Wednesday, April 04, 2018

Reading :: Creating the Technopolis

Creating the Technopolis: Linking Technology Commercialization and Economic Development
Edited by Raymond W. Smilor, George Kozmetsky, and David V. Gibson

This 1988 collection developed from a 1987 international conference held at the University of Texas at Austin. I picked it up primarily to understand how the Austin entrepreneurial ecosystem developed and how IC2 figured into it.

In the Preface, the term technopolis "reflects a balance between the public and private sectors. The modern technopolis is one that interactively links technology commercialization with the public and private sectors to spur economic development and promote technology diversification" (p.xiii). The Introduction puts it a little differently: "Sometimes referred to as a technology center or a high-tech corridor or triangle, the technopolis appears to be an emerging worldwide phenomenon" (p.xvii). Technopoleis include Route 128, Silicon Valley, the Research Triangle in North Carolina, and the Austin-San Antonio corridor. Authors in this collection discuss each of these technopoleis, but also technopoleis in Japan, China, England, and southern Europe as well as US locations such as upstate New York and Phoenix.

For me, the most important chapter was Ch.10, "The Austin/San Antonio Corridor: The Dynamics of a Developing Technopolis." Here, Smilor, Kozmetsky and Gibson discuss the development of this corridor, using the "technopolis wheel" (p.146) to discuss the different factors involved in sustaining it. This wheel includes anchors such as University, Large Corporations, Emerging Companies, Federal Government, State Government, Local Government, and Support Groups. Among other information that was valuable (at least to me) were a bar graph of high tech manufacturing companies in Austin, 1945-1985 (p.155) and a timeline of companies being founded or relocated to Austin, 1955-1985 (p.157). The authors also recapitulate the MCC story, which I'll cover in depth in another book review.

Should you pick up this book? To be honest, it is most useful for (a) historical perspective about perspectives on high-tech regional development in the late 1980s and (b) heuristics for understanding current high-tech regional development. If you're interested in one of those two, yes, grab a copy. Otherwise I don't think it's a crucial collection.

Reading :: The New Spirit of Capitalism

The New Spirit of Capitalism
By Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello

In his influential 1905 book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Max Weber argued that capitalism works because of an ethos—labor must be performed as a calling, pursued with virtue and proficiency rather than for enjoyment and enrichment. It is this selfless performance of capitalism that makes it work as a system. And Weber laments:
The Puritan wanted to work in a calling; we are forced to do so. For when asceticism was carried out of monastic cells into everyday life, and began to dominate worldly morality, it did its part in building the tremendous cosmos of the modern economic order. This order is now bound to the technical and economic conditions of machine production which to-day determine the lives of all the individuals who are born into this mechanism, not only those directly concerned with economic acquisition, with irresistible force. Perhaps it will so determine them until the last ton of fossilized coal is burnt. In Baxter's view the care for external goods should only lie on the "saint like a light cloak which can be thrown aside at any moment." But fate decreed that the cloak should become an iron cage. (p.181)
Writing at the other end of the century, in 1999 (the original, French publication date), Boltanski and Chiapello agree with Weber's basic thesis but argue that capitalism continues to reinvent itself. They argue that the "spirit of capitalism" is the "ideology that justifies engagement in capitalism" (p.8) and that this ideology has periodically had to change in order to address and incorporate critiques (p.19). In fact, the authors identify three "spirits" of capitalism at different periods—familial, bureaucratic, and globalized—each of which were in tune with their time periods (p.19). The third spirit, which is what we are living through today (or at least were in 1999), must restore meaning to the accumulation process, combined with social justice (p.19).

More broadly, they say, critiques function as a motor for capitalism, which must align with other values to survive. Capitalism relies on its enemies' critiques to identify moral supports, which it then incorporates (p.27). (For a quick example, think in terms of social entrepreneurship.) In rhetorical terms, capitalism concedes critiques and adjusts its argument to address them. Paradoxically, this means that capitalism is the most fragile when it is triumphant (p.27)—when it doesn't have a critique to incorporate.

To substantiate this analysis, the authors turn to a corpus of management books read in France in the 1990s. (They limit their claims to the French management context, but acknowledge that these claims may be more broadly applied as well.) These management texts emphasize ideas that may be familiar to readers of this blog: networked organizational structure, distributed leadership, projectification, self-direction, trust (Part I, Ch.I). These lead to workers managing themselves and pursuing personal development, autonomy, freedom, and fulfillment (p.90)—the ethical critiques of bureaucratic capitalism being incorporated into globalist capitalism.

One might object here that the corpus is biased toward growth areas: familial and bureaucratic capitalism have their places and do specific jobs well, but since their principles are more established, we won't see a lot of new management books focused on them. In contrast, new information and communication technologies enable new organizational approaches to emergent objects, and thus we see a glut of new management books addressing them. The authors do not address this objection head-on, but they do acknowledge in the next chapter that successive organizational and technical innovations and managerial modes gradually transformed mechanisms, and that the corpus reflects an attempt to unify these mechanisms into a coherent vision (p. 103). The term "network" is frequently used in the corpus to impose coherence on these highly disparate elements (p.103). They charge that the notion of network absolves us from positing or addressing the idea of justice: in a networked world, low-status people are simply excluded (p.106). The authors do discuss network analysis and Latourean and Deleuzian sociotechnical networks—unfortunately conflating these (p.150; see also p.356).

In a network world, the authors say, our focus is no longer on saving money as in Weberian (familial) capitalism, but rather on saving time: it must be spent on the best connections and reinvested immediately (p.152).

In Part II, the authors examine the history of labor in the second half of the 20th century in France, specifically the negotiations between trade unions and employers. In this telling, the trade unions in 1968 saw compromise as an exit lane from capitalism (p.182), but management addressed critiques by accommodating demands for social justice (p.183), providing profit-sharing in lieu of control/power (p.184), improving working conditions to quell rebellion (p.185), and replacing autonomy with security (p.190).

There is much more to the book, but let's skip to the conclusion, which presents these axioms:

  1. "Capitalism needs a spirit in order to engage the people required for production and the functioning of business." (p.485)
  2. "To be capable of mobilizing people, the spirit of capitalism must include a moral dimension." (p.486)
  3. "If it is to survive, capitalism needs simultaneously to stimulate and to curb instability." (p.487)
  4. "The spirit of capitalism cannot be reduced to an ideology in the sense of an illusion with no impacts on the world." (p.488)
  5. "Capitalism has a constant tendency to transform itself." (p.489)
  6. "The principal operator of creation and transformation of the spirit of capitalism is critique (voice)." (p.489)
  7. "In certain conditions, critique can itself be one of the factors of a change in capitalism (and not merely in its spirit)." (p.490)
  8. "Critique derives its energy from sources of indignation." (p.491)
It would be a little facile to say that capitalism succeeds because it listens to critique and addresses it. Boltanski and Chiapello, I think, rather argue that capitalism identifies damaging critiques and incorporates changes to defang those critiques so that it can retain and legitimize its essential focus on the accumulation process. It is more nimble, more flexible, and more supple in argumentation than its competitors. 

Overall, I think the book is a solid piece of work, although the authors have staked a lot on their reading of the management corpus, and I agree that they may not be able to generalize their conclusions beyond France. I am also not thrilled with how they have conflated different uses of "network," which I think muddies the analysis. Like other books in this vein, this one also endorses a grand narrative in which changes can be traced to a single actor (capitalism) rather than multiple factors in tension (ex: information and communication technologies, changes in transportation, the broadening of infrastructure, etc.). Nevertheless, it provides a much-needed rethinking of Weber's original thesis and provides a smart critique of the management literature. I wish I had read it before writing All Edge, although I think I would have—er—incorporated the critique rather than fundamentally changing my argument. If you're interested in capitalism, the so-called new economy, or Weber, take a look.