Monday, September 22, 2008

Another summary of Beniger and his Crisis of Control

What happens when two trains are running down the same track towards each other? Well, in the 1840's one train would pull over at a predetermined point and wait for the other train to pass. But what happens when one train is late? This may sound like a middle school math problem, but it was a problem unsolved for train companies at that time. The conductor, who needed to decide whether to run his train made that decision alone, without support from communications, hierarchy, or explicit rules. The highest speed of transport, at the time between 15 and 30 mph, was beyond the control of train companies as they were then organized, and trains would run into each other, causing death and injuries. The public protested. The train companies responded by hiring more people, but when that didn't work, they responded with control: increasing centralization, using the telegraph to communicate location, standardizing time, establishing bureaucracy with information regularly moving up and down the hierarchy, and other corporate mechanisms familiar to us today.

Within a few years, the train companies expanded the methods they had developed to control danger and adopted them to control the efficiency of their ever increasing size. The unprecedented speed of things moving across large distances kicked off a crisis of control down the line of production, changing how factories were designed, how products were distributed, and how people consumed. This included maintaining flow in all these areas so that the price to produce each individual item decreased. More control was needed to maintain that flow, and more complex mechanisms arose, such as commodity exchanges, futures contracts, and advertising campaigns. Other mechanisms simplified the process, such as using waybills to collect information and huge wholesaling operations to cut out middlemen. Many of the large brands we recognize today became successful using these innovations: Gold Medal Flour, Post, Quaker, Borden, Carnation, Heinz, Campbells, American Tobacco, Woolworth's, Macy's, Marshall Fields, and others.

The chapter begins with a quote from Durkheim, "The most vital trait of the spontaneous organization of the industrial order is that its goal, and its exclusive goal, is to increase the control of man over things" (219). I would extend to this quote to say it also increased the control of people over other people. As the society became more systematized, Beniger argues, people became more "programmable." Similarly, and intriguingly, Beniger notes that abstract thinkers like engineers and mathematicians pioneered this change because practical knowledge does not help in a crisis (237).

Beniger's phrasing of this time period as revolution of control as well as framing it as a series of crises is, I think, effective, because it gives the myriad innovations a constant location for identification of human agency as their cause.

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