Saturday, March 12, 2011

The Fundamentals of Industrial Ideologies: Standardization

The Third Wave, A. Toffler

The most familiar of [..] Second Wave principles is standardization. Everyone knows that industrial societies turn out millions of identical products. Fewer people have stopped to notice, however, that once the market became important, we did more than simply standardize Coca-Cola bottles, light bulbs, and auto transmissions. We applied the same principle to many other things. Among the first to grasp the importance of this idea was Theodore Vail who, at the turn of the century, built the American Telephone & Telegram Company into a giant.

Working as a railway postal clerk in the late 1860's, Vail had noticed that no two letters necessarily went to their destinations via the same route. Sacks of mail traveled back and forth, often taking weeks or months to reach their destinations. Vail introduced the idea of standardized routing—all letters going to the same place would go the same way—and helped revolutionize the post office. When he later formed AT&T, he set out to place an identical telephone in every American home.

Vail standardized not only the telephone handset and all its components but AT&Ts business procedures and administration as well. [..] What Vail recognized is that to succeed in the Second Wave environment, "software"—i.e., procedures and administrative routines—had to be standardized along with hardware.

Vail was only one of the Great Standardizes who shaped industrial society. Another was Frederick Winslow Taylor, a machinist turned crusader, who believed that work could be made scientific by standardizing the steps each worker performed. In the early decades of this century Taylor decided that there was one best (standard) way to perform each job, one best (standard) tool to perform it with, and a stipulated (standard) tune in which to complete it.

Armed with this philosophy, he became the world's leading management guru. In his time, and later, he was compared with Freud, Marx, and Franklin. Nor were capitalist employers, eager to squeeze the last ounce of productivity from their workers, alone in their admiration for Taylorism, with its efficiency experts, piece-work schemes, and rate-busters. Communists shared their enthusiasm. Indeed, Lenin urged that Taylor's methods be adapted for use in socialist production. An industrializer first and a Communist second, Lenin, too, was a zealous believer in standardization.

In Second Wave societies, hiring procedures as well as work were increasingly standardized. Standardized tests were used to identify and weed out the supposedly unfit, especially in the civil service. Pay scales were standardized throughout whole industries, along with fringe benefits, lunch hours, holidays, and grievance procedures. To prepare youth for the job market, educators designed standardized curricula. Men like Binet and Terman devised standardized intelligence tests. School grading policies, admission procedures, and accreditation rules were similarly standardized. The multiple-choice test came into its own.

The mass media, meanwhile, disseminated standardizing imagery, so that millions read the same advertisements, the same news, the same short stories. The repression of minority languages by central governments, combined with the influence of mass communications, led to the near disappearance of local and regional dialects or even whole languages, such as Welsh and Alsatian. "Standard" American, English, French, or, for that matter, Russian, supplanted "nonstandard" languages. Different parts of the country began to look alike, as identical gas stations, billboards, and houses cropped up everywhere. The principle of standardization ran through every aspect of daily life.

At an even deeper level, industrial civilization needed standardized weights and measures. It is no accident that one of the first acts of the French Revolution, which ushered the age of industrialism into France, was an attempt to replace the crazy-quilt patchwork of measuring
units, common in preindustrial Europe, with the metric system and a new calendar. Uniform measures were spread through much of the world by the Second Wave.

Moreover, if mass production required the standardization of machines, products, and processes, the ever-expanding market demanded a corresponding standardization of money, and even prices. Historically, money had been issued by banks and private individuals as well as by kings. Even as late as the nineteenth century privately minted money was still in use in parts of the United States, and the practice lasted until 1935 in Canada. Gradually, however, industrializing nations suppressed all nongovernmental currencies and managed to impose a single standard currency in their place.

Until the nineteenth century, moreover, it was still common for buyers and sellers in industrial countries to haggle over every sale in the time-honored fashion of a Cairo bazaar. In 1825 a young Northern Irish immigrant named A. T. Stewart arrived in New York, opened a dry-goods store, and shocked customers and competitors alike by introducing a fixed price for every item. This one-price policy—price standardization—made Stewart one of the merchant princes of his
era and cleared away one of the key obstacles to the development of mass distribution.

Whatever their other disagreements, advanced Second Wave thinkers shared the conviction that standardization was efficient. At many levels, therefore, the Second Wave brought a flattening out of differences through a relentless application of the principle of standardization.