Editor’s Note: This article was first published by The London Globalist, a London School of Economics’ publication focusing on international political and economic matters. The article was authored by Sebastian Woller and originally appeared here.
The Financial Times recently declared that we are entering the era of electronic globalization. They characterize this new period with tech-mergers from Microsoft and Salesforce, international software writers from Lagos, Istanbul, and Lima, and increases in technology expenditures.
Launching the era of e-globalization with an economic premise may be likened to an iceberg: business is the part that shows above the water. The real bulk, the real meaning of this new era, lies below the surface. Eras reflect a distinct character and mindset of a given time period rather than its products, services, and corporations.
The Classical Era was not about Stein or Späth selling pianofortes, or Leopold Mozart writing violin textbooks in various cities. The Classical Era was about a change of view occurring in society. For the first time, music was being played in public concerts for the enjoyment and entertainment of commoners.
The Renaissance Era was not about Frederico da Montefeltro investing in portraits, sculptures, and images of saints. It was more about Filippo Brunelleschi inventing the three-point perspective and artists such as Raphael making art more life-like, recreating nature, and putting people in the center of things.
To understand the real bulk of e-globalization, and what lies beneath the surface, one needs to begin with globalization without the “e.” Globalization means different things. As a term, it gained popularity after the Cold War. Since then, it has been equated with McDonaldization and Americanization. This is greatly due to Thomas Friedman and the late American economist Raymond Vernon — who has been dubbed the “Father of Globalization” — and his pioneering study on multinational corporations in the late 20th Century. But for most, it describes a growing interdependence of how the world works together.
The scientific study of work is an American invention. Scientific Management was conceived by the engineer Frederick W. Taylor — the first US thinker who studied work seriously. In a testimony of Taylor at a hearing before the Special Committee of the House of Representatives to Investigate The Taylor and Other System of Shop Management in January 1912, he explains that “in its essence, scientific management involves a complete mental revolution on the part of the workingman engaged in any particular establishment or industry.” Its goal is to lead common people to a new age of affluence and prosperity. In his book The Practice of Management, Peter Drucker appraises Taylor’s ideas by saying that they are “the most powerful as well as the most lasting contribution America has made to Western thought since the Federalist Papers.” Indeed, the idea of Scientific Management penetrated the whole world. When Vladimir Lenin first learned of Taylor in 1913, he denounced his work as “a ‘scientific’ system of sweating” in the communist newspaper Pravda. However, as head of government in 1919, confronted with the problems of industrial organization and increasing labour discipline, he accepted Taylor’s ideas as “the most urgent” and “central problem” of his socialist revolution.
Management is not an efficiency device or an accounting system for figuring out costs or profits. Like the invention of three-point-perspective, scientific management puts common people at the center of work and organizations in the industrialized West for the very first time. It was a psychological shift in society. For the first time in history, productivity was measured, working hours shortened, working conditions improved, and wages significantly increased.
Taylor showed the world that there are fundamental principles to designing a job and work environment. He began with Bethlehem Steel, demonstrating that there is a science from shovelling dirt to opening restaurants. He redesigned countless shovels for individual workers and made thousands of stop-watch observations. McDonalds, a few decades later, would imitate this practice. The McDonalds brothers proved that there is a science to putting meat on a bun. Before opening restaurants in Strasbourg in 1979, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1993, and Paraguay in 1996, they stop-watched numerous employees preparing orders (McDonalds learned to fulfill a customer’s order in under thirty seconds), studied food production processes, and redesigned kitchen equipment for efficiency and effectiveness (Since then, McDonalds has engaged in extremely exploitative labor practices. In the name of efficiency, staff have been underpaid and/or assigned to inhumane working terms and conditions. To be sure, these practices are a far cry from the management revolution Taylor helped conceive.)
E-globalization is about the way computers work, or rather how people work with information. Charles Babbage (1791-1871), considered by many as the “father of the computer”, was a management thinker and pioneer. Babbage set the floor for definite principles of management. His work led to the propositions upon which Frederick Taylor would build the system and beliefs of scientific management.
Babbage’s ideas are only now coming to the fore. In his book, On the Economy of Machinery and Manufacturers, he writes about the division of labour and how it suggests the contrivance of tools and machinery to execute its processes. He observed “principles which seemed to pervade many establishments.” His toothed wheels invention (“Difference-Engine”) sparked something that had never existed before in history, namely paying jobs for mathematicians. As a result of his management genius, commoners around the world can now labor with one logical form — the electronic computer.
With the era of e-globalization, perspectives have drastically changed. Computers have taken center stage. Even outside corporations and industry, they shape our identity and relationship with others. They have ‘evolved’ to managers, responsible for the application and performance of knowledge. To be sure, only time will tell what this new era is exactly about and what computers really think. As such, perhaps the most urgent job today is to develop concepts to assess the rapidly evolving character and mindset of the computer.
Image courtesy of Flickr. Originally published by S&S on June 16, 2021.