The first technological revolution occurred some 7500 years ago in Mesopotamia. It was there that the development of irrigation led to the establishment of written language, the city, a permanent government, social classes, and specialized labor. All of those innovations grew up around the need to manage the vital water supply.
Why should we, today, care about this little bit of history? First, for all our advances, the social and political institutions in place today are not fundamentally different from the institutions first fashioned by our remote ancestors.
Second and more important, today, technological developments from a great many areas are growing together to create a new human environment. This has not been true of any period between the first technological revolution and the one that got underway 200 years ago – and clearly still has not run its course.
Technology itself has become a science. In the 19th Century, invention was characterized as a “flash of insight.” It wasn’t until Thomas Edison managed a team of researchers who tested 1,600 different materials in order to develop the light bulb that the idea of systematic research emerged. What Edison improvised stands today as the basic elements of research discipline:
- A definition of need
- A clear goal
- Identification of the major steps to accomplish the goal
- Constant feedback
- Organization of specific work teams
Technology, then, isn’t about things. It isn’t about tools and products. It is about work: that activity which is specific only to humans, which overrides the biological laws of all other animals whose total energies go into just staying alive.
The systems approach, which sees a host of formerly unrelated activities and processes as parts of a larger, integrated whole, is not something technological in itself.
The systems approach tremendously increases the power of technology. It permits today’s technologists to speak of “materials” rather than steel, glass, or concrete. First we decide what end use we want to achieve, and then we choose or make the materials we need for this.
Systems management has rapidly changed the structure and composition of the work force. It first led to wholesale upgrading of the labor force. Unskilled laborers were replaced by machine operators.
More important, it meant that the people who designed the system were as integral to the final product as those working on the production lines. Knowledge, rather than manual labor, is the fundamental resource. Hence, the tremendous explosion of managers.