Information economy – building the cathedral

Posted by jerry on February 24th, 2007 — Posted in History, Journal, New media, Technology

Information overload has become one of the great catchphrases of the so-called information economy, and today the average office worker is dealing with and managing vastly more information than at any time in the past. Terms are bandied around like ‘paradigm shift’ and ‘the greatest revolution since the Renaissance’ – to describe the events facing the contemporary developed world. Why Renaissance? Why not Victorian times or since the Industrial Revolution? Leaving aside the continuing periodisation discussion about what constituted the Renaisssance, what was it that distinguished the Renaissance from the previous several hundred years?

In the 1420s a young architect called Filippo Brunelleschi arrived in Florence. With powerful patrons trying to out-do each other in the extravagances of their public buildings, the city fathers had finally over-reached themselves. In trying to build the world’s largest church, the designers had exceeded their construction ability, and the church of Santa Maria del Fiore – Florence cathedral remained unroofed over the drum-like crossing. The problem was how to span a 45 metre space with a dome without using a timber crossing – because no timber grew that could span that space and support a dome under construction. Giotto (who designed the bell tower), Pisano, Talenti, and Ghiberti – none of them could solve the problem.

So Brunelleschi – then still in his 20s – came along. He faced three challenges:

  • to lighten the massive structure (40,000 tonnes and 90 metres high)
  • to set up a worksite organisation that could efficiently handle each successive construction phase; and
  • to ensure the stability of the brickwork courses by devising new ways to interlock the structure.

Brunelleschi solved the problems by developing technological force multipliers, by developing new workplace organisational structures and by using innovative techniques. Sound familiar? In each case there are resonances with corporate life today.

What resulted was the largest unsupported masonry dome in Europe. Today we are dealing with new forms of business organisation that span across state boundaries, that needs to make decisions and adapt faster than ever before, supporting massive organisational structures.

Brunellschi dome
Image courtesy of Finbonetti’s photostream on flickr

For Brunelleschi, technology was only part of the revolution. The rest was a philosophical outlook which resulted – at least at one level – in a set of management practices that formed a revolution no less dramatic than his many inventions, including several types of crane.

As workers in the information economy today, we too are building a cathedral. We are building a structure from within which is disseminated informational products which both reflect and shape the way we see the world.

Brunellesci lived in a world beginning to be shaped by the philosophy of William of Ockham (ca.1300-1349) who provided the basis for rational scientific thought we use today. He lived in a humanist world of new certainties that celebrated humanity based on Aristotelian principles from which we derive our disciplinary categories, and our clerically-based social organisation seen today in large corporations and in the public sector.

But his was a radically different world from before. In the Renaissance world the old certainty that somehow God would keep everything running smoothly was disappearing, and humankind found itself alone and having to take responsibility for essentially human acts.

However, from this came new optimism – the Renaissance was heading somewhere. Somehow, if humankind could keep improving things we would find the one best way to do something. There was an end-state – an exit strategy – when we would live in the best of all possible human worlds. Such was humanism.

Today, the great individualising humanist, modernist philosophy is standing on less firm ground. Humankind no longer stands proudly apart from the rest of the world, but rather perceives an uncomfortable sense of inter-connectedness. Chernobyl and global warming have taught us the arrogance of individual state-based environmental regulations.

Our world-view has changed. The world is no longer just a world of atoms. The way we understand the world is shaped by the concepts and language we use to describe it. What we make of the world is a by-product of the process by which we set about understanding and explaining the world. And there is nothing fundamentally stable about it. Each time we pin it down, we have already begun to change it. The world we are coming to understand it is the outward sign of continuous proceses interacting with each other. It is a world of change.

There remain those who yearn for a mythical pre-humanist stability based on an external Provider, or who try to cling to modernist certainties of earlier economic times. But we can no longer afford to manage change as though it were a temporary state between fixed forms of organisation, but rather as an integral part of the process of maintaining organisation. Our world is one of verbs, not nouns.

Our challenge then is to build a culture of positive change. When Brunelleschi was building his cathedral, he turned challenges into opportunities:

  • how to handle an unprecedented quantity of work;
  • how to organise the work in ways that made its fundamental instability contribute to the strength of the structure; and
  • how to organise and design the work practices in ways that took the weight off the scaffolding and allowed the building itself to take the weight of its own construction.

So Brunelleschi’s revolution was as much in logistics and organisational practices as of technology. And we are facing the same challenges. Where Brunelleschi worked with the limits of what one person could lift or carry, today we are dealing with how much information one person can process. Our force multipliers are computers and networked processes, matrix organisations, teamwork and web 2.0, just as Brunelleschi used gears, pulleys and pre-Fordist production line techniques.

But in our own way, we are building our own version of the cathedral. Our strength will depend on the interlocking network of people comprising the dome of web 2.0.

(excerpted from my book Virtual States: The Internet and the Boundaries of the Nation-State)


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