Learning the Wrong Lessons from Modern Times

Dan PontefractLeave it to a business “guru” to ruin and totally misunderstand a great movie. Yesterday, while doing a Google search to go along with my article for Charlie Chaplin’s birthday, I came upon an article by Dan Pontefract, What CIOs Can Learn From Charlie Chaplin’s Film Modern Times. And really, I don’t want to rag on guy too much. He seems nice enough. I mean, he’s trying to use one of my favorite films to teach IT professionals how to do their jobs better. That’s preferable to telling them to read, Think and Grow Rich. But it is nonetheless true that he doesn’t understand the film.

Let’s start with this description, “Sheep metaphorically make way for humans, as the workers emerge from the subway en route to ‘the factory.'” The sheep don’t “make way” for the humans. The sheep dissolve into the humans. The point is clear: the humans are sheep. The modern world has turned individuals into an unthinking collective. This may be something that is hard for modern people to comprehend. But in 1936, there was still a living memory of a different kind of life. Our Town was written in 1937 and told the story of such a time. One of the biggest problems facing our society today is that no one remembers things being any different. And that is most of all true of Pontefract who doesn’t think about getting rid of the assembly line, but rather tinkering with it so that it works better.

Pontefract also seems confused about the technology in Modern Times. He refers to the “new technology the workers are getting used to.” But this isn’t the case at all. The little tramp — like the other workers — is extremely good at his job. The problems start when he acts like a human to stretch or brush an insect away. The whole point here is that workers have been turned into mere extensions of the business system. Indeed, one of the best moments of this first two reels is when the tramp clocks out to go to the bathroom. And even there — off the clock — he is given no peace.

So what exactly are CIOs supposed to get out of Modern Times? Unfortunately, Pontefract doesn’t write in English; he uses business-speak. For example:

If we look to Charlie Chaplin and Modern Times for inspiration, the CIO ought not to look at their role as a “technology-only” function. A CIO and her team ought to think of themselves as a partner in the behavioral change requirements organizations desperately need to become and remain competitive in tomorrow’s future.

What this seems to mean is companies should encourage their employees to be better sheep and then give them the right technology to be the best sheep that they can be. But the CIO (as Pontefract labels him) in Modern Times would completely agree. The system is perfect! If only the little tramp didn’t take time to yawn! As it is, the CIO dismisses the idea of the feeding machine because it isn’t practical — it doesn’t conform to the needs of the worker.

Modern TimesBut I accept the fundamental point: in the film, humans are forced to conform to technology. But all Pontefract is offering is that we reverse the order of priority on the assembly line. He still sees humans as mere cogs in the business system. And worse, he wants to treat them as automatons that can be tinkered with to increase productivity so organizations can “remain competitive in tomorrow’s future.” This is all that Frederick Winslow Taylor was doing, and he too took into account the abilities and limitations of the human machine.

I think that the sheep metaphor is wrong. The workers filing into the factory at the beginning of Modern Times are not sheep; they are beaten dogs. The true sheep are people like Dan Pontefract and so many other people I’ve worked with over the years. They are eager to follow the lead of other sheep, offering up the newest catch phrases like, “Behavioral change” and “Copy Exactly!” They are not broken. They are eager to follow everyone else into “tomorrow’s future,” which to no worker’s surprise is just like yesterday’s future.


See Also: Unstable Weirdos and Business Success.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

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