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Parallel 20th Century Discourses

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Structural Determinism Versus Ubiquitous Connectivity and Pervasive Proximity: Parallel 20th Century Discourses, and the Context for the Future of Organization


As I have outlined throughout this chapter, during each of the major nexus periods at which the speed and geographical scope of human communications accelerate significantly, the socio-structural underpinnings of the society of the day – and specifically the nature of organization – correspondingly change. In composing a history of the future of organization from today’s standpoint, the acceleration in communications and resulting period of extraordinary transformation unavoidably contextualizes the ensuing composition. The contemporary nexus through which we are now living is first heralded by Morse’s demonstration of the telegraph in 1844, inaugurating an era of instantaneous, electrically-enabled telecommunications that contracts both physical and temporal separation on a global scale.


In his book, The Rise of the Network Society, Manuel Castells echoes the primary thesis of the Toronto School of Communication. He captures the extent of, and essential reason for pervasive, epochal change when he writes, “because culture is mediated and enacted through communication, cultures themselves – that is, our historically produced systems of beliefs and codes – become fundamentally transformed, and will be more so over time, by the new technological system” (Castells, 1996, p. 357).


As has been demonstrated throughout history, such fundamental transformation from one cultural epoch to the next – the latter being enabled by “the new technological system” of the day – takes a considerable length of time. As of this writing in 2010, 166 years after the new era was telegraphed into being, Western society remains bound to its Gutenbergian roots among many fundamentally important institutions, like its education system, governance models, and most models of commerce. Yet, the elements of transformation are also becoming increasingly evident. Now, within the first decade of the twenty-first century, many people are experiencing the effects of always being connected to some multi-way communications mechanism for the first time in their lives, and are slowly adapting to it. Yet concurrently, a large and growing demographic have never not known such connectivity:


Unlike we who were socialized and acculturated in a primarily literate societal ground, in which our experience with technology and media is primarily within a linear, hierarchical context – all artefacts of literacy – today’s youth and tomorrow’s adults live in a world of ubiquitous connectivity and pervasive proximity. Everyone is, or soon will be, connected to everyone else, and all available information, through instantaneous, multi-way communication. This is ubiquitous connectivity. They will therefore have the experience of being immediately proximate to everyone else and to all available information. This is pervasive proximity. Their direct experience of the world is fundamentally different from yours or from mine, as we have had to adopt and adapt to these technologies that create the effects of ubiquitous connectivity and pervasive proximity [abbreviated to “UCaPP”]. (Federman, 2005, p. 11; emphasis added)


In other words, in the context of a Toronto School reading of history, the 20th century can be understood as a time of transformation from the separation and isolation of a mechanized environment, to connection and relationship that is more in concert with a UCaPP world. Therefore, it is not unreasonable to expect two distinct but parallel histories of organizational discourse to emerge over course of the century: one whose primary focus is instrumentality, consistent with the prior epoch, and another demonstrating more of a dominant concern for humanistic and relational issues that is consistent with effects of UCaPP.


The story of organization theories through the 20th century is often recited chronologically (Sashkin, 1981; Lewin & Minton, 1986; Shafritz & Ott, 1992; Parker, 2000), despite the inherent dualism in the supposed debate between a more-functionalist or “rational” emphasis, and a more-humanist or what is often called a natural systems focus. Parker observes that “both ‘sides’ needed the other, and … the former was generally dominant (in the guise of managerial functionalism)” (p. 29). The prominence of one school of thought through a particular decade seems to encourage a response by researchers, theorists, and practitioners from the other. Nonetheless, there seems to be a direct lineage in the respective discourses leading back to Taylor, Weber, and Fayol as the fathers of the “rational” camp, and Mary Parker Follett as the mother of the “humanist” camp, respectively.



Read On:  The Instrumental, Institutional, and Managerialist 20th Century

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