In 1984 Anne Clarke sang:
“Suicide is an urban disease, spread by people and places like these, a quick self-destruct from the 21st floor a smell of gas through the kitchen door.”
Two years later the classes of hope had triumphed over the classes of despair as the Big Bang of the reform of the City of London took place. In this new global - and electronically controlled-financial marketplace, the pin-striped suit, the bowler hat and the telegram were replaced by the Prince of Wales check double breasted suit, the Gieves and Hawkes shirt and the mobile phone.
The new had triumphed over the old as late modernity reached its apotheosis.
Last week Apple released its new tablet computer, the iPad, publicised by individuals queuing overnight to make sure of their purchase. The febrile reporting of this event made it seem on a par with the Queen’s Coronation of the funeral of the former Princess of Wales.
The iPad [Image: Apple]
From both these examples of this frenzy to embrace the “new”, one could conclude that the ghost in the machine had finally been exorcised, as if the way in which we think and behave had become completely technologically determined. But thus it ever was: every generation thinks it is different and in touch and tune with the “new”, dispensing the old to nostalgia and reverie.
But is the embrace of the “new”, whether is a technology, a product, or a management system and process always beneficial to business and society? There is a danger here of falling into what philosophers call a category-mistake: simplifying a concept to explain it better and by doing use misinterpret it. In other words: falling into the trap of caricature.
David Edgerton in his book Shock of the Old asks whether the condom is more significant than the aeroplane in history? His answer is that it depends on the usage and impact of low and high technologies, and it could be argued that the former is older and more significant than the latter.
In response to the idea that resistance to new technologies is stupid, he points out that the chronology of technology is one in which ‘old’ and ‘new’ variants are frequently complements and not substitutes and that most technologies fail.
In the trilogy of Bourne films, the central character, played by the actor Matt Damon, is the anti-hero of the “new” as he seeks to make sense of himself and regain his consciousness from being a programmed killer.
This tension between the old and the new is played in the practice of lobbying. For many people lobbying is exemplified in the following quote:
"…winding in and out through the long, devious basement passage, crawling through the corridors, trailing its slimy length from gallery to committee room, at last it lies stretched at full length on the floor of Congress - this dazzling reptile, this huge, scaly serpent of the lobby."
This was written by an American newspaper columnist in 1869, which shows some of the historical lineage of lobbying. Many trace it back to the late 18th century where in the US lobbying, in the form of petitioning, is enshrined in the Constitution.
In the UK, it has been traced back to the 1930s, but rose to prominence in the late 1970s and 1980s, as the market as the organising principle of economy and society seemed to become universal. The Big Bang of 1986 was one of the drivers for the creation of financial, business and political lobbying firms, but you could find much older examples.
The tryst between business and government is a bit like a combination of Mills and Boon romanticism and the more emotionally challenged literature that has been termed “post-modernist”. The relationship between business and government can seem like that of an old couple: the early days of flirting and flattering; lust and longing giving way to comfort and companionship.
Although the German revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg said that marriage was “the funeral of hope”, the one between business and government always seems to need some form of intermittent relationship counselling, as the parties appear to be captured by some new potential mistress.
Until recently, globalisation was the new mistress on the block.
But the negotiation around the relationship is not at the level of some ageing male politician trying to sweep a younger female business supplicant off her feet in a celebrity-filled restaurant. It is as the level of senior public servants and regulators who are charged with developing public policy and managing its outcomes, thereby balancing a range of internal and external interests but always subject to the danger of being captured by business interests.
Keynes stated that practical men were slaves of some defunct economist. Business leaders and government officials today can seem to be slaves to the seduction of some new management guru whose Newspeak is hard to decipher and often has old ideas masquerading as new ones.
Going off the rails is always a pitfall in any long running relationship or marriage, which appropriate counselling should prevent. Like the block working system of trains, this tension is as old as the hills.
The bottom line is whether it is lobbying or technologies and products, it is as David Edgerton concludes: “The historical study of things in use, and the use of things matters”. This lesson is something we should all be counselled in.