Autopilot, by Andrew Smart (Chapters 8 & 9)

>mfw these last three chapters or so

After some delays, here it is, the last two chapters of Autopilot.

And gosh if they aren’t disappointing.

Let’s start from the top.

Chapter 8: Six Stigma as Seizure

I don’t even have any notes on this chapter besides, “Still not really on topic and the analogy is largely vacuous and suspect in general.” but let’s get into why that is.

First, the whole chapter is dedicated to this managerial process known as Six Stigma. Six Stigma is purportedly a method from which to organize workers in the best ways for strategic process improvement” which relies heavily on the use of statistical data and the scientific method to figure out what works best. It’s an approach to figuring out how to deal with issues in businesses in a heavily scientific way.

Smart has already tackled similar themes with his mentions of James C. Scott as well as his great critiques of so-called “scientific” management. The problem isn’t the science, it’s the management. It’s the fact that management thinks they can control everything and anything with the right tools. But as Smart has handily proven already, that’s not true.

Which is part of what makes the whole chapter vacuous.

There’s no reason for this chapter to exist except as perhaps a small footnote or additional part to earlier chapters. Smart has been hammering home the point that trying to control people is a lost cause, even when it supposedly uses “scientific” methods to justify said control.

So what is Smart’s reasoning for bringing up Six Stigma?

As best as I can tell, it’s because of how popular it is within the industries, how damaging it can be to individuals and…his mother personally went through this process and it hurt her.

Smart says in the acknowledgements that:

This book is also dedicated to her. I watched her dutifully work at a company that used many of the management techniques I attack in this book. My mother coped with the inane and arbitrary continuous performance improvement decrees from the MBA mafia at her job and it made me angry.

I like to think of this book partly as my mom’s revenge for her years of putting up with the mindless corporate drones at her job. (p. 142)

And okay, that sucks, obviously.

It’s shitty that we live in a world that exploits people like this and I can completely understand why this would anger Smart. But it has almost nothing to do with the focus of the book except (notice a running theme?) tangentially.

Although it’s useful to know what doesn’t work when you want to do nothing, did we really need an entire chapter about an obviously failed method? Just so Smart could complete a vendetta that is, I’m sorry to say, mostly disinteresting to me and likely other people as well? It just seems like it either should have been in an earlier chapter or used as a footnote or something as an example of how not to do nothing.

So I’m not saying Smart shouldn’t have had this in the book at all but dedicating a whole chapter to it seems completely unnecessary. He goes on for paragraphs explains what statistical derivations are so he can explain the name Six Stigma, all while saying he doesn’t want to go into too much detail.

The “suspect” part of this chapter comes from the title itself. Six Stigma shares some bare-bones similarities with causing people to have seizures or disrupting the brain as Smart illustrates:

This is similar to what the underlying disease in epilepsy does to neurons. During a seizure, the variations in the neurons are reduced. Reducing variation in the brain is devastating.

Applied to an entire company, the Six Stigma process is analogous to an organizational epileptic seizure.

(pp. 123-124)

The best response I can think of from a lay-person’s perspective is: Plenty of things can reduce the variations in neurons.

If you drink a lot, if you get in some sort of major accident that affects your head, if you suffer from any number of diseases when it comes to the brain, etc. Just reducing the amount of variation in neurons is not sufficient to make it analogous in any meaningful way to epilepsy. And if that’s really the case, I’d need to see some better argumentation, more citations, maybe some references to studies that have looked at this, something.

But Smart doesn’t give us any of those things. He relies on the fact that these brief cognitive shifts we can sometimes experience at work (sometimes I daze off during my shift) could be comparable to epileptic seizures. This part of his argument struck me because I do tend to daze off more at work then anywhere else. But then none of the Six Stigma methods are used at work (that I’m aware of) and I’ve always been the sort of person who daydreams.

Even when I’m at home and doing things I enjoy, I daydream. And I’m sure this is true for many other people, or at least enough people that it makes Smart’s attempted connection here suspect, at best.

Smart states his case again here:

A rigid management strategy is seizure. One of the chief goals of productivity strategies is to reduce the amount of variation in any company process. When variations in neurons are suppressed too much, and this reduction in variation becomes widespread through hyper-synchrony, the result is a seizure that can quickly spread to the rest of the company, causing a global convulsion.

The brain can no longer do anything. An organization that is having a seizure stops being creative, adaptive, or any kind of humane place to work. (p. 129)

There’s a myriad of problems here:

  • What determines rigid?
  • Does reducing the amount of variation intrinsically reduce neuron variation?
  • What counts as “too much”?
  • Who thought it was a good idea to use the phrase “global convulsion” when we’re talking about a company?

It’s likely that there are many other issues here, but the takeaway from this chapter is that bad management strategies can do harm to us. And that’s fine, I don’t doubt that for a second. What I do doubt is that they have some link to seizures in how they work and operate within the brain. Perhaps that’s true but Smart doesn’t give us good reasons to think so and even if he did it still wouldn’t seem that related to the art and science of doing nothing.

Which, you know, is kind of what the book is about?

Chapter 9: Work is Destroying the Planet

You know that meme with Ron Burgandy?

Yeah, that one.

Look, shouldn’t this be an entire book unto itself? Who thought it was a good idea to fit a huge idea like “oh hey, work might be DESTROYING THE ENTIRE PLANET” in (I’m not kidding) 6 goddamn pages. Who thought that was a good idea? And why? How could you even possibly make that sort of case in 6 pages?

The answer is unsurprisingly: Not well.

I only have a few notes for this, largely aggravated notes. Here’s the last chapter and Smart decides to make it significantly shorter than all of the others and when he is tackling such a huge topic. Hell, I’ve spent years tackling the topic that he’s addressing here and I still don’t think I’ve gotten everything down. I almost consider this chapter a kind of insult to anti-work theory, it’s shallow, executed poorly and is just generally disappointing.

Let’s deal with the first note which gives a usual problem: No citation for the issue of poverty. Smart declares that poverty worldwide has been increasing. But I’ve heard quite the opposite from folks in my social circles and in any case Smart gives us no way to accurately figure out what data he’s using to support this statement. Even if I knew of some good off-hand data myself, I still wouldn’t know if Smart’s own data accounts for it or not.

Stuff like this makes conversations more than just difficult, it makes it (at least partially) a sort of mind-reading experience where you may have to even guess what someone else has in mind when it comes to data. That’s not very fun and it doesn’t make for a great conversation starter either. Again, I understand this is a “pop-science” book but I think in cases like this not including any citations of any kind is too much.

On page 135 Smart asks why no one saw the 2008 crisis…but in fact some economists did. Say what you want about Austrian economists at this point (and there’s much to be said) they certainly saw it coming. Many people who noticed the way the government helped organized the housing market were likely inclined to see it coming as well.

Page 136 tries(?) to offer some strategy but it’s just some vague hand-waving towards giving a collective “we’d rather not” which is just a general strike from an anti-work perspective. That would be awesome but Smart gives us no real hint as to how that could happen, why it could happen, what would happen after it was successful, etc.

Most of the rest of the chapter is a short (very short) response to a New York Times article entitled “A World Without Work” by Ross Douthat (which I don’t think I had read or was aware of previously, ironically). Page 137 refers to a “collapse of the social imagination” which is a great phrase but relies on fundamental misunderstandings of what “individualism” is (capitalism has nothing to do with it) and conflates markets with capitalism.

The rest of the chapter is just…disappointing. Have I been saying that a lot? It’s for good reason.

The message at the end is that a post-work future is desirable and though not entirely knowable in how we’ll get there, Smart is confident that the idle minds in society can get there, if they just have some more idleness. Not a bad thought by itself but standing as the conclusion to a book is perhaps not the strongest way to go.

I’ll have more to say in my full-length book review for Autopilot but that’s all for now.


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