Web2landia – what Higher Ed can learn from Henry Ford

(note: this isn’t really finished thinking, but i’ve been rethinking stuff lately and my blog is suffering, so the two of you who are still reading will have to suffer through posts even less coherent than usual. oh. and i just flew a red eye… this turned out a bit more dramatic then i intended. 😛 )

Henry Ford, for the 2 of you who don’t know who i mean, was a very complex man. He was a heartless industrialist, and a social reformer advancing the rights of workers. A vegetarian farm boy who hated cows and tried to impose family values on his employees in return for the best rates of pay in the US. No really, he had a Morality squad that went to people’s houses and checked to see if they were saving money… a very complex man.

There’s a great quote from the book about him and his craziest venture (maybe on the top 10 list of the most outrageous things ever attempted) One of his Human resources people said that the cars were by products of his factory, what Ford was really in the business of doing was creating men. Good modern men, who worked hard and made enough money to buy the cars they were making. And drank soy milk. anyhoo…

This awesome book is called Fordlandia and describes the ‘rise and fall’ of Henry Fords attempt to carve a mid western city out of the amazonian river basin. Oh yes. It had an ice cream parlour, and a theatre, and weekly poetry reading. The water tower of Fordlandia was the biggest freestanding structure in the amazon river basin at the time. He failed horribly, spent a cagillion dollars and left us with a very cool story.

But why? What could possible possess someone to challenge some of the most difficult terrain on earth, and move 5000 americans there?

Short answer. He thought it was his right to impose his point of view on the world.

The why of it, as with many things, seems obvious on the surface but gets a bit more complicated as you dig in a bit. He did, definitely, want to do something about the ‘rubber issue’. It seems that some british folks stole a bunch of rubber seeds in the late nineteenth century, transplanted them in Asia (where they grow MUCH better) and (winston churchill actually) were now threatening to control prices and cost the car baron a fortune. Rubber, as you might imagine, is very important to a man who builds cars. It turned out that this was the only raw material in the process that he did not control. His new super plants in the US had foundries and were built near mines. The trucks were his, the ships were his. He owned everything… but the rubber.

But. And this is a big but. Henry Ford seems to have been an aspiring social engineer at least as much as a Automotive engineer. He was, in his own way, trying to impose his will not only on the jungle, but also to offer a vision of society that retained those small town mores that he valued so highly, and blended them with his modern virtues. (there might not have been a person in human history caught in a weirder paradox… as he was the prime engine of the alienation of the modern industrial methods that brought about the depersonalization he was trying to fight)

Now. what about higher ed. Well… lets take a look at these two corporate agencies. Is higher ed simply offering a product (knowledge) or is this really a bi-product of the ‘making of the man’ [sic] that Henry was talking about. It seems clear that it can’t ‘just’ be about knowledge anymore, as that has become increasingly cheap. And that sense of authority is something that has existed in the knowledge creating community for a long time. We have the research, the expertise…

So, why did it fail? Well it turns out that while rubber trees can grow packed like sardines in Asia, you can’t put them in a grove in South America. South American rubber trees really only work when they’re in the wild, and even then, not so great on an industrial scale. (those poor rubber sappers, the history of business in central/south america makes me want to hit someone) It seems that the bugs really, really like it when you pack them together, as it makes it easier for them to breed and eat. It also seems that when you send a bunch of competent managers of car plants and people who are good at cutting good old american trees and throw them in the jungle a 20 hour boat ride from the next village… bad things happen. Bad things like vipers, who, it seems, don’t like people cutting down trees. Also, as the Romans learned long ago, perfectly obedient underlings tend to stray the further from home they might be.

So. Lets take something that works perfectly well in the wild and industrialize it. Lets take people who are really good at their existing jobs and presume that they’ll be able to apply that expertise to a project with HUGE funding.

(Oh wait. i know. lets build a repository. and fill it with open resources. People will see it and know that we are strong.)

But what does it mean to win? If Higher Ed and these massive repository projects are just about spreading knowledge… then we can do this in easier ways. (see n. Internet) If it’s about spreading OUR knowledge to other folks… imposing our point of view then we’re throwing rocks in a river. gold rocks. with diamonds on them. And little bits of hundred dollar bills.

Some things will be transfered, but they may not be what we want. Our ideas carry our prejudices. They carry our biases… these are the things that will be passed on. But then these two will slowly pass away as project attrition and staling content will slowly turn many of these grand repository projects into digital versions of the now guano filled shingled bungalows that Ford had built for his adventurers in 1928.

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