Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 16, No. 162.
Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
Date: Sun, 18 Aug 2002 10:45:45 -0700
From: Willard McCarty <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Subject: digitization and work
Humanists interested in the broader effects of online communications will
likely be glad for the following newly published book by a former Secretary
of Labor in the U.S. government: Robert Reich, The Future of Success:
Working and Living in the New Economy (Vintage, 2002; also published
electronically). The book is reviewed by Paul Seabright, in the London
Review of Books 24.16, 22 August 2002, pp. 24f.
The reviewer asks what is genuinely new? Among other things, he notes the
standardization of procedures within organizations, "enabling knowledge of
them to be transmitted from one individual to another without the
apprenticeship of the craft tradition. This is not a new phenomenon -- it's
a pretty good description of what made the Roman army so much more powerful
than its predecessors and rivals...." What is new, however, are two aspects
of this communication of organizational method: (1) standardization to
higher orders of flexibility; and, note well, (2) recording of
standardization in digital form, hence ease and breadth of transmission.
"To learn the Roman Army's procedures you had to be a Roman soldier,
whereas to copy a rival firm's accounting system you just have to buy (or
pirate) its software."
By higher flexibility the reviewer means that whole processes of production
can be standardized in such a way as to allow the individual steps to be
modified. In scholarly work we are nowhere near that kind of thing -- for
quite obvious reasons. But what is implied about computerization -- that
its subject is the method by which things are done -- should be deeply
familiar. Perhaps because Reich's concern is with the economics of
industrial production , which is already mechanical and so more easily
digitized than scholarship, he does not (apparently, from the review) talk
about the discrepancy between human understanding and actual implementation
-- as we must. The argument gives us, however, a way of talking about what
we do to the public.
Dr Willard McCarty, Senior Lecturer
Centre for Computing in the Humanities
King's College London
London WC2R 2LS
+44 (0)20 7848-2784 fax: -2980
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