The Huckster of Efficiency

Last year I wrote a post on my blog about Getting Things Done (GTD), in which I wrote:

Despite how beneficial it has been for me personally, I am troubled by GTD and the cult of efficiency which surrounds it. Foucault talks about “technologies of the self” by which he means those “technologies imbued with aspirations for the shaping of conduct in the hope of producing certain desired effects and averting certain undesired ones” (Rose, 1999, cited in Wikipedia). At the end of the nineteenth century, Frederick Taylor developed the theory of “scientific management” which is one of the quintessential technologies of power. GTD is both scientific management for the digital age and a technology of the self for the IT crowd.

What I didn’t know at the time was what a fraud Frederick Taylor was. Thanks to a New Yorker review of The Management Myth: Why the Experts Keep Getting It Wrong by Matthew Stewart [also see his 2006 article in the Atlantic], now I know. Here’s how he estimated that “a ‘first-class man’ could load pig iron at a rate of forty-seven and a half tons per day, if he would only stop loafing”:

He chose twelve “large, powerful Hungarians,” observed them for an hour, and calculated that, at the rate they were working, they were loading twenty-four tons of pig iron per man per day. Then he handpicked ten men and dared them to load sixteen and a half tons as fast as they could. They managed to do it in fourteen minutes; this yields a rate of seventy-one tons per man per ten-hour day. Taylor inexplicably rounded up the number to seventy-five. To get to forty-seven and a half, he reduced seventy-five by about forty per cent, claiming that this represented a work-to-rest ratio of the “law of heavy laboring.” Workers who protested the new standards were fired. Only one…loaded anything close to forty-seven and a half tons in a single day, a rate that was, in any case, not sustainable. After providing two years of consulting services, Taylor billed the company a hundred thousand dollars (which works out to something like two and a half million dollars today), and then he was fired.

This week I’m teaching Gramsci who, along with Lenin, believed that scientific management (which he called “Fordism”) would bring great benefits to the working class, giving them time to read Marxism. In this he was perhaps closer to Lillian Gilbreth, one of the early advocates of scientific management, who mothered twelve children while running a business, getting her Ph.D. and publishing several books. Gilbreth believed that “the whole point of efficiency, she said, was to maximize ‘happiness minutes.'” I’m sure that for Gramsci time spent reading Marx counted as “happiness minutes.” I know I personally would like to spend less time “getting things done” and more time on the couch reading…

Update: Added missing link.

8 thoughts on “The Huckster of Efficiency

  1. Getting things done, when you are labouring and someone is telling you what needs to get done, is a lot easier than when you are hemming and hawing over a research paper. I’ve always held the opinion that getting things done can be explained mostly in terms of entropy–most of what we do is not effective, but merely supportive of order. In other words, most of our time spent is cleaning up the world about us, ordering our books on the shelf, spending time folding the laundry, going shopping for groceries, and that sort of thing. Even at the office, most of what is done is keeping things in order. Order means someone else can then retrieve what we’ve ordered at an earlier time. As for Frederick Taylor’s efficiency moving pig-iron, I can only say what a useless task. Any capitalist in his right mind would qucikly realize the greater efficiencies acvhieved by automating the task, say by putting in a conveyor belt to carry the pig iron. That is more or less the basis for Fordism, leaving aside mass production and consumption. From my point of view, Taylorism almost seems quaint, similar in tone and style to what one reads in mass marketed time management books–the “sell” is the whole of your life can be more efficient (more happy) if you just manage the clutter and get more accomplished at the appropriate time. I hate to admit it, but Taylorism still lives, in the university. How many professors sadly shake their heads when a student complains about needing more time to finish an essay, and then tells said student they have to manage their time more efficiently. Well, I have spent enough time on this, I have other things to get done, like efficiently spending some time with Sherlock Holmes (I read along to the Naxos unabridged CDs, thereby accomplishing my task in an enjoyable but constrained period of time before moving on to other things that need doing–ah, entropy, my laundry needs folding).

  2. In this post you say, “I know I personally would like to spend less time “getting things done” and more time on the couch reading…”

    But in your previous post on GTD you said, “I actually find it easier to take time off to play with the dog when I know exactly what has to be done today, and what can be put off till later.”

    These seem to contradict each other. Did something change? Or am I pairing these statements incorrectly?

  3. Gramsci had a discipline fetish. Very tightly wound, and not at all self-reflective about it (there’s a whole subgroup of his disciples who revere this about him; I do my best to politely ignore it like spinach in the teeth). No doubt the product of an anxious habitus triple-whammy — petty bourgeois, provincial, hunchbacked.

    Anyway, ambivalence, check!

  4. bq. Gramsci had a discipline fetish. […] No doubt the product of an anxious habitus triple-whammy—petty bourgeois, provincial, hunchbacked.

    May I suggest that it was a quintuple-whammy? Life or death political engagement and survival as a political prisoner don’t require self-reflection, but they do require discipline.

  5. Good point, MTB, but I’d say that was later and consequent to the original disposition as it played out in context. Plus there were lots of other Italian Communists locked up by the Fascists who weren’t impressed by taylorism and didn’t write thousands of pages of notes.

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