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Gutenberg’s Influence: Mechanization, and the Rise of Modern Organization

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Gutenberg’s Influence: Mechanization, and the Rise of Modern Organization


Printing from movable types was the first mechanization of a complex handicraft, and became the archetype of all subsequent mechanization. … Like any other extension of man, typography had psychic and social consequences that suddenly shifted previous boundaries and patterns of culture. (McLuhan, 1964, p. 171-172)


Notably, the era ushered in by Gutenberg’s iconic printing of the Bible on a movable type press has, as its hallmark, uniformity of production, and economical repeatability from an original specimen. Eisenstein (1979) points out that, prior to mechanized print, scribed manuscripts could well be duplicated if they were sufficiently important—items like royal edicts and papal bulls. It was the mass production of both the mundane and the masterful, the triumphant and the trivial, that the mechanized printing press enabled. Perhaps more influential, the advances in structural elements that overlaid the actual text made the eventual book more attractive to readers. Eisenstein elaborates:


Well before 1500, printers had begun to experiment with the use of graduate types, running heads ... footnotes ... tables of contents ... superior figures, cross references ... and other devices available to the compositor—all registering the victory of the punch cutter over the scribe. Title pages became increasingly common, facilitating the production of book lists and catalogues, while acting as advertisements in themselves. Hand-drawn illustrations were replaced by more easily duplicated woodcuts and engravings—an innovation which eventually helped to revolutionize technical literature by introducing exactly repeatable pictorial statements into all kinds of reference works. (Eisenstein, 1992, p. 52-53)


Uniformity, repeatability, and structuring elements that are distinct from, but support, the content are indeed the hallmarks of both books and the societal culture that arose from the environment of mechanized print, not to mention mechanization and industrialization in general. The general availability and economy of printed materials fostered an explosion of literacy in the various vernacular languages of Europe, and wrested control of education from the Church. Setting the stage for the Enlightenment and the Age of Reason, print literacy created yet another cognitive shift in the psycho-social environment that gave dominance to the practices of objectivity, separation, and distance, and functional decomposition in almost every aspect of human endeavour: from literature (with an all-seeing, all-knowing author with his own distinct narrative voice) and art (perspective), to philosophy (Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason), architecture (Italian piazzas) and science (with the supposedly neutral, objective observer), including the emergence of engineering, anatomy (at the time, a sort of “engineering” study of the human body), and modern manufacturing. As one might expect, that psycho-social shift also set the stage for the multi-layered, bureaucratic, administratively controlled, hierarchical organization (Eisenstein, 1992; Federman, 2007; McLuhan, 1962) that helped usher in modernity.


In the context of modern organization, the three dominant effects of what McLuhan calls “The Gutenberg Galaxy” – uniformity, repeatability, and supportive, structuring elements – are best documented by the three chroniclers of post-Industrial Age management: Frederick Winslow Taylor, Max Weber and Henri Fayol.


Taylor’s landmark, 1911 work, Principles of Scientific Management, outlines his recommended methods to achieve uniform, repeatable, and efficient management of labour: (a) decompose work into tasks or “elements,” and develop “a science” for each one; (b) select and train workers according to a scientific approach; (c) create cooperation between workers and managers to ensure the work is being done according to the developed science; and (d) divide the work between managers and workers so that each performs the tasks to which they are respectively suited—workers are suited to “do” and not think, while managers are suited to think and not do. Indeed, Warner and Witzel point out that Taylor’s scientific management principles were a result of the need created for “professional managers” when ownership separated from management control in the late nineteenth century. Its apparent effectiveness became legendary worldwide: For the first half of the twentieth century, Taylor’s “American ‘way’ of doing business was seen as superior to all others” (Warner & Witzel, 1997, p. 264).


If Frederick Taylor’s application of rational science was seen as a superior way of doing work, Max Weber’s “ideal type” of rational control was – and in many circles, still is – seen as a superior way of organizing work for maximum efficiency. It is commonly accepted that Weber’s bureaucracy describes an administrative structure in which there is a clear division of labour defined along the lines of hierarchical class. Managers occupy functional offices with a clear distinction being made between the permanence and functional necessity of the office, and the person who contingently holds that office or position. Administrative operations are governed by well-articulated, explicit, and codified rules that apply not only to the labourers, but to the professional administrators themselves. For example, among those rules are the specifications for administrator compensation: administrators do not earn their income directly from the production under their purview, nor from the privilege of administration, but rather from a rule-based salary.


Although bureaucracy seems to provide an efficient and apparently fair means of control through equally applied rules and well-documented processes, there is a danger that the rules themselves become paramount, without consideration for the ensuing effects on people’s lives. “We become so enmeshed in creating and following a legalistic, rule-based hierarchy that the bureaucracy becomes a subtle but powerful form of domination” (Barker, 1993, p. 410). In fact, Weiss (1983) maintains that Weber’s expression of the concept of Herrschaft refers specifically to domination, rather than the softer, more “managerial” notion of leadership, an interpretation that is more commonly put forward. According to Roth and Wittich’s interpretation of Wirtschaft und GesellschaftEconomy and Society (Weber, 1921/1978) – those so dominated by bureaucratic rules do so more or less willingly, requiring only a “minimum of voluntary compliance” (p. 212) and conformity to rules reflexively legitimated by the bureaucratic system itself.


Weber’s use of the term “ideal type” is not necessarily to be interpreted as the most desirable form, or most efficient. Rather, Weiss (1983) suggests that Weber’s then-contemporary usage more closely relates to an archetype—an objective model that is, in practical circumstances, unattainable. Similarly, in maintaining that bureaucracy represents rational control, Weber is not referring to that control necessarily being reasonable, merely logical: “Bureaucratic authority is specifically rational in the sense of being bound to discursively analyzable rules” (1922/1964, p. 361). As well, such authority is not meant to suggest culturally normative behaviour, administrative direction consistent with the underlying values, mission, vision, or intentions of the organization, or even efficient operations: “Weber was concerned with domination rather than efficient coordination” (Weiss, p. 246).


Weber himself called this rational but oppressive form of social control an “iron cage” that dominates not just people’s behaviours, but other, potentially alternative, means of control:


Once fully established, bureaucracy is among those social structures which are the hardest to destroy. Bureaucracy is the means of transforming social action into rationally organized action. … [an individual] cannot squirm out of the apparatus into which he has been harnessed. (Weber, 1921/1978, p. 987-988)


With earlier forms of hierarchical control, such as those exhibited in the medieval Church, a human presented the face of control to those controlled even in the presence of written rules. Modern bureaucracy as documented (but not necessarily prescribed) by Weber, introduced a form of mechanized separation by creating an abstract system of processes that nominally implements and enforces the rules, removing human discretion, emotion, and ultimately, direct human responsibility for action and consequences. In effect, early-modern organization subsumes and subjugates itself to a mechanized, administrative automaton. Bureaucracy becomes an administrative machine of which people are merely components, replicating the mechanizing and dehumanizing effects of industrial, factory apparatus.


Taylor and Weber clearly contribute ideas and principles that encompass two of the three aforementioned hallmarks of mechanized, industrial, modern, organization, namely, uniformity and repeatability. By “scientifically” measuring the best worker’s performance and seeking to replicate that performance in other workers under the direction of managers, Taylor sought to create uniformity and efficiency in production. Weber’s ideals of rational bureaucracy in which human judgement is removed from operational decisions in favour of systematic, rule-based processes ensured repeatability throughout an organization, especially when direct supervision was impractical, if not impossible. Henri Fayol’s contribution to modern management provides the third component, namely, the elements that structure professional management practice itself.


Fayol’s classic chapter on General Principles of Management first appears in a 1916 bulletin of the French mining industry association, and is later incorporated in his 1949 book, General and Industrial Management. Given the pervasiveness of Fayol’s Principles throughout the contemporary business world, it could be considered as the wellspring of modern management practice. In it, he describes his fourteen principles through which managers “operate” on the workers:


Whilst the other functions bring into play material and machines the managerial function operates only on the personnel. The soundness and good working order of the body corporate depend on a certain number of conditions termed indiscriminately principles, laws, rules. (Fayol, 1949, p. 19)


However, unlike his American and German counterparts in the modern managerial triumvirate, Fayol eschews rigidity and absolutism in management practice:


It is all a question of proportion. Seldom do we have to apply the same principle twice in identical conditions; allowance must be made for different changing circumstances, for men just as different and changing and for many other variable elements. (Fayol, 1949, p. 19)[1]


Still, by his own description, Fayol’s fourteen principles provide the structuring elements that are distinct from, but support, the content of management decisions. These principles include:


1.      Division of work, “not merely applicable to technical work, but without exception to all work … result[ing] in specialization of functions and separation of powers” (p. 21).

2.      Authority and responsibility, “the right to give orders and the power to exact obedience” (p. 21). Bound up with this principle is the “need for sanction,” both positive and negative, corresponding to assuming responsibility for acting with legitimate authority.
3.      Discipline, based on agreements between the organization and its workers, irrespective, according to Fayol, of whether those agreements are explicit, tacit, written, commonly understood, “derive from the wish of the parties or from rules and customs” (p. 23).
4.      Unity of command, so that any individual has only one direct superior exercising legitimate authority.
5.      Unity of direction, expressing one plan and one ultimate leader for the organization.
6. Subordination of individual interest to general interest, “the fact that in a business the interest of one employee or group of employees should not prevail over that of the [business] concern” (p. 26).
7. Remuneration of personnel, assuring “fair remuneration” for services rendered, encouraging “keenness,” and “not lead to over-payment going beyond reasonable limits” (p. 28). Fayol encourages bonuses to “arouse the worker’s interest in the smooth running of the business” (p. 29), which means not only providing a motivation to work efficiently as recommended by Taylor (1911), but to enact control and ensure compliant behaviour as described by Weber (1921/1978).
8. Centralization, that Fayol claims “like division of work … belongs to the natural order; … the fact that in every organism, animal or social, sensations converge towards the brain or directive part, and from the brain or directive part orders are sent out which set all parts of the organism in movement” (p. 34).
9. Scalar chain, the linear hierarchy of authority along which information passes, with the proviso that, for the sake of efficiency a direct “gang plank” of communication is permitted between employees at equivalent levels of responsibility in two, distinct reporting chains, with the permission of their respective managers.
10. Order, referring to both “material order … a place for everything and everything in its place” (p. 37) for supplies, and “social order … the right man in the right place” (p. 38) for the job, echoing both Taylor and Weber.
11. Equity, or equality of treatment, best accomplished, it seems, under well-defined rules with sound managerial judgement.
12. Stability of tenure of personnel, that expresses in other words the concepts of professionalism and specialization.
13. Initiative, “thinking out a plan and ensuring its success” (p. 40), notably “within the limits imposed, by respect for authority and for discipline” (p. 41).
14. Esprit de corps, through which Fayol warns against a manager dividing his[2] team, “sowing dissention among subordinates” (p. 41), and, misusing written communication: “It is well known that differences and misunderstandings which a conversation could clear up, grow more bitter in writing” (p. 42).

It seems that in this last principle, Fayol’s experience agrees with McLuhan’s observation and the prediction of the Toronto School. Separation, isolation, and creation of division among people are recognized consequences – and according to Taylor and Weber, perhaps even the tacit objectives – of the industrialized environment enabled by mechanized print literacy.



Read On:  Parallel 20th Century Discourses 


[1] Despite Fayol’s arguably more enlightened contribution to management theory, Taylor and Weber seem to have “won” in influencing both management education and practice throughout the 20th century. For example, Jones (2000) chronicles contemporary implementation of Taylor’s methods on the factory floor, while Barrett (2004) describes Taylor and Weber’s influence in an online software development environment. Wilson (1995) demonstrates how information technology recreates Taylor and Weber’s principles in the guise of what has been commonly known as knowledge management and organizational reengineering – the latter made (in)famous by Hammer and Champy (1993) – “to obviate the need for the more traditional organizational structures … [that] has resulted in a relentless drive towards organizational (workforce) conformity in response to the demands of greater technological efficiency” (Wilson, p. 59).

[2] Gender specific, since managers were exclusively male in Fayol’s context.


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