Thursday, November 11, 2004

Reading :: Competitive Telecommunications

Originally posted: Thu, 11 Nov 2004 23:49:30

Competitive Telecommunications: How to Thrive Under the Telecommunications Act

by Peter K. Heldman, Robert Heldman, Thomas A. Bystrzycki

Competitive Telecommunications provides a dire assessment of the Telecommunications Act of 1996. It critiques the free-market reasoning behind the Act (p.6); complains that it has led to "cream-skimming" (that is, abandoning low-profit markets for high-profit ones), the betrayal of universal service (p.16), and the halt of new infrastructure development (p.29). It suggests that the Act gave no game plan to protect local areas from obsolescence (p.27). It charges that telecommunications companies are in the middle of consolidating further and providing less service to their rural areas while overburdening high-population areas with new features.

The book was published in 1997. The Telecommunications Act of 1996 had just been enacted. That is to say, like another book I've reviewed, this one is more about predicting the Act's future impact than discussing its past impact.

Not surprisingly, the author sometimes avails himself of the slippery slope fallacy, suggesting that free competition will result in consequences analogous to environmental pollution. He beseeches us: "Just think ... just think ... just think ..." (p.51).

Despite these flaws, the book does do a good job of sketching out the stakeholders, issues, and technologies involved in telecommunications. And the flaws themselves point up the strong policy disagreements that were being aired during and immediately after the passage of the Act.

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Wednesday, November 10, 2004

Reading :: The Art of War (Machiavelli)

Originally posted: Wed, 10 Nov 2004 21:08:17

The Art of War

by Niccolo Machiavelli

Although it shares its title with Sun Tzu's famous book (reviewed elsewhere on this site), Machiavelli's The Art of War is a very different piece. Where Tzu's work is essentially a collection of maxims mostly regarding strategy, Machiavelli's book covers everything from recruiting to arming to formations, strategems, principles, punishments, espionage, and even the question of what sorts of martial music should be played. Machiavelli is as in love with ancient Rome as ever, so he draws liberally from the Roman and Greek traditions -- both in his martial recommendations and in his writing style.

The genre of the book interests me. Whereas The Prince is sort of a handbook and Discourses is more like a treatise underpinned by historical study, The Art of War is written in the form of a dialogue. The dialogue is not very dialogic, though: one interlocutor speaks at length about war, while the others lob occasional softball questions at him. In practice, these questions really get in the way of the discussion.

The discussion itself is rather interesting on a number of levels. I'm mostly interested in how Machiavelli influenced actor-network theory at this point, so I was busy looking for parallels with the study of scientific knowledge. (You may remember that Latour's Science in Action makes extensive use of the war metaphor and he has been sharply criticized for it.) So my reading tended toward strategy and metaphor. With that in mind, I noticed some interesting things about the book.

First, Machiavelli draws on some of the same themes and advice he forwards in Discourses. Princes should not have absolute power, and should be kept away from professional soldiers, who have a vested interest in war (p.19). Professional warriors are a bad idea in general, because overspecialization results in corruption (p.23). Rather, the citizenry should provide soldiers that form a militia (like the Reserves): they should support themselves in their own trades most of the time, gathering periodically for drills and being ready for longer campaigns while avoiding a huge drain on the country's resources. Above all, the citizenry should remain armed because in that way they can remain free (p.30).

The problem with this arrangement is expertise, since in avoiding overspecialization, the militia also misses out on intense pathways for developing expertise. Machiavelli suggests that older members of the army must provide guidance and expertise to the younger ones (p.27). This arrangement, Machiavelli thinks, provides flexibility as well as depth of experience and depth of bench. In fact, this combination is a big theme for Machiavelli: in conscription, in training, in arranging formations (pp.84-86), he always attempts to balance expertise and flexibility. This is of a piece with his advice here and elsewhere, which frequently boils down to "it depends." Indeed, the book's advice is frequently undercut by his admission that conditions have a great deal to do with the success of various measures; it becomes clear that this military advice is largely useful for those who already have deep experience with these matters. Consequently, as with the Discourses, The Art of War is full of interesting advice and fascinating anecdotes whose application is often unclear.

I said a moment ago that I read The Art of War primarily to shed more light on actor-network theory. I found it to be not so illuminating as Machiavelli's other two books, but still interesting. The emphasis on contingency leads naturally to flexibility, which sheds some light on how Latour and others seem to see actor-networks; the discussion of allies, alliances, and strategies seems familiar enough; but I wasn't able to pull out concrete parallels. Still, I enjoyed the book quite a bit -- which is not something I expected to say about a book on military strategy. >

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Monday, November 08, 2004

Reading :: The New Ruthless Economy

Originally posted: Mon, 08 Nov 2004 08:15:26

The New Ruthless Economy: Work and Power in the Digital Age

by Simon Head

I share an interest in work and economy with my colleague Mark Longaker, though his is based on some genuine research while mine is a tyro's interest. So when Mark recommended Simon Head's The New Ruthless Economy to me, I jumped at the chance to read it. The book tries to come to grips with the issue of the "new economy," the tech-supported service sector, just as Zuboff and Maxmin's book The Support Economy does (see my recent review). But whereas Zuboff and Maxmin believe that capitalism will evolve into a newer, kinder, gentler form, Head argues that the new economy looks a lot like the old one: Taylorism has taken new, more pervasive forms. "Ford and Taylor were mostly intent on controlling the bodily movements of workers tied to machine shops and assembly lines," Head tells us. "But today's scientific managers are trying also to control the minds of their white-collar employees" (p.109).

Head gives us many examples of this new Taylorism. Like Zuboff in her classic The Age of the Smart Machine and later in The Support Economy, and like Harry Braverman in Labor and Monopoly Capital, he traces the recent history of labor from Francis Taylor's early books to the present. He makes much of the punishing environment of call centers (see also Michael Muller's work at US West). And he recounts some really horrifying anecdotes about these working conditions and how they have resulted in considerable hardship to the workers. In one of the later chapters, he demonstrates how scientific management has negatively affected health care through the rise of HMOs. Near the end, he argues (unpersuasively to my mind) that "the Democratic party ... is still the political force best placed" to deal with the problem (p.179).

I think that Head makes quite a few good points in the book, although I confess my reaction to it was similar to my reaction to Fast Food Nation. Sure, it persuasively links many current corporate practices to Taylorism, and I'm sure they are direct descendants or at least strongly related. (See Muller's work at US West, again, in which he proffers the CARD technique as an alternative to the time-and-motion study methodology called GOMS.) But I think that Head never really comes to grips with the problems that have sustained the various permutations of scientific management, and therefore his solutions are vague, tentative, and/or unworkable.

The problems include, first and foremost, the rapid upscaling of industries, particularly in the service sector. "Informating," as Zuboff calls it, means that workers have to learn and become comfortable with a much greater number of genres than ever before, and furthermore that more workers have to be literate in the first place. And as I've argued elsewhere, the officially sanctioned genres are not adequate for supporting workers' flexibility; workers typically adapt or invent their own idiosyncratic genres to provide this flexibility, and that means an even greater proliferation of genres. Finally, as Zuboff and Maxmin argue, workers are expected to make more lateral connections with workers in other organizations, meaning that genres developed in one company migrate quickly to others. The result is an increasingly complex landscape of information for workers to navigate; Johndan Johnson-Eilola uses the term "datacloud." The problem that organizations face, then, is how to stabilize this ever-changing landscape enough to keep the organization relatively coherent. Scientific management is not a particularly good solution to this problem -- besides the ethical difficulties, it tends to be inflexible and unrealistic -- but it thrives exactly because it appears to provide control and unity in an increasingly uncontrolled, discontinuous environment. Suggesting to the harried, worried CEO of a large organization that workers need to be given more control, without providing some sort of assurance that the organization will remain stable, as Head does, seems fruitless.

Add to that the fact that workers are availing themselves of greater job mobility, which means that they spend less time learning the craftwork that Head seems to think is the antidote to scientific management. You can blame earlier scientific management for this fact -- due to deskilling -- but also blame the increasing physical mobility that the automobile has brought us, something that has unmoored workers from particular regions and neighborhoods and made it less likely for them to try to "work it out" with a single employer or seek lifetime employment. Remember that even if these problems can be laid at the feet of scientific management, they're our problems now and we have to make a genuine attempt at solving them.

I don't have the answer to this problem. But I can tell when someone else doesn't have the answer either.

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