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A Brief, 3,000-year History of Organization

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A Brief, 3,000-Year History of the Future of Organization


As the proverbial journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, so too does the thesis journey begin with a single thought or realization. It seems fitting, therefore, to acknowledge the origin of this thesis’s seminal thought by recalling the famous opening of Marshall McLuhan’s most influential work, Understanding Media:


In a culture like ours, long accustomed to splitting and dividing all things as a means of control, it is sometimes a bit of a shock to be reminded that, in operational and practical fact, the medium is the message. That is merely to say that the personal and social consequences of any medium – that is, of any extension of ourselves – result from the new scale that is introduced into our affairs by each extension of ourselves, or by any new technology. … Many people would be disposed to say that it was not the machine, but what one did with the machine, that was its meaning or message. In terms of the ways in which the machine altered our relations to one another and to ourselves, it mattered not in the least whether it turned out cornflakes or Cadillacs. The restructuring of human work and association was shaped by the technique of fragmentation that is the essence of machine technology. The essence of automation technology is the opposite. It is integral and decentralist in depth, just as the machine was fragmentary, centralist, and superficial in its patterning of human relationships. (McLuhan, 1964, p. 7-8)


In essence, the inspiration for this thesis, and the specific objective of this chapter – namely, reconsidering the nature of organization, and tracing its history through the cultural epochs defined by successive transformations in human communication – is complete in that one, tightly-woven paragraph. Each successive period, from the primary orality of Ancient Greece through to contemporary, multi-way, instantaneous, electronic interchange can be characterized according to the ways in which the prevailing form of human interaction, “altered our relations to one another and to ourselves” (McLuhan, 1964, p. 8). In particular, the unique forms and structures of interpersonal association – organization – are characteristic of the age in question. Those forms and structures shed light on the complex interconnections among the societal institutions that govern, educate, facilitate commerce, and foster artistic reflection on the culture of the day.


Thus arises the central question of this chapter: How has organization as a distinct entity[1] both shaped, and been shaped by, the dominant technology of human interaction throughout the history of Western civilization? Further, is there an overarching understanding of organization that can account for its dominant form in each of the four major cultural epochs identified by the Toronto School of Communication (de Kerckhove, 1989; Blondheim & Watson, 2007): primary orality of Ancient Greece; phonetic literacy leading to the manuscript culture of the Middle Ages; the “Gutenberg Galaxy” of mechanization peaking at the Industrial Age; and today’s era of instantaneous, multi-way, “electric communication,” as McLuhan called it?


The Toronto School represents a line of reasoning that amalgamates the thinking of the classicist, Eric Havelock, political economist, Harold Adam Innis, and McLuhan. Blondheim and Watson (2007), and other authors in their edited volume, focus particularly on Innis’s works and those of media observer and philosopher, Marshall McLuhan. Innis and McLuhan demonstrate how it is the nature of technological media – from the spoken, written, and printed word, through various modes of transportation and trade, to contemporary information and communication technologies – to create change in both human cognitive processes and social institutions. Some authors (de Kerckhove, 1989; Gibson, 2000) include Havelock as a key member of the Toronto School for his contribution on the societal effects of phonetic literacy that Plato describes (Havelock, 1963). Using somewhat more contemporary language, I frame the primary thesis of the Toronto School as follows:


The Toronto School holds that the dominant mode of communication employed in a society or culture creates an environment from which the defining structures of that society emerge. These structures might include those institutions that define the way commerce and economics are conducted, the ways in which the people govern themselves, the forms and expressions of religion, how the populace is educated, and … what is accepted as knowledge. (Federman, 2007)


If the Toronto School’s distinctive interpretation of history is indeed valid, then the ways in which people come together, and have come together for collective endeavours throughout the ages, should closely correspond to the nature and effects of the dominant mode of communications at the time. For example, one would expect that in pre-literate, Ancient Greece the democratic organization that saw its zenith in Periclean Athens would emerge from an environment shaped by direct, participatory and collective authority, corresponding to the lack of an authoritative “author,” or controlling central figure in the narrative culture of primary orality. Similarly, cultures in the early stages of phonetic literacy would likely develop organizational structures that reflect separation, decomposition, and central authority – all characteristic effects of literacy. One would therefore expect to see development of delegation via proxy authority, emerging over time into a large central bureaucracy among the literate, with those who are illiterate subject to the control of those who held the power of the written word. Subsequently, a mechanized-print culture would be expected to develop organization structures that fragment integral processes into various stations or offices, linked functionally with an externally imposed, objective purpose. Finally, in an age of massive, instantaneous, multi-way electronic communications, more participatory and collaborative organizational forms might emerge that hearken back to aspects of Athenian democracy. These new forms would challenge the underlying assumptions of industrial efficiency that are predicated on functional decomposition and sequential assembly—two concepts that could equally characterize print literacy and modern organization theory.


But, we are getting ahead of ourselves. Let us first go back in time approximately 3,000 years to revisit an ancient culture that, as will later be shown, might well be considered as remarkably contemporary in nature.






[1] I suggest that it might be useful to consider “organization” not in the generic sense of a collective undertaking or enterprise, but as an autonomous entity, agent, or actor. This conception is consistent, for example, with business corporations being considered as legal “persons” whose members must owe their first duty of care to the corporation. In many cases, organization members are asked to sublimate, compromise, or even sacrifice, their personal values in favour of organizational objectives (e.g., Fayol, 1949; Gee, Hull, & Lankshear, 1996). In this sense, organization (denoted by the use of italicized text) can be thought of as having behaviours, characteristics, and externally perceived intent distinct from those of some, or many, of its members. In a later chapter, I will discuss the idea of how individual roles, and hence, behaviours, are often situationally imposed; again, this can be perceived as organization imposing its (pseudo-)independent will, so to speak, on the individuals in question. Organization (without italicization) denotes a generic or, in some cases, specific grouping of people.




Read On: Primary Orality and the Organization of Athenian Democracy


[1] I suggest that it might be useful to consider “organization” not in the generic sense of a collective undertaking or enterprise, but as an autonomous entity, agent or actor. Organization in this sense (denoted by the use of italicized text) can be thought of as having behaviours, characteristics, and externally perceived intent distinct from those of its members. Organization (without italicization) denotes a generic, or in some cases, specific grouping of people.

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