20.081 the machine metaphor

From: Humanist Discussion Group (by way of Willard McCarty willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk>
Date: Thu, 29 Jun 2006 08:31:51 +0100

                Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 20, No. 81.
       Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                     Submit to: humanist_at_princeton.edu

         Date: Wed, 28 Jun 2006 14:14:46 +0100
         From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk>
         Subject: Weber's metaphor for modernity

Alan Scott, in "Modernity's Machine Metaphor", British Journal of
Sociology 48.4 (1997): 561-75, quotes an eery passage from Max
Weber's "Parliament und Regierung in neugeordneten Deutschland":

>A lifeless machine is congealed spirit. Only as such does it have the
>power to force people into its service and to determine with such
>dominance their everyday working life as is actually the case in the
>factory. Congealed spirit is also that living machine represented by
>bureaucratic organization with its specialization of trained skilled
>labour, its demarcation of responsibility, regimentation and
>hierarchically organized relations of obedience. Combined with the
>lifeless machine, bureaucracy is at work creating the housing of that
>future enslavement in which perhaps people will, as was the case with
>the Fellahin in the Ancient Egyptian state, be forced helplessly into
>line if a purely technical value - i.e. a rational civil service
>administration and provision of needs - becomes the ultimate value which
>is to determine the manner in which their affairs are directed. (Weber
>1918: 332)

The way in which the bureaucratic mind has informed the design of
computing systems and vice versa is well known, or at least often
asserted. What's seems eery about this passage now, to some of us in higher
education, is the degree to which a mechanical bureaucracy, with its
procedures and transparencies, has assumed control. But I quote this
passage for different reasons.

One is that, as Scott argues, even the most highly bureaucratic
organizations do not in fact work like a machine. He cites Peter
Winch's point that rules and the ability to apply them are coeval but
quite different. Rules are rules, but curiously we talk about when to
apply which rule, and we have no rule for that. So why, Scott asks,
do we think in terms of machines in given circumstances? What is the
machine metaphor doing for us, esp now that we are mind-deep in
Turing's machine? What is it a foil for?

Another reason for quoting Weber is that Weber's brilliant phrase,
"congealed spirit", can be turned
around and used for what we do. Our machines bear our imprint. In
what sense do they become our congealed spirit (of enquiry)?


Dr Willard McCarty | Reader in Humanities Computing | Centre for
Computing in the Humanities | King's College London | Kay House, 7
Arundel Street | London WC2R 3DX | U.K. | +44 (0)20 7848-2784 fax:
-2980 || willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk www.kcl.ac.uk/humanities/cch/wlm/
Received on Thu Jun 29 2006 - 03:58:43 EDT

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