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July 29th, 2012

Feature Essay: The books that inspired Jannis Kallinikos: “Gregory Bateson’s essay ‘A Theory of Play and Fantasy’ is one of the most lucid texts in the social sciences”

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Estimated reading time: 10 minutes

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July 29th, 2012

Feature Essay: The books that inspired Jannis Kallinikos: “Gregory Bateson’s essay ‘A Theory of Play and Fantasy’ is one of the most lucid texts in the social sciences”

1 comment

Estimated reading time: 10 minutes

Jannis Kallinikos is Professor of Information Systems at the LSE and writes prolifically on topics related to information growth, technology and social behaviour. Jannis talks us through the books that inspired his interest in organisational theory and also about the books, both fiction and non-fiction, that should serve as companions to every social scientist.

I was taking the first steps in my academic career when I stumbled upon Shoshana Zuboff’s book In the Age of the Smart Machine: The Future of Work and Power, published in 1988. In elegant prose, marked by analytic depth and associative force, Zuboff reconstructed the trajectory of work from the dawn of capitalism to the present day. Technology has been amongst the key forces in engraving this trajectory. Initially, by means of automation characteristic of industrial machinery and the assembly line and much later through the automation of automation signified by the advent of computer technology and its capacity to inspect and monitor other technologies (numerically controlled machines, industrial plants) and human practices (office or professional work) more generally.

Manual work has traditionally entailed a confrontation with the enduring and recalcitrant nature of materials and things. Industrial machinery accordingly sought to duplicate skills associated with physical dexterity, exertion and locomotion. By contrast, computer technology embodied many of those operations characteristic of writing, cognitive ordering, coding and calculation. As computer-based automation progressed, manual work was immersed in an environment dominated by data and information tokens that took its most dramatic form in the control of the production flow via distant computer terminals. In these settings, work was increasingly transformed into an exercise of dealing with and extracting meaning out of disembodied strings of data tokens, becoming, Zuboff claimed, a sort of reading. Even the circumstances of administrative work that traditionally entailed mental tasks of one or another kind changed substantially.

Computerization expanded the range of administrative tasks possible to conduct via computers, integrated many of the application fields and operations characteristic of office work and let them bear upon one another in new and interesting ways. In this long historical process, the gains of convenience and expanding productive and administrative capacity were offset by the counter trend of a deep going and, in certain respects, troubling reality mediation. This came to instantiate work problems of a different nature, mostly associated with the ability to cope with figures and symbol tokens, extract meaning out of an expanding mass of data and relate it (meaning) to the world ‘out there.’

Zuboff explored the behavioural and social implications of these important transformations through eight in-depth case studies that disclosed this constantly expanding electronic text, as she called it, which most forms of work have to accommodate, in one way or another. Of course, epochal shifts of this short are never unidirectional. By the same token, people are seldom passive recipients of technical changes. They confront and adapt them to their own ends. Zuboff did outline the new kind of work sociality and collective learning made possible by the capacity of computer technology to mediate reality and to share facts, experience and knowledge. But the issues brought forward by the shifting ontology of work can scarcely be negotiated in situ. Furthermore, organisations are complex and historically sedimented social systems. Drawing on Weber, Arendt and Foucault among others, Zuboff described with uncanny precision the stratified social topology (hierarchy) of organisations and the constraints of power but also habit place on our ability to promote new forms of sociality and learning.

Zuboff’s book reshaped my understanding of formal organisation (I had a PhD in Organisation Theory) as the predominant institutional work setting. It outlined for me the path along which I could connect the writings of one of the intellectual heroes of my youth, British born and Cambridge educated social anthropologist and cognitive scientist, Gregory Bateson. For years, I read and kept close to his Steps to an Ecology of Mind (published 1972), a tour de force that summarizes much of Bateson’s scholarship over nearly four decades. Bateson’s essay A Theory of Play and Fantasy (included in Steps) remains for me one of the most lucid texts I have ever come across in social science.

The importance of information and the various ways by which it is implicated in our lives are the subject of the latest (2011) book by James Gleick, entitled The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood. The book is a potent summary of the technical antecedents, intellectual currents, challenges and breakthroughs that have shaped the current technological landscape, dominated by information and information-coded culture. Despite the complex issues with which it deals, Gleick’s book is written for a broad audience. The conceptual issues are interlaced with biographical elements of many of the persons that have shaped the theory and technology of information and communication, from Babbage to Shannon, and lend the book an aura of vividness. I appreciate the erudition and ability Gleick possesses to convey in an illuminating way the puzzles and challenges surrounding information theory and its technological siblings. It is a very useful companion to the task of understanding the forces that have shaped our age.

Few things give me such an intellectual satisfaction as a good novel. I read novels most evenings I find myself at home. In these moments, social science and literary art, spare and working time occasionally fuse. Italo Calvino’s literary prose has been a steady companion to me. I have indeed made use of his novel Invisible Cities to discuss in some of my writings key issues associated with the ontology of work that I touched upon earlier. I wholeheartedly recommend his collection of short stories, Palomar to all social scientists. It is an amazing piece of literary art in which narrative skill, humour and philosophical vision mix suggestively. Jorge Louis Borges is another author I consistently read over the last decades (there is no way one can exhaust Calvino or Borges with one or two readings). But I read good novels of all kinds. I am currently struggling with George Eliot’s nearly 1000 pages long novel Middlemarch. I am amazed by her insights on the human condition, the ups and downs of life and the turns of destiny. Ultimately, I have learned so much about England and English culture from Middlemarch in ways that history books could never teach.

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Jannis Kallinikos is Professor of Information Systems in the Department of Management at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Jannis’s research has over the last decade increasingly focused on the study of the social and institutional implications of the diffusion of information and information-based artefacts across the social fabric. His latest book is Governing through technology: information artefacts and social practice, Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.

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This work by LSE Review of Books is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 UK: England & Wales.