Monthly Archives: February 2012

Industrial Processes: Cars, Coffee and Conscripts.

I believe that one can trace a very logical historical path from the rise of modernism through to the development of postmodernism. However, I probably won’t keep these article in strict chronological order. Be prepared for me to hop and skip around!

Before I can talk about postmodernity, I need to establish where we’re coming from. And this means talking about the successes of modernism.

I mentioned in my introduction that I see the the Swedish company Ikea as representing the epitome of modernism. Ikea manages a seamless blend of form and function to channel the individual desires of millions of people into achieving the goals of the company.

This is ne of the greatest achievements of modernism: the ability to create large scale organisations dedicated to achieving a single goal.

Consider, for example, Henry Ford. Before his company revolutionised the industry, cars were manufactured by hand. With the introduction of the assembly line, each component was constructed or attached by one individual or team. The workers didn’t need to know how to build an entire car, but just how to do their assigned task over and over again. The efficiency gains were staggering. While a car had previously taken more than 12 man-hours to assemble, now it could be done in a mere ninety minutes.

But interestingly enough, the history of the production line goes back a long way before Henry Ford. In the early 19th century the British Navy needed to make over 100,000 wooden blocks a year to equip her ships, and all of them needed to be manufactured by hand by craftsmen. This process was dramatically overhauled by Marc Isambard Brunel, who designed a series of steam powered machines, each of which could perform one element of the block-making process. When working together, and operated by relatively unskilled labour, blocks could be manufactured with significantly improved quality and speed. This was the first production line in England, although the concept did not spread to other industries for decades.

The key features of this system, as with Ford’s, were a carefully designed manufacturing process and the assignment of simple, repetitive tasks to unskilled, interchangeable workers.

The other pioneers of this approach were armies. Prior to large corporations, armies were the only structure that organised on this scale, and with the same features. Armies have a hierarchical command structure, a single purpose, and make heavy use of interchangeable, low value units. Military education is a machine for producing soldiers. The individual soldier in a war does not need to see the big picture, or understand strategy, but merely needs to perform their assigned task correctly and efficiently. And if one, or a hundred, or ten thousand are killed, then they can be replaced with identically trained units. To the General, there is little difference between an infantryman and a gun carriage. I think of Napoleon as one of the foremost proponents of this approach, with his Levee en Masse, a startling ability to raise, train and equip vast armies, with which he could overwhelm the smaller professional armies of other European states.

These are some of the key characteristics of modernism: carefully designed processes, efficiencies of scale, and the use of interchangeable workers. And these characteristics were so successful that in the 20th century they spread out of the factory and into the office, the store, and the restaurant. Consider your local Tim Horton’s franchise, for example. Every Tim Horton’s in the country follows the same process for preparing a ham sandwich; each step has a fixed number of seconds allocated, and these times are printed directly above the food preparation area. A franchise, at it’s heart, is a set of carefully designed processes that can be run by interchangeable staff with minimum training.

These economies of scale have brought us affordable cars, quick service at the coffee shop, and many other impressive achievements. Killer diseases such as smallpox were eradicated through large scale, efficient vaccination programs. The introduction of city-wide sanitation infrastructure in London in the 19th century dramatically curtailed incidences of Cholera. And the Prussian education system, which emphasises a standardised curriculum and teacher training methodology, has been adopted worldwide.

So although in later articles I will outline modernisms darker side, I want to make clear that I do not see it as ‘bad’ or ‘good’. It is at it’s core a set of organisational tools. What we as a society choose to do with these tools is up to us.

Church 22 – St. Margaret’s Anglican

This will be a short article, as I unfortunately arrived very late for the Sunday morning service at St. Margaret’s Church last week.  However, despite my tardiness, I had a very positive visit.


The building is only 12 years old, and has a wonderful airy design.  From the sanctuary you can look out through windows on either side directly into the subdivision the church is located in.   The architecture gives the church a feeling of being rooted in the local community.

I had an interesting conversation after the service with Reverend Stephen Pessah.  We talked about the fact that for churches located in urban cores, usually the needs of the local community are very obvious.  Poverty, crime, housing difficulties and so on are usually quite visible.  But in suburbia, although the needs may be very real, they are frequently hidden behind a veneer of respectability.  You cannot immediately distinguish between a a resident who is comfortably well off or on the verge of bankrupt – they may both drive an SUV, dress smartly, and so on.

Furthermore I’m convinced there are more forms of poverty than simply financial.  Our community can frequently suffer from relational poverty, as we isolate ourselves in our detached houses behind our ‘good neighbour’ fences.  Or we can suffer from poverty of imagination, as we trudge through a lifestyle we find unfulfilling but can’t imagine changing.   Or we can wrestle with poverty of hope – an inability to dream that life might one day be different than it is today.

St. Margaret’s will be holding a series of contemplative services during Lent, which I’m pleased to here.  I’m convinced that the church in Barrie needs a healthy contemplative stream of Christianity.  Brian McLaren, in his book ‘A Generous Orthodoxy’, says

I’ve noticed that among the people most dedicated to missional activism, you find either (a) people burned out because of the difficulty of the task, or (b) people who have best learned to undergird their activism with contemplation, with quiet resting, with finding God in the center of normalcy… Contemplation isn’t only for passive, withdrawn people, but also for active, involved ones.

Overall, I felt very welcomed at St. Margaret’s.   In many ways, Anglicanism still feels like ‘home’ to me.  I find that good Anglicanism strikes a very healthy balance: formal without being stuffy, orthodox without being exclusivist, liturgical while remaining accessible; a global denomination constructed entirely of local communities.



This month I’ll be starting a new series exploring modernism and postmodernism.

I’ve become more and more convinced that the distinction between these two ways of seeing the world is one of the most significant cultural distinctions in our society, and that understanding the differences between the two is invaluable in understanding the world we live in.

Le Corbusier, a famous modernist architect, said that houses should be ‘machines for living in‘.

The swedish company Ikea I believe has applied this exact same philosophy, and created a ‘machine for shopping in’.

I love the Ikea experience, in part because of the fascinating way that the company has taken the idea of a production line and applied to it to retail. Just imagine your last trip to the store. You arrived in the front door, dropped your kids of at the Småland and then were guided carefully along a pre-planned route, following a pattern designed and refined from uncounted time-and-motion studies. Every corner, every display, the length of time taken to walk through the store, has been planned to make parting with your money as comfortable for you as possible. And even though you came in to just pick up a few dish towels you walked out 2 Billys, a Duktig and a Skärpt.

However, if I’m really looking for a bargain, I don’t go to Ikea. I turn to Freecycle, or Kijiji, or eBay. In these environments, the distinction between vendor and consumer is much more blurred. I might be selling a couch but buying a bike. I’m not dealing with a single efficient corporate entity like Walmart, but an uncountable number of individuals. The experience is less organised, less controlled, more inter-connected, and perhaps more chaotic.

If Ikea represents the pinnacle of Modernist design, then I expect that decentralised internet marketplaces may be the post-modern equivalent.

Postmodernism recognizes that there are many different perspectives on the world, so rather than trying to present formal definitions of these two philosophies, I’ll instead be taking a meandering journey through my own observations. So, first some characteristics.

Characteristics of modernism and postmodernism

  • Moderns look to experts for advice. Postmoderns look to their networks.
  • Modernism is structured. Postmodernism is organic.
  • Modernism cares about being efficient. Postmodernism cares about being healthy.
  • Modernism talks about principles. Postmodernism tells stories.
  • Modernism is a symphony orchestra. Postmodernism is a drumming circle.
  • Modernism is linear. Postmodernism is fractal.
  • Modernism is ordered. Postmodernism is chaotic.
  • Classical physics is modern. Quantum mechanics is postmodern.

Where I’m going

So, I have a lot of ground to cover. In the coming months, I hope to at least touch on: the Enlightenment, Francis Bacon, the Industrial Revolution, Henry Ford, the production line, the rise of modern sanitation, healthcare and education, Newtonian physics, the Ultraviolet Catastrophe, determinism, thermodynamics, the Holocaust, quantum mechanics, Schrodinger’s cat, chaos theory, Kurt Godel, modern architecture, Le Corbusier, Conway’s ‘game of life’, the Toyota Production System, the concept of ’emergence’, and probably quite a lot else.

In doing so, I hope to demonstrate how Postmodernism isn’t ‘anti-modernism’, or a passing fad, but rather a logical and inevitable consequence of modernism.

Church 21 – First Christian Reformed

When I told my daughter I’d visited the ‘First Christian Reformed’ church on Sunday, she asked me if it really was the first ever Christian church. I told her that, no, despite the name, it wasn’t.

However, it is a warm, friendly congregation.  Unlike some places I’ve been where I’ve been able to stand around at coffee hour for twenty minutes without anyone talking to me, at this church three or four people had introduced themselves to me, got me a coffee, and started to get to know me before the service had even started.  So full marks for hospitality!

This is another of Barrie’s larger churches, with several hundred people in the Sunday morning service.   The format is very typically Evangelical.  We sung several songs accompanied by a small band, there were announcements,  a short message for the children, a brief prayer,  and a thirty minute sermon.

I’ve found myself asking recently when and why the sermon replaced communion as the central sacrament of the Protestant church.   I’m sure no Catholic would feel that they had really ‘gone to church’ if Mass had not been celebrated.  And likewise, I suspect an Evangelical feels that they have not ‘gone to church’ unless they have heard a sermon.

It may not formally be referred to as a sacrament, but it certainly gets treated like one.   It’s clear to a casual visitor of this church that the sermon is the main point of both the Sunday morning meeting and, in fact, the entire building.   Just as an Anglican or Catholic church has as an altar as its focal point, this church clearly is centered around the pulpit.

I’m fairly sure that the point of the ritual of the sermon is about more than simple information transfer.  This is not just about educating a congregation.  Not least, there are clearly more efficient ways to transfer information.  You could read the texts for 52 sermons in a few hours on the first day of January.  And there are certainly more effective ways to transfer information.   Any decent degree program complements its lectures with tutorials to discuss the material, with practicals to investigate the subject first hand, and with exams to monitor progress.

As far as I know, most churches don’t have a formal curriculum, nor any way of assessing student progress, so I really don’t think that the point of a sermon is fundamentally about education.  And indeed, as I’ve been asking people on this journey why they go to church, I’ve rarely heard the answer ‘to hear a sermon’.

And yet we construct buildings, hire staff, and organise services largely in order to deliver sermons.   I can only assume that this is because we believe that sermons do, in fact, have some kind of sacramental value.  That maybe people are influenced in some spiritual way by the act of sitting in a chair and listening to somebody talk for thirty minutes.   And that this has to happen on a consistent, weekly basis to have the desired effect.

Understand that this is a general question, and not a criticism of First Christian Reformed church.  Pastor Mike Borgert gave an engaging message on Mark 1:29-34, although he somehow managed to talk for thirty minutes about a four-verse passage that includes multiple healings and exorcisms without really talking about the supernatural elements of the story at all.

But my question remains – why the centrality of the sermon?  When did this become the focal point of ‘doing church’?  And what are we fundamentally trying to achieve?