online: 2001

3 october 2003 daffodil 23: a theory of industrial living

(about 3000 words)

to the subscribers to 'daffodil'

and also to August Highland
and his invented writers of an imaginary literature

8:50 I've not written many digital diary entries this month. Instead, I've been trying to write something that could develop and connect the website 'as a whole' - but so far I've not succeeded.

However, after listening yesterday to a broadcast about the difference between electromagnetic field theory* and the more rigid theories of simple mechanics, I am inspired to communicate a 'field theory' of industrial living, as I might call it. I think it could bring clarity to this website and to my lifelong attempts to find a better way of living with machines and to make this possibility evident to everyone.

*BBC Radio 4: Melvyn Bragg's programme 'in our time'.
The mathematical theories of James Clark Maxwell upon which the theories of relativity and quantum mechanics are based. I was struck by the absence, from field theory of electro-magnetism, of the rigidity and discontinuity of simple mechanics, e.g. of matter moving in straight lines or in circles (though I know that wave theory can be derived from circular motion). What inspired me to write this piece was the non-linear complexities of relativity (and perhaps the statistical nature of quantum mechanics). I assume that a similar subtlety can be sought even in social theory if we try to include in our thoughts the continuity and the fluidity of life.

This 'field theory' of industrial living has been in my mind for nearly 50 years but so far I've explained it only to a few. I have the impression that it arouses a profound resistance that prevents me communicating it fully. But now, inspired by the analogy of mathematical field theories (and of quantum particle theories also) I feel like making another attempt.

So far this theory is not on this website though parts of it have appeared in print*. I will try, in this newsletter, to communicate the essence of it...

*'automation', in the internet and everyone, ellipsis/Batsford Books, London 2000, pages 79-103.

...I will begin with the reasons why it is difficult to explain - hoping that this negative approach will reveal its interactive nature.


I begin from the assumption that living in a disintegrated mechanised society blinds and deafens us to the integrative qualities of both pre-industrial and post-industrial living.


The reason for this is that the animal adaptability that we are born with can disappear once we have adapted to the rigidity of simple machines such as the assembly line. I call this the tragedy of mechanisation.

This difficulty arises when wheel-based machinery, at the scale of the body, is operated by people directly. A post-mechanical technology, such as the phone, operates at a minute scale of electrical vibration which does not interfere with the voice.


There is also a loss of social adaptability. This takes the form of accepting hierarchy and specialisation as supposedly natural forms of organisation. These forms may indeed be essential for living with rigid wheel-based machinery but they impose a near total inability to develop socially beyond it.


This is because in a mechanised society nearly all of us become economically and culturally dependent on specialised roles and hierarchical controls - in place of the natural adaptability of our bodies and of the interactive environment. Industrial society 'is a machine made of people'*

*Yona Friedman, in conversation about 1975.

that was the negative picture - now for the positive:


The positive elements in this situation are the adaptabilities of both the nervous system and electronics. Potentially they provide a joint basis for a newer and freer and more responsible way of living with technology - something beyond the narrow limits of industrial thought and life as we've known it within the still-present nineteenth-century forms of government, management, and specialised work.

Once we see the possibilities of this - a flowing combination of thought and action, operating through electronic links and automatic processes, we should be able to let go of the industrial past and begin a newer and more human (post-industrial) life in which the myriads of world problems (induced I believe by mechanical rigidity) can be overcome and allowed to melt into a flow of new life resembling 'the good times' of the pre-industrial past more than the 'bad times' of the era of mechanisation.

That is the hope I would like to share with everyone... but of course there are great difficulties in making any such transformation. That is what I am trying to describe and to tackle in this piece of writing - as I have attempted on the website and in my lifelong projects, many as yet unknown and unsuccessful.


The basis of this theory, or way of perceiving things, is to suppose that there are three kinds of technology and three kinds of society arising from them:

craftwork - in which things are made by hand and autonomously controlled by and eye and brain and human interaction in an intimate and flexible process
mechanisation - in which things are made by powered machinery and controlled by sub-divided labour following fixed instructions without interaction and with a rigidity that has to be imposed from above
automation - in which things are made by automatic processes controlled by computers that operate autonomously and yet interactively - human presence and control being detached in time and place from these industrial operations
Of course these are ideal categories. Any actual process is likely to be a mixture of each of them, but we have to understand piece-by-piece before we can comprehend the whole... This is tricky ground so I am re-thinking this 50 year-old theory cautiously, aware that it is no more that a crutch, or a line of stepping stones, by which we may find a pathway into a quite other way of thinking and doing that is needed, I believe, for the third of these ways of making and living to find its own form.


The most obvious consequence of this is that wholly new skills and organisations are required - but in fact we are still trying to control and operate these fluid new technologies and processes in the manner appropriate only to things mechanical.

That is the 'tragedy' to which I referred - and I don't know if it can be ended. Much of my experience (of 25 years within organisations) suggests that it cannot. However, there are common experiences (for instance 'using the phone' and 'communicating by internet') in which people, who were previously adapted to mechanical rigidity, are now able to think and act freely and interactively - once they get their hands on a mobile phone or a personal computer. This happens mostly outside organisations - a situation that I have enjoyed for almost 30 years. I think independence is necessary to what I am attempting here - but so is supportive interaction, and that is what I lack at present - and perhaps other experimenters do also?


Thinking now of the arts, the media, and the culture generally - I sense that the typical realist form of nineteenth-century art and communication is (like wheel-based machinery and specialised jobs) controlled by a hierarchy, out of place in this century. But still in novels, plays, television, classical music concerts, in sports, and in much else, the realist-elitist representations of life predominate.

The non-realist way forward was pioneered in the modernist artforms of early of the early twentieth century - but modernism has been largely discredited by post-modern theory which in itself still retains an omniscient author and the hierarchical mode of telling people what to think. And so mainstream literature, tv, and such (and academia too), are thus perpetuating, in a powerful and socially damaging way, the cultural forms that must be left behind if people are to learn the new ways and to have confidence in acting appropriately to the new media which we presently misuse - as we misuse each other and our new/old selves! I feel very hot about this and would prefer to have reason to feel cool!


Politics. This is the point where something must happen before there can be hope of 'new life' emerging from the only place it can: from the old life as it is (despite or because of its confusions and contradictions) through social transformations occurring in the present...

Whatever it is that provokes me to write this is a small, but I hope significant, part of the way that 'the time' works in reality to create something different. That is how machines came to be in the first place. Let us look back at the many technical and social changes throughout history and be encouraged to change likewise. Kings were replaced by parliamentary governments, slaves were replaced by machines, bows and arrows by nuclear weapons, many things are possible if we trust ourselves to attempt them - but of course not all of them are good. Human effort, unlike the spontaneous changes of nature, involves morality and purpose - except when (perhaps for religious or philosophical reasons) we attempt to act naturally - with what John Cage called 'purposeful purposelessness'. Is it possible that that is 'the answer'?

But what form of politics seems appropriate to the new way of living industrially?

In a phrase: 'creative democracy'. By this I mean the end of professional politics and representational democracy. In their place, and with complete reliance on direct action by everyone via the media and the internet, I see not only politicians but all other professional roles being replaced by new kinds of individual action and initiative with computer support. This is easy to say but nearly impossible to imagine. I won't attempt it just yet - for that is the content of the main part of this theory of which I am here giving only the gist.

But I will however say something to enliven this unimaginable term 'creative democracy': nobody works! It is an aristocratic idea. Instead of doing one specialised job each person is paid to accept and to share (intermittently) all responsibilities that are presently in the hands of professionals, political or otherwise. Each professional job is split into two parts : skills which can only be 'learnt by doing' and processes that can be described sufficiently accurately to be transferred to computers (the part of any job that goes into the textbooks)...

An inspiring and audacious example of something like this is the new computer-assisted literary invention of August Highland*, with its profusion of new genres and imaginary writers - to whom I am sending this daffodil in surprised admiration and with thanks.

*August Highland's audacious invention of an imaginary literature (renewing literary traditions in the context of computer networks) can be seen at culture animal and its connected web pages - and at websites I like (click on 'the anti-genre elite corps'). I am inspired by his invention, and by his explanatory interviews - though I am not yet able to grasp the huge volumes of resulting poetry and the explanations of its content. And there are remnants of hierarchy that to me seem out of place.


What I've written here so far is only a sketch of what I've been thinking over the years. I hope to follow it by theory and detailed descriptions of life as I have lived it, or imagined it, in each of the three kinds of society and technology - crafts, machines and automatics... but not continuing this form of authorial statement from above, or even from the side lines. The next part will I hope come from other voices, some real, some imagined.

I intend this to be a non-realist fiction taking place on the second earth j-921 and in the experimental city - and with the support of 'the imaginary rock foundation'. I envisage an imaginary world-wide tv spectacle of people and robots and you and me and everyone attempting to live this new life perhaps in the manner of what's now called 'reality tv' but with some fantasy and enjoyment as well as serious purpose. Some of this has appeared already on the website under such names as 'afternature', 'the future of ergonomics (and everything!)', 'the symposium of Utopia' - and in some more fictional pages already on the website.

So now I come to the end of this first attempt at reviving ideas that have long awaited the attention they need if industrial living is ever to find the social forms that could enable it to turn from being a problem to an opportunity for 'living good lives' (as Ursula Huws put it*).

*Ursula Huws, in the last line of her review: Planning and Freedom.

I am far from being alone in knowing of ideas for the improvement of industrial and creative methods - ideas that have not achieved the results envisaged by those who thought of them.

I am thinking now of industrial design, design methods, ergonomics, operational research, cybernetics, stream-of-consciousness novel-writing, think tanks, abstract art - many many attempts (in the twentieth century) to change the form or manner of doing things, industrially, artistically, or otherwise. Most of these efforts have made no great difference to the experience of industrial life. Why is that I wonder? Is it because they have been done without changing the social form itself, that of hierarchy and specialisation? Is it necessary to step outside 'the system' to which most people adhere - or is it necessary to begin 'with everyone'?... I guess it needs both! And this, I think, explains the terrific resistance that is aroused by such a theory, or proposal...

Time to breathe out, and to let go, and to take responsibility for 'keeping the centre empty' (as Utopia and Numeroso might put it)!

Yes I am encouraged, by the example of James Clark Maxwell, by the 'field theories' that were defined in his work, and by their worldwide acceptance and development in the subsequent history of the new physics. I like to think that, if the theory we now apply to the understanding of industrial life is inclusive of the reasons for the acceptance or rejection of the theory itself, it too can be seen as a true picture of what can happen, interactively, for the good of all of us. But behind that remark is the history of failure of idealism imposed from above - and thus the need to proceed self-reflectively, and gently, and perhaps with the 'constructive realism' that I infer from the writings of E H Carr*, for instance in this sentence:

Our sense of direction, and our interpretations of the past, are subject to constant modification and evolution as we proceed.
*E H Carr, What is History?, Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, Middlesex 1964, page 122. It's still in print in later editions.

Could this be an historic moment?

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