I took two books with me on vacation.
One was Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains.
The other was Walter Kiechel III, The Lords of Strategy: The Secret Intellectual History of the New Corporate World
I also brought a copy of the New York Review of Books, which had a good article about data mining and what a big business it is.
The thesis of Carr’s book is that the ubiquity of the Internet makes it very hard for us to concentrate on reading books. I kept wondering why he wrote a book to say that.
What made his book worth reading was one stunning chapter about Google. It explains in exquisite and alarming detail that Google ‘s business is built on data mining. If you want to understand how data mining works, read this chapter.
The entire Google enterprise is built on the principles enunciated by Frederick Winslow Taylor a century ago. Taylor conducted time-and-motion studies, clocking how many minutes it took workers to complete various jobs, and believed that there was a best way to perform every job. Everything that matters can be measured and turned into a system. Taylor’s method is the foundation of industrial manufacturing. Now it is the foundation for Google and its competitors. He writes, “The Internet is a machine designed for the efficient, automated collection, transmission, and manipulation of information, and its legions of programmers are intent on finding ‘the one best way’–the perfect algorithm–to carry out the mental movements of what what we’ve come to describe as knowledge work.” Google’s CEO says the company is “founded around the science of measurement” and is trying to “systematize everything” it does. It is data-driven and seeks to “quantify everything.” Carr writes, “What Taylor did for the work of the hand, Google is doing for the work of the mind.”
Google, he writes, is the “Internet’s high church, and the religion practiced inside its walls is Taylorism.”
Every time you click on a link, an advertiser pays, and your data are recorded in a database. Your preferences, your interests, your searches, become part of the database, which enables vendors to target you efficiently for their goods and services. Every time you click on an advertisement, you build the Internet database about yourself, “and Google rakes in more money.” The more we rely on the Internet to seek information and buy things, the fuller our profile of data for others to use for advertising and selling.
It is a hugely profitable business, and you are part of building it. Almost everything that can be known about you, everything you typed into the Internet, is in your database.
The other book, The Lords of Strategy, tells the story of the business consulting industry. It was written by the former editorial director of Harvard Business Publishing. If you really want to know how the world works, read this book. It begins with the story of Bruce Henderson, who founded the Boston Consulting Group. BCG–which is now advising school districts like Philadelphia on how to shed their primary mission and to privatize more public schools–was created to advise businesses on strategy. BCG virtually invented the idea of “strategy.” That meant studying your competitors’ business and figuring out ways to compete more effectively (e.g., lower your cost, increase your volume, become the market leader). BCG then gave birth to Bain and Company, which was even more competitive than BCG. Then came the revival of McKinsey as a force in strategizing how to win in the game of corporate dominance.
Reading this book was not easy. Household names come and go and disappear. Corporations are taken over by men who think of profit only, never of people. There is never any extended discussion of the obligations of a corporation to the public or to its employees. People’s lives are treated as unimportant. All that matters is market share, shareholder valuation, and profit. The winners get very rich, the losers, well, who cares?
These books have obvious relevance to the plight of education today. Both refer often to the Taylorism that underlies their activities–that is, the belief that measurement matters above all, and that whatever matters can be measured.
Kiechel speaks repeatedly of “the Greater Taylorism,” that is, the firm belief that data answer all questions, and the more data the better the strategy.
People don’t matter. Data triumph.
Except at the end of his book, he notes that all the strategies cooked up by the great minds from Harvard Business School have essentially failed. The theories conflict with one another. One supercedes another. But the economy crashed in 2008 anyway, despite the brilliant minds.
Kiechel is minimal in his skepticism. Perhaps on purpose.
My skepticism grew as I read, along with a sense of revulsion for these “lords of strategy,” these “masters of the universe” who use their minds to control our lives but regard the rest of us as ants in a terrarium of their design.
Next time, I will bring Agatha Christie to the beach.