Tag Archives: theory

Despair in Paris

The New York Times ran an article recently on the failure of another utopian scheme: Vélib’, the Parisian bike sharing and rental program, which has recently come up against “a prosaic reality”:

Many of the specially designed bikes, which, when the system’s startup and maintenance expenses are included, cost $3,500 each, are showing up on black markets in Eastern Europe and northern Africa. Many others are being spirited away for urban joy rides, then ditched by roadsides, their wheels bent and tires stripped.

With 80 percent of the initial 20,600 bicycles stolen or damaged, the program’s organizers have had to hire several hundred people just to fix them. And along with the dent in the city-subsidized budget has been a blow to the Parisian psyche.

“The Vélib’” wrote the French paper Le Monde, “was aimed at civilizing city travel. It has increased incivilities.” The failures of the bike scheme remind Parisians of other incivilities, like car burnings in the banlieues. This helps explain Parisian despair. The collapse of the Commune in the 19th century, the barricades of ’68, now this?

The real question is whether there are lessons for the rest of us in all this. One has to do with scale. The exorbitant $3500 price tag is just one outward indication that the Vélib’ was created at the wrong scale. No one ever denied that Utopia would come at a price; but only in a centralized, government-run scheme could bicycles for everyday use cost $3500. The Vélib’ was doomed by grand ambitions, engineered and administered from the top down, with the government developing a scheme for good living and well being and then expecting human beings to conform to it.

Scale matters. How much greater the chances of success if, say, a household, or an apartment building, or even a city block, decided to pool their bikes, or buy some cheap used bikes, and then gave everybody a set of locks that opened with identical keys. The smaller scale experiment may not have had the same civilizing influence that the Vélib’ promised to have, and it could never have turned all of Paris green, but it probably would have worked.

Imagine a thief trying to steal a bicycle from an apartment building or a block where everybody had a stake in keeping the bikes available and maintained. Or imagine if someone within one of these smaller communities decided to turn the bikes for a profit on the black market. There would at least be a good chance of deterring or catching the thief; shame and other forms of punishment also work best within families and very small, close communities.

The Parisian experiment reveals a deep flaw — in the experiment, because it was conducted on such a grand scale, but also in human nature; and the latter flaw should have been taken into account when constructing the experiment in the first place.

I know there are some people who will take issue with that last point, and say that what I am calling human nature is a social construct. Change the society, and what you took to be human nature will change with it. The trouble with this view is not just that it meets an objection to social engineering by calling for more social engineering, which means putting someone — who? — in charge of Hope and Change; the problem is also that it imagines we can step outside of history to do all this engineering, and then somehow populate our brave new world with creatures untainted by history — as if there is a place that is really no place, a utopia.

But our lot is this imperfect world. No amount of engineering — social, scientific, or social scientific — will ever restore us to grace. That’s no cause for despair; it’s just a reminder that theory has its limits.

Management in your mocha, a Taylorist in your tea

Back in the early spring of 2008, I wrote about Howard Schultz’s plan to shut down all Starbucks retail stores for a day-long training exercise. Apparently the Starbucks CEO was convinced that his sagging stock price must somehow be the fault of his employees, or at least could be improved if his employees were only better trained in the Starbucks way.

It was only a passing reference. I was half-seriously wondering if Schultz’s decision had inspired Chrysler’s Bob Nardelli, in a caffeine-deprived moment, to write a clumsy email announcing that he’d be shutting down Chrysler’s plants for a full month in the summer of 2008. We now know how all that turned out. Nardelli was trying to save a sinking ship, and couldn’t. Fiat now controls Chrysler; Marchionne has supplanted Nardelli. And Starbucks? Schultz is still in charge; and the company’s fortunes seem to have improved, but only a little. Starbucks was able to beat analysts’ expectations for the third quarter, largely through cost-cutting measures.

And management is once again going back to the baristas, whose performance at the counter has come under fresh scrutiny. That’s because a big part of this new cost-cutting approach has to do with making coffee service at Starbucks more efficient. A front-page story in the Wall Street Journal the other day focused on Starbucks use of Japanese “lean” management techniques, applying the sorts of “scientific” management approaches in their coffee shops one usually finds on manufacturing floors.

The new emphasis at Starbucks on making their business “lean” is inspired by manufacturing improvements at Toyota, and it all comes down to reducing the amount of time baristas spend going through the motions of getting you coffee: “Motion and work are two different things,” says Starbucks’ Scott Heydon. “Thirty percent of the partners’ time” — partners is a word Starbucks uses to describe its counter-help – “is motion, the walking, reaching, bending.”

(Heydon styles himself the “Vice President of Lean Thinking,” and I suppose that makes for a fun business card. But whenever someone has a title like that, odds are he works at a vastly over-managed company that has lost sight of its core business – or at least has mistaken the business of management for management of the business.)

Of course, another word for “lean thinking,” as Heydon practices it, is Taylorism. There’s really nothing all that Japanese about it. Management teams travel to Starbucks locations around the country, armed with a stopwatch and a Mr. Potato Head doll. (I’m not making this up.) They teach the virtue of efficiency by asking store managers to assemble the Mr. Potato Head doll, and then to improve on their own performance by reducing the ratio of motion to work.

The Taylorists then apply the same tests to the fetching of coffee or the grinding of beans; they draw “spaghetti diagrams” to document confused movements behind the counter or divigations across the shop floor; and they prescribe new, more efficient coordinations of action.

The objective of these rites and mysteries, we are told, is to free up time for the baristas to “interact with customers and improve the Starbucks experience.” But that’s obviously management double-speak; the objective here is to sell more coffee and coffee drinks and other Starbucks stuff, faster than ever before, and the baristas know it. Maybe you can do that by “interacting” with customers; but one barista from Minneapolis just thinks Mr. Heydon and the Taylorists plan to turn the workers into “robots” and “the café into a factory.” That’s not a bad way of putting it. After all, the most efficient Starbucks would be a Starbucks free of slackers behind the counter – an Automat, with espresso drinks served up by mechanized routine and kiosks on the floor hawking Starbucks swag.

It’s clear that some very powerful people at Starbucks decided a while back that the coffee business is really the fast-food business. In so doing they lost sight of, or consciously jettisoned, some basic truths about coffee and cafes. The most important of these is that coffee is a social beverage. You don’t need to go to Vienna or study the history of coffeehouses to understand this; just drive out to the suburbs, where very often the Starbucks is the only place in town – or in the strip mall – where people can plan to meet.

The Taylorist approach to coffee preparation and service makes much more sense if you are serving coffee at a drive-up window. It does for coffee what the fast food joints did for the meal – strip it of its sociability and make it something to be consumed on the go. That’s not exactly conducive to making the coffee shop a place where people want to gather. And if you go this route, you have to assume that all of your customers are going to be Taylorist in their pursuit of coffee – that, for them, coffee is a fix. The very idea is offensive.

Starbucks is not alone in this regard. Apparently even Mom and Pop coffeehouses are now discouraging wifi use during the day because online customers tend to linger. This is not a welcome trend. To sit in a coffeehouse working, or talking with a friend or reading a book – or, better, talking about a book with a friend — is to feel oneself a part of the civilized world.

On my way to a meeting in Chelsea the other day, I decided to stop at a Starbucks to see if I could discover any signs of Mr. Heydon’s Taylorist experiment. There wasn’t much of a line – a sign of efficiency? or of slow business? — so I stepped up to the counter and ordered what I always order at Starbucks: a double macchiato. What size? the clerk behind the counter asked. A double, I said. Oh, he said, a doppio. (But he said it like, dopey-o.) Yeah, a double, and please, just a dab of foam. He turned and communicated something inaudible to the young woman working the espresso machine. She looked confused. I don’t know how to make that one, she said. I guess she was just starting. Another woman came over and took her through it, and as she was doing that and I took my change from the clerk, I chimed in from my side of the counter: and not too much foam. Just a dab.

This certainly wasn’t going to be efficient: even if the woman at the espresso machine knew how to fill the order, I wasn’t going to let her do it without oversight, because I like my coffee just so. As do most people. In this instance, the rookie barista didn’t even come close to making the coffee I wanted. What I got instead of a caffè macchiato was a paper cup filled with foam, some espresso swishing around underneath.

When I asked if she could take some of the foam out of the cup, she looked confused. The woman who had been training her intervened, took one look at the foamy concoction, and said she’d make me a new one. But not too much foam, I said. It’s a macchiato. Macchiato. That means ‘stained’. The foam should just stain the coffee. Just a dab. I was starting to enjoy this. Meanwhile, over at the counter, something else was happening – something very small and seemingly insignificant, but in its own way, magical.

A woman holding a big cup of coffee approached the register and asked the clerk where she could find the nearest subway. This was way off script. But of course the clerk knew the subway system, and he asked what any New Yorker would ask: which train do you want? There then followed a long discussion about where the woman wanted to go, and which train would be best. Another customer standing near the register joined in. A conversation among strangers had started. The social had asserted itself, in a way it could only in New York City, at that particular juncture in the transit system, and now there was no way around it, no science that could streamline it or predict it, time it or script it. No way to manage it.

A book note on Pugliese’s Silone

I’m afraid I contributed little more than a pedantic diversion this morning to the exchange between Ethan Zuckerman and Robert Mackey. After reading Ethan’s excellent post — which raises a number of difficult questions about the ethics of blogging, citizen journalism, and the authority and reach of big corporate media (in this case, the New York Times) — I was immediately struck by the similarities between the case of the Iranian blogger Hossein Derakshan at the center of Zuckerman’s discussion and the case of Ignazio Silone.

It is very easy for all of us here in the West to look at the situation from afar and report rumors, or issue judgments (and they surely are judgments, and may carry with them a punishment). The truth on the ground may be harder to discern and is definitely more complex than we can imagine. “Among the illnesses fascism has inflicted upon us,” wrote Ignazio Silone in 1938, “this is not the smallest: not being able to distinguish with certainty between friend and enemy.” And Silone himself spent much of his life dealing with accusations that he was a CIA spy; and now it’s generally agreed that he collaborated, in some way, with the Fascist police. His case may be instructive in this context. It’s difficult enough to prove collaboration in many of these cases; it’s even harder to say why people collaborate with repressive regimes, and to what imagined ends.

Not exactly on point, I’ll admit, but I’m interested in thinking further about what I call “the truth on the ground” in this case, the truth of experience, its accessibility or inaccessibility, and what claim conscience can make to that truth. Besides, the caso Silone is on my mind lately because I’ve just finished reading Stanislao Pugliese’s biography of Silone, Bitter Spring.

Pugliese reserves his discussion of Silone’s collaboration for one of the book’s final chapters, and concedes that Silone collaborated in some way, and for a limited time, with the Fascist police.

He offers a thoughtful survey of the scholarship on the topic and a nuanced discussion of the mitigating circumstances of Silone’s collaboration (his brother Romolo Tranquilli’s imprisonment being the most important of all). The Silone case raises very big and very serious questions about collaboration – what it really is, why people collaborate with secret police and bad governments – and about the workings of conscience, and Pugliese is sensitive to them all.

For Pugliese, Silone was haunted by conscience, hounded by history, hunted by the God whose very existence he often doubted. In other words, Pugliese offers up Silone as an exemplary figure, who not only bore eloquent witness to the crisis of twentieth-century Europe, but lived the crisis. In this way, Silone’s culpability or at least his involvement with the Fascist police (and the CIA) should come as no surprise.

Pugliese just has a hard time admitting it. He uses theory as a hedge, a way of approaching without really approaching the question of Silone’s collaboration, complicating it with other questions about historical evidence and the status of archives.

As Jacques Derrida has pointed out, the archive is the locus where memory, history, fiction, technology, power, and authority all intersect in increasingly complex ways. The very word “archive,” from the Greek “archeion”, connotes authority and origin, a commandment and a commencement.

If I had to venture a guess as to the origins of this passage, I would probably say that it’s leftover from an early draft of a paper Pugliese presented at an academic conference. This stuff just reads like an academic conference from the 1990s. It’s post-structuralism reduced to mere gesture. But what kind of gesture? Not just a nod or knowing wink. It’s both coy and shy, a little silly and overblown. Some fairly unoriginal worries about the status of evidence and the indeterminacy of texts are trotted out in all the theoretical and philological finery Pugliese can muster, with the obligatory mention of Derrida. This doesn’t really enlighten or inform the discussion that follows; like the long quotation of Bruce Cutler’s “Final Examination” that precedes it, the fuss over the word “archive” only defers the inevitable and more interesting moral questions Pugliese’s treatment of the caso Silone raises.

Still, you have to wonder why he included this stuff – or didn’t cut it from his final draft. The passage struck me and bothered me as I was reading, mainly because Pugliese is no theoretician, and his book is for the most part free of academic bombast (though he does repeatedly use prefixes like “re” and “mis” parenthetically, a clever device academic writers use to save themselves the trouble of having to make a real decision or fully explain their point.)

It’s almost as if Pugliese just wants to get an Amen before grappling with the material before him – as if that Amen will exculpate him, or offer some special dispensation for any transgressions he might make. Or that he wants to back away, entirely, from the inevitable outcome of his story, deferring or suspending all judgments about who did what and when, as if the highest duty of the historian is to leave it for others to say what really happened. In other words, it feels like a deliberate evasion.

Which, in a roundabout way, brings me back to the exchange between Ethan Zuckerman and Robert Mackey, because, at core, that exchange is a debate about the responsibilities of the writer – in this case, the blogger. And, as Ignazio Silone knew, those responsibilities are what make writing the work of conscience.

We don’t always, don’t usually act from ideas

It’s odd to read Fouad Ajami’s tribute to Samuel Huntington as Israeli warplanes batter Gaza.

Huntington is best known, of course, not for his writings about the Palestinian question, but for his 1993 thesis of the “clash of civilizations” between Islam and the Christian West, which gained so many admirers and adherents after September 11th.

For Ajami, who now counts himself among the true believers, the thesis was an assault on the globalist zeitgeist of its era, proof that the dealings of Davos man could not secure peace and prosperity throughout the world. The passage that caught my attention runs as follows:

Critics insisted that men want Sony, not soil. But on 9/11, young Arabs — 19 of them — would weigh in. They punctured the illusions of an era, and gave evidence of the truth of Huntington’s vision. With his typical precision, [Huntington] had written of a “youth bulge” unsettling Muslim societies, and young, radicalized Arabs, unhinged by modernity and unable to master it, emerging as the children of this radical age.

But here’s the rub. The application and adoption of Huntington’s clash thesis after the events of 9/11 probably did as much to obscure the motives of those 19 young men as it did to illuminate them. Were the extraordinary acts of the 9/11 attackers really an attempt to “weigh in” on the success or failure of Davos or even to advance the “clash” between Islam and the West?

To consider actions as “evidence” of a social scientific “vision” always runs the risk of subsuming them under a grand theory — where they are bound to be lost or lose any of their original complexity as well as any trace of their humanity.

People have rightly worried about this when they’ve commented that Huntington’s thesis is much too broad: to speak of Islam today as a coherent “civilization” or of the Christian West in similar terms imposes a neat social scientific model on a complex and heterogeneous reality. Look within Islam today — in Gaza, in Lebanon, in Hamtramck, Michigan — and the picture is much more complex; visit most countries in Western Europe where the youth bulge is in evidence and you will gain the same impression: people don’t simply live in ideological blocs.

Human communities, villages, towns, neighborhoods, cities are not, can never really be the societies that social scientists talk about. Or at least they are organized less around ideas and causes than social scientists would have us believe. A civilization is not a cult. Or, to put it another way, to bomb Gaza is not just to bomb Hamas. That only works in military simulations, on TV or in the grand parlors of social theorists: it’s make believe.

That the 9/11 hijackers may have thought of themselves as emissaries of a cause, even of a lost civilization, the avengers of al-Andalus, seems likely; but then they took many steps in the days leading up to the attacks that seem wholly inconsistent with that notion. Maybe they only sometimes believed that they had hitched themselves up to a great cause. Maybe nobody can consistently and always act from such a belief. In any case, it seems to me that taking their suicidal delusions, or the suicidal theology of Islamic jihad, to explain their actions is simply to rehash jihadist apologetics without ever really trying to understand them.

It may be more difficult to consider how people act with or without clear and coherent ideas, or motives, or ends in mind, and it won’t yield anything like a grand theory; but it might just get you closer to the truth.

People — you and I — don’t ordinarily act from historical theses, nor do we usually carry the weight of history with us as we plan to act, despite what Hollywood and Huntington would like us to think.

Revolutionaries and assassins and other sociopaths may, at least when drafting their apologies or ransom notes or memoires. I wonder if they can always sustain the illusion, and if they do, how they do it. I wonder, too, if they share with the political scientists the same delusion about the coherence and consistency of human action, and the relation of action to idea.

And I wonder, further, if one could — just for kicks, or even in all seriousness — correlate the emergence of a particular type of sociopath, jihadi, revolutionary, or murderer with the emergence of a “social science” or a scientific view of society.

Unscientific about society

Social science may be able to account for society in part because it has remade society to suit its particular kind of knowledge (the “science” that I would call theory).

For most theorists who study society, there are great social forces at work, will we, nill we, and most of them do us no good; the self is a social construct; the individual is more patient than agent, subjected to a false or inauthentic subjectivity, often a victim.

But there are, interestingly enough, some resources for rethinking society in the history of the word society itself. Society, societas, denotes an elective or voluntary association, not an array of (dark, often hidden) forces that constrain and define and overwhelm the individual.

I want to think about the social not just as a precondition but as a human accomplishment, the fruit of liberty and free association, a state that human beings can achieve simply by choosing to come together, not just a gulag of the alienated, overdetermined self.