Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Emergence: Writing, information, administration

Reading Captain Henry Metcalfe's The Cost of Manufactures and the Administration of Workshops (from 1885) (and, hey, shouldn't you?), I found a glimpse of the emergence of the information economy alongside the emergence of management science. Not that this simultaneity is surprising (it's anything but): it's just kinda interesting to see in black and white. And don't forget that 1885 is the same year that Harvard moved the required course in composition from the second year to the first, thus inaugurating Freshman Comp.

Metcalfe talks about the need for a science of administration in much the same way that Aristotle justifies a treatise on rhetoric:

Sure, some people just naturally know how to order work (or discourse), but not everyone does, so let's see try to systematize what works for successful administrators:

It may be stated as a general principle that while Art seeks to produce certain
effects, Science is principally concerned with investigating the causes of these effects.
Thus, independently of the intrinsic importance of the art selected for illustration, there always seems room for a corresponding science, collecting and classifying records of the past so that the future operations of the art may be more effective.

The administration of arsenals and other workshops is in great measure an art, and depends upon the application to a great variety of cases of certain principles, which, taken together, make up what may be called the science of administration. (15)

Above all, says Metcalfe, workshops must get in the habit of keeping efficient records so that the knowledge of capable administrators--which is a kind of capital--doesn't leave with them:

Some men have the gift of so arranging their experience that it is always ready with an answer to whatever question new conditions may propose. But such men are rare and are seldom found in subordinate positions. In any case their knowledge goes with them when they depart, instead of remaining, as it should, and in great measure might do, as one of the most valuable earnings of the business in which it was acquired. (15)

Later, he remarks that the keeping of records makes the ability to write (admittedly, the meaning of "writing" here is not "composing") a handy thing, even if the "illiteracy of employees" has yet to cause trouble, as far as he was aware.

So, what do we have: the rise of administrative science, the valuing of information as capital, the need for writing. Our conditions of emergence.

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