Battleship Row

I have just finished reading “Sacred Vessels: The Cult of the Battleship and the Rise of the US Navy” by Robert L. O’Connell. Naval history is not a particular interest of mine but I found the book fascinating.

Battleships, like dinosaurs, have an ability to capture the minds of small children. They are huge and dangerous and, without getting tiresomely Freudian, they do symbolise power.

The problem is the potential gulf between symbol and reality, the battleship as signifier rather than combatant.

And that brings me to IT and social networking.

The battleship was the logical consequence of decisions that were rational and coherent in their own world. The bigger the ship, the greater the firepower and the armour it could carry, so the only counter was an even bigger ship or even more ships of an equivalent size. This then led to a constant spiral of growth as battleships became larger and more numerous.

Battleships also had the benefits of being a visible symbol of national power, of keeping an industrial base and skilled workers in work, and preserving a rigid hierarchy of authority – naval officers would start out in a small ship and then work their way through an orderly career path of destroyer, cruiser, battleship.

The problem was that the world where the battleship made sense was a world where planes and submarines and torpedoes and fast surface craft did not exist. Experience showed time and again that the battleship was a target, much more than a successful weapon.

It would be easy to mock those who clung to the romantic vision of the battleship long after experience showed that it was just a very big target but we all do similar things. Letting go of beliefs when the evidence changes is a difficult thing to do.

I wonder if our current battleship is the office? Or rather the bureaucracy which we embody in the office?

The office bureaucracy has many benefits. It is a visible symbol of an organization’s power and status. It provides work for large numbers of people. And it provides a visible hierarchy for people, from the post room to the board room, there is a place for everyone.

Hmm, it all sounds kind of familiar.

So are social networks and IT things that fit inside that model or are we among the disruptive change agents that mean that the office bureaucracy will go the way of the battleship?

I din’t have the answer but I find the question intriguing.


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