McDonald’s, or the irrationality of rationality

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For anyone interested in the intricacies of contemporary society from the perspective of such an ubiquitous  institution as the fast food outlet McDonald’s, George Ritzer’s The McDonaldization of Society (Pine Forge Press, 2000) is a must read. This is not a treatise against fast food outlets, nor is it a simple acceptance of them. The book  endeavours to account for the hold fast food outlets (and other institutions) have on society as well as provide possible ways out of this hold. The slender volume fulfills the former aim more successfully than the latter.

Ritzer suggests that there are four main dimensions which underpin McDonald’s business acumen: efficiency, calculability, predictability, and control through nonhuman technology. Efficiency basically means “the optimum method for getting from one point to another” (p. 12). Calculability subsumes such notions as “the quantitative aspects of … portion size, cost… and services”, where “quantity has become equivalent to quality” (p. 12). Predictability is “the assurance that products and services will be the same over time and in all locales” for both clients and workers (p. 13).  Control through nonhuman technology includes, among others, quickly moving customer lines at the counter, limited menus, few options, uncomfortable seats, in addition to precise directives for the workers to behave and to accomplish their roles. The four dimensions then form what Ritzer termed McDonaldization, a process found in all human for-profit institutions. He gives specific examples as this process relates to universities, hospitals, sports and other recreational activities,

Clearly, and very generally, there are advantages and disadvantages to these four dimensions: advantages point to profit-making and customer satisfaction to a certain extent; disadvantages to workers’ and customers’ personal preferences, food safety and quality. Ritzer’s critique is based on the fact that it is impossible to go back to “the world, if it ever existed, of home-cooked meals, traditional restaurant dinners, high-quality foods, meals loaded with surprises, and restaurants run by chefs free to express their creativity.” (p. 18). For him, it is more valid to critically analyze McDonaldization from the perspective of the future. Although he admits that McDonaldization is both enabling and constraining, his stance in the book focuses on the constraints this type of business system brings to human society.

Ritzer uses Max Weber’s theory of rationalization, claiming that McDonaldization is an amplification and an extension of this theory. (p. 23) According to Weber, formal rationality is a process by which optimum means to a given end are shaped by rules, regulations, and larger social structures, often resulting in irrational outcomes (among the examples given are ClubMed and the Holocaust). The means constrain humans to act according to a predetermined set of procedures and allow for little or no choice. However, humans are rarely content with being constrained: they prefer to make their own choices, so the irrationality of rationality closes them in an iron cage of scientific management. Ritzer describes McDonaldization in detail as it is clearly followed in automotive assembly lines, Levittown type of construction, shopping centers, and McDonald’s. The bulk of the bulk is devoted to an exemplification and critique of efficiency, calculability, predictability, and control through nonhuman technology., especially focusing on the following settings: higher education, entertainment industry (amusement parks, sport TV programs, etc.), health care, fast food industry, food industry. Chapter 7, “The Irrationality of Rationality”, evaluates the design flaws of rationality from the perspective of the loss of magic and mystery, inefficiency, illusion of good value at a good price, false friendliness, environmental hazards, homogeneization, dehumanization. The next chapter goes beyond present-day practices and looks toward the future by giving McDonaldization  “an inexorable quality, multiplying and extending continuously” (p. 146), from birth of an individual to death and beyond.  The last two chapters show the driving forces pushing McDonaldization along: “It pays, we value it, it fits” (p. 168) and a practical guide to dealing with this inexorable process, listing some of the suggestions for breaking the imposed “rules”, such as valuing quality (not quantity), B&Bs (rather than hotel chains), slow food, local produce and products, avoiding routines, do things for yourself, never buy artificial products, etc. In one of the last paragraphs, Ritzer justifies the writing of this book as follows:

      Although I have emphasized the irresistibility of McDonaldization throughout this       book, my fondest hope is that I am wrong. Indeed, a major motivation behind this book is to alert readers to the dangers of McDonaldization and to motivate them to act to stem its tide. I hope that people can resist McDonaldization and create instead a more reasonable, more human world. (p. 232)

In conclusion, Ritzer’s account and critique of McDonaldization point to the cage of every “modern” human being. His attempt to stem the tide of rationalization may work for a while, but then it is inevitable that profit wins over any other consideration. What is more disheartening is the fact that both McDonaldization (the irrationality of rationality) in conjunction with the absurd  rush for technological innovation at all cost deny a less forceful development of the future human being. The book evaluates the notions that many have had about the modern world, such as fear of unpredictability (and the concomitant drive to organization: ClubMed web site claims that it “organizes unforgettable events”), the burden is on the user (customers, patients, students do work formerly done by paid employees as part of efficiency). While Ritzer delves into activities and institutions such as home cooking, shopping, higher education, health care, entertainment (all-inclusive trips, TV programs, sports, political debates),  his analysis does not touch upon the workings of politics (exemplified by state/national governments – although he analyzes the irrational dealings of the tax offices), nor the advances in the military. It seems that governments and the military complex are either immune to McDonaldization and/or support it wholeheartedly for the citizens of the world. Another question which remains unanswered for me is this: Can search for a more equitable, peaceful and tranquil human life be McDonaldized? If the answer is yes, there is no escaping the rationality cage; if not, whose duty is to keep searching?

 

 

Incredible illogicalities of the human world: 16-20

This is the continuation of the series started on June 29, 2014 continued on September 13, 2014, and August 4, 2014. Hopefully my rant may help some of us at least think about the consequences of our illogical actions, if not about the ways of acting more logically and therefore more sustainably and fairly.

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16. The idea of basing one country’s monetary system almost completely on one product/commodity (like the Canadian dollar on oil).

17. Speed trumping thinking when students (and others who have to type) are asked to produce well-thought out answers on the spot.

18. Chemical cleaning agents used to clean bathrooms/kitchens that end up in the water supply.

19. Garbage abandoned in space by space explorers (in the Himalayas by expeditions, in the Amazon by rock stars, etc. etc. etc.).

20. Keeping inventing products made from plastic (each canapé in its tiny plastic cup).

Humanity, imagination, money: challenges to Harari’s idea

TED talks are a great way to communicate succinctly and in a logical manner some interesting theories and ideas. What follows are three main challenges  to Yuval Noah Harari’s answer to the question: What explains the rise of humans? which he answers in a TED talk.

The objections stem from his main idea that humans are different from other species because they have imagination and that allows them to “cooperate flexibly in large numbers”. Therefore, humans live in two realities: one is objective, and, in his words,  “over the centuries, we have constructed on top of this objective reality a second layer of fictional reality, a reality made of fictional entities, like nations, like gods, like money, like corporations. And what is amazing is that as history unfolded, this fictional reality became more and more powerful so that today, the most powerful forces in the world are these fictional entities. Today, the very survival of rivers and trees and lions and elephants depends on the decisions and wishes of fictional entities, like the United States, like Google, like the World Bank — entities that exist only in our own imagination.” These are great ideas, but the objections below stem from my perplexity about some of them.

Challenge 1: The social collaboration, “the flexible cooperation in large numbers” cannot be possible without a supple and versatile communication system, i.e. verbal language,  that allows humans not only to share the imaginative musings of individuals, but also reinforces the ever-present  possibilities of cognitive transformations. Clearly, it is still a moot point whether language actually helped the development of imagination (symbolic, abstract  thinking) or whether it followed the rise of symbolic, abstract thinking. Harari does not explain the rise of imagination in the human species, nor does he mention the important aspect of the existence of language without which no collaboration would be possible. Furthermore, to share one’s imaginative stories is not enough, other humans must “buy” into them, must be convinced of their utility, functionality, necessity, etc. This was not explained in the talk either. Moreover, to understand, share and accept these stories is not enough: they must be acted upon, defended, elaborated on to actually construct the “objective” reality he mentions.

Challenge 2: The list of stories mentioned by Harari as those imaginative creations on which humans built everything includes religion, political and economic systems, states and nations, companies, corporations, money. The stories behind all of them make sense, with the exception of money. In fact, all of them except money are attempts at answering our deepest concerns about the purpose of life. Money is not a story in the sense that a religion is a story: there are stories around money and with money as the protagonist, but money itself is not a story. The explanatory strength of his idea of imagination and stories behind everything human is greatly weakened by this example. On the other hand, all these examples except money bring to mind Giambattista Vico’s “three ages” and human institutions which he elaborated on in the early 18th century in his Scienza nuova.

Challenge 3: It is interesting that Harari avoids the use of the word “narrative” in the sense of  Foucault’s grand narratives: this avoidance weakens his general idea further. The consequences of this point to the question What happens when these narratives (stories) do not prevail any longer? Of course, other narratives take the places of the old. One could muse and suggest that transhumanism is replacing religion as the grand narrative now. If this is the case, then all the other examples of Harari’s stories would fall to the wayside (ironically, maybe except for “money”). To be a transhuman surely means to have narratives (imagination), but not of the kind Harari proposes for humans.

In conclusion, Harari’s ideas are worthy of interest, if only to point towards perspectives that challenge them.