The Rebirth of Industrial Mastery

Henry Be/Burning dandelion

The following essay originally appeared in print in Palladium 02. To receive original content in future print editions, subscribe here.

In 1961, President Kennedy gave America a mission: to walk on the moon by the end of the decade. The mission’s demands would accelerate materials science, computing, and engineering. But two of the most important missing components couldn’t be created by any MIT team. First, America needed a population that desired such a goal. Second, it needed people who could actually respond to the call, bring hard skills, receive training, and realize the mission.

These were not feats of hard science, but of social engineering. The American state had to mobilize people capable of creating and operating the required institutions, tolerate the disruption of institution-building, figure out the lines of authority and decision-making, and determine how much power to grant the founders on whom they depended.

Fortunately for them, it wasn’t their first time. The demands of winning the Second World War and of postwar reconstruction had conditioned an entire generation of American elites. President Kennedy himself earned honors as a naval officer in Asia, while his predecessor, President Eisenhower, was Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force and then military governor of the American zone in Germany. These decades also saw a degree of elite turnover as rising families like the Kennedys themselves entered the halls of power.

This turnover and the war effort also allowed the founders behind successful political machines, companies, and other organizations to build up personal ties with political leaders. They learned how to interact with government and to understand how each could be useful to the other.  It’s not surprising that novel disciplines from rocketry to cybernetics have roots in this period. These were the relationships which the administrations that built up institutions like NASA drew on. Jim Webb and Doc Draper, for example, had served in wartime roles similar to those they later filled in the space race: Webb was an executive at the Sperry Corporation and Draper was an MIT professor and aeronautical engineer.

America’s dynamic mid-20th-century elite came of age in an era where institution-building and mission focus were necessities of both domestic politics and a global war. The young officers of the Second World War became the leadership of the early Cold War and operated on similar principles. A shared mode of life led to an enduring set of norms that incentivized industrial progress. Most importantly, political leaders were willing to accept the near-term disruptions of working with such founders. In fact, they actively mobilized the kinds of founders who could make them happen. Political sanction was a strong signal of openness and drew the world’s best minds to America.

When we compare dynamic eras like this one to our own more stagnant situation, it’s tempting to think that we’re dealing with a policy problem. But policy is downstream from governance. Instead of cultivating and integrating productive founders, we have a governance culture of suspicion and conflict. It plays out in the ongoing battle between DC and Silicon Valley; in the rapid political disciplining of the internet; in the overarching antagonism which legacy institutions from the public sector to media to academia seem to have towards potential disruptors.

The real difference between these elite cultures is not in their policy, but in their modes of life. The conditions which created the 20th-century elite are long gone. The paths and spaces in which one could become this type of founder have become increasingly restricted. Elites lack the ability to mobilize, align, and integrate people operating in this role. These are the twin hurdles that a new culture of governance has to clear. Industrial progress begins as an act of social engineering.

The Fogbanking of American Social Technology

Most people are not born with fully-formed visions of what paths in life they should pursue. Instead, we observe cues of affirmation from those around us which mark out some choices as particularly desirable: praise, respect, reward, encouragement, and prestige. We observe these cues throughout our lives, beginning with our parents. These cues tell us which people should be imitated and which paths in life are worthy of effort and sacrifice. They communicate that a particular choice has social sanction. A particular career, social circle, class, or subculture is usually defined by its very strong norms of what is or is not sanctioned. People in those domains must follow these norms to be accepted and well-regarded—in other words, they must follow particular social scripts that mark them out as insiders to the group.

Sanction doesn’t come out of nowhere: it is consciously granted and regulated by those with authority. For example, the Unionist reporter Henry Raymond and banker George Jones co-founded The New York Times with the editorial strategy of using an objective and authoritative journalistic voice. Their goal was to counteract scandal-driven yellow journalism by creating an institution that could sanction what was or wasn’t legitimate news. When either explicit or implicit cues come from an authority figure—a parent, a teacher, an accomplished person, or a political leader—they carry inherent weight. When speaking with peers, we often appeal to such authorities to defend our choices. When we praise, encourage, or condemn a choice, we are often giving a cue that it does or does not possess sanction. Either we are in a place to grant sanction ourselves, or else we are propagating cues that originate with some external authority.

What paths in life receive sanction today? We only have to look at where graduates end up. Consulting and finance dominate the career paths of Harvard and Yale students. They are the final step on a path sanctioned from early childhood for talented children across the world. After over a decade of jumping through testing hoops and marking volunteer hours, followed by four years in a hothouse grinder where every romantic passion or idealistic dream is made resume-legible, success means 60-hour weeks filling out Excel spreadsheets.

This sorry state of elite sanction-granting is not purely the result of a passive decline. The hothouse is there on purpose, built and maintained via the privileged relationship such schools maintain with McKinsey, Goldman Sachs, et al. The endless supply of career-anxious and risk-averse interns and manager-track hires is a win for their immediate needs. But we also can’t think of it as a pure formal conspiracy. Most organizations are simply playing the cards they are given. Unfortunately, the long-term result is that all our most powerful and prestigious organizations fall under the thrall of this psychology—to a large extent, they already have. The recruitment mechanisms themselves are likely operating on inertia. It’s no wonder that similar patterns of thought and behavior exist among DC wonks, New York consultants, and San Francisco investors. The scattered exceptions in each field are nearly all beaten down and assimilated.

So, we might ask, how do we reform Harvard and promote new and better career paths? But this is entirely the wrong question. Sanction is a social technology. The thing about technologies is that they can be reverse-engineered. This is what the Air Force did when it forgot how to create heat exchangers for its B-2 Spirit stealth bombers and what the Department of Energy did when it realized it couldn’t create FOGBANK material for its nuclear weapons anymore. But they weren’t just trying to fix old, decaying exchangers or classified aerogels. They tried to make new and improved ones. Likewise, Raymond and Jones didn’t just try to fix yellow journalism, but created an institution to displace and govern it. You reverse-engineer a technology because you want to create something better.

Superior visions for what our society can achieve require superior organs of sanction. But the organs of sanction themselves begin with people. They are nothing more than the organized collaboration of people who recognize, train, and reward those worthy of esteem.

We Desire New Modes of Life

It’s easy to outsource the demand for people elsewhere. When we look back at prior eras in history, we can discern a fleshed-out political agenda. We can study a whole set of policy decisions that made up the nuts and bolts of that era’s great endeavors. It’s natural to think that if we can just resurrect the structures that existed when things were more dynamic, then we can correct our mistakes and set society on a better course.

But policies and institutions express the will of people committed to mobilizing society toward actual goals. Any institution or set of policies is created by people acting in a particular context and based on tacit knowledge which is hard to pass on. Once the deep understanding of those goals is lost, it is no longer possible to simply fix the institutions or to reconstruct old sets of norms. While systematic studies of policy are valuable, they cannot be the starting point. Without strong and dynamic people, you cannot have a strong and dynamic society.

A society’s progress depends on whether significant numbers of people are working toward goals that have never been achieved before and on whether they are able to mobilize resources toward them. People need to be able to act as founders, not just as members of existing institutions. The first step is to embrace modes of life that are conducive to vision and mastery. This cannot, for the most part, come from within existing institutions. They have neither the incentive nor the ability to create them.

However, the dominant institutions of a stagnant society are still centers of authority. This means that they regulate social sanction and can grant it to founders who they perceive as aligned. If successful founders receive affirmation and prestige from authority—instead of finding themselves shunned, attacked, or imprisoned—the result is a set of cues that encourages others to embrace experimental or contrarian pursuits as well.

As these cues propagate throughout society, people become increasingly willing to take the risks to develop new visions and goals. Successful boldness can expect a reward. An individual can observe how others built communities or working groups based on achieving these kinds of goals. They learn by observation how to convincingly relay a vision to others and win the loyalty of early collaborators. The modes of life which are necessary to work toward unique visions become increasingly clear and spaces in which those modes are embraced become more numerous throughout society.

Without the use of sanction to develop these cues and social scripts, it becomes extremely difficult to act in the role of a founder. It’s easy to think one is boldly rejecting established ways of doing things while still being assimilated into the same logic. Coding boot camps might be narrowly superior to a four-year degree. But its superiority is still one of economic logic; the end goal is still to optimize one’s position in the saturated realm of data science, delivery apps, and DeFi models. The personal “founder” brand that dominates the technology sector is just another version of this assimilation disguised as disruption. It’s far harder to operate on an entirely different vision, with an entirely different logic to achieving it.

But it is not impossible, even on the individual level. An important first step is to seek out or create environments that break the conditioning against risk and toward assimilation. Such environments are risky in and of themselves because stagnant societies are prone to shutting them down. When rent-seeking and regulatory capture make up the available income streams, productive disruption is an inherent threat. We might tolerate some upheaval in the world of food delivery, but the open internet proved far too unwieldy.

It may even be ideal to leave America or the Western world entirely—at least for a while. Abandoning the Harvard pressure cooker is a good first step, but abandoning the broader and more subtly degrading cultural pressures of American life is even better.

The process of breaking this conditioning has two aims: discerning entirely new goals and domains of action and developing the kinds of mastery needed to achieve those goals.

Some goals are so ambitious that they can’t be achieved using existing organizational structures, industrial and technical practices, or models of how the world works. Henry Ford, for example, didn’t just become marginally more efficient in established manufacturing methods to achieve his goal of producing cars. Instead, he completely transformed the manufacturing logic, based on specialization, assembly lines, and large lot sizes. Decades later, Taiichi Ohno once again disrupted Ford’s successors by establishing the just-in-time approach to inventory, stripping out waste, and training multi-skilled machine operators. Elon Musk, pursuing his goal to settle on Mars—and in the near term, to lower the costs of space transport by a factor of ten—did not just apply to NASA. Instead, he founded a company focused on changing the parameters of what is technologically possible in nearly every aspect of space transport. A healthy environment is one that helps one crystalize ambitious goals of this sort and better define what is needed to achieve them.

But once defined, success depends on purposeful action, which itself depends on achieving mastery in the relevant domains. Mastery can only be achieved through deep immersion in a field. Ford worked as an engineer in the Edison Illuminating Company, after which Thomas Edison himself encouraged his automobile efforts. Ohno spent his career with the Toyoda family, first in textiles and then engine manufacturing, before becoming the architect of the Toyota Production System. Musk is something of an exception for not having worked in SpaceX’s field long before he founded the company. Instead, he was able to become one of the few autodidacts in rocket science. But even Musk integrated people who had spent years and decades in the field and immersed himself in the operations and production of the company.

One of the major problems with over-specialization is that it becomes increasingly difficult to achieve mastery over a domain larger than what’s required in your immediate role. An ambitious goal, used to define a particular set of skills and domain of action, is a powerful orienting force. Great founders generally have to be great learners, but they learn to achieve a goal. Some may read and study widely to do this, while others are empirical and strictly draw lessons from their own experimentation. But however mastery in the relevant domain is achieved, it is done through deep immersion and by understanding the overall logic behind a project, instead of specialization in one small part of it.

At present, when America has offshored so much of its material production, the road to mastery might well lead to other continents. Whoever builds the manufacturing empire that puts America back at the forefront of semiconductor manufacturing will probably have to spend significant time in Taiwan. And we need only consider what it takes to build, say, a shipping and logistics operation connecting East Africa and Asia. Someone who cannot even assume basic security is going to have to build a far more functional operation than someone who has those luxuries.

Wherever this process takes place, it also creates a new form of conditioning. Someone who operates extendedly in a space built on risk and on achieving concrete goals stops thinking in terms of optimizing metrics and mundane resume legibility—frames set by established institutions just trying to maintain something they’re already doing. Operating outside those spaces means relying on close and personal relationships with others working on the same goals. This removes many of the possibilities to fake competency and forces a person to build real mastery over a domain. They learn to differentiate between ambitions that are impossible versus merely difficult. They have to both learn well and teach well. They have to create pools of real, living knowledge tightly bound to conditions as they really are. Long-term relationships are built based on trust and loyalty, not contractual terms designed for someone to be easily replaceable.

As institutions scale up, their founders need to maintain a deep personal knowledge of how and why they operate—they must be owners, not just managers. A lot of the knowledge may be proprietary or context-dependent. The relationships involved may be based on the trust of a particular person or group. They might operate in structures of exchange value, but they must appreciate the real use of what they build and do. A pure manipulator of exchange value is only possible because they can free-ride off what others have created.

These personal empires regularly face temptations to assimilate or otherwise water down the real core of their productivity. They may not be easily legible to others, they may face competitive or legal pressures, or their jobs may just be immensely difficult. One common way they can change the environment around them is by propagating their own norms and goals to greater numbers of people. SpaceX began with a vastly different culture to NASA; but what could happen if SpaceX systematically placed its people, trained in that culture, in important NASA roles?

This cannot just be achieved through mere training for a specific role. The organization has to deeply inculcate people into a total way of doing things. Its models for the world, its way of making decisions, and its standards for evaluating taste may well be hard to communicate through anything other than prolonged involvement. But as increasing numbers of people achieve mastery over the organization’s core domains, it also increases the possibility for succession and longevity. It’s a good strategy to seek out organizations at this stage.

Some number of people will meet with real success, building a personal organizational empire and the freedom of action that comes with it. These people are in a position to change society in lasting ways. In theory, this doesn’t take much convincing—legacy is a natural concern for people in this kind of position. Unfortunately, the result is often to buy a name on a university building, a fellowship title, or a brand-building charity program with little real impact on bettering society. This is a natural outgrowth of the reality that old, established institutions are a reliable form of sanction and are the easy route to securing a legacy. With that move, the old logic of resume-stacking manages to seize victory from the jaws of defeat.

But a successful empire has the resources for higher ambition. Founders who achieve large-scale success and a significant level of social sanction gain the ability to grant sanction in their own right. They can develop new sets of norms and cues around them, and propagate these norms in outsize ways across society. This position usually only occurs once existing centers of authority have themselves granted the founder sanction and when a degree of alignment exists between them. Figures like Bill Gates or Elon Musk did not always have the degree of authority they currently possess, but gained it over time. A founder who gains the ability to grant sanction in their own right is in a uniquely powerful position. In a society where sanction is directed toward specialization, such founders can instead extend sanction toward the development of mastery outside of existing institutions.

The Thiel Fellowships are a well-known example of this kind of leveraging. It doesn’t just give whiz kids a prize; it tries to actively overturn the view that college is necessary for everyone and it does so among a class of people where that belief is deeply ingrained: university students. But it’s only one initiative trying to solve a global, systemic problem. It’s also yet to be seen if anyone can fill the niche of creating the deep, formative ties which the old university system once served to develop.

Disrupting Yale is one thing; disrupting Skull and Bones is another. These are the lasting bonds by which living and dynamic modes of life are really passed on, down through the generations.

Behind Every Institution Is a Plan

America is a country littered with the wreckage of dead plans. The institutions responsible for its governance, economic wealth, and social reproduction were largely founded decades or centuries ago. This is not a bad thing in and of itself. An institution can last far longer if it solves the problem of succession. But the political settlements, human relationships, and conscious visions for society on which these institutions were founded have largely decayed, or even disappeared completely.

When institutions have outlasted the conscious missions that they were originally designed for, they become zombified. They may try to rebrand themselves, change their core competency, or put increasing effort into telling a convincing story about their continued relevance. One can still find plenty of rational agency being exercised throughout the structure, but it is no longer working toward its original goals and consequently no longer operating on its original logic.

One famous example in the business world is Western Union, which built up a powerful monopoly from the 1850s onward on telegraph infrastructure. By the early 2000s, it had abandoned telegraphy completely, moving its focus to payment transfers and other services. It continues to survive thanks to ongoing acquisitions and exclusivity agreements made possible by the remnants of its once-formidable monopoly power. Its executives were able to scale up new iterations and projects, but they couldn’t re-found the firm entirely. Even though it can survive in these new niches, it has decisively lost its position as the mover and shaker of American telecommunications.

Without the kinds of people who can re-found its most important institutions and the fundamental plan on which they operate, America will suffer this fate on a world-historical level.

Nearly all of its major institutions are essentially conglomerates of competing organizations. Nominally serving the ends of their parent institution, these organizations are utterly disinterested in whatever higher goals originally guided the structure—or even opposed to them. Military decisions serve private contractors, universities are in thrall to administrative bureaucracies, and big business pours money into consulting fees and marketing campaigns. The condition of the American state merely reflects this broader reality. There are countless dead plans weighing down the place, but precious few living ones.

Life in a maze of dead plans conditions entire populations into mediocrity. In a stagnant society, human skill and ambition are wasted on capturing rents or jobs that merely maintain the core structures, as well as on guarding whatever little patch they carve out in a zero-sum world. Risk is a luxury they cannot afford. In a dynamic one, they invest those talents in society’s growth and progress. When people have the sense of purpose that lets them take risks, and the ability to competently carry out a plan, the world stops being zero-sum. Individual effort has a compound effect as people keep on developing what has come before them.

The point of seeking out and propagating new modes of life is to break this conditioning.

Many great founders can come out of such experiences. But a founder who gains the authority of sanction can begin to break that conditioning on a larger scale too. Just as an organization, company, city, or empire propagates norms within itself, it can also propagate norms in the world around it. It can leverage its institutional wealth to terraform the social landscape. If the logic underlying its modes of life, its vision, and its plan is powerful enough, it can alter the course of a civilization.

This requires its own kind of vision. Many people who are successfully achieving an ambitious goal in their core domain don’t necessarily have any desire to change society as a whole. But they have an interest in doing so. The difference between living in a stagnant society versus a dynamic one is incalculable.

A dynamic society may face crises, but it also has reasons for great optimism. A stagnant one no longer has real life in it. Collapse and displacement could take a century, or it could come in a matter of years—but come, it will.

Building a New Center

A dynamic society doesn’t happen just because people wish for it. Instead, its major power centers and institutions have to actively promote the right norms and pathways. They must allow new spaces to continually open up in which new missions are pursued, new plans are developed, and new kinds of mastery are achieved. They must tolerate disruptions that might be temporarily inconvenient but can drive the whole society forward. They must be willing to grant public sanction to success in order to integrate it, instead of seeing it as an inherent threat.

Elites inherently have the power to crush these things, but a wise elite reserves this power for real risks. Those who fall prey to fear and weakness begin to use it indiscriminately. Societies run by such elites become stagnant and are eventually conquered by those who remained open to new vectors of progress. Elites don’t exist in a sealed space where they stand removed from this process. Questions about modes of life, about whether plans are live or dead, and about what organizations are built in their service are perhaps more relevant for elites than anyone else.

In any society, certain methods of creating wealth and surplus form the core of that society’s material productivity and growth. Those who decide how that wealth is used are, by definition, that society’s elite. Whether they are the immediate owners is less relevant than whether they ultimately have the power to direct its use. These two roles are merged in industrialists and landowners, but not in medieval clerics, Chinese party bosses, or the highest tier of American journalists. Nevertheless, all these classes had or continue to have a powerful influence over where a society invests its wealth and effort. Their modes of life and their plans make up the core infrastructure that shapes and conditions the rest of the social order. They don’t make up everything that goes on in a society, or even the majority of it, but they are the core subset.

This means that the context of elite plans has to be properly understood. Otherwise, one of two errors can drive an entire society off a cliff.

The first error is an overconfident but false understanding of how plans work. Societies that over-centralized planning in a few privileged bodies drastically overestimate how much a plan can calculate. The nature of plans is that they depend on contextual and often non-transferable knowledge and relationships. A society that could be totally centrally run would be so uniform and stagnant that it would never grow. Both China and America learned from the failure of the Soviet Union to fully utilize the skills and dynamism which existed in parts of its highly-educated and developed population.

The second error is the idea that since plans are context-dependent, it is impossible to plan or direct society in a centralized way at all. The breadth of what an institution can plan is dependent on its core competencies. But statecraft itself is made up of sets of core competencies. Creating law, assigning sanction and prestige, controlling information and technologies that require a state monopoly, aligning and disciplining other powerful actors, maintaining the ability to wage war, defending otherwise powerless clients—all these require privileged knowledge and institutional control which, by definition, impacts the whole of society.

No plan or institution can control all of society, but they can shape the course of its future. This means that the question of what kind of society we should have is an unavoidable one. The modes of life and the plans of a society’s elite—current or future—will bear fruit. A dynamic center creates a dynamic society. Those who pursue lives, visions, and plans that can successfully operate on this level will find themselves in the position to construct it if they have the will to do so.

What would it mean to have a society with widespread plans and planners, in which the population was imbued with both the consciousness and the capacity to seek out great missions?

First, it would mean a society with more widespread mastery of important and useful domains. Industrial and digital life creates powerful incentives toward specialization in tiny niches. But this ultimately makes society fragile and stagnant, since people cannot easily pursue new projects and ultimately become risk-averse. By way of contrast, imagine an organization where the average fully trained member or employee could be called on to take charge of strategic projects or departments. Such an organization would be more resilient, could better exploit opportunities that crossed existing specializations, and would be made up of people who could tolerate risk and propose bold goals based on personal executive experience.

A society of masters is far stronger than a society of narrowly focused experts. The ancient Athenian state privileged this kind of social order; numerous important positions were filled by lottery from among pools of Athenian citizens and it was expected that they could perform such social duties when chosen. Is there any major institution today that has this level of faith in its members?

Second, it would mean a society where pools of knowledge were kept tightly bound with actual productive work. Geographic separation between executive management and production lines only incentivizes the focus on shareholders and the financial short-termism which has devoured so much of American productive capacity. This is one of the most important areas where the more specific proposals of industrial policy can benefit industrial progress. Public backing for mission-oriented projects in fields like energy or material science has the bargaining power to set rigorous standards for how these resources are owned and used.

Finally, it would mean that institutions with the power of sanction understood themselves as playing a vital strategic role. Rather than gatekeepers of a stagnant social order, they actively spur the process of continual social and economic renewal. A dynamic elite must be a confident elite, one willing to exercise the virtue of liberality in its use of power.

The paths of industrial progress which such a society could undertake would be greater than anything we have yet imagined. But they will only be possible if people are willing to break out of our collective stagnation and give themselves over to plans, visions, and modes of life which are worthy of them. Great things are granted only to those who dare to pursue them.

Ash Milton is managing editor of Palladium Magazine.