Designing Organizations for an Information-Rich World
SIMON. If men do not pour new wine into old bottles, they do something almost as bad: they invest old words with new meanings. “Work” and “energy” are venerable English words, but since the Industrial and Scientific Revolutions they have acquired entirely new definitions. They have become more abstract and divorced from directly sensed qualities of human activity; and they have become more precise, finding expression in quantitative units of measurement (foot-pound, erg) and exact scientific laws (Conservation of Energy). The word “energy” uttered in a contemporary setting may represent quite different concepts and thought processes from the word “energy” uttered in the eighteenth century.
Old word meanings do not disappear; they tend to persist alongside the new. This is perhaps the most insidious part of what C. P. Snow has dubbed the problem of the two cultures. To know what a speaker means by “energy” it is not enough to know what century he is speaking in, but also whether his talk belongs to the common culture or the scientific culture. If the former, his words should not be credited with the quantitative precision that belongs to the latter; and if the latter, his words should not be interpreted vaguely or metaphorically.
All of this is preliminary to raising a difficulty I must hurdle to communicate. I intend to use familiar words like “information/’ “thinking,” and “organization,” but not with the meanings that the common culture has attached to them over the centuries. During the past twentyfive years these words have begun to acquire new, increasingly precise and quantitative meanings. Words associated with the generation and conversion of information are today undergoing a change of meaning as drastic as that experienced by words associated with the generation and conversion of energy in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries