Friday, August 13, 2010

creativity doesn't count

Some thoughts on reading The hot young teacher they hired instead and Tom Hoffman's response

There is a difference b/w monopoly skills (a worker being indispensable) and general adaptability skills (being flexible enough to "go with the flow" on the job). The former is allowed but never fully recognised, the latter is essential to the ongoing continuity or reproducibility of the system.

Monopoly skills, indispensability, is anathema to capitalism. Sooner or later all workers have to be replaced.

Some creative workers may develop monopoly, indispensable skills. For example, a brilliant English teacher may develop outstanding skills in developing, delivering and assessing a course in Holocaust literature (well worth reading). But when it comes to the ongoing continuity of the system this does not count. The cheaper replacement teacher does not have to have these indispensable skills. In the final analysis creativity does not count, the system does not like it.

This is implicit in teacher training courses, which have a requirement of general skill level and adaptability but not brilliance or excellence in any particular area. Exceptional creativity just does scale in a system or sausage factory of mass production. And when this transfers to on the job skills then hard work - to the point of modern day slavery, not having a real life outside the job, see Martha Infante's ridiculous comment which triggered Tom's rage - and adaptability, being able to do a wide range of different tasks to a good enough standard, are more valued than deep creative brilliance.

The ongoing historical trend of the dynamics of capitalist production is in the direction of deskilling, simplifying and where possible human labour being converted into machine labour.

David Harvey has a great section in his book Limits to Capital, Ch 4.2 The Labour Process, where he explains Marx's words about the social process that goes on behind the backs of producers which reduces skilled to simple labour.

It is true that brilliant, creative individuals such as Mark Shuttleworth, Paul Graham, Nicholas Negroponte or Brewster Kahle can make personal fortunes by creating and selling their inventions to capitalists and then using their wealth for the public good, more or less. The system cannot eliminate creativity completely. Other brilliant individuals make fortunes as entertainers in sport or music. The system also needs to keep us entertained and distracted. A deeper analysis would require a further elaboration of these categories. But I believe the general trend is clear, as illustrated by Beth Aviv's tale. These issues are also raised by Tom Friedman's book The World is Flat, where he talks about plain vanilla jobs being exported to the developing world through globalization and that to retain your job in the industrialised world you need to develop some special, indispensible skills. However, David Harvey takes this analysis further than Friedman.


Mark Miller said...

I recognize some of what you're talking about in my own field experience with IT. However, I've attributed this to executives not having any notion of what computing means in the context of a business.

I don't see how this idea of "what capitalism does" applies to the behavior of a public school system, which I assume is what you're talking about here. Capitalism involves voluntary investors who demand a return on their investment in exchange for risking their capital, a means of coordinating people and resources to carry out the functions of an enterprise, a means to acquire needed resources for the service or product (ie. being a buyer or renter), a means of production or service, and a voluntary market of buyers. What I see in your example are "a means to acquire needed resources for the service or product", "a means of coordinating people and resources to carry out the functions of an enterprise," and, "a means of production or service." I grant there are some similarities. However, all of the factors which involve the motivation to use capital, and the power relationships that implies, are different in character.

I realize what you describe sounds like a factory, and I don't think it's wrong to describe it that way, but what motivates the use of capital in a capitalistic setting is different than what you're describing, if looked at more broadly, and so I don't see how your example of how school systems treat teachers is indicative of capitalism. Governments have run factories before. They are not the sole province of capitalistic economies. When looked at more broadly, at least in the U.S., what government institutions are going through right now is either partly or largely due to the irresponsible, oversized promises that governments made to public employee unions in years past. Corporations have had to deal with their oversized promises to their unions in years past, though they've had the "out" of going into bankruptcy. For governments now, those promises are legal obligations. There's currently no legal "out" of bankruptcy. In a time when revenues are falling, cuts end up being made to fund the obligations, because legally governments have given up their right to have discretion in these matters. This has not only resulted in lay-offs. It's also resulted in cities having to curtail services like police and firefighting, and shut down services like street lighting and park maintenance. Colorado Springs, a city in my home state, has had to do just this.

Bill Kerr said...

hi mark,

I don't think we are on the same page here. My post was about the long term trend of capitalism to eliminate monopoly skills, to eliminate workers who are indispensable, who cannot be replaced because their skills are unique. You seem to agree that this does happen in education and the IT industry. Can you nominate an industry in which it does not happen?

I am not so much arguing that it is deskilling or dumbing down as such (although that element does exist in the article I linked to) but that the trend is towards general adaptability skills (ability to do a broad range of tasks) and away from individual creativity. The brilliant entrepreneur can sometimes find a niche and perhaps make their own fortune but the system as a whole does not promote individual brilliance because such individuals cannot be replaced. This underlying requirement tends to drag everyone down and is the underlying reason for mediocre education systems.

Mark Miller said...

There's a book I may have recommended to you before. It's called "The New Pioneers" by Thomas Petzinger. It was published in the late 1990s (at least the first edition). I've read some of it, and what he describes is a bunch of case studies of businesses that have used the creativity of their employees to grow and gain competitive advantage. The approach he emphasizes talks about giving employees more autonomy to figure out how to do their job more effectively, rather than them waiting for directives "from above". He does emphasize adaptability (though I think he would call it "agility"), but he talks about it in the context of creativity. The thesis of the book is the old top-down management structure doesn't work anymore. Instead he focuses on an "ecology" approach to business relationships and organization that draws lessons from Nature. I think it might be a good counter-argument to what you say here about capitalism driving everything down to non-creative adaptability.

I think where we agree is that an emphasis on adaptability/general skills and a de-emphasis of deep study and skill building leads to shallowness (the phrase "a mile wide and an inch deep" comes to mind) and an unrewarding/unfulfilling work experience, which has implications on the quality of what is created, and for life generally.

Bill Kerr said...

hi mark,

My initial post didn't provide the full picture. Capitalism is a competitive system and so does need innovative entrepreneurs to provide a cutting edge in technological or organisational change. That applies at the level of individual companies but not for the workforce as a whole. So, yes the overall picture can be contradictory. The system can sometimes give the appearance of supporting innovation / creativity in an all round sense, as suggested by Petzinger.

I haven't read Petzinger's book but one of the reviews at amazon illustrates my point:
"While the stories of the people behind innovative companies are often intriguing, readers will be left wondering what to do with this information. Some readers will even find Petzinger's premise puzzling. For instance, his introductory example is an innovative Philadelphia pharmacy that managed to succeed in a poverty-stricken area of the city. Petzinger is full of justified admiration for the way the owner wedded his pharmacy to the community, offered employees profit sharing and made a mint. Ultimately, however, the owner was so successful that he sold his three stores to Rite-Aid. This inspiring and informative book would have been even better had Petzinger delved more deeply into the paradox that the successes and innovations of the new pioneers he celebrates coincide with an era of increasing corporate consolidation. Readers are left wanting more guidance from someone who clearly knows the territory."

So the small innovative socially aware companies end up being run by corporate bosses with a different set of values.

Mark Miller said...

A characteristic of the book is it's almost all anecdotal. The most interesting part to me was not anecdotal, where Petzinger related systems in Nature to systems in business. Most of it, though, is story after story. I actually got bored with it after a while. I think the author's focus was on publishing business ideas that tend to not get a lot of attention in the business press, but which he felt were important to highlight. I looked over the Amazon reviews a bit. It seemed that people were mostly recommending it as part of an entrepreneur's brainstorming process. They could draw inspiration from the stories.

I've seen one other book like this, which lays out a general philosophy of business, and then gives a lot of anecdotes. It seems like it was a common format for these types of books at the time this was written.

I am familiar with the pharmacy story that was mentioned, but that is but one of the stories. I did not finish reading the book, but I don't recall corporate buyouts being a major feature of it.

Perhaps the moral of our discussion is that vision and creativity do not scale well. They last as long as the visionaries are around, but the visionaries age and tire of the business life. So they sell the business to others who don't have the same vision, if any at all. They change the enterprise into something totally different.

From the business cases I've heard about in my life, this transition doesn't always go well in business terms, unlike the pharmacy example. Sometimes the change in leadership leads to decline in the business. Apple is the most famous example. Though the transition to John Sculley's leadership was successful, once he left, it was looking like curtains for Apple after several years of inept leadership. Steve Jobs came back and effectively saved it from death. I recall seeing this with a local telecommunications company as well. The visionary founders led it to success. They sold to new owners, and the company subsequently went downhill. Ultimately the founders bought it back and saved it.

I imagine it's a real challenge for strong business leaders to find people who can lead as they have. I've heard this said about female business leaders. Pundits point to Oprah Winfrey and Martha Stewart and ask, "What's going to become of their businesses after they're gone? The whole business is centered around them." We saw one example of that with Stewart when she was sentenced to jail time. Her company had to function without her, and they did. Some productions had to be cancelled, but other parts of the business kept going. She told the press that she and the board of directors had planned for her eventual departure, whenever that was, because she wanted the business to continue if she ever had to leave it. It seems like what she did was bring in lots of other craftsmen and artists to help her with her productions, and so they were able to take over in her absence. Oprah's business will be a different challenge.

Perhaps it's like movie sequels. The vast majority of them are not good. Usually the producers try to just "use what they have", thinking something familiar will draw in the audience, without realizing that what the audience really wants is to see something new.

In any case, organizations of all kinds tend to go through a life cycle. This is true even of civilizations. The difference is there's the opportunity for organizations to continue on indefinitely if the people in it know how to evolve the business into something very different from where it started. This is because the means of production and customers change. If there's no evolution, adaptation to change, the organization will eventually die, or be swallowed up by some other organization, and the cycle continues.