[Humanist] 30.404 flowcharts: a footnote

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Tue Oct 11 09:47:52 CEST 2016

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 30, No. 404.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Tue, 11 Oct 2016 08:39:06 +0100
        From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
        Subject: a footnote on flowcharts

In his masterful Foreword to Wilkinson's translation of Jacques Ellul's 
The Technological Society (1964/1954), Robert K. Merton explains Ellul's 
basic term "technique":

> By technique... he means far more than machine technology. Technique
>  refers to any complex of standardized means for attaining a
> predetermined result. Thus, it converts spontaneous and unreflective
> behavior into behavior that is deliberate and rationalized. The
> Technical Man is fascinated by results, by the immediate
> consequences of setting standardized devices into motion. He cannot
> help admiring the spectacular effectiveness of nuclear weapons of
> war. Above all, he is committed to the never-ending search for "the
> one best way" to achieve any designated objective.

I'm not sure whether Merton expected us to recognize the phrase he 
quotes, "the one best way", but having recently read around in the 
literature of organizational charts, close cousin of programming 
flowcharts, I did, and it does make a difference. This phrase was 
popularized by the time-and-motion-study couple, Frank B. (the engineer) 
and Lillian M. (the psychologist) Gilbreth, whose books, e.g. Primer of 
Scientific Management (1912) and Process Charts: First Steps in Finding 
the One Best Way to Do Work (1921), are conveniently in the Internet 
Archive. Frank Gilbreth started out as a disciple of Frederick Winslow 
Taylor, whose Principles of Scientific Management (1911) started the 
movement -- and is also in the Archive. Gilbreth explained in the Primer 

> It is the aim of Scientific Management to induce men to act as nearly
> like machines as possible, so far as doing the work in the one best
> way that has been discovered is concerned. (1912: 50)

See, for example, Brian Price, "Frank and Lilliam Gilbreth and the 
Motion Study Controversy", in A Mental Revolution, ed. Nelson (1992), p. 
68 -- and, of course, Shoshana Zuboff's In the Age of the Smart Machine 

> Taylorism meant that the body as the source of skill was to be the
> object of inquiry in order that the body as the source of effort
> could become the object of more exacting control. Once explicated,
> the worker's know-how was expropriated to the ranks of management,
> where it became management's prerogative to reorganize that knowledge
> according to its own interests, needs, and motives. The growth of the
> management hierarchy depended in part upon this transfer of knowledge
> from the private sentience of the worker's active body to the
> systematic lists, flowcharts, and measurements of the planner's
> office.
(p. 42)

And what about scholarship? Change "body" to mind. Compare this from 
historian Robert Fogel's 1979 keynote speech at the Sixth International 
Congress of Logic, Methodology, and the Philosophy of Science (1982, ed. 
Cohen et al). As Gertrude Himmelfarb said, Fogel was the master 
cliometrician, the one who would turn historiography into data modelling:

> Cliometricians want the study of history to be based on explicit
> models of human behavior. They believe that historians do not really
> have a choice of using or not using behavioral models since all
> attempts to explain historical behavior--to relate the elemental
> facts of history to each other--whether called “Ideengeschichte,”
> “historical imagination,” or “behavioral modeling,” involve some sort
> of model. The real choice is whether these models will be implicit,
> vague, incomplete, and internally inconsistent, as cliometricians
> contend is frequently the case in traditional historical research, or
> whether the models will be explicit, with all the relevant
> assumptions clearly stated, and formulated in such a manner as to be
> subject to rigorous empirical verification.
(p. 26)



Willard McCarty (www.mccarty.org.uk/), Professor, Department of Digital
Humanities, King's College London; Adjunct Professor, Western Sydney

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