Knowledge in the Age of Knowledge Work

Knowledge in the Age of Knowledge Work

Alan Liu

University of California, Santa Barbara



1.

Even this warning did not prepare Robyn for the shock of the foundry. . . . Her first instinct was to cover her ears, but she soon realised that it was not going to get any quieter, and let her hands fall to her sides. The floor was covered with a black substance that looked like soot, but grated under the soles of her boots like sand. The air reeked with a sulphurous, resinous smell, and a fine drizzle of black dust fell on their heads from the roof. Here and there the open doors of furnaces glowed a dangerous red, and in the far corner of the building what looked like a stream of molten lava trickled down a curved channel from roof to floor. . . . Everywhere there was indescribable mess, dirt, disorder.

–David Lodge, Nice Work, p. 86



Was David Lodge's 1988 novel simply behind the times when it challenged its heroine—Robyn Penrose, Temporary Lecturer in English Literature—to confront the sooty business managed by its hero, Vic Wilcox, product of a Midlands technical college?  Is this the utmost challenge that Lodge can imagine for the contemporary academic sensibility: to come to grips with the realism of "smokestack" industrialism as it has appalled fiction since the nineteenth-century industrial novel (Lodge's elaborate allusion) through at least Sons and Lovers?

If so, then we can adequately attribute Lodge's comedy to the slow, sly romance he builds between the academy and industry—to his deft dance of opposites that at last issues, if not in a classically comic wedding, then at least in the fleeting copulation of two faculties of expertise divorced since Victorian sages presided over the "idea of a university."

Or, on the other hand, should we allow Lodge's minor prophets of the new world order—Robyn's investment-banker brother, his financial-exchange-dealer consort, or (more demonically) the "CNC" computer-numerical controlled manufacturing machine in Vic's factory—to shift the comedy into an altogether different register of satire?  Robyn's brother says cheekily while on holiday from financial London: "Companies like [Vic's] are batting on a losing wicket. . . .  the future for our economy is in service industries, and perhaps some hi-tech engineering" (p. 128).  Vic says sombrely as he and Robyn stare across a Perspex pane at the CNC machine's inhumanly "violent, yet controlled" motions, "One day . . . there will be lightless factories full of machines like that. . . .  Once you've built a fully computerised factory, you can take out the lights, shut the door and leave it to make engines or vacuum cleaners or whatever, all on its own in the dark."  "O brave new world," Robyn responds (pp. 84-85). [1]

To glimpse even peripherally such a brave new world order is to recognize that Lodge's last, best joke—so cruel that only his furiously contrived happy ending can salve the bite of the satire—is the obsolescence of the entire, tired opposition between the academy and industry.  "Shadows" of each other, as the novel calls them, Robyn and Vic both inhabit a twilight order on the other side of the Perspex—or more fittingly, computer screen—from true post-industrial night.  That night, which seems the dawning of a new enlightenment in its own eyes, is Knowledge Work, the Aufhebung of both academic "knowledge" and industrial "work."

"We grew up in the Industrial Age," Thomas A. Stewart writes in his recent Intellectual Capital: The New Wealth of Organizations (1997),

It is gone, supplanted by the Information Age. The economic world we are leaving was one whose main sources of wealth were physical. The things we bought and sold were, well, things; you could touch them, smell them, kick their tires, slam their doors and hear a satisfying thud. . . .

In this new era, wealth is the product of knowledge. Knowledge and information—not just scientific knowledge, but news, advice, entertainment, communication, service B have become the economy's primary raw materials and its most important products.  Knowledge is what we buy and sell. You can't smell it or touch it. . . .  The capital assets that are needed to create wealth today are not land, not physical labor, not machine tools and factories: They are, instead, knowledge assets.  (p. x) [2]

The clarion call of the new millennium is clear.  Let the academies have pure ideas.  Let the Third World (represented in Lodge's novel by the swarthy, immigrant underclass who serve Vic's factory) have pure matter work.  You, the New Class destined to inherit the earth (or at least cubicle); you who are endowed with the inalienable right to process a spreadsheet, database, or report—have you counted your knowledge assets today?

2.

But such is too facile a caricature of the age of Knowledge Work.  Just as Lodge's academic romance can be read in different tones, so too can our contemporary romances of Knowledge Work.  I refer to the immensely influential and best-selling works of fiction-blended-with-realism—let us loosely call them "novels"—by the Victorian sages of our time: the management "gurus" (among whom the just-cited Stewart is a late contender).  The mold for this genre, as John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge note in their survey, was set in 1982 by Tom Peters and Robert Waterman's five-million-selling In Search of Excellence: Lessons from America's Best-Run Companies. [3]   But it is from the early 90s on that the genre came into its own with the appearance of such works of wide impact (to name just a premium selection) as Michael Hammer and James Champy's Reengineering the Corporation, Joseph H. Boyett and Henry P. Conn's Workplace 2000, Robert M. Tomasko's Downsizing, William H. Davidow and Michael S. Malone's The Virtual Corporation, Peter M. Senge's The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization, Don Tapscott's The Digital Economy, Tom Peters' Liberation Management, Jon R. Katzenbach and Douglas K. Smith's The Wisdom of Teams, and Peter F. Drucker's Post-Capitalist Society.  "These books," Armand Mattelart comments, "which enjoyed a transnational readership far broader than just business executives, provided a medium for the followers of the new business doctrine . . . ," "a veritable cult of enterprise, bordering on the religious" (pp. 207, 208). [4]   And this is not even to mention the new journalism of business that everywhere we look—in newspapers, magazines, and TV news—amplifies the dominant fictional realism of our times by rehearsing the mantra of right-sizing, just-in-time, flat-structuring, disintermediation, flexibility, team-work, lifelong learning, diversity management, and (that ultimate arbiter of collective fiction) shareholder value.

Inverting my questions about Lodge, we may pose the following puzzles for the postindustrial business imagination.  On the one hand, is the new business literature simply ahead of (rather than, as with Lodge, behind) the times when it promises an age of business that is all information processing—or, more accurately (since durables and consumables must still be produced), all an allegory of information processing able to make plants, goods, and people behave with the quick-turnaround responsiveness, modular flexibility, and ultimate eraseability of bits?  Is the new business literature, in other words, what the word "virtual" really means: "post-historical"?  "When someone asks us for a quick definition of business reengineering," Hammer and Champy declare in their Reengineering the Corporation, "we say it means 'starting over.'  It doesn't mean tinkering with what already exists or making incremental changes that leave basic structures intact" (p.  31).  And Peter Drucker, the dean of U.S. management theory, sums it up: "Innovation," he says, "means, first, the systematic sloughing off of yesterday." [5]   Society is a diskette to be reformatted.

Read virtually or post-historically in this way, we may say, the business bestsellers are utopian prophecies of what Michael Dertouzos calls What Will Be and Bill Gates The Road Ahead (to cite two titles from the affiliated genre of information-technology prophecy). [6]

But, on the other hand, is the new business literature so dystopian (pessimistic about the future where Lodge's minor prophets are optimistic) that their real subject is the impassability of history?  Witness, for example, the rhetorical dependence of the genre not just on broad denunciations of traditional ways of living and working but also on long catalogues of specific historical "obstacles."  "So, if managements want companies that are lean, nimble, flexible, responsive, competitive, innovative, efficient, customer-focused, and profitable," Hammer and Champy ask, "why are so many American companies bloated, clumsy, rigid, sluggish, noncompetitive, uncreative, inefficient, disdainful of customer needs, and losing money?" (p. 7).  The answer is history: "Inflexibility, unresponsiveness, the absence of customer focus, an obsession with activity rather than result, bureaucratic paralysis, lack of innovation, high overhead—these are the legacies of one hundred years of American industrial leadership" (pp. 10, 30).  Similarly, we can take the measure of the chapter in which Davidow and Malone's The Virtual Corporation excoriates decadent old ways from this excerpt:

Here in the United States, [the] sense of distortion and confusion, mixed with considerable fear, has become an uncomfortable part of our daily lives.  Everywhere there is a disquieting sense of decay—in government, within boardrooms, on shop floors.
.            .            .            .            .            .            .            .            .            .  
One by one our industries are losing competitiveness and market share to industries of other nations.  Our government seems more con­cerned with lifelong job security for politicians and spending money it doesn't have than in enhancing the economic prosperity of the citi­zenry.  Our manufacturing sector often insults consumers with shoddy products and workers with unearned executive compensation‑and then blames its woes on foreign competition.  By the same token, work­ers are frequently unmotivated and selfish compared with their foreign counterparts; and consumers have in the past replaced good sense and security with almost pathological acquisitiveness.

Meanwhile, our major cities, once the jewels of our culture, have become violent, ungovernable places perpetually teetering on bankruptcy.  (pp. 240-41) [7]


[8]

To emphasize such harsh, corrosive, often satiric denunciation, we recognize, is to see that the new business literature walks the dark side of the street (the "road ahead") of prophecy.  From this perspective, works in this genre are fire-and-brimstone jeremiads damning sinners in the hands of an angry global competition.  Gurus are not seers of the new millennium.  They are witnesses to a damned history that is everywhere and nowhere, present in every manifest obstacle imposed by the past, yet profoundly unknowable in the discourse of Knowledge Work except as monstrous other.  History is an imaginary Third World—a reservation for peoples who remain historical—couched within the First World itself.  It is the other of the future.

3.

I raise these questions of stance or tone about Lodge's novel and the new literature of business not to suggest that such questions can be decided within the present compass.  Indeed, the considerable vitality of both the novel and the business works I cite depends on their undecidability.  Comedy or satire, prophecy or jeremiad: the underlying contradictions glossed by these modes are structural.  And, as such, they are best approached in the spirit not of decision but of suspense.  We are on the scene, after all, of the abiding suspense of the new middle class, which (to follow the lead of "New Class" theory) is even more structurally contradictory than the originary white-collar class earlier in the twentieth century. [9]   To be a white-collar or "salaried" worker in the 50's, for example, was to stake the entirety of one's authority not on the self-owned property, business, goods, or money of the predecessor entrepreneurial classes of the nineteenth century but on an existentially anxious capital of "knowledge" that had to be regenerated from scratch by one's children. [10]  Thus was laid the foundation for the overdetermined relation between business and education.  But to be a professional-managerial-technical worker now (as well as to some degree one of the clerical, sales, and other workers bound to the New Class by the complex code of "professionalism") is to stake one's authority on an even more precarious "knowledge" that has to be regenerated with every new technological change, business cycle, or downsizing in one's own life.  Thus is laid the foundationless suspense, the perpetual anxiety, of Life-Long Learning.

So why do I raise these questions here if not to answer them?  For the limited purpose of arguing that the undecidability of the relation between academic knowledge and knowledge work now solicits from ourselves as scholars the very opposite of the decisiveness heard so preemptively—to cite a conspicuous and near-to-hand example—in the "Final Report of the MLA Committee on Professional Employment" (PMLA, Oct. 1998).

However acute, consistent, or substantial the "Final Report" may be (or not) in its recommendations for the profession of the humanities in the age of knowledge work (issues I do not take up here), I believe it is starkly wrong in legitimating itself as follows in its striking Preface on the corporatization of the university:

. . . lawmakers call for greater productivity on campus, and advisers trained in business management counsel various forms of "downsizing."  In numerous instances, indeed, formal commissions, college presidents, boards of trustees, and the media have pressed for a new efficiency in higher education based on corporate models in which students are defined as "clients" or even "products" and academic institutions are regarded as sites of production.  But of course the object of business corporations is to make a profit, while the object of institutions of higher education is to acquire and disseminate knowledge as well as, most important, to develop in students sophisticated intellectual strategies they will use for the rest of their lives, in and out of the workplace.  (italics mine, pp. 1154-55)

What is wrong with this legitimation, of course, is the "of course" that refuses at all costs to acknowledge the complexity of the overlap between academic and business knowledge work today.  That "of course" is a blindness of insight that has neither the virtue of truth nor, at the least, of self-serving evasion.  Rather, it is as if in confronting the eternal dark of the computerized factories that Lodge envisions—through that Perspex pane—we were ourselves to shut our eyes and add dark to dark.  For what we thus refuse to see, of course, is the seriousness of the challenge to academic knowledge posed by a "knowledge work" that has been redefined—as per the magisterial inclusiveness of Fritz Machlup's and Marc Uri Porat's accountings of knowledge-industry services in the 60s and 70s (The Production and Distribution of Knowledge in the United States and The Information Economy, respectively)—as both a practical and intellectual pretender to our throne.  In the academy, of course, we have long been accustomed to accommodating the practical logic of business as personified comfortably and endogamously in those whom we love to hate: "administrators."  And, to follow the lead of both the "Final Report" and the 1998 Presidential Forum series at MLA, we are just now thinking about going exogamous—i.e., asking business nicely for work as part of a general enterprise of "going public." [11]   What is missing, however, is any serious engagement with the full intellectual force of business in its new persona as Knowledge Work.  And without such engagement—as the Sixties, that creche of the New Class, might have said—asking for nice work can only be (and not very effectively at that) "selling out." [12]

What I mean might be represented by a single passage from the most uniquely influential and widely-cited gospel of the new knowledge work, Peter Senge's 1990 The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization.  This is how Senge defines his fifth, climactic discipline of business change, "Metanoia--A Shift of Mind":

When you ask people about what it is like being part of a great team, what is most striking is the meaningfulness of the experience.  People talk about being part of something larger than themselves, of being connected, of being generative.  It becomes quite clear that, for many, their experiences as part of truly great teams stand out as singular periods of life lived to the fullest.  Some spend the rest of their lives looking for ways to recapture that spirit.

The most accurate word in Western culture to describe what happens in a learning organization is one that hasn't had much currency for the past several hundred years. . . . The word is 'metanoia' and it means a shift of mind. . . . For the Greeks, it meant a fundamental shift or change, or more literally transcendence . . . of mind. . . .  In the early (Gnostic) Christian tradition, it took on a special meaning of awakening shared intuition and direct knowing of the highest, of God. . . .

To grasp the meaning of 'metanoia' is to grasp the deeper meaning of "learning". . . . 

(pp. 13-14)

For an academic humanist—and especially one like myself originally learned in Wordsworth's The Prelude, or Growth of the Poet's Mind—there is inexpressible irony in the fact that the single most influential contemporary visionary of the One Life and Imagination (as the Romantics called it) should be a management guru.  Senge, we recognize, offers a whole scholarship of, and about, learning bypassing academic methods of historical knowledge in favor of a fantastic pastiche of classical, Christian, and (the real school of his work) New Age lore.  Of course, it would be easy for me as a professional academic to demystify Senge.  It is more embarrassing to say that I am shamed by contrast with the breadth and dare of his undecidably intellectual/practical will to know what it might mean to "know."

Only if humanistic scholars today think about business as an intellectual as well as practical partner in the work of knowledge, it may be suggested, can the really critical issues in the relation of the academy to business be joined.  For, asking business for nice work can only not be "selling out" if the academy now engages business in a full, reciprocal act of critique in which it both gives and takes.  Such critique, I wish to close by urging, cannot even be initiated if we do not elevate it to the proper level.  I mean the level where, first, we in the academy assume that the academy and business have a common stake in Knowledge Work and then, secondly, ask, "what then is the difference?"  What is the new—and not nineteenth-century—difference between the academy and the "learning organization"?

The crucial issues to be advanced at this level, I propose, include at least the following nine:

1. What is the difference between, on the one hand, academic poststructuralism, culturalism, and multiculturalism and, on the other hand, the radically distributed, "networked" model of knowledge now seen in business in the form of "flat" organizations, information networks, and diversity management?

2. What is the difference between "culture" as the humanities now understands it and "corporate culture"?

3. What do humanities fields that are fundamentally historical in definition (e.g., "literary history") have to offer an age of "just-in-time" and "Year 2000"?

4. Given the fact that the Dearing Report in the U.K., the White Paper on Tertiary Education in New Zealand, and university "corporatization" in the U.S. all use the same language of "accountability" and "quality" (in provocative conjunction with the discourse of "access"), are higher education and business "global" in the same way?  Especially worth study in this regard is the fact that the major contemporary educational reform initiatives are aggressively national (e.g., how New Zealand or U.S. higher education must evolve to confront an era of global competition).

5. How does "information technology" as an allegory for the future of the academy differ from IT as an allegory for the new millennium of business?  For example, how does the academy's investment in the "library" or "archive" metaphor of knowledge inflect business's investment in the "database" model?  In general, what are the long-range implications of the many recent academic "partnerships" with IT companies that have established channels of ingress for the entire ethos of postindustrial business?

6. What is academic "intellectual property" or "freedom of speech" in an age that is devising new means of regulating the ownership/circulation of knowledge work?

7. How does corporatization bear differentially on public, as opposed to private, higher education institutions?

8. Given the paradigm of universal insecurity in the contemporary business world—i.e., the "flexibility" that makes not just "permatemp" blue-collar and clerical but also professional-managerial-technical workers subject to perennial restructuring, can the MLA's present effort to elevate the status of adjunct, part-time, and temporary instructors (as per the report of the MLA Committee on Professional Employment) be justified without advocating the elimination of the outstanding discrepancy between the academy and contemporary business: viz., tenure (i.e., the exemption from restructuring of a middle-managerial class whose jobs are definitionally different from those of the adjunct, part-time, and temporary on whom the burden of restructuring is now artificially concentrated)?  And if there is no such credible justification, how might an intellectual safety net—which is not necessarily the same as a job safety net—be instituted such that a redefined "freedom of speech" and "intellectual property" in the academy can be protected?

9. Given that contemporary business purports to value critique as the necessary agent of change, how might the kind of critical differences indicated above—embodied in the critical edge of graduate students trained in the humanities—be offered to business as something of distinct value?

Since mid century, we may pause to reflect, the U.S. academy has increasingly understood its business to be the education of "all" B or at least as many of the all as a relatively liberal notion of the white-collar middle class (and its more recent New Class techno-managerial-professional overlords) can accommodate.  But now Knowledge Work has called the academy's bluff.  Here is a partial listing of the areas of knowledge production that Machlup included in his 1962 survey: Education (at home, on the job, in church, in the armed services, elementary and secondary, higher), Research and Development (basic, applied), Media of Communication (printing and publishing, photography and phonography, stage and cinema, broadcasting, advertising and public relations, telephone, telegraph, and postal service), Information Machines (instruments for measurement, observation, and control; office information machines; electronic computers); and Information Services (legal, engineering and architectural, accounting and auditing, medical, financial, wholesale trade).   Now that knowledge—in its training, exercise, and possession—really is presumed to be the business of "all," and especially of Business, how will be the academy adapt to its diminished role as one among many providers in a potentially rich and diverse—but also just as potentially impoverished and uniform—ecology of knowledge?  What voice will brave, dear Temporary Lecturer Robyn Penrose have in the new world of Knowledge Work? [13]


Works Cited

Boyett, Joseph H., and Henry P. Conn. Workplace 2000: The Revolution Reshaping American Business. New York: Plume / Penguin, 1992.

Davidow, William H., and Michael S. Malone. The Virtual Corporation: Structuring and Revitalizing the Corporation for the 21st Century. New York: HarperBusiness, HarperCollins, 1992.

Dertouzos, Michael L. What Will Be: How the New World of Information Will Change Our Lives. San Francisco: HarperEdge, 1997.

Drucker, Peter F. Managing in Turbulent Times. New York: Harper & Row, 1980.

Drucker, Peter F. Post-Capitalist Society. New York: HarperBusiness, HarperCollins, 1993.

Ehrenreich, Barbara, and John Ehrenreich. A The Professional-Managerial Class. @ Between Labor and Capital: The Professional Managerial Class. Ed. Pat Walker. Boston: South End, 1979

Employment, MLA Committee on Professional. A Final Report of the MLA Committee on Professional Employment. @ PMLA 113 (1998): 1154-77.

Florida, Martin Kenney and Richard. Beyond Mass Production: The Japanese System and Its Transfer to the U.S. New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1993.

Frank, Thomas. The Conquest of Cool: Business Culture, Counterculture, and the Rise of Hip Consumerism. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1997.

Frow, John. Cultural Studies and Cultural Value. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1995.

Gates, Bill. The Road Ahead. rev. ed. New York: Penguin, 1996.

Gouldner, Alvin W. The Future of Intellectuals and the Rise of the New Class: A Frame of Reference, Theses, Conjectures, Arguments, and an Historical Perspective on the Role of Intellectuals and Intelligentsia in the International Class Contest of the Modern Era. New York: Seabury, 1979.

Hammer, Michael, and James Champy. Reengineering the Corporation: A Manifesto for Business Revolution. New York: HarperBusiness, 1993.

Harris, Philip R., and Robert T. Moran. Managing Cultural Differences: Leadership Strategies for a New World of Business. 4th ed. Houston, Texas: Gulf Publishing, 1996.

Katzenbach, Jon R., and Douglas K. Smith. The Wisdom of Teams: Creating the High-Performance Organization. New York: HarperCollins, 1993.

Kelly, Kevin. New Rules for the New Economy: 10 Radical Strategies for a Connected World. New York: Viking, 1998.

LŽvi-Strauss, Claude. A The Structural Study of Myth. @ Trans. Claire Jacobson and Brooke Grundfest Schoepf. Structural Anthropology New York: Basic, 1963. 206-31.

Liu, Alan.  Palinurus: The Academy and the Corporation--Teaching the Humanities in a Restructured World. 1998. Available: http://humanitas.ucsb.edu/liu/palinurus/

Liu, Alan.  Voice of the Shuttle: Web Page for Humanities Research. Available: http://humanitas.ucsb.edu/

Lodge, David. Nice Work. 1988 rpt.; New York: Penguin, 1989.

Machlup, Fritz. The Production and Distribution of Knowledge in the United States. Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1962.

Mattelart, Armand. Mapping World Communications: War, Progress, Culture. Trans. Susan Emanuel and James A. Cohen. Minneapolis: U. Minnesota Press, 1994.

Micklethwait, John, and Adrian Wooldridge. The Witch Doctors: Making Sense of the Management Gurus. 1st U.S. ed. New York: Times Books, 1996.

Mills, C. Wright. White Collar: The American Middle Classes. New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1956.

Peters, Tom. Liberation Management: Necessary Disorganization for the Nanosecond Nineties. New York: Fawcett Columbine, 1992.

Peters, Thomas J., and Robert H. Waterman, Jr. In Search of Excellence: Lessons from America's Best-Run Companies. New York: Warner Books, 1982.

Porat, Marc Uri. The Information Economy: Development and Measurement. 9 vols. Washington, D.C.: Office of Telecommunications / U.S. Government Printing Office, 1977.

Ross, Andrew. A "Defenders of the Faith and the New Class". @ No Respect: Intellectuals and Popular Culture New York: Routledge, 1989. 209-32.

Senge, Peter M. The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of the Learning Organization. New York: Doubleday, 1990.

Stewart, Thomas A. Intellectual Capital: The New Wealth of Organizations. New York: Doubleday, 1997.

Tapscott, Don. The Digital Economy: Promise and Peril in the Age of Networked Intelligence. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1996.

Tomasko, Robert M. Downsizing: Reshaping the Corporation for the Future. rev. ed. New York: AMACOM, 1990.

Wright, Eric Olin. Class Structure and Income Determination. New York: Academic, 1979.


NOTES

This essay was originally delivered at the 1998 MLA convention as part of the Presidential Forum events organized by Elaine Showalter under the title (taken from Lodge's novel) of "Nice Work." It was subsequently published as "Knowledge in the Age of Knowledge Work," Profession 1999: 113-24.

[1] . I have compressed somewhat the scene with the CNC machine.  The full scene is complicated by gender and class issues.  The "uncanny, almost obscene" movements of the machine (p. 85) thus link up allusively to the "pornographic pin-ups" on the factory walls that Robyn objects to on the previous page.  And with regard to class hierarchy, Robyn's full response to the CNC machine is as follows: "O brave new world, . . . where only the managing directors have jobs."

[2] . Such observations on the distinction between head-work and matter-work are now commonplace.  See, for example, Martin Kenney and Richard Florida's 1993 Beyond Mass Production: "Under past forms of industrial production, including mass-production Fordism, much of work was physical. . . .  The emergence of digitization increases the importance of abstract intelligence in production and thus requires that workers actively undertake what were previously thought of as intellectual activities.  In this new environment, workers are no longer covered with grease and sweat, because the factory increasingly resembles a laboratory for experimentation and technical advances" (p. 54).  Similarly, Kevin Kelly writes in his New Rules for the New Economy:

The key premise of this book is that the principles governing the world of the soft—the world of intangibles, of media, of software, and of services—will soon command the world of the hard—the world of reality, of atoms, of objects, of steel and oil, and the hard work done by the sweat of brows.  Iron and lumber will obey the laws of software, auto­mobiles will follow the rules of networks, smokestacks will comply with the decrees of knowledge.  If you want to envision where the future of your industry will be, imagine it as a business built entirely around the soft, even if at this point you see it based in the hard.

Of course, all the mouse clicks in the world can't move atoms in real space without tapping real energy, so there are limits to how far the soft will infiltrate the hard. But the evidence everywhere indicates that the hard world is irreversibly softening.  (p. 2)

[3] . For Micklethwait and Wooldridge's discussion of In Search of Excellence in their The Witch Doctors: Making Sense of the Management Gurus, see pp. 6, 49, 84-98.  In Search of Excellence had sold five million copies as of 1996.

[4] . For the international reach of such business literature and the American mode of management theory it conveys, see Mickelthwait and Wooldridge, pp. 50-53.   Mickelthwait and Wooldridge note, "In a mammoth pan-Asian survey of business people in 1995, roughly half of the respondents has bought a book by a Western management writer in the previous two years" (p. 53).  The survey also found, however, that "nearly the same proportion admitted that they had not finished reading" their purchases.  One might conjecture on the basis of such statistics that the new business literature has a status akin to "myth" in Claude LŽvi-Strauss's understanding as a discourse whose meaning is not dependent on close attention to its language: "Myth is language, functioning on an especially high level where meaning succeeds practically at 'taking off' from the linguistic ground on which it keeps on rolling" ("The Structural Study of Myth," p. 210).

[4] . Peter F. Drucker, Managing in Turbulent Times, p. 60.  On the massive and early influence of Drucker, who almost singlehandedly invented management theory, see Micklethwait and Wooldridge, Chap. 3 on "Peter Drucker: The Guru = s Guru."

[6] . I am indebted to Christopher Newfield's book-in-progress on The Business Future (and to discussions with him during his early work on the book) for the concept of business "prophecy."
       As regards information-technology prophecies: though I refer only tangentially in this essay to the "allegory" of information technology, as I previously called it, I believe that the topic is of remarkable interest in studying the overall convergence between business and the academy.  This is because information technology amounts to an incompletely assimilated third term in what is usually described as a binary problem.  While information technology is commonly coopted by business to the point where it is indistinguishable from the new "networked" business paradigms, in other instances it projects variant or dissonant paradigms of knowledge that neither business nor the academy have yet fully comprehended.  This is the topic of my book-in-progress, currently titled The Laws of Cool: The Cultural Life of Information.

[7] . See also Boyett and Conn's Workplace 2000, which inventories "obstacles to self-management" (pp. 240-44) and concludes by tracing them to the recalcitrance of history: "many American workers have resisted . . . because such team systems are so radically different from what most Americans have known before" (241).

[8] . Similarly, Don Tapscott's Digital Economy says in essence to education, "let my people go."  "In the new economy," Tapscott observes, "learning is too important to be left to the schools. . . . [A]s knowledge becomes part of products, production, services, and entertainment, the factory, the office, and the home all become colleges" (p. 37).  Thus does learning shift away "from the formal schools and universities" to "formal budgeted employee education" on the model of Motorola U., Hewlett-Packard U., Sun U., and so on. (pp. 199-200).  In general, sustained diatribes against education are so prevalent in the new business literature as to be virtually a rhetorical requirement.

[9] . On the "New Class," see for example, Alvin W. Gouldner, Barbara and John Ehrenreich, Erik Olin Wright, Andrew Ross, John Frow.  I am influenced here especially by Wright's formulation of "contradictory" class positions.

[10] . One of the most effective narratives of the transition from the old, entrepreneurial middle classes to the new, salaried white-collar classes in America remains C. Wright Mills' White Collar.

[11] . A reference to the main Presidential Forum event at the 1998 MLA convention ("Nice Work: Going Public"), which addressed the present job crisis in literary studies by featuring role models for crossing from the academy to the media industries and to novel-writing.

[12] . However, for an eye-opening study of the internal dynamics and libertarian possibilities of "selling out" in the Sixties, see Thomas Frank's study of counter-cultural currents in the advertising industry.

[13] . It was to encourage the exploration of these and other issues that I created in 1998 my new World Wide Web resource: Palinurus: The Academy and the Corporation—Teaching the Humanities in a Restructured World (http://humanitas.ucsb.edu/liu/palinurus/). Please see this site for an extensive bibliography of print and online resources bearing on the relation between the academy and business, reports on relevant controversies (e.g., higher-education reform initiatives in New Zealand, the U.K., and the U.S.), study questions, etc.


* This essay was originally delivered at the 1998 MLA convention as part of the Presidential Forum events organized by Elaine Showalter under the title (taken from Lodge's novel) of "Nice Work." It was subsequently published as "Knowledge in the Age of Knowledge Work," Profession 1999: 113-24.


©2000, Alan Liu, English Dept., Univ. of California, Santa Barbara (e-mail)
 This page last revised 5/2/03


click here to return to the Materials and Publications index


Produced and Hosted by the Center for Digital Discourse and Culture     © Center for Digital Discourse and Culture, Virginia Tech. All rights reserved. The physical campus is in Blacksburg, Virginia, U.S.A. For more information, please contact the Center at cddc@vt.edu