Below is an excerpt from a wonderful book on the rhetoric of technology. The section below focuses on Taylor’s contribution to industrial efficiency. The comparison between Taylor’s text and F. T. Marinetti’s Futurist texts (avant-garde modernism) demonstrates how pervasive the push for efficiency was for early 20th century societies. For class, let’s concentrate on the red text. References are below the excerpt.
From pp. 122-124 in Marconi’s Wireless and the Rhetoric of a New Technology:
Although denying the past and stressing progress(ion) were avant-garde characteristics, these were also the tropes of business. Taylor (1911/1967) asserted that “great gain, both to employers and employés,” will come “from the substitution of scientific rule-of-thumb methods in even the smallest details of the work of every trade” (p. 24, emphasis added). Taylor’s text was also a manifesto of sorts. He, as did Marinetti, placed the onus on the individual to eliminate sloth and inefficiency. Inefficient workers were guilty of dereliction of duty. Taylor argued that “[t]he enormous saving of time and therefore increase in output…can be fully realized only after one has personally seen the improvement’’ of Taylor’s scientific application (p. 24). One major goal of Taylorism was efficiency from ‘‘[t]he general adoption of scientific management’’ to achieve ‘‘the increase, both in the necessities and luxuries of life, which becomes available for the whole country’’ (p. 142). Also, another goal would be “the elimination of almost all causes for dispute and disagreement between [management and workmen]” (p. 142). According to Taylor, applying scientific principles to the factory led to efficiency and benefits all because science touched all workers and helped produce goods efficiently. Likewise, Marinetti found a similar attitudinal change because ‘‘Futurism is grounded in the great discoveries of science’’ (1913/1973, p. 96, italics mine). For both men, science was a good organizational strategy for either factories or art.
Although Taylor (1911/1967) directly addressed managers and workers, the results of his system were to be a benefit to all industrialized nations: ‘‘Is it not the duty of those who are acquainted with these facts, to exert themselves to make the whole community realize this [study of scientific management’s] importance’’ (p. 144). Taylor’s text had a certain avant-garde quality inherent in its hyper-industrial fervor, but it was hardly the polemic of Marinetti’s art. Taylorism (and its famous put-in-practice system, Fordism) adhered to early twentieth-century ideology—speed, efficiency, evolution, and ahistoricity; it was, in fact, a product of the time period. Besides promoting progress, Taylor chastised his inefficient audience as morally defunct, thus satisfying Renato Poggioli’s (1968) definition of the avant-garde:
‘‘Ideology, therefore, is always a social phenomenon. In the case of the avant-garde, it is an argument of self-assertion or self-defense used by a society in the strict sense against society in the larger sense’’ (p. 4). Taylor’s manifesto was a product of the time, and a rubric for adhering to the value of efficiency. Factories needed only follow the principles Taylor put forth, and they would assert their productive dominance in the market. Taylor advocated his “primer’s” value for the larger society would be modernization, the same argument Marinetti made when he advocated “killing” any connection to the past would help Italian modernization.
I am not arguing, however, that Taylor shared Marinetti’s ahistorical stance against cultural markers and artifacts. While Marinetti’s work was prone to violence, exaggeration, and performance, Taylor appeared more practical, systematic, and industrious. Taylor privileged the worker and management’s role in maintaining a well-organized firm. Ultimately, he does not fit Poggioli’s (1968) definition of an avant-garde artist because his work was not absorbed into ‘‘the demagogic moment,’’ which Poggioli argued fueled the ‘‘[avant-garde’s] tendency toward self-advertisement, propaganda, and proselytizing’’ (p. 34). Although Taylor’s lack of gross exaggeration and ferocious polemical stances mitigated his avant-garde status, his importance for gauging industrial practice is without question: His text existed as a heuristic for industrial progress. Simply put, progression toward increased production and profits mirrored part of Marconi and the popular press’s rhetoric of technology. The wireless, besides often being ‘‘praised’’ for its potential, reflected human advancement and commercial/industrial success. In this historical moment, Taylor (1911/1967) claimed,
our larger wastes of human effort, which go on every day through such of our acts as are blundering, ill-directed, or inefficient, and which Mr. [Theodore] Roosevelt refers to as a lack of ‘national efficiency,’ are less visible, less tangible, and are vaguely appreciated (p. 5).
Marinetti provided a symbolic transition. Instead of looking to the past’s supposed
‘‘summit’’ or ‘‘fullness of time’’ as a goal for avoiding ‘‘a fatal infelicitous fall
back to barbarism’’ (Poggioli 1968, pp. 72–73), Futurism experimented with the
These new experiments, although brash and violent, glorified new technologies that were unconsciously accepted by industrial cultures. Of course, a cultural studies lens cannot identify all values a society in a particular time period had. However, prevailing values appear during cultural studies research. Technologies expose ideological tenets because they do not come to be without group acceptance. Because researchers have the benefit (or burden) of historical hindsight, we know that the wireless extended the reach of communication—it was heralded as a genius product of modernity. Likewise, automobiles became accepted as beneficial technologies, ‘‘liberating’’ individuals in industrialized nations because of their potential for allowing greater mobility. Today, wireless transmissions, automobiles, and other technical objects are more than just tools; these technologies are prostheses for human activity in industrial, hyper-technological societies.
Technologies do not have to be accepted universally in order to become realized. We cannot claim every member of a society uses such technologies only that they are popularly seen as efficient, necessary products we cannot live without. As long as large enough groups accept a certain technology, these tools will be seen as useful and, therefore, be realized. In fact, these technologies (and “universal” technologies like computers, PDAs, or mobile phones) can really only be said to be prostheses for middle, working, and wealthy classes. Claiming ‘‘everyone has a mobile phone’’ marks the chauvinistic impulse in dominant society to ignore the material conditions of poorer groups. Such chauvinism appeared in Futurism specifically and avant-gardism generally, which “is by nature solitary and aristocratic” (Bontempelli as cited in Poggioli 1968, p. 39). Marinetti claimed “I do not care for the comprehension of the multitude,” and that poetry, avant-garde or traditional also “requires a special speaker if it is to be understood” (1913/1973, p. 106). Likewise, because new technologies provide markers for civilization, a citizen must acquire the appropriate artifacts to be in accord with the well-to-do members. Consumerism allows individuals of any background to “buy into” the aristocratic image. An aristocratic technology such as the wireless held a certain regal aura because of how favorable relevant social groups rhetorically constructed it. Marconi and the popular press documented when royalty and national leaders used the wireless, constructing it as an aristocratic or ‘‘elevated’’ technology. However, for a small fee, any individual could send a wireless telegram (Baker 1902, p. 12), allowing him or her access to an aspect of an aristocratic lifestyle.
Baker, R. S. (1902). Marconi’s achievement: Telegraphing across the ocean without wires.
McClure’s Magazine, 18(4), 4–12.
Bondenella, P., & Bondenella, J. C. (1979). Dictionary of Italian literature. Westport:
Marinetti, F. T. (1913/1973). Destruction of syntax—[Wireless imagination]—Words-in-freedom. In U. Apollonio (Ed.), Futurist manifestos (pp. 95–106). Boston, MA: MFA
Publications. (R. W. Flint, Trans).
Poggioli, R. (1968). The theory of the avant-garde. Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard
University Press. (G. Fitzgerald, Trans.).
Taylor, F. W. (1967). The principles of scientific management. New York: Norton. (Original work published in 1911).
Toscano, A. A. (2012). Marconi’s wireless and the rhetoric of a new technology. Dordrecht: Springer.