequent description of the insensate labor of unskilled men in factories draws almost entirely from Taylor’s portrait of them—and accordingly condescends to their abilities to plan and organize work. In actual fact, it wasn’t so. Before Taylor, work was already organized by teams of factory workers, who in large part had control over how they worked. The knowledge they applied to work was largely “tacit” in nature, agreed upon among the workers themselves and developed through a silent or coded language, rather than “explicit” (to borrow a famous definition from the sociologist Michael Polanyi). What Taylor sought in particular—indeed, what constititued his signal obsession—was to extract this tacit knowledge from the workers and install it in another set of people, the “industrial engineers.” Drucker called them the “prototype of all modern ‘knowledge workers’”—a plausible assumption but one that excised the tremendous amount of knowledge that already existed in the work process. (Taylor lamented that after being taught “the one best way,” workers had a stubborn tendency to return to their own ways of working.) It was a useful fiction, and a common one, that helped to uphold a new class of technicians and professionals as the masters of an ever more progressive society, dependent on the application of knowledge to work.

Saval, Cubed, page 196

I take a few things away from this: first, that the idea that manual laborers are unskilled is, of course, a lie—they have been deskilled, having had the use of their skills stripped from them and given to their bosses, supposedly the only ones who could be trusted with that information. But just as importantly, the notion that the modern-day workplace has done away with deskilling is itself a useful fiction. Hierarchical management structures across industries routinely serve to hoard planning and process decisions at the top. Even the language of “knowledge workers” elides who has power to declare which knowledge is right and actionable. Drucker’s vision of the modern workplace was glossier than Taylor’s, but it papered over the power structures rather than upending them.

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Cubed

Nikil Saval

An insightful history of professional work, Nikil Saval’s Cubed interrogates how we work by digging into where we work, and the way those workplaces have changed and evolved.