Emile Durkheim meets the Industrial Internet (Industrial Internet 3)

Watching the first industrial revolution with the keen eyes that helped found sociology, Emile Durkheim saw the evolution of human society as a movement from societies in which norms are associated with the similarity of the lives of a society’s members to norms that derive from the interdependence of those lives associated with the division of labor.[1]   Where that movement or other changes happened too fast, he saw the risk of anomie,a “normlessness” associated with the breakdown of social bonds between an individual and the community and associated feelings of alienation and purposelessness.[2]  He found that anomie is common when the surrounding society has undergone significant changes in its economic fortunes, whether for good or for worse and, more generally, when there is a significant discrepancy between the ideological theories and values commonly professed and what is actually achievable in everyday life.   Contemporary American life, with its uniquely high levels of income inequality, extraordinarily diverse workforce, broken system of universal education and—on top of all of that—undying ideology that individuals can pull themselves up by their bootstraps, is thus from a Durkheimian perspective the ultimate anomie factory.

Durkheim did not view anomie as arising inherently from serving as a worker in a company.  Indeed, he did not think there is any inherent conflict of interest between owners, managers, and workers.  Instead, he believed that the conflict was caused by lack of a common morality due to lack of an integrative structure.  Labor unions and employer associations only intensified in his view the differences between owners, managers and workers.  Involved in a common enterprise, people would recognize their common interests as well as their common need for an integrative moral system.  The formation of occupational associations may have been the best hope against anomie he identified for the industrializing world.   Thinking about the industrial internet and its likely eventual integration with social media, however, I really wish Durkheim—whose own life ended tragically (I can’t help thinking anomically) in despair after his son was killed in World War I—had gotten to live, watch and write for another hundred years.

When the machines are mute, blind and deaf, and communication is in person or on paper and the great technological breakthrough is one-to-one telephone calls, then of course Durkheim was right that occupational associations are the way to develop shared norms in a complex economy with a diverse workforce.   If machines are in constant communication with us and one another and we are in constant communication with them and one another, on the other hand, we are all potentially engaged in shared norm creation, implementation and enforcement.    Moreover, our lived worlds have become more similar across ranks, income levels, social classes and ethnicities, because our interactions are all mediated by the same network of technology.  That is why the smartest organizations implementing the industrial internet will see it as precisely the perpetual, patient, interactive source of on-the-job training emphasized in the last installment, and tie its one-to-many educational capabilities to the one-to-many, human-inclusive communicative capabilities of social media.  The organization thus becomes an anti-anomie factory.  Moreover, tying norm development to the lived world is likely to diminish rather than exacerbate the tendency of the internet to date to create insular ideological camps with very limited connections to that lived world.[3]

So when the American Dream of the high-growth opportunity economy and social mobility appear not to be achievable, the industrial internet is promising at a multitude of levels.  Specifically:

  1. Multifactor productivity offers a return to a high-growth manufacturing economy.
  2. On-the-job training makes everyone a knowledge worker, perpetually learning new skills and improving old ones.
  3. The apparent conflicts of interest between management and workers are replaced with shared experience.
  4. Increased worker productivity decreases income inequality.
  5. Instead of interacting all day with silent, dumb machines, workers, professionals and managers are all interacting with an intelligent internet and one another through that internet.

[1] Counterintuitively for us, he called the first “mechanical solidarity” and the second “organic solidarity.”

[2] Durkheim used the concept both in The Division of Labor in Society (1893) and Suicide (1897).

[3] See, e.g., Eli Pariser, The Filter Bubble: How the New Personalized Web Is Changing What We Read and How We Think (Penguin, 2012).