Management in Popular Culture

20 January 2012 at 3:35 pm 7 comments

| Peter Klein |

I recently read Planet of the Apes, the 1963 novel by Pierre Boulle that inspired the movie franchise. Not surprisingly, the book is far more interesting and intelligent than the films. In the novel (spoiler alert!), the ape planet isn’t a future Earth, but a distant world much like Earth in which apes gradually assimilated and displaced a former human civilization simply by imitating their masters. The discovery of this older civilization (confirmed by the remains a talking human doll, as in the 1968 movie) explains the mystery of why ape culture stagnated at the level of its former human model. The apes could imitate, but not innovate.

The human protagonist convinces himself that imitation could produce a reasonable quality of science and art, then turns to more mundane activities.

It seemed absolutely clear that industry did not require the presence of a rational being to maintain itself. Basically, industry consisted of manual laborers, always performing the selfsame tasks, who could easily be replaced by apes; and, at a higher level, of executives whose function was to draft certain reports and pronounce ceratin words under given circumstances. All this was a question of conditioned reflexes. At the still higher level of administration, it seemed even easier to concede the quality of aping. To continue our system, the gorillas would merely have to imitate certain attitudes and deliver a few harangues, all based on the same model.

Not a flattering portrait of management, but keep in mind that the protagonist (like the book’s author) is French.

Entry filed under: - Klein -, Ephemera. Tags: .

Conference on the Law & Economics of Organization: New Challenges and Directions Charles Dickens, Capitalist

7 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Rafe  |  20 January 2012 at 4:40 pm

    In “A Bend in the River” by V S Naipaul the store at the bend in the river in a third world country is “nationalized” by revolutionaries. In addition to selling things in the front of the shop, they knew that some stuff had to be done in the back office as well. That was where the owner used to drink whiskey while he did the books, prepared orders for stock etc.

    So every evening the new owners sat in the office drinking whiskey and shufflilng pieces of paper.

    On a grander scale you have the whole Melanesian “cargo cult” phenomenon where the natives observed the US forces coming in during WW2, and building airstrips where planes arrived to deliver cargo. The natives did their best to imitate the strips, in the expectation that more cargo would arrive.

    Then there is the phenomenon of scientism where people imitate what they think are the inductive methods of the natural sciences.

  • 2. Shawn Ritenour  |  20 January 2012 at 9:08 pm

    It brings to mind Lenin’s view of the matter:

    “Capitalism has simplified the work of book-keeping and monitoring, has reduced it to a comparatively simply system of accounting, which any literate preson can do.”

  • 3. Michael E. Marotta  |  21 January 2012 at 9:19 pm

    And yet… I wonder what was the most complex organization directed by Pierre Boulle. Lenin was pretty good at some of politics, but he failed at the touchstone of socialism, economic command. We grow up playing sports of all kinds and most of us are not that good even at sandlot games, but, at least in the playing at picnics, etc., we do come to understand why professionals earn millions. When it comes to management, however, most of us are stymied at the household. Millions may participate – or make that past tense – in the mid-ranges, and therefore, may statisitcally be less critical. (Or maybe not.) Making consequential decisions requires skills to bring rewards. Critics tend to be those who sit in the bleachers and drink beer, certain that they could play better.

  • 5. A Roundup for Australia Day at Catallaxy Files  |  25 January 2012 at 6:04 pm

    [...] Klein again on apes imitating humans, will it work if they don’t have insight?  In the comments I suggest that the answer is NO. [...]

  • 6. Dick Langlois  |  30 January 2012 at 3:08 pm

    And let’s not forget the episode of the original Star Trek in which aliens create a society identical to that of 1920s Chicago on the strength of a single book on gangsters some human had previously left behind.

    People who study innovation know that imitating and innovating are not really two different things, at least in the sense that imitating requires a lot of reinventing to adapt the original to new circumstances. The difference between imitation and invention lies in knowing which problems to solve. A bureaucracy is inherently unable to try as many alternatives as an open system and thus has a comparative (but not in general an absolute) advantage in imitation.

  • 7. Fred  |  4 February 2012 at 7:01 pm

    Frederick Taylor likened Ford’s assembly line workers to trained gorillas, as did Antonio Gramasci in the prison notebooks. Like Taylor, Boule was an engineer. He graduated from the École supérieure d’électricité.

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