Sunday, May 11

Take a Memo

How It All Began

A reader who saw the last installment of my Devil and Departmentalization series wanted to know why, if ad hoc volunteer government administration worked so well for most of history, we exchanged it for permanent career bureaucracies.  I think government administration pretty much followed the pattern of the treasury and professional banking.  As I explained in The Road to Sanity husbands used to drape their wives with their accumulated wealth to signify their level of wisdom.  Wives were literal walking banks, and they were the first loan officers. Making loans in those days was a simple matter of peeling off a clamshell necklace or copper bangle.

But as wealth increased so did its weight and bulk. Thus, the invention of the treasury -- a central storage facility for the tribe's wealth. After that it was straight downhill for common sense, but at least the sled ride was comfortable and convenient.

I'd say professional government got off the ground on the day someone said, "Let's put that decision in writing."

Surely there were dissenters at first: Why do you have to write something down when you've already said it? 

But I suppose the lure of memorializing one's utterances beat out common sense.  The problem being that once you know someone will sit there and write down your utterances, the utterances will get longer and longer.  This is how hot air was invented.


Hot air was quickly followed by the establishment of scribe castes, which led to the invention of shorthand -- although that last isn't recognized as such by archeologists and authorities on ancient writings, who term every type of script that doesn't make sense to them "proto-writing." But it was either summarize or live with carpal tunnel syndrome.  The authorities should try using a stylus to commit all the following to papyrus:

Take a memo. Amonhep told me this morning that he was walking by the granary last night after dinner. He'd had a fight with his wife so he was taking a walk to cool off. Then he heard a strange sound coming from the granary.  At first he thought it was a thief but as he crept closer he heard what sounded to him like loud chewing noises.  Then he saw it -- are you getting this part down? -- He told me, quote, "There it was, sitting up and looking at me with its beady eyes, bold as brass. It was huge.  At least as big as my fist.  Then I saw more beady eyes. It was maybe five of them.  All them staring at me very boldly. I went and got the wife to look at them.  She told me she counted seven. But she said it was more like a challenging look than a bold one, unquote."  Where is that memo I dictated last week?  Didn't I specifically recommend that we double the cat patrol at the granary? But let's try and triple the cat detail. If it doesn't work we might have to think about importing weasels.

Now put yourself in the scribe's place.  Do think you might figure a way to boil it down to, "Triple cat detail at granary?"  For a long time writing and reading were secrets known only to the scribe caste but it's easy to see why this was a secret. The scribes worked for government, so it was eight hours a day of transcribing hot air.  Of course they boiled it down, and because their bosses couldn't read what they wrote the bosses were none the wiser. Moving along --

Birth of the Memorandum Storage Facility

When it got to the point where the memos were too numerous to be carried around in sacks, then it became necessary to build a facility to store them.
Once you have the building and the shelves, you need to add ladders as the shelves get higher. Then stools or mats, so you can sit comfortably while you're making sure you've retrieved the right memo.  Then you might as well add writing benches and potted plants.

At that point you have a literal seat of government records, where you sit and process the utterances of decision makers.

Birth of the Bureaus

After several desks were added then came the problem of navigating the seating arrangements.  Thus, the creation of the bureau. This was quickly followed by the introduction of the bureau supervisor a.k.a. department head.

As I emphasized in the first installment in the Devil and Departmentalization, as soon as you get a bunch of department heads gathered in one place, then begins jockeying for more turf. 

Soon, one room in the storage facility wasn't enough. 

From Seat of Government Records to Seat of Government

At some point, surely, complaints arose: My crops are suffering, I'm spending all day climbing up and down ladders at the seat of government records; I need to get paid for the work I'm doing there.

Paid, how? Here it doesn't take much imagination to deduce what happened next. Some genius came up with the idea of everyone in the community chipping in a small payment, or what came to be known as a tax, to support the by-then vital work of writing down, storing and organizing utterances related to government business.

At some point "records" was dropped from "the seat of government records."  This probably happened when scribes for contractors who built extensions for the storage facilities decided it was easier to write "Gov Seat" on the invoice.

(I said years ago on this blog and I'll say it again: The most illuminating history of the human race will be written by a building materials procurement specialist.)
Thus, the seat of government was born and with that government administration became a career.
Not to get into the weeds but notice the pattern of human progress. As we accumulate a lot of stuff then comes the central storage facility.  From there trouble follows on the wings of comfort and convenience.   

Fast forward to the year 1900. The U.S. government began ordering 10,000 new typewriters every year.  Several of the orders were probably replacements after civil servants climbed on their desks, picked up the contraptions, then dropped them on the floor from a height of about nine feet. But what did any government in the 1900s need with 10,000 additional typewriters a year, unless it had fallen prey to bureau mania?  Imagine, legions of clerks who didn't need to be trained in shorthand banging out hot air onto paper at the rate of 40 words per minute.

No statistics are available to me on how many typewriters the British and German governments were ordering around the same time. But notice -- notice -- that a mere 14 years after the typewriter became all the rage in government, World War One broke out. 

Just an observation.


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