➻ To start off this week’s links, I’d like to turn to The Thought Leader Interview with Dov Seidman at strategy + business magazine. Dov is the author of How: Why HOW We Do Anything Means Everything, which makes the case that, in a world of expanding information technology and transparency, soft values such as values, trust, and reputation have become the greatest drivers of success in innovation and growth. Or, in short, that “We’re in a world in which you have to live and earn your reputation; you can’t just assert and manage it.”
He charts the course of management from it’s dictatorial industrial routes to a more open, egalitarian future, laying out “A theory of organizational evolution” in the process.
The prevailing form of management in the industrial era has gradually matured over the past 150 years. It’s moved from blind obedience to informed acquiescence, and it’s just now moving to self-governance, but it still has a long way to go.
He believes that an organization’s governance, culture, and leadership models must reinforce one other to truly thrive in our fast changing, hyper-connected world, and while addressing the difficulty in dong so insists that it is possible—even inevitable.
It’s hard, and it doesn’t happen overnight. But there are precedents in business. In the 1920s, hazardous working conditions were considered normal; for every floor of a skyscraper, a number of deaths and injuries were accepted as an unavoidable cost of construction. Only the foreman was expected to pay attention to hazardous conditions. Today, when there’s a frayed wire or an exposed pipe on a worksite, employees consistently report it. Safety is in everybody’s consciousness. Companies compete on it: “Come work here; you’ll be safer than you’d be with our competitors.”
The same thing happened with quality. American CEOs used to consider it merely an aesthetic factor. They installed inspectors to check for defects at the end of the production line. Then, when the Japanese bought Pebble Beach and Rockefeller Center, Americans declared that quality was Job One. At GE, even the lawyers tried to qualify for Six Sigma black belts.
Now the same thing will start to happen with human values. To a hardline businessperson, humanity is even softer and less measurable than quality. But Chevron, Cisco, Dow Chemical, Delta Airlines, Ally Bank, and others all advertise themselves by declaring their humanity.
You can read the entire interview on strategy + business‘s website. And if you’re interested in more when you’re finished with that, I highly recommend his interview with Charlie Rose from late last year in which he defines the world as morally and ethically interdependent, where one banker in Europe can trigger a world-wide financial crisis or one vegetable vendor in Tunisia can spark a regional uprising.
➻ Is it also something in this trend that has us doubting what were once the backbones of American society, and Losing Faith in American Institutions? As Catherine Rampell reported recently on The New York Times‘s Economix blog:
Gallup has just released its latest figures on Americans’ confidence in various institutions. The numbers are all pretty grim, with new lows recorded for Americans’ confidence levels in public schools, churches, banks and television news. [...]
It’s not clear why trust in so many major institutions is falling. Clearly the trend predates the financial crisis. Maybe more combative political rhetoric is to blame. Maybe it’s a more sensationalistic, 24-hour news media cycle. Maybe it’s the rising “myth of the meritocracy,” as Christopher Hayes argues in [Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy].
Or maybe the relative transparency afforded by the Internet age has given Americans more evidence that the organizations they used to trust can make mistakes.
But did we really need more evidence to come to that conclusion?
➻ Do we still trust libraries? If so, maybe everyone will enjoy the Library of Congress’s wonderfully diverse list of Books That Shaped America. As Michael Dirda writes of the list in the Washington Post:
If … there is any single, great American theme, it is self-transformation. So here are Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography, that stirring guidebook to personal improvement, and Frederick Douglass’s account of his years of slavery and his escape from it, and Thoreau’s Walden, arguing the case for self-fulfillment no matter what the opinions of society. Here, too, is one of Horatio Alger Jr.’s rags-to-riches novels, and Edgar Rice Burroughs’s great jungle bildungsroman Tarzan of the Apes, and Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, in which the poor boy Jay Gatz dreams of all the glittering prizes, and even Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People. Jefferson spoke of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” but he might just as well have said: Become who you truly are.
If identity is malleable, so, too, are the conditions of life and society. Americans are do-gooders, ready to stand and fight for what they believe is right or attack relentlessly that which is wrong, corrupt or unjust. The library’s list nearly starts with Thomas Paine’s call to arms, Common Sense, then includes W.E.B. Du Bois’s searing The Souls of Black Folk; Jacob Riis’s sickening account of urban poverty, How The Other Half Lives; Ida M. Tarbell’s classic “muckraking” History of the Standard Oil Company; Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, which exposed the insanitary conditions in Chicago’s meat-packing industry; and, finally, in our own time, closes with both And The Band Played On, Randy Shilts’s groundbreaking account of the AIDS epidemic and The Words of Cesar Chavez, the inspiring leader of the United Farm Workers.
To view the entire list, head on over to the Library of Congress website.
➻ Perhaps you’re only interested in what’s happening to books on the retail side of publishing? If so, you’ll want to check out an infographic about How a Single Company Gained a Stranglehold over Online Shopping and the Future of Retail at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, or consider why the Consumer Federation of America Defends [the] DOJ eBook Lawsuit. And the podcast with Googled author Ken Auletta on The Future of Book Publishing over at the New Yorker is certainly worth a listen.
Where you end up on these questions will most likely have to do with your personal beliefs fall on issues of fairness, competition, and consumer protection (or, more cynically, if you’re employed in publishing in some capacity, by who signs your paychecks) and there are arguments to be made from every angle.
➻ Which brings me back to the question of “how” that we began with—back to the question of belief, values, and practice—and to one of the book’s that “shaped America” according to the Library of Congress, William James’s Pragmatism. Describing the history of pragmatism as a philosophy, he wrote:
A glance at the history of the idea will show you … what pragmatism means. The term is derived from the same Greek word pragma, meaning action, from which our words “practice” and “practical” come. It was first introduced into philosophy by Mr. Charles Peirce in 1878. In an article entitled How to Make Our Ideas Clear, in the Popular Science Monthly for January of that year. Mr. Peirce, after pointing out that our beliefs are really rules for action, said that, to develop a thought’s meaning, we need only determine what conduct it is fitted to produce: that conduct is for us its sole significance. And the tangible fact at the root of all our thought-distinctions, however subtle, is that there is no one of them so fine as to consist in anything but a possible difference of practice.
He continues from there:
To attain perfect clearness in our thoughts of an object, then, we need only consider what conceivable effects of a practical kind the object may involve—what sensations we are to expect from it, and what reactions we must prepare. Our conception of these effects, whether immediate or remote, is then for us the whole of our conception of the object, so far as that conception has positive significance at all.
Taken completely out of context if you’ll allow it, I like to think of the second part of that passage in relation to books. He writes shortly after that of a correspondence he had with Wilhelm Ostwald:
I found a few years ago that Ostwald, the illustrious Leipzig chemist, had been making perfectly distinct use of the principle of pragmatism in his lectures on the philosophy of science, though he had not called it by that name.
“All realities influence our practice,” he wrote me, “and that influence is their meaning for us. I am accustomed to put questions to my classes in this way: In what respects would the world be different if this alternative or that were true? If I can find nothing that would become different, then the alternative has no sense.”
Is the life (or soul, as our former owner David Schwartz used to refer to it) of a book in its physical presence, or in the collective culture (or both)? Will that change at all with the digitization of books? What difference would there be if our physical libraries were replaced with online repositories, or our local bookstores with online retailers of digitized text? What happens if we move all our text online and it burns down like a modern Library of Alexandria. (I realize that the internet is not one building, or a single construct, and that that scenario is pretty much impossible, but this is my thought experiment.)
What if all we ever had was our oral tradition, or the very limited copies of hand-written manuscripts as we once did? What if each of us were assigned a book to remember like the outcast book lovers of Bradbury’s Farenheit 451? In what way would all of these scenarios affect the shared knowledge of man, the history of the world, and the moral arc of the universe?
I am aware of how ridiculous a turn this post has taken, and the fact that it’s wildly inconsistent, but I’m not looking for specific or consistent answers. I’m not even interested in answers anymore, but in uncovering better questions. The ones we’re using now seem redundant, and are getting rather boring.
➻ “Don’t you come here and say i didn’t warn you about the way your world can alter. And oh how you try to command it all still every single time it all shifts one way or the other.”