Neil Gerlach and Sheryl N. Hamilton
Telling the Future, Managing the Present: Business Restructuring Literature as SF
Grant had an idea, a new world to experience and sell, and he wasn’t even logged into the Net. Raising a hand to the sensor beside his bed, he soon corrected that. Donning a headband consolidated the link. Now he could think properly.
Space unfolded before him and he quickly coerced matter into shape. Just roughly. A basic infomachine would soon tidy the edges of his creation. Minutes later the basis was laid, and an agent had created his usual directory structure for the project. …
Almost as soon as he had registered patents, the agents of interested parties were responding and a network began to form. A Japanese bank offered finance…., [m]arketing and distribution offers came from China and Canada ….
Some public domain freak address nowhere in the Arctic … offered a sales service. Feeling benevolent, Grant accepted, instructing his agent to cluster all parties and keep him informed. With a double-pulse his software servant instantaneously complied.
The toaster reported that breakfast was ready.… Grant got out of bed and headed for the kitchen.… [T]here were still times when he found even basic technology amazing. All those people across the world all working for him.… Then he smelt [sic] burnt toast. (Barnatt 1-2)
This may sound like a scene from a science fiction novel, but it is actually the introduction to Christopher Barnatt’s business management book, Cyber Business: Mindsets for a Wired Age (1995). This convergence of business management writing and science fiction is, moreover, not unique to this text. The genre of business management writing—bestselling books written by business experts such as Peter Drucker, Tom Peters, and others, for both managers and a wider public—are sprinkled with what Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, Jr. refers to as “central concepts from the thesaurus of SF imagery” (389). Within this genre of corporate cultural production, which is, at first glance, very far removed from science fiction, sf as a discursive formation is being mobilized to evoke futuristic portrayals of information technology, packaged in a trendy techno-aesthetic reminiscent of cyberpunk, and representing the ultimate corporate fantasy of individuals and organizations merging with corporate capitalism.
What this traffic in science fiction figuration suggests to us is that sf and business writing can be read as linked discourses, sharing a commitment to science and technology and the project of positing a credible relationship between present and future. Sf, as a more socially critical discourse, can offer analytic tools to unpack the power/knowledge formations at work in current business writing. In this analysis, therefore, we map the genre of “business restructuring” literature, outline sf thinking as a mode of critical awareness, and then analyze three central sf figures within business writing—the virtual organization, the cyborg employee, and cybernetic culture. Our analysis suggests that the very tensions between future vision and present reality at the heart of sf as a mode of critical thought are resolved in business restructuring literature, with the effect of closing down possibilities and limiting the creative potential of its future social visions.1
Business Restructuring Literature. Historian of sf Brooks Landon asserts that the twentieth century has seen the genre “mutate in numerable and unpredictable directions, and finally overflow the limits of genre to become a meta-genre so broad and so pervasive as to be a concept and force quite outside the boundaries of fiction, and of art itself” (xiii). One of the most interesting, and in some ways most likely, mutations has been into business management writing of the 1990s, specifically the genre of business restructuring literature. Produced by business gurus, business management writing has moved from the shelves of business sections onto general bestseller lists. It is a prescriptive literature, advising managers how to make their workplace more effective, more efficient, and ultimately more profitable through a variety of techniques and strategies. Business writing, however, ventures beyond the realm of business, both implicitly and explicitly, to make prescriptions for other social institutions as well: universities, hospitals, prisons, governments, the voluntary sector, and the family. It is not strictly about promoting competitiveness and profitability through the manipulation of internal organizational variables; it is also about imagining a different kind of society that is structured along a flexible market model. It is about social engineering on a massive scale and, as such, postulates and produces a very particular relationship between present and future. This future is inevitably described as almost already existent.
Business restructuring literature is a subgenre of the larger field of business management writing. It developed during the early 1990s as a specific response to the globalization of markets, the rise of digital technologies and networking capacity, transnational flows of labor, and the failure of Asian—specifically, Japanese—economic forces to disrupt American economic hegemony. It both reflects and reproduces a neoliberal political agenda. We suggest that the role of networks, the cultural influence of the Internet, and the increased role of digital technologies in the workplace results in a style of business writing that draws heavily upon sf discourses.2
Here, we consider a set of bestselling texts published between 1990 and 1995 which set the terms and parameters of the debates on restructuring. We identified our exemplars using four methodological strategies: the public profile of their authors; their location on bestseller lists (both general and business); their critical treatment within business scholarship; and intertextual references throughout the genre, namely their citation by other sources within the field of business restructuring. The exemplars include Peter Senge’s The Fifth Discipline (1990), Tom Peters’s Liberation Management (1992), Michael Hammer and James Champy’s Reengineering the Corporation (1993), William Davidow and Michael Malone’s The Virtual Corporation (1993), Gary Hamel and C.K. Prahalad’s Competing for the Future (1994), Christopher Barnatt’s Cyber Business (1995), and Francis Gouillart and James Kelly’s Transforming the Organization (1995). Our analysis is based upon these works, along with others that have a lesser role within the genre (e.g., Peter Drucker’s Managing for the Future , James Collins and Jerry Porras’s Built to Last , and Gary Heil, Tom Parker, and Rick Tate’s Leadership and the Customer Revolution ), as well as academic analyses of the field.3 In our view, business restructuring literature is characterized by an underlying generalized narrative that acts to define the technological and economic forces currently shaping markets and social processes, to produce prescriptions for businesses and other social institutions in terms of how to survive and succeed within these forces, and to describe a utopian vision of where technological and economic forces can lead us. Specifically, business experts identify technological developments and the market trend toward globalization as fundamental to current business (and social) evolution.
Information and communication technologies automate the processes of control and coordination that have traditionally required management by human chains of command within bureaucratic hierarchies. Consequently, according to enthusiastic business consultants, the principle of hierarchy is giving way to a more egalitarian ethic of connectivity, as employees are wired into information systems and gain access to corporate information and communication systems. This new, more individualized way of working is a necessary development within the new economy. As business goes global and becomes more competitive, customers become more entrepreneurial, having a wider range of competing businesses from which to choose.
Although business experts may differ in the details of how to achieve it, they generally advocate “flexibility” as the fundamental prescription for managing techno-economic change. Flexibility has two aspects. First, it redefines organizational structure as residing in flows of corporate information, rather than in formalized rules and procedures that manifest in concrete bureaus and roles. Second, it identifies a necessary form of employee subjectivity, a contingent and entrepreneurial one, that can continuously adapt to changing technologies and shifting market forces while still producing value for the corporation.
Flexibility is an essential principle in advanced capitalism, according to business discourse, because the forces of technological and economic change are reified: they cannot, and should not, be interfered with. Businesses and their employees must learn how to gauge the direction of change, however, in order to position themselves to take advantage of it. In this sense, business prescriptions have a moral element—you will succeed in the future if you have the proper entrepreneurial character. Businesses must be able to anticipate the future and take advantage of that future, even before it happens. As is always the case with new technological developments, business writers view the potentially limitless expansion promised by these developments as holding out the promise of a utopian future: unlimited wealth, freedom, peace, and personal fulfilment. This is a moment of evolutionary progress for global society as a whole.
SF Thinking. What makes sf a pertinent analytic concept for analyzing business management writing is its faith in technology and its desire to rewrite the future, or as James Carey puts it, this very “exhortation to a better future through technology that is fundamental to American culture” (171). Andrew Ross claims that “[s]cience fiction writers, more than those of any other pop genre, have been passionately concerned about their social responsibility to imagine better futures” (142). But they are not alone. Consider the following vision articulated by Gouillart and Kelly in Transforming the Organization:
In this, the Communication Age, we believe that corporations have an opportunity to evolve from dominance to preeminence, to become loved and respected institutions. Like many others before us, we see them taking on a broader and broader social role: still in operation to generate profits, to be sure, but also becoming fundamentally important socioeconomic nodes in the individual’s ever expanding connectivity networks. We see in corporations and in networks of corporations the resources and the know-how to help reclaim the inner cities, to become one of society’s primary educational forces, to provide extensive family and community services, to be the environmental stewards of the products they create, and to play a key role in preserving mother earth. (309-10; emphases in original)
Thus, both popular genres—sf and business writing—are concerned, albeit very differently, about their social responsibility to imagine better futures.
Business writing both reflects, and can be analyzed by means of, the tools of “sf thinking,” to borrow a notion from Brooks Landon. He suggests, “It is not too much to claim that … something we might loosely call ‘science fiction thinking’ has clearly overflowed the formal bounds of literary genre to sustain both an identifiable science fiction subculture and a broad complex of science fiction-shaped cultural assumptions about science, technology, and the future” (xiii). Interestingly, however, his examples of sf’s generic overflow are drawn only from popular culture—computer games, film, video games, and so on. Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, Jr. makes a similar argument about the potential wider application of sf thinking, suggesting that sf is “a mode of awareness” (387), one that animates, for example, the postmodern social theory of Jean Baudrillard and Donna Haraway.
Csicsery-Ronay argues that sf is characterized by “two linked forms of hesitation, a pair of gaps”: one “between the conceivability of future transformations and the possibility of their actualization” and the other between the factual possibility of “unforeseeable innovations and their broader ethical and socio-cultural implications and resonances” (387). Landon agrees, suggesting that “[s]cience fiction thinking generates the rhetoric that bridges the gap between the givens of science and the goals of the imaginary marvelous, the emphasis always on ‘explaining’ the marvelous with rhetoric that makes it seem plausible, or at least not yet impossible” (6). These gaps are a central discursive strategy at work in business restructuring literature as well.
While a number of literary scholars suggest the discursive and imaginary space between present and future is integral to sf thinking,4 fewer have considered how that tension is maintained, or how it functions to both open and contain knowledge possibilities. We turn to Csicsery-Ronay’s analysis of a non-science fiction mode of knowledge, postmodern social theory, for concepts with which to mobilize our analysis. In this way, our analysis also functions as a case study in the potential of sf thinking as a mode of critical awareness for the analysis of techno-futurist writing in a wide array of cultural sites.5
Specifically, we argue that business restructuring literature is also characterized by two gaps, one rational-technical and the other ethical, and that it has at its heart the exploration and production of a relationship between present and future. Yet, unlike sf, business restructuring literature works to elide, rather than bridge or celebrate, those gaps. This is one of the primary distinctions between business writing and other sites of sf: business writing goes beyond framing and understanding and seeks to implement its future visions. Sf thinking can be used as a diagnostic tool to reveal how business discourse manages the present through its telling of the future.
Radical Futurism and Technological Determinism.Sf operates through two larger power/knowledge processes, according to Csicsery-Ronay: artificial immanence and sf consciousness. Artificial immanence is the process by which the sacred—that which lies outside of direct human control—is brought within the techné—that which is technologically manageable. In his words, it is a process in which “every value that previous cultures considered transcendental or naturally given is at least theoretically capable of artificial replication or simulation” (388). Artificial immanence subverts cultural boundaries and transcendent beliefs and values in a continuation of the modernist project of redefining society, nature, and the self as infinitely contingent and manipulable. Sf consciousness refers to the way in which sf influences our conceptions of what is imaginable or plausible. This produces, in daily life, “the constant awareness that origins are subject to recall, that almost anything may be technically constructible and that there may be no inherent limits to what technological civilizations and technologically transformed bodies are capable of” (390-91). We believe we live in an era where we have the capacity to subject anything to technological construction or reconstruction.
Thus, sf thinking employs new scientific and technological concepts of material and social relations that influence our conceptions of present and future possibilities. At the same time, society and nature are disconnected from past traditions; the future orientation defines rationality as that which serves the needs of the future. Take, for example, this statement of sf consciousness from Hamel and Prahalad’s Competing for the Future:
Developing industry foresight requires more than good scenario planning or technology forecasting, though scenarios and forecasts are often useful building blocks…. Scenario building and forecasting typically start with what is, and then project forward to what might happen. The quest for industry foresight often starts with what could be, and then works back to what must happen for that future to come about. (82; emphases in original)
This is a direct statement of sf consciousness being coopted for the purposes of entrepreneurship. We are limited only by what we can imagine for the future. Otherwise, there is no limit to what our technological civilization can achieve.
Artificial immanence is also not difficult to find in the revolutionary and fast-paced language of business writing. Consider, for example, the impending and inevitable technological developments offered by Hamel and Prahalad:
We are standing on the verge, and for some it will be the precipice, of a revolution as profound as that which gave birth to modern industry. It will be the environmental revolution, the genetic revolution, the materials revolution, the digital revolution, and most of all, the information revolution. Entirely new industries, now in their gestation phase, will soon be born. Such prenatal industries include microbiotics—miniature robots built from atomic particles that could, among other things, unclog sclerotic arteries; machine translation— telephone switches and other devices that will provide real-time translation between people conversing in different languages; digital highways into the home that will allow instant access to the world’s store of knowledge and entertainment; urban underground automated distribution systems that will reduce traffic congestion; “virtual” meeting rooms that will save people the wear and tear of air travel; biomimetic materials that will duplicate the wondrous properties of materials found in the living world; satellite-based personal communicators that will allow one to “phone home” from anywhere on the planet; machines capable of emotion, inference, and learning that will interact with human beings in entirely new ways; and bioremediation—custom-designed organisms that will help clean up the earth’s environment. (27)
In business restructuring literature, artificial immanence and sf consciousness work to reproduce an ubiquitous future-oriented technological determinism.
Csicsery-Ronay argues that the two hesitations that characterize sf, the historical-logical and the ethical, make possible particular future visions; within sf, the possibility of future developments is always brought about by science and technology. Thus, we suggest that sf thinking as a mode of critical awareness is always “radically future oriented” and technologically determinist. Sf “embeds scientific-technological concepts in the sphere of human interests and actions, explaining them and explicitly attributing social value to them” (387). Landon agrees, arguing that sf is a literature of change and that science-fiction thinking has become a set of “attitudes and expectations about the future” (4).
Technological determinism, in particular that anchored in communications and information technology, works in sf and business writing as the logic that distinguishes the future from the present. In business restructuring literature, technological determinism proceeds through a cybernetic model of communications technologies that increases the complexity of the socio-technological environment as well as affecting the pace of change and, in fact, normalizing change itself. In Csicsery-Ronay’s terms, the communications technology at the heart of sf “has drawn the traditional spheres of power into an ever-tightening web of instrumental rationalization” (388). As an element of the technological determinism inherent in business writing, communications technology is seen as fuelling a growth in the complexity of the socio-technological environment as well as affecting the pace of change. Technology is a reified force shaping the direction of change, drawing everyone into increasingly complex networks of mediated interaction. Scientific, technological, and economic rationalities can be even more tightly interlocked within an administrative instrumentality premised upon systems thinking and market principles.
Within business writing, as within sf, technological determinism becomes an effect of the operation of information technology. The fundamental impact of information technology, from a business perspective, is not its ability to further automate production, or even its ability to allow employees to work more efficiently. Rather, its real importance is its ability to convert all aspects of organization and labor into flows of information and communication. Information technology virtualizes, rationalizes, and subsumes three key aspects of business operations: the organization, the employee, and the values of the workplace.
The “virtual organization” is framed as a revolutionary figure without the material constraints of the “real” organization. Corporate cyborgism figures the ultimate fantasy of merging the worker with the technologies of capitalism: people can literally link to computer systems in order to become cyberbusinesses themselves. The constraints of the material body, with its potential for inefficiency and resistance, are overcome. Finally, corporate culture becomes defined as a communications system that allows for conscious manipulation of transcendental symbols for purposes of rational management, consigning culture to the realm of the technical. These three sf figures work to close the gaps between the conceivability and the actualization of technology-driven social transformation, ultimately working to collapse distinctions between present and future. They bring the future into the realm of the knowable, the predictable, and the controllable.
The Virtual Organization. Through the media of communication technology, organization itself becomes a strictly virtual construct. Business theorist Christopher Barnatt describes virtual organization as a set of “cybertechnology-enabled working practices” characterized by telecommuting, communal “hot-desks,” and groupware to empower virtual teams whose members work together through cyberspace (74). Indeed, “some employees may also end up working for corporations which exist totally within cyberspace, and which possess the revolutionary capability to interact instantaneously with both physical and virtual marketplaces” (81). The ideal is a labor force of entrepreneurs (like Grant in the opening quotation) working alone or in transient teams to produce goods and services that can be developed, marketed, and distributed within cyberspace.
While Barnatt is an example of a direct manipulation of favored tropes of sf, the notion of the virtual corporation is much broader within the genre. For example, Davidow and Malone’s The Virtual Corporation suggests that various corporate processes will be linked together through information systems so that shifts in the marketplace can be immediately apprehended, observed, communicated, and adapted to by all facets of the organization. Information serves as an interface through which the boundary between outside (the market) and inside (the organization) can be made more permeable:
To the outside observer, it will appear almost edgeless, with permeable and continuously changing interfaces between the company, supplier, and customers. From inside the firm the view will be no less amorphous, with traditional offices, departments, and operating divisions constantly reforming according to need. Job responsibilities will regularly shift as will lines of authority—even the very definition of employee will change, as some customers and suppliers begin to spend more time in the company than will some of the firm’s own workers. (5-6)
Organizational virtuality means that every aspect of work is “informationalized” and is part of a communications process rather than a material corporate structure. Shoshana Zuboff points out how information systems create an all-pervasive corporate text that continuously creates and updates a window on the processes of the corporation. Even the human element, the workers, are “informated”; they become components in the information system, to be managed in the same way as databanks, profit margins, and inventory.
The virtual organization displays a number of sf effects. It reframes the problems of institutions as reproductive rather than productive. Emphasis is no longer placed on enhancing the technology of production in order to expand the scope and profitability of the organization. Instead, the problem of survival and prosperity becomes one of constantly reproducing the organization by systematically redefining and re-imagining the very nature of organization as an informational process. When human organizations become redefined as technological systems consisting of information flows in cyberspace, constant reproduction and reconfiguration becomes easier as human relations, bureaucratic rules, company traditions, offices, filing cabinets, and other materially-grounded traces of organization cease to be direct objects of management. The human element is displaced as a central object of management, replaced by corporate-wide virtual texts that exist within electronic networks, simultaneously nowhere and everywhere. Employees become part of the datastream as their characteristics are coded and their work is absorbed into the corporate electronic text. Origins and ownership are erased in the loops of cybernetic feedback producing and reproducing both sf consciousness and artificial immanence, and with the cyborg employee at its heart.
Cyborg Employees. Accompanying the virtual organization of labor, in business writing, is the celebration of cyborgism. The worker/citizen of the future is an entrepreneurial cyborg intimately connected to information technology. Barnatt describes this development in glowing terms based on sf images:
Just imagine being able to link directly into a corporate database; to search a library with your mind; or to learn a new language by plugging a microchip into a socket in your head. To learn to control a directly coupled computer interface would be a great challenge indeed, but then the rewards would be equally great. (138-39; emphasis in original)
The possibility of this close connection is already almost upon us:
As biophysicist Gregory Stock notes, to achieve the union of electronics and human will not require any fundamental scientific breakthroughs. Rather, it will demand that existing technologies are pushed forward substantially. With the history of the 20th century charting a progression of substantially pushing forward existing technologies, there is therefore, no reason to believe that implant computer interface systems will not be achieved in the early 2000’s. (138)
Barnatt proceeds to discuss Stock’s notion of the “metaman”—“a single living being, a ‘super-organism’ of which every human being is a cellular component” (195). This idea of human beings, their business organizations, and their global information structure as a single, hive-mind entity will be made possible by microchip implants that fuse humans and machines into one entity. We will literally be able to share our thoughts through the interconnectedness of the information system. Group minds will form a group consciousness.
Again, Barnatt offers the most direct representation of this sf figure, but cyborgism permeates the genre of business writing in more subtle forms as well. Senge argues that managers can draw upon the “‘feedback’ concepts of cybernetics and … ‘servo-mechanism’ engineering theory” to manage employee interactions (68). He recommends that managers find ways to systematize “dialogue” within work teams in order to create a team “mental model” that then feeds back into the system to reprogram the team members. The most effective mental models can be stored in “a library of generic structures” for use in programming future teams that face similar market situations (204).
The emphasis here is on creating flexible, constantly adapting workers, and information technology is the medium through which workers adapt to their changing world. Davidow and Malone quote the president of Motorola University: “We not only teach people how to respond quickly to new technologies, we try to commit them to the goal of anticipating new technologies…. We not only teach skills, we try to breathe the very spirit of creativity and flexibility into manufacturing and management” (192). This computer-like flexibility becomes the necessary characteristic for survival in the technological and economic environment of the twenty-first century. Davidow and Malone quote a “Brit-turned-American” manager who describes American flexibility in glowing terms:
One of the great advantages of America is that Americans have no memory. The reason I left Europe was because there’s such a long memory that you can’t initiate change. But Americans have no memory at all. I’m convinced an American workforce can come into work on Monday morning and find the whole production line has changed and by coffee break they’re used to the new environment. (215)
In this formulation, the American workforce is elevated as ideal because of its easy adaptation to technological shifts and because of its sf consciousness—a future-orientation that elides any considerations of the past. No transcendental values tie American workers to static ideals derived from past experience, from history. The only ideal is change motivated by the needs of the technology to which these workers are inseparably fused.
Business writers are putting forward, as part of their radical future vision, the desirability and inevitability of a fusion between humans and technology. This is an element of sf consciousness, one of those limitless possibilities that “technologically transformed bodies are capable of.” At the same time, its radical anti-humanism is an aspect of artificial immanence: the human body is no longer inviolable, but rather is properly subjected, and intimately connected, to technology.
The ideal here is not to subvert the technology of capitalist power by engaging in tactics of resistance from the outside; instead, the ultimate dream is to merge with capitalist power through its technology—to become a virtual business organization.6 Certainly in their framing of the American worker as cyborg, business writers’ intentions are to leave behind the humanity that has plagued capitalism since its inception. Again, however, this use of the cyborg lacks the irony of the cyborg in sf. Csicsery-Ronay suggests that, “historically, the cyborg has stood for the radical anxiety of human consciousness about its own embodiment at the moment that embodiment appears almost fully contingent” (395). Business writing replaces that radical anxiety with radical anticipation.
Cybernetic Culture. Notwithstanding the use of potentially transgressive sf figures, the advocates of business restructuring literature remain global capitalists. Within business discourse, the cybernetic mechanisms of corporate culture control and contain the manifold possibilities of sf thinking. An embrace of information and communications systems and of the non-material is an element of corporate culture, one of the central premises of contemporary business discourse. Corporate culture brings transcendental human qualities, previously outside the scope of management—emotions, identity formation, and imagination—within the scope of what can be technologically managed and produced within the corporation. Therefore, corporate culture functions as a process of artificial immanence in which transcendental values are opened to simulation.
Business writing rewrites the world as having lost any mythologies that are not grounded in science and technology. Mythology becomes technology—a replicable factor of cultural production that can be used by management as part of a cybernetic system of feedback and reinforcement to program corporate values into workers. For example, Senge suggests the use of Gnosticism, Sufism, Native American spirituality, and Greek philosophy to train employees into the mental disciplines that will lead them on to greater feats of productivity. Beliefs, rituals, symbols—all become techniques within a system of culture to incorporate laborers into a corporate vision of the future.
Business must systematize culture for a number of reasons. First, culture can function as a primary site of resistance to technological determinism through the assertion of cultural determinism as a contrary basis for future visions. Second, culture is a repository of values and myths derived from past experience, and may turn attention away from the future-orientation of sf consciousness. Third, culture is the realm of the non-rational that may intervene to counter the rationalization process of artificial immanence. In business terms, this means that culture must be redefined to function as a set of elements—codes—that can be simulated, reproduced, manipulated, and controlled. It operates through the cybernetic assumptions at the heart of sf consciousness as described by Donna Haraway: “the translation of the world into a problem of coding, a search for the common language in which all resistance to instrumental control disappears, and all heterogeneity can be submitted to disassembly, reassembly, investment, and exchange” (82-83; emphasis in original).
Corporate culture operates to shape employees’ worldviews through a set of distinct strategies. First, employees must be encouraged to uncover deeply ingrained assumptions or “mental models” that shape their worldviews and actions:
The discipline of working with mental models starts with turning the mirror inward; learning to unearth our internal pictures of the world, to bring them to the surface and hold them rigorously up to scrutiny. It also includes the ability to carry on “learningful” conversations that balance inquiry and advocacy, where people expose their own thinking effectively and make that thinking open to the influence of others. (Senge 9)
Once people’s assumptions are exposed and made open to the influence of others, they can be programmed by the consciously constructed, technologi-cally-oriented values and myths of corporate management.
This parent discourse of cybernetics is readily apparent in Charles Hampden-Turner’s definition of corporate culture:
Culture gives continuity and identity to the group. It balances contrasting contributions, and operates as a self-steering system which learns from feedback. It works as a pattern of information and can greatly facilitate the exchange of understanding. The values within a culture are more or less harmonious. (21)
Culture here is characterized as an information system open to management from the outside. Values are conscious constructions that can be reprogrammed through a process of opening up mental models to management-defined cultural definitions. Communications and control, key elements of all cybernetic systems, are reproduced. Culture is simultaneously virtualized and instrumentalized, becoming an effect of technological determinism. Through this artificial and technological immanence, culture can be used to control the cyborg employee and strengthen the virtual organization.
Technological Immanence. Both sf and business writing share a radical, technologically-determinist future vision. In sf, as Csicsery-Ronay points out, instrumental rationality is fated to transform the social conditions that gave rise to it. Within the sf imaginary, human society is increasingly detached from a mythology of natural necessity. Instead of replacing it with conscious human will, however, sf relocates that necessity in the power of scientific and technical forces that transform humans and nature, seemingly without limits. Through the virtual organization, the cyborg employee, and the tools of corporate culture, business restructuring literature produces a social vision that incorporates the present into a specific future-oriented techno-scientific project.
Through these three sf figures, both the plausibility and the ethical gaps inherent in sf thinking as a mode of critical awareness are overcome in business restructuring literature. What results, we suggest, is a sense of technological immanence, that the future and these social changes are virtually upon us; we are standing “on the verge” and change cannot be stopped. Technological immanence combines the technical elements of artificial immanence and its stated rejection of transcendental values, while tying its immanence only to information technologies and substituting, for the limitless possibilities of sf consciousness, the inevitability of the market, a value that ultimately becomes transcendent. Technological immanence constructs a necessary relationship linking technology, progress, and a utopian future. Technological change is inevitable, but through visualizing the direction of change from present conditions, we can ready ourselves and our institutions to be constantly adaptive, managing the impact of the immanent future in the present. By anticipating these immanent technological developments, business can be prepared to exploit them when the revolutionary change occurs.
Integral to technological immanence is a radical “presentism”; business writers ignore the negative impacts of technological development through the denial of history, proving that these technologies should be vigorously and systematically developed for the benefit of humanity. In the meantime, oncoming future transformations are having an impact on the present, particularly through developments in corporate information and communication technologies. In a language that is always about the future, we see that a very particular present is being produced. Progress in this field is increasing the complexity of the socio-technological environment as well as affecting the pace of change; it is, in fact, normalizing change itself. Business guru Peter Senge argues:
Today, systems thinking is needed more than ever because we are becoming overwhelmed by complexity. Perhaps for the first time in history, humankind has the capacity to create far more information than anyone can absorb, to foster greater interdependency than anyone can manage, and to accelerate change far faster than anyone’s ability to keep pace. (69)
Gouillart and Kelly concur, labelling the present the “Communications Age”:
Viewed from the perspective of the individual, speech, writing, printing, telephones, radios, and televisions all represented technological advances that increased the size and scope of our connectivity networks. Now we can fax, videoconference, and computer-network with all parts of the world, on demand. Our networks are growing inexorably in both size and complexity, and that growth probably will continue.
What is true at the individual level is also true for corporations. Companies are forming alliances and partnerships with their suppliers and customers, becoming parts of networks, even networks of networks. The physical and financial boundaries between companies are blurring, and the trend probably will continue. (4-5)
One feels a sense of speed, of imperative, when reading this literature. Information technologies of the future are always almost upon us. The future is closer than we think; the future is now. Langdon Winner recognizes this pace in his analysis of technology and business writing when he suggests that these works call for restructuring and reengineering, “not so much in response to technological changes upon us now, but restructuring that anticipates technological changes and acts far in advance of expected breakthroughs” (999). History no longer functions as a record, as a reminder of the cultural and social impacts of material technology; as a result, certain immanent possibilities are transformed into probabilities, or even inevitabilities. In examining the potentially negative implications of the new “process-centred world,” Michael Hammer shows that human assent has no part in this system: “It is the inevitable result of technological advances and global market change. The question that we must confront is not whether to accept it, but what we make of it” (265).
Brooks Landon suggests that there are “two key corollaries to a worldview built upon the concept of change: (1) if you believe in change, you can prepare for it, and (2) if you believe in change, you damn well better prepare for it. In this sense, all science fiction is preparation” (xii). Samuel Delany could almost be writing of business restructuring literature when he claims that sf is “a tool to help you think about the present—a present that is always changing, a present in which change itself assures there is always a range of options for actions, actions presupposing different commitments, different beliefs, different efforts … different conflicts, different processes, different joys” (34). But business visions of the future reproduce a very particular present; the range of options is reduced.
Conclusion.Business writers claim to offer the ideal technological and social forms for the next millennium. Rather than producing a global village, however, they advocate a global corporation where information is organized into virtual texts, produced by entrepreneurial cyborgs, who are organized into constantly adapting corporate organizations, and whose subjectivity is shaped and reshaped through corporate culture, as defined by extra-discursive managers. Through its colonization of the social with economic values, business restructuring literature seeks to extend its discursive influence. Technological immanence as an ideal social value—constructing the teleology of technology, progress, and a utopian future—is also present in sf. Sf exists in the space between our present and a better future through technology. Yet, sf’s very strengths as a critical discourse lie in its maintenance of that imaginary space, which also functions as a critical space.
Through technological immanence, reproduced through the figures of the virtual organization, the cyborg employee, and cybernetic culture, business writing works to enhance the degree of assent with which the public greets the rationalized future. Developments that currently exist only as possibilities become probabilities. Our technological civilization has no limits to what it can achieve, yet the future is already written. The gaps at the heart of the possibilities are ultimately closed through the figures of the virtual organization, the cyborg, and corporate culture.
French critic Michel Butor once seriously suggested that science fiction writers should agree on a common desirable future, set all of their stories within that future, and by so doing cause it to come into existence (Spinrad 171). Although sf writers have declined the invitation, business writers have not, and in the process have demonstrated the power that such a shared vision can have in shaping the present through telling a particular future. The future visions of business writers are surprisingly similar and provide us with a compelling vision of that which is immanent. It is a future of increasingly rationalized forms of social governance centred around corporate technology platforms that construct the basis for an incomprehensibly complex web of interconnectedness among billions of people. It is a future of virtual organizations made up of seamless processes of information flow monitored and managed by systems that automatically adapt to the ever-changing needs and demands among customers, manufacturers, suppliers, and marketers. It is a future of entrepreneurial cyborgs intimately linked to communications technology, socialized into changeable corporate values through cybernetic feedback techniques, interacting within cyberspace through artificially intelligent agents and personality constructs. To us, this sounds like sf—exactly like what we have come to expect of the future.
Douglas Kellner, in his essay “Mapping the Present from the Future,” suggests that social theory attempts “to illuminate the present by providing critical visions of the past,” while suggesting that cyberpunk “illuminates the present by projecting visions of the future that highlight key phenomena of the current moment and their possible effects” (314). In a sense, these options offer two different strategies for addressing the gap between what is and what might be. We suggest, however, that business writing, as sf, offers a third strategy that effectively closes those gaps. Whereas sf’s “hesitations are about the degree or extent of the assent with which one greets the imaginary concepts of the rationalized future, or indeed how similar or different the future will be from the present and our present standards for making judgements” (Csicsery-Ronay 388), business writing denies the possibility of dissent.
The gaps of sf, identified by Landon, Csicsery-Ronay, and others, rest upon the question of possibility only limited by scientific and technological credibility. But at the heart of questions of limitless possibility and the construction of credibility is a range of visions—an open, rather than a closed, cybernetic system. Csicsery-Ronay suggests that theory—knowledge with a potential for social critique—also requires a gap and that “[o]nce the reference becomes a readout of the sign, and existence a readout of control models, theory’s condition of possibility has been absorbed in the operational program” (391). The technological immanence present in business writing turns its potentially radical future orientation into a form of radical presentism, shortening dramatically the gap between present realities and future possibilities, narrowing the range of visions, and limiting possible current actions. As a discursive formation, business writing, as sf, manages the present through telling us our future.
An earlier version of this paper was presented at the International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts, March 17-21, 1999. We are grateful for the quality discussion and feedback received there. The generous and constructive comments of the readers and journal editors is also both acknowledged and appreciated. We hope we have made the analysis stronger as a result of your efforts.
1. Our overarching project, of which this paper is a part, is to consider the intersections between social science and science fiction, or social science fiction. We borrow this notion from William Bogard, in his analysis of electronic surveillance, who argues that “social science fiction is like a future history. It is not ‘true,’ nor is it exactly a prediction. Instead, it chronicles how a fantastic machine might recount its past, a past that haunts our own technological present and, like some displaced recollection, precedes it” (7; emphases in original). Social science fiction explores the conceptual space between present and future in order to offer social critique. As Bogard suggests, “social science fiction, then, aims to describe the social or institutional ‘effects’ of an imaginary technology, not in a causal sense, but in the way a simulacrum is woven into the current technical practices of a society, as the virtual form of their development” (8).
2. There has long been a relationship between science fiction and business discourses, but that relationship becomes more overt in the early 1980s. Due to the proliferation of digital technology and increasing consciousness of globalization, management writers began to visualize the future in order to prepare for it. The convergence of business writing and cyberpunk sf is striking; it is no coincidence that the two emerge in the same period.
3. See, for example, du Gay and Salaman, and Newfield.
4. See, for example, Delany, Landon, Pohl, and Wolfe.
5. While the temptation might be to make homologic arguments pertaining to both science fiction literature and business writing—namely that one “looks like” the other—we suggest that the connections operate at a more significant level. We suggest that sf (as a broader notion) and business restructuring literature share certain commitments at a discursive, rather than merely a textual, level. Drawing upon a tradition of social-discourse analysis inspired by the work of Michel Foucault, we suggest that discourse, while materially composed in part of texts, is broader than merely a corpus of texts. Discourse describes the conditions of possibility through which certain statements can be uttered and texts produced; it influences how they are received, what truth claims they can make, and how they move through other social realms. In addition, it is not our intention here to conduct an analysis of science fiction novels and short stories. Instead, we are suggesting, located as we are within the social sciences, that sf thinking and other ideas drawn from sf have a wide applicability to the broader genre of techno-futurist writing. We hope that this essay inspires others working in a number of disciplines to utilize sf thinking as a useful and productive set of theoretical tools for social analysis.
6. Yet note how this fantasy of the future differs from that of cyberpunk visions of the 1980s. Arthur Kroker, in his review of the film Johnny Mnemonic (1995), characterizes this shift as “the end of the charismatic phase of digital reality, and the beginning of the iron law of technological normalization” (50). Visions such as those in William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984) were part of an early, innocent period of technological charisma when we could still believe in “computer visionaries and outlaw businessmen and hacker writers” (50). Kroker challenges the new-romanticism that permeates both cyberpunk, its critical reception, and perhaps the notion of sf consciousness itself. He warns, “the lessons of the 90s have been multiple and they’ve been harsh: not the least of which is that data will find a way, and its way is not necessarily about becoming human” (50).
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