A Disease Worse than Plague

It is hard not to admire a cleanly efficient machine. The intricate efficiency of the traditional mechanical clock, the wonderous perfection of the bicycle, the impressive busyness of a bottling plant; you name it. We especially like machines that embed a kind of art through the connection of form and function (with the road racing bicycle or the new see-through Rolex as the greatest human achievement in this regard).

People surrounded by the infinite and usually confounding complexities of our lives tend to take refuge through their admiration of machines. Here at least is one place that can stay steadfastly on track with only the occasional touch of oil or a replacement part. While the rest of the world wallows in confusion, our machines can continue on undaunted. Those connected into the true depths of confusing complex reality, like the managers of large organisations, often tend to develop solid devotions to machines where all the working parts perform on a stage of solace from the incapacity of the human world to follow suit. They might collect antique clocks as refuge after a hard day of herding cats at the office.

As organisational confusions increase through ever more elaborate corporate and government policy rules, the relentless pace of globalisation, and the dynamic infatuations of human kind to indulge in things like religious fundamentalisms, wars and various forms of tribal jingoism, it is rather predictable that some if not many managers start to imagineer the conversion of their own part of the world into something a bit more like the clocks they collect.

Wouldn’t it be nice, the deluded might think, if the university, bank, hospital, government department or pencil factory could be constrained to operate just like a clock. A clock with all the mechanicals exposed so that we can observe the workings with a satisfied sense of seeing all the bits and the whole working in undaunted harmony. The temptation must be great.

The trouble is that, like the thirst of an alcoholic, the desire for this kind of mechanical conversion of unrelentingly unruly complexity has become a disease. Managers in every space are doing far more than simply wishing for the mechanical conversion of their workplaces; they are busy forging those delusions into reality. This trend has a name. That name is ‘managerialism’. Managerialism is the attempt of a manager to squeeze out the idiosyncrasies, confusions and, really, humanness of the systems that are to be the victim of this disease. Managerialism is the delusion of managers who tremble with insecurity in the face of inescapable real world complexity that they can indeed manage the systems over which they are empowered, just like the simple machinery they wish the world could become.

It never works. Because complexity has depths that are hidden to any and all attempts at detailed exploration. And stuff from the depths can surface at any time to shake an organisation in ways that are utterly unpredictable. Any possible theory a manager might have on how the system they are managing works is flawed or incomplete at best. This applies to economists who fantasise omniscience about how economies work (and hence design economic policies accordingly) to university heads who like to release daily updates on policies on policies to keep the outburstings of their egotistical mob in check, and to every other conceivable kind of manager. The unrelenting reality of complexity confounds all manifestations of managerialism at every step. It is a war that cannot be won. But it seems to be a war that we, the victims of this plague must endure. It is a war that is waging over my own university group. It is a war that is turning into a bloodbath. Something will give, eventually. We might then get some respite or the war might turn to become a new chapter of pain.

Now here is the perversity. Just as for those who desire the mechanical conversion of the world, we, the victims of that managerialism can also look fondly on machines for solace. I look at the mechanical magnificence of a bicycle for my own respite from the tirades of unconstrained managerialism that are set to destroy everything I have achieved over the past ten years. There are no policies on policies that can guide my pedaling. Indeed, I was once told that my predilection for pedaling to work was a feat to throw my university’s policies on Occupational Health and Safety into paroxysms of pain; into an infinite meltdown loop. Which just makes me want to ride to work even more!

But I don’t want to turn the world into a bicycle. I just take refuge in my cycling. I think that this is an important distinction from those who would managerialise us to those of us who are its victims. We who would prefer to cycle through the complex world take huge pleasure through our capacity to recharge in the oasis of calm that cycling can represent. When we have these spaces, we can sustain our resilience within the wider complex world. It keeps us sane and in tune. To live with and not against the inescapabilities of those forces that so terrorise our managerialistically seduced overlords. It is the toxic fallout from the managerialist disease that makes our cyclist oasis such a nice elevated place. A place that rather seems to be attracting an ever compounding rate of community interest. Perhaps as this interesting cycle of attraction accelerates, the solace of cycling will eventually cascade into the fantasy worlds of managers who would run the world like a machine. Then we might transcend into a more enlightened world where complex reality is a universally accepted space to be aesthetically interspersed by rivers, islands and parklands of mechanical diversions. Here the machine is appreciated for what it is and not for what it can never be.


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