Category Archives: rationalization

161: John Jordan’s Machine-Age Ideology

In Machine-Age Ideology: Social Engineering and American Liberalism, 1911-1939, John Jordan argues that early 20th century “rational reform” was the product of the top-down, antidemocratic, technocratic politics of the machine age, and thus American liberal reformers in this era became less interested in helping the poor gain their voices as citizens than in engineering and controlling society.  Jordan’s cultural history, which relies primarily on the papers of reformers, statements and theories of prominent engineers, writers, and academics, and popular lit sources, shows how technological language and notions of Progress, control, and hierarchy filtered into social reform and the institution of liberalism as a whole.

Jordan divides his study into three historical periods, each with its own reform projects.  He locates the origins of rational reform (1880-1910) in Progressive reformers and sociologists like Veblen, who want to make the relationship between reformers and society less political and more like the relationship between engineers and nature.  From 1910 to WWI, publications like Lippman’s The New Republic and foundations like Russel Sage, the Rockefeller Foundation, and Carnegie Corp start arguing that “disinterested specialists” well-versed in social science and technology should lead the masses; Herbert Hoover called on manly men to be “officers in the great industrial army;” and Taylor and other efficiency experts made the efficiency craze visible.


Finally, social engineering hit its stride from 1918-1934, when Herbert Hoover’s “strikingly colorless moral universe,” created through war relief, paved the way for technocrats to further engineer social control.  Social problems like unemployment, education, poverty, and crime began to be seen as inefficiencies in the social system rather than injustice; universities were transformed into institutions of research, and psychologists turned “normality” into results on intelligence tests; the Century of Progress Fair in 1933 meshed science and capitalism into public entertainment, so that not even leisure spaces were not safe.

Of course, not everyone agreed with social control; Jordan also taps many of the era’s outspoken critics, including John Dewey, Lewis Mumford, Walter Lippman, Robert Lynd for cautions against the TOO successful social control of Hitler, Stalin and Mussolini.  They also argued that humanity and democracy were necessarily messy; that competence was no match for the sheer variety of the American consumer, and that no one is disinterested, least of all reformers who trust their own authority and pet project over the needs and opinions of the people they’re supposedly helping.

Rational reform, therefore, became a question of ways of knowing.  Rational technocracy became articulated with liberals, who decided that the best way of knowing was science and that the goal of reform was to create an efficient social machine.  This perspective obviously created horrible problems because it reduced humanity to numbers and thus left out whole huge parts of the human condition that can’t be approximated.  Even scarier, however, is knowing that the drive toward quantitative knowledge lives on today: with more and more data, the cloud comes closer and closer to modelling human life – but even in the aggregate, can we really be replaced by zeros and ones?

151: Lindy Biggs’ Rational Factory

In The Rational Factory: Architecture, Technology, and Work in America’s Age of Mass Production, Lindy Biggs examines the relationship between rationalized, mechanized mass production and the buildings in which the new assembly lines were housed.  Focusing primarily on the Ford Motor Company, with supporting evidence ranging from Oliver Evans’ flour mill to the professionalization of engineering, Biggs argues that the rational factory combined people, machines, and architecture into an organic, highly efficient machine.

Biggs tells a rather linear narrative of the development of the rational factory.  While Oliver Evans had designed a mill in the 1780s that could continuously process wheat into flour (wheat entered the top floor and exited the bottom floor as flour), his integration of form and workflow was relatively ignored until the second half of the 19th century.  Early 19th century textile mills had only minor interest in controlling workflow.  However, after the civil war, the rise of the new profession of industrial engineering, in combination with the proliferation of new “processing industries” like meatpacking and steelmaking, led to renewed interest in workflow design, especially in the context of both a competitive market and worker resistance.


Mechanical engineers designed machines, but industrial engineers designed whole factories, which meant that workers no longer had any control over or even complete knowledge of the whole manufacturing process – and the engineering profession had designed itself into legitimacy and power.  Biggs uses case studies of a series of Ford plants, from the first factory (a craft shop), to the Old and New Highland Park plants (which used single-purpose machinery), and finally to the River Rouge plant, which was so carefully, holistically, and efficiently planned that, like Evans’ mill over a century before, it could take in raw materials and spit out a finished product.  It was a massive, 1000-acre building all on one floor that used conveyors and highly specialized stationary workers (working within paternalistic capitalism, of course) to move pieces and manufacture products.

While her discussion of the mills is somewhat oversimplified (they did have some throughprocessing) and her account of labor could use more attention to the workers, Biggs clearly shows the development of industrial manufacturing along a particular line of thinking, the Fordist “rational machine.”

140: Siegfried Giedion’s Mechanization Takes Command

In Mechanization Takes Command: A Contribution to Anonymous History, Siegfried Giedion studies the history of the mechanization of everyday life to determine how mechanization has affected human beings and what the political limits of mechanization might be with regard to humans.  In doing so, he creates an “anonymous history,” a study of “our mode of life as affected by mechanization – its impact on our dwellings, our food, our future,” as well as links between industrial methods and extra-industrial practices in art and literature.  This book is thus an early (1948) cultural history of technology, with which Giedion intends to restore faith in human agency by revealing how human “work and… innovation – whether they know it or not – are continually shaping and reshaping the patterns of life.”

Working from a wide range of sources, including models, manufacturing records, catalogues, advertising leaflets, etc. (he was frustrated to find that most inventors and businesses did not keep records of failed inventions), Giedion traces the development of mechanization in Western history, from ancient and medieval times to the mid-20th century, with an emphasis on the 19th and 20th century.  The books is arranged first thematically and then chronologically, and technologies, photography, painting, and business history are all intermingled, so that the reader can get a sense of the social and cultural context of different kinds of technologies in addition to a general sketch of their development.  For instance, his section on movement includes Oresmi’s 15th century diagrams of planets in motion, Marey’s 19th century photographic studies of birds in flight, Muybridge’s photos of men at work and Gilbreth’s abstract lines of time and motion studies; as movement becomes more abstract, representations of it (Joyce, Picasso) become more fragmented and sad about the loss of human continuity.  Perhaps mechanization, as linked to this rationalization of living movement, separates thought and feeling?

Giedion uses this vast and rather fragmented anonymous history of technology to caution against the “illusion” of progress, arguing that we have never had so many tools to abolish slavery, but all we show for it is an inability to organize the world or even ourselves.  We live in age of “mechanized barbarism, the most repulsive barbarism of all,” where a fragmented, mechanized view of the world has prevented us from seeing the whole picture even as revolutions in art and culture since the 20th century have tried to head in a more holistic direction, but it doesn’t have to be that way.  Giedion argues that in order to achieve an equilibrium between humans and technology, we need to reconnect some of the fragments: individual with community, thinking with feeling, specialized knowledges with one another, and the human body with “cosmic forces,” or both man-made AND organic environments.

Basically, we need to become human again, and take a more holistic, contextual approach to technological development.  In the wake of WWII and the atomic bomb and fears of nuclear annihilation, this book must have been a welcome relief to those who read it.