Is the iPad the New Guillotine?
July 4, 2010 by Howard Bloom
Follow Osama’s Example–Shred Red Tape With Personal Tech
What Do Brooklyn’s Tea Lounge and Al Qaeda Have In Common? It’s time to kill bureaucracy. What do I mean? And what does this call for revolution have to do with the next generation of netbooks, Apple tablets and Google Phones? Not to mention with the Taliban and Al Qaeda?
America needs a productivity revolution to lead the world into the next half century. It needs the equivalent of the American System of Manufacture, the system of standardized, interchangeable parts the U.S. invented in government arsenals and watch factories from 1819 to 1850 and showed off at the Great Exposition in London in 1851, a system that wowed the Exposition’s organizer, Prince Albert, a system that multiplied the output of the American economy between 1774 and 1909 by a factor of, hold on to your seat, 175, a system that tripled the income of the American worker between 1800 and 1900, a system that led to Henry Ford’s invention of the assembly line in 1908, and a system that made America one of the greatest exporting powers of all time.
But the factory floor is not the only place where you can massively upgrade worker productivity. Why? In 1900, office workers—information shufflers—were only 17.6% of the American work force. By 2009, that figure was up to 79%. Radically change the way we shuffle information, and you can reinvent the American system. More important, you can change the way we treat the people that information represents.
And the new means of information processing and people-interfacing is upon us. It’s in our techno-toys.
Here’s what gives me this suspicion. I write my books, run international scientific groups, and put together meetings between Europeans, Americans, Australians, and Asians by taking my laptop and smart phone seven days a week to a café in Park Slope Brooklyn called the Tea Lounge—a huge, dark, and cavernous place with couches and easy chairs arranged living-room style around low-slung coffee tables.
Early in February 2010, for example, my assistant and I put together a meeting in which I introduced Buzz Aldrin in L.A. to Dr. A.P.J. Kalam, the former president of India, in New Delhi. How did we pull it off? Four months of work on Skype, cellphone and laptop. And how did I do my part from a café? Way back in 2003, I convinced the owners to put in Wi-Fi. The result? An explosion of Tea Lounge business. And a weekly stream of intercontinental electronic meetings from a couch in a public place.
The post wi-fi Tea Lounge customers are, like me, laptop obsessives. Cell phone enthusiasts who carefully lay their phones on the table in front of them before they dive into activity. And that activity is knowledge synthesis and information management—the stuff that bureaucracies evolved to handle. Some Tea Lounge denizens are website designers, computer programmers, lawyers, marketers, fundraisers for NGOs, and other contract workers performing their daily labors. One computer programmer at the Tea Lounge claimed he made $10,000 in a week sitting on a couch bent over his laptop with a cup of chai latte in front of him next to his cellphone. He was solving tough software problems for one of the world’s biggest business software providers, Germany’s SAP. Other Tea Loungers are doing equally serious business. They include teachers creating lesson plans and grading students, and college, medical school, and grad school students doing their homework, preparing for exams, and writing their theses.
But something crucial distinguishes these workers from those in an office: their enthusiasm. Their dogged determination to work until midnight when the Tea Lounge shuts its doors. Their love of their tools of production—their gadgets. And that love and enthusiasm, I suspect, is a powerful driver of productivity.
“What does ‘being de-bureaucratized’ mean? The smartphone and the laptop can radically change the bureaucratic system. Just ask Osama bin Laden.”
Then there’s one final factor. None of these wi-fi-equipped Tea Loungers are isolated in the prison of a headquarters, hidden in a dedicated office building among other workers who are lock-stepped into a dehumanizing viewpoint. Every one of them is among folks who resemble those he or she serves. Every one of them is plonked in the middle of an environment that reminds him or her daily that the people he or she is working for are not numbers on paper, but fellow human beings. Every one of them is on the path to being de-bureaucratized.
What does “being de-bureaucratized” mean? The smart phone and the laptop can radically change the bureaucratic system. Just ask Osama bin Laden, the leading pioneer of decentralized, personal tech management, a man who uses laptops and cellphones to guide a worldwide movement with no Pentagon, no massive headquarters, no offices, very little paperwork, and no bureaucracy. Osama’s personal-tech powered organization and that of his allies the Taleban are proving in Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, and Mali that they can flex and bend in months, while the bureaucracy-bound military of the Western Coalition often takes years to invent its way around a new enemy strategy. Says former CIA chief Michael Hayden, Al Qaeda is “a determined, adaptive enemy, unlike any our nation has ever faced.” And when we raid an al-Qaeda stronghold we find the secret—laptops and cellphones.
Al-Qaeda has achieved military miracles. How? By shedding bureaucracy.
Let’s be blunt. Bureaucracy is the cancer driving up costs and killing the human spirit in six crucial areas, areas that handle nearly every aspect of our lives:
• health care
• the justice system
• the military
• and government.
Bureaucracy is universal. It is the dominant form of organization in both the public systems favored by liberals and in the private industries championed by conservatives. And it crosses ideological boundaries that are even more profound. When the Soviet Union faced off against America in the 20th century, the two were convinced they had philosophies that put them at opposite ends of the spectrum. But these two enemies had fewer differences than they thought. Why? Both were run at nearly every level by massive bureaucracies.
Bureaucracy is based on tools that were revolutionary in the 19th century. These are the tools hinted at in the French word “bureau”–which means an office or a desk. Until 1800, most offices were in the home. One of the biggest offices of 1800, The United States Patent Office, was a mere repository of papers, and a paltry one at that. It held a single worker with a dozen pigeon holes that contained every document in the Patent Office’s hands. Then came a breakthrough idea–gathering flocks of desk workers in a central location, a modern central office. And it worked. It utterly changed the scope of what bureaucrats–paper pushers, information gatherers, and decision makers–could do.
But there were huge hurdles hobbling one key task of the centralized office–information storage and access. In 18th and 19th century offices, documents were copied by hand then bundled into rolls and wrapped with cloth ribbons called “tapes”—the infamous “bureaucratic red tapes.” Then they were heaped on furniture and on the floor. Pigeon holes to organize paperwork appeared in 1789, but despite their use in the Patent Office, they didn’t become common until the 1820s. It took another fifty years before typewriters and telephones cropped up to simplify copying and communication. Then in 1896 came one of the biggest breakthroughs of all—the invention of the file cabinet—the key to a central filing system that all the centralized knowledge workers could add to and consult.
The result? In 1800, the Federal government of the United States had only 130 employees. By 1901, after the impact of the typewriter, the telephone, and the file cabinet kicked in, there were 58,760 Federal employees.
All the innovations that made this bureaucratic explosion possible were amazements in their time. But today what was new in the 1800s has become old and painfully slow. Painfully unresponsive to human needs.
How well is bureaucratic organization serving us? Not well at all. Take the medical sphere. Health care is currently swallowing an unconscionable 17% of our gross domestic product. And it’s growing fast. If it continues to rise at its current rate, it will chew up between 20% and 25% of our GDP in ten years. One massive tangle of bureaucracies in the health care system is the private health insurance industry. Is it giving us what the words “health care” promise–care? No.
The private market health insurance business is based on a simple premise: you pay premiums when you’re healthy and your medical insurer pays your costs when you get sick. But the private health insurance industry breaks that contract over and over again. It often refuses to pay your expenses when you run into major health problems. For example, the LA Times reported the case of Selah Shaeffer, a four year old in Murrieta, California, whose parents had health insurance for the family. When Selah came down with a potentially fatal tumor in her jaw, what did her parents’ insurance company do? It authorized surgery. Then it reneged and canceled Selah’s parents’ coverage retroactively and refused to pay. In other words, the insurer took the Shaeffer family’s money when the family was healthy. Then it refused to deliver when the Shaeffer family needed it, leaving the family with over $60,000 in unpaid medical bills. This is not free enterprise. It’s fraud and theft. And it’s bureaucracy at work.
But the dilemma of the Shaeffer family is not an isolated case. According to a 2009 report from the Kaiser Family Foundation, a million cancer survivors have had to stop taking their drugs and seeing their doctors because their insurance companies have left them high and dry. One typical health-insured cancer survivor cited in the report, 55 year old Keith Blessington, a free-lance accountant in New Hampshire, had to cash out his 401k and max out his credit cards to borrow $40,000 to pay for major surgery and post-operative expenses. By the time The Kaiser Family Foundation report went to bed, he said, “I have enough money for another month or so to live on. My savings are gone.” Another case of bureaucracy in operation.
And word has it that insurance company screeners are told to refuse to cover as many medical conditions as they can find reasons to turn down. That rumor turns out to be true. The practice is called “rescission.” And the House Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations reports that just three insurance companies racked up 20,000 of these rescissions in five years, saving themselves $300 million. At least one of the insurance companies the House Subcommittee investigated rewards its employees based on the number of turndowns they are able to score.
Ahhhhh, the blessings of bureaucracy.
Is personal tech the guillotine of the 21st century? Can it cut through this institutionalized cruelty wrapped in red tape? Can services like Medfusion, Google Health, and MDLiveCare—which allows you to speak with a doctor via your webcam and cell phone 24 hours a day seven days a week and 365 days a year—radically alter the medical system? Can expensive and time consuming visits to the doctor you trust, two hour waits in her ante-room to get an answer to a minor question or to obtain a new prescription, be replaced by an email, Skype video, or IM exchange? Can your doctor’s handwritten notes messily stuffed into a file cabinet be replaced by computerized files accessible to any health worker you are sent to?
And can those files become accessible even to the person who cares most about solving your health problems—you, the patient? In other words, can personal tech allow you to share your information when you choose with a new form of collective intelligence—a self-help community on the Internet? A community that produces what admirers of Amazon.com and Wikipedia call customer-provided content? A community that harnesses the problem-solving power of thousands of extra brains?
The answer is yes. I know from personal experience. In 1988, I came down with an illness that landed me in bed for fifteen years—Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. Personal tech saved me. Because I could not sit up, I had two personal computers hooked up next to the bed, computers I could operate with a keyboard balanced on my pelvic bones. My CFS specialist, a cyber-service pioneer named Dr. Derek Enlander in Manhattan, made expensive home visits only when necessary, communicated with me by email (which meant he was available on short notice whenever I needed him—even to answer emails sent at four AM), and introduced me to another of his patients online, a patient in Texas. Through her, I met a trans-continental nest of other CFS sufferers on the Internet. We kept each other informed of the latest experimental treatments, treatments our doctors were unaware of. And my physician, Enlander, researched those treatment protocols and eventually prescribed a series of them. Those treatments shared on the Internet got me out of bed by 2003.
And I met one CFS sufferer after another whose health insurance company refused to pay for her treatment and medications. I met the victims of rescission, the victims of bureaucracy.
Derek Enlander’s simple application of email in his medical practice strongly hints that the application of personal tech can do as much as healthcare legislation to cut costs and to increase the output of what the medical and insurance system promises—care. One believer in this cost-cutting and care-improving power is Barack Obama, who claims that his goal of computerizing all medical records in five years, “will cut waste, eliminate red tape, and reduce the need to repeat expensive medical tests. It just won’t save billions of dollars and thousands of jobs — it will save lives by reducing the deadly but preventable medical errors that pervade our health care system.” I believe him.
Most people mean well when they go to work. Most want to do good. So how did the bureaucratic system become vicious? The cruelty of bureaucracy comes from the isolation of bureaucrats among their peers, the isolation of bureaucrats from the people they serve. Those who never have to face their customers and their constituents can treat their clients with savage indifference. On the other hand, those who know the people they serve as human beings are far more likely to respond with care, creativity, and empathy. And thanks to Google, private databases remotely available via laptop, and IM, text messages, and cell phone calls, bureaucrats no longer need to be isolated in cubbyholes attached to endless corridors filled with other bureaucrats. They can go out among the fellow humans to whom their services have been marketed and promised
Americans can have a competitive advantage in the commercial battleground of the post-office, post-bureaucratic era. Our edge is simple. We are swept along by techno lust and gadget hunger. We are personnel-tech obsessed. We toy with our laptops and our smart phones obsessively, at home, at the office, on the train, in the subway, in cafes, in restaurants, and even at the steering wheel of our cars. Laws have to be passed to keep us from texting while we’re navigating a ton of steel, glass, and flammable gasoline through traffic.
History reveals that we become masters of the things we toy with. Toys and games drive innovation. There’s a reason. Play is how we simulate a reality that’s aching to be. Fun is how we rehearse for new scenarios itching to enter the everyday. In the seventh century, chess was how Indian and Persian kings practiced strategic planning, thinking seven moves ahead. It was how they practiced complex new forms of statecraft and war. In 1871, the card game solitaire, another form of play, gave a solitaire obsessive, Dmitri Mendeleev the structure for the periodic table. And in 1952, her experience passing in high school woman’s basketball gave Grace Hopper one of the key ideas she used in developing the computer compiler—a crucial ancestor of computer programming.
Our toys are our wormholes to the future. And the iPod, the iPhone, the Blackberry, the iPad, the PC, and the Mac are toys we just can’t resist.
Yes, our wireless technologies have fallen behind those of nations like South Korea and Japan. Yet of all the countries I’ve been to in the last six years—Russia, Korea, Malaysia, Holland, and France—only America’s public places are filled with personal tech obsessives who would rather fiddle with their cursors and their touchscreens than do just about anything else in life. This hints that Americans may lead the way in the next-gen skills of knowledge mix-and-matching, the skills that replace the habits of bureaucracy.
There’s more. I suspect that personal technologies can radically up the energy level of those who use them. In a poll of 5,000 households from The Conference Board announced in early January 2010, 55% of those surveyed were not satisfied with their jobs. But the emotional engagement of an employee working at her own chosen location at her own chosen pace with her own smart gadgets is radically different. The person wielding her own Blackberry and Apple or laptop pc is far more often passionate. A 2001 meta-analysis of studies on the relationship between job satisfaction and productivity showed that enthusiasm about a job drives productivity the most among those who do complex jobs. And personal tech opens the path to a wonderland of complexity. Tempting, luscious, motivating complexity.
Personal technologies often transform workers who push paper robotically into eager data divers and data fliers, into enthusiasts who gather and synthesize information for pleasure. And I suspect that that enthusiasm can help a company with a hundred employees do the work of a thousand. I suspect it’s one of the secrets that’s helped a web-based company like Craig’s List replace the personal sections of over 1,500 newspapers and run a $100 million business with only 30 employees.
What will be the key that turns workers who love their laptops and their cellphones into the makers of the next giant leap in productivity, the productivity not just of manufacturing workers but of the folks who make the daily decisions and innovations that support our lives? Will it be Oracle’s Cloud Office Suite? Will it be online CRM (Customer Relations Management) software like Salesforce.com and Salesforce.com’s new iPod app? Will it be Microsoft’s Groove virtual office software? What will be the killer app, the Google, the Skype, and the Wikipedia of knowledge work? Or are the killer apps already here? Are they Google, Skype, Facebook, Twitter, and Wikipedia? They are for me. And apparently they are for Osama, too.
Often a new system comes not from designing a new tool, but from designing a new way to use it. And that may be the task awaiting us. It took over fifty years before Henry Ford found a way to elevate the American System of interchangeable parts into the assembly line. Who will pull off the new Ford-like synthesis of Internet and personal productivity tools? Who will do for the smart phone, the laptop, the iPad, Google, Skype, and Wikipedia what Ford did for the tools of manufacturing?
That’s a tough one. But the man or woman who comes up with the answer and drives it home may do more than merely make a fortune. He or she may put zest and compassion back into our justice system, our medical system, our educational system, our government, our corporations, and our working lives. That person may make Franz Kafka proud and may redeem the suffering of those who have died for the sins of indifferent paper pushers. He or she may be the savior leading us out of the wilderness of bureaucracy. And that savior may turn out to be a community, a mass of techno-obsessives toying with their gadgetry. That savior may turn out to be you and me.
Howard Bloom’s latest book is The Genius of the Beast: A Radical Re-Vision of Capitalism, Prometheus Books, 2009.