Totalizing Quality Management
As the Microsoft model of empowered employees, corporate campuses, and reverse dress codes takes hold in the public imagination, popular culture belatedly follows along. The vision of mail room grunts and wizened executives in 44th-floor aeries presented in 1994’s The Hudsucker Proxy may still work as a retro joke, but it’s a given that Microsoft’s Redmond headquarters has become the archetype for corporate culture.
Popular workplace drama has made subtle and not-so-subtle Microsoft comparisons. In the 1995 action “thriller” The Net, Sandra Bullock battled an evil monolithic software company named Microsystems, which was peddling an insidious program called Gateway. And on TV, “Melrose Place” featured a Gatesian billionaire (his company called, imaginatively, MicroComp), but he was there to be a rich romantic prospecthe was a “programmer” the way JFK Jr. is a “publisher.” Television has never been very good at handling intelligence in its characters, which pretty much leaves technologists out of the equation.
Where TV has most aped Redmond is in its dress codes. Outside the anti-work triumvirate of Homer Simpson, Dilbert, and Drew Carey (Dilbert’s small-screen doppelgänger), NASA-style short-sleeved dress shirts are long gone. On TV, workwear ranges from stylishly formal at the nondescript corporation in the Fred Savage sitcom “Working” to stylishly casual at the trendy magazines in “Suddenly Susan,” “Just Shoot Me,” and last season’s ill-fated “Relativity.”
Casual wear, on-screen and off, has become shorthand for Microsoft’s enlightened corporate culture, but khakis and Doc Martens are, in fact, just another work uniformat a company that demands a level of devotion General Motors never dreamed of. James Wallace and Jim Erickson’s book Hard Drive: Bill Gates and the Making of the Microsoft Empire (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1992) tells of an employee who bragged to Gates that he had just completed a 12-hour day, only to receive the half-joking response, “Working half-days again?” The one work of fiction actually set on the Microsoft campus, Douglas Coupland’s Microserfs (New York: HarperCollins, 1996), depicts a chilly, anomic organization in which quietly desperate technicians chase stock options while their devotion to the company fills all those corners of the day where a personal life should be.
The proliferation of work-as-lifestyle can be seen most clearly in the way the ethos of for-profit companies has begun to infiltrate every aspect of American life.
There’s something creepy about a TV ad for minivans featuring a soccer mom shuttling the family around town while a voice-over describes her as the chief executive organizing her company. Workplace-efficiency pimp Stephen R. Covey recently expanded his enterprise with The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Families: Building a Beautiful Family Culture in a Turbulent World(New York: Golden Books, 1997), which includes instructions on “Developing a Family Mission Statement.”
It’s a measure of an insane age that we even need to point out that families are supposed to offer something besides effectiveness, that your mom or son doesn’t actually have a “mission.” In this context, the details of Gates’ no-nonsense courtship and marriage, and his statement in Time that he “used to think [he] wouldn’t be all that interested in the baby until she was two or so,” are chillingly instructive. American culture needs a lot of things. Better management isn’t one of them.
Tim Cavanaugh is a freelance writer in San Francisco.
Pour Your Heart Into It: How Starbucks Built a Company One Cup at a Time By Howard Schultz and Dori Jones Yang. New York: Hyperion, 1997. 351 pages. $24.95. Pour Your Heart Into It is a precious title for an occasionally precious book. (“It was so immediate and physical that I was shaking,” Schultz says of an epiphany he had at a coffeehouse in Milan.) Amid the cheerleading aphorisms and coffee-bean fetishism of this corporate history cum memoir, the Starbucks CEO hints at why the coffee chain became Seattle’s second most pervasive megabrand: “You should assume intelligence and sophistication [in your customers]. If you do, what may seem to be a niche market could very well appeal to far more people than you imagine.” Exactly. Starbucks’ genius is to see that while Americans don’t like snobbery, we’re suckers for snob appeal. [T.C.]
Real Time: Preparing for the Age of the Never Satisfied Customer By Regis McKenna. Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 1997. 204 pages. $19.95. The biggest threat to Bill Gates isn’t the Justice Department but, rather, the armies of consultants who will try to convince Microsoft it needs to do something more than simply deliver adequate software at reasonable prices. McKenna’s brilliant unintentional parody of the consulting industry combines burlesques of managementese (“Continuous Discontinuous Change”), black comedy (“Creating a real time organization will be similar to…implementing total quality management”), witty understatement (“the powerful Microsoft”), and touchingly absurd etymology (By confusing “silicon” with “silicone” we subconsciously advance the idea of advanced technology!). This is a hoax that will be chuckled at for yearsby everyone except the author. [T.C.]
Commodify Your Dissent: The Business of Culture in the New Gilded Age, Salvos From the Baffler Edited by Thomas Frank and Matt Weiland. New York: W.W. Norton, 1997. 287 pages. $15. Don’t be fooled by their indie rock pedigree: The editors of the Chicago-based Baffler evince a tweedy, anachronistic sobriety in illustrating how the avant-garde devolved into just another niche market. Indeed, at times their counter-counter-culture gospel backs into a form of lockjawed earnestness, indistinguishable in tone from the more lucid rants of the far right. The more rigorous historical grounding of Frank’s own book on the co-optation of “hip” by 1960s advertising, The Conquest of Cool (University of Chicago Press, 1997), helps him avoid the Baffler‘s shrill tendencies, but this collection has something that Frank’s academic tome lacks: snarky, rude, and well-targeted analysis of the culture industry, from Details to Wired to the oxymoronic genre of business literature. Where the Baffler‘s editors and authors falter is in confusing the seriousness of their project with how seriously they should take themselves. Whether they realize it or not, the Baffler has become a part of the cultural machinery it attempts to deconstruct, name-dropped by the very arbiters of cool it lampoons. The book’s most (and perhaps only) ironic statement is its title: Whether you want to be a hipster or just look like one, this is one lifestyle guide you can’t afford to live without. [A.M.C.]
Close to the Machine: Technophilia and Its Discontents By Ellen Ullman. San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1997. 189 pages. $21.95. In this memoir Ullman, a software consultant and NPR commentator, offers clever anecdotes about her experiences in the world of high tech, putting a human face on today’s growth industry of virtual engineeringand beating the pants off silly stabs at the zeitgeist such as Carla Sinclair’s Signal to Noise. Ullman provides a striking yet melancholy take on technophilia and its discontentschiefly, the kind of halting, anemic, and doomed relationships that are the inevitable result of having no life outside freelance coding. A kind of female-management counterpart to Nicholson Baker’s The Fermata, Ullman’s memoir focuses on the transience of office life and the interchangeable backdrops of sex, money, and time. But instead of stopping the clock, Ullman shows the human contours of hard logic and gives general readers a seductive taste of geek porn. [H.E.]
Interface Culture: How New Technology Transforms the Way We Create and Communicate By Steven Johnson. San Francisco: HarperEdge, 1997. 264 pages. $24. It comes as a relief and a perfect irony that the editor of one of the Web’s most literate sites has chosen the ancient medium of the hardcover as the forum for his fascinating intellectual history of computers. Johnson, editor and co-founder of Feed magazine (www.feedmag.com), has struck upon one of the most important insights about the digital age: In making the strange transformation from tool to medium, the personal computer has become no longer strictly a technology but an environment. Interface Culture locates the essential meaning of the information age in the place where humans and computers do most of their mundane little waltzthe desktop, windows, menus, and hyperlinks of the GUI (graphical user interface). Looking at interfaces the way an architecture critic looks at a building, Johnson’s broad historical sweep is an unabashed exercise in old-fashioned intellectualism, which is refreshing enough despite some pretty starchy name-dropping. If the medium is the message, then Johnson’s humble little study ought to be a gospel for the age. [H.E.]
Product Music: Industrial Show Tunes in Praise of the Products We Trust Various artists. Honest-Abe Disc!, 1996. Culled mainly from limited-release records made especially for corporate sales conferences in the 1960s and ’70s, this collection offers such chuckle-inducing cuts as “My Bathroom Is a Private Kind of Place” (from American Standard’s troop-rousing The Bathrooms Are Coming!) and Westinghouse’s “Power Flower,” a psychedelic tribute to nuclear power so hyperbolic one suspects it was commissioned by Mr. Burns of “The Simpsons.” But as pleasant as it is to bask in irony’s black warmth, to appreciate Product Music with a smirk only blunts a sharper and less palatable truth: The clumsy manipulation attempted here seems funny only because corporations are so much better at it now. [A.M.C.]
Dispepsi Negativland. Consolidated Seeland Manufacturing Group, 1997. We’ve become inured to our favorite songs being used to deliver a corporate message (the Rolling Stones shill for Microsoft, LL Cool J rocks steady for The Gap). At this point, the background hum of marketing just feels naturalmaybe advertising is really just some atmospheric gas we’ve all learned to breathe. On this provocative CD, Negativland plucks one element out of the aircola marketingand makes it misfire horrifically: “Medicated ointment being spread on a painful rash/Old outdated software getting thrown into the trash/Everything still tastes the samePEPSI!”
They give an old picture unfamiliar outlines by showing that the work that goes into making Pepsi part of our lives isn’t nearly as disturbing as the ways in which we live with it. [S.S.]
Suck: Worst-Case Scenarios in Media, Culture, Advertising, and the Internet Edited by Joey Anuff and Ana Marie Cox. San Francisco: Wired Books, 1997. 151 pages. $17.95. This anthology is a hard-copy complement to Suck, the Web’s longest-running daily column (www.suck.com), which Cox, a Mother Jones contributing editor (see story), recently left as executive editor. The book offers 32 examples of the rants, essays, and parodies of pop culture that have gained Suck accolades from Rolling Stone (“like Spy magazinethe old Spy magazinefor the computer age”), The Economist (“An outpouring of delightful vituperation”), and the New Yorker (“enchantingly despicable media go-betweens”).
Endless Frontier: Vannevar Bush, Engineer of the American Century By G. Pascal Zachary. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997. 518 pages. $32.50. In this biography, Zachary (see story) describes Bush as this century’s Ben Franklin and credits the “virtually forgotten” scientist with launching the Manhattan Project and helping to create the U.S. military-industrial complex. His 1945 essay “As We May Think” is widely regarded as the inspiration for our modern computer culture. Zachary’s book has been called “deeply informed and insightful” (New York Times).Eds.
Reviews by Tim Cavanaugh, Ana Marie Cox, Hans Eisenbeis, Colleen Quinn, and Seth Sanders.