Midnight in Detroit: A hypothetical confrontation between Ford and Huxley

This is not an article of inspiring business notions per se, it is more like a story but it links back to the industrial evolution that is still on-going. It is the story about the fictional meeting that I had with Aldous Huxley and Henry Ford. I have been always intrigued by how two famous figures in history, who have different notions about the world and life, would communicate with each other. And a movie provided me with the means I needed to make up a story about it.

The movie I have talked about is “Midnight in Paris” by Woody Allen. It tells the story of a man (Gil Pender) who wants to be a novelist and of what happens to him in Paris after midnight. He indeed experiences a magical journey. Our guy in this movie has this notion in his mind that Paris in the 1920’s is better than his present time and his reality. He yearns to be there, in Paris in those times. That is his golden age thinking.

And one night, his wishes are fulfilled. An old Peugeot comesand takes him to his golden age where he gets to meet his idols such as Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Stein, Picasso, Dali, etc. He gets the opportunity to share drinks with them and talk to them, observe the relationships between them. And I was inspired by the same idea. How it would be to go back in time and talk to some famous people.

Midnight in Detroit

So please bear with me here. Let’s get in this Ford Model T and slide through time and go to Detroit in 1930’s. I will now introduce the characters in this story.

On one hand, we have Henry Ford, the revolutionary industrialist of the 20th century, who is one of the pioneers of the moving assembly line and mass production.

On the other hand, we have Aldous Huxley. An English writer and the author of the famous dystopia “Brave New World”.

Now you might wonder why I imagine sitting down and talking with them. That’s because Huxley uses a lot of allusions regarding Henry Ford in Brave New World. And I thought that it would be fair to let them speak their mind since they have contradictory ideas and different visions of future. Huxley’s accusations to Ford and Ford’s own defense form the basis of the conversation. But in this hypothetical conversation, I have the upper hand. Because I am from the future, well relatively, from their future and I know by fact what happened after them.

Chapter 1: Huxley’s Accusations

After we sat down at a café in Detroit, Huxley started to talk about his book, Brave New World. I will briefly narrate the conversation to you. It is a dystopian novel. It describes a totalitarian regime where Ford is seen as the deity figure. It takes place in the year 632 After Ford. And that is Huxley’s first salute to Ford. Even the expression “Our Lord” has been transformed into “Our Ford”. And Huxley accuses Ford for two things:

1. The first one is mass production. It is not surprising that Huxley holds Ford responsible for it since Ford is the founding father.

2. Secondly, Huxley was afraid that individuality would be buried beneath mass production and consumption.

Mass Production

We all know that mass production was enabled by moving assembly lines. However, the key to Ford’s technological revolution was not the assembly line per se, but the fragmentation of tasks and the standardization of components which made the assembly line possible. This breakthrough made tremendous changes in the work environment as well. Assembly line mechanization resulted in a rigid hierarchy among the assembly line workers and managers.

Aldous Huxley was terrified of by the uncontrolled mass production. He believes that this standardization would lead to the mechanization of human beings. In his book, he depicted a World State where humans are artificially “manufactured” on assembly lines and the standard component was the embryo.

Out of one embryo, dozens of identical twins could be produced. The destiny of a human being was determined on the assembly line. For example, if you want an unskilled worker all you have to do is just to pour alcohol over the fetus and you would have stopped the brain from developing. What you get is a worker who does what it is told and work at positions which demand no intelligence. In Huxley’s point of view, assembly line workers were treated like them.

Loss of Individualism

And how does Huxley see Ford as a threat against individuality? He described it with two examples: mechanization of tasks and mass consumption. In Ford’s factories, assembly line workers were doing the same repetitive job day after day. The assembly line workers were alienated, mechanized and even dehumanized.

Huxley gave voice to this fear in his book by picturing identical tasks performed by identical twins. Everyone is replaceable, no one is special. These people, they only know what they are supposed to know about their job, no more no less. There is no room for creativity or imagination. And when it comes to mass consumption, Ford dreamed that his cars would be accessible to every citizen. This was his motive with Ford Model T. However, Ford’s vision has stumbled. He believed that customers are for the product. Whereas, today we know it should be the other way around. He even said that any customer can have a car he wants so long as it is black.

And Huxley was afraid that one day he would open his eyes and all he could see in the street would be black colored Ford Model T’s. Production shapes the society to the image that it sees fit and the society consumes it without any questions. The standardization of all aspects of life including feelings, result in the loss of individuality. People in Huxley’s dystopia, they have no other ideas than what they are thought, they consume what they are provided and there is nothing to differentiate one from another.

When finally Huxley finished talking, he sat back comfortably in his chair, but Ford was looking disturbed, even upset. And he started talking in his defense.

Chapter 2: Ford’s Defense & References to Today

“But I am thinking of service… The present system does not permit of the best service because it encourages every kind of waste.”

Does it sound familiar? He is talking about Lean Systems. Of course, the lean philosophy and its tools still have a long way to be introduced in the states when Ford has said that but the principle is the same. Today, we are still looking ways to improve efficiency through elimination waste.

And what about this one? “…I think that it would be found more economical in the end not even try to produce an article until you have fully satisfied yourself that utility, design, and material are the best.”

This quote can fit to Total Quality Management, Design for Six Sigma, you name it.

And Ford’s final remark in our conversation: “Our big changes have been in methods of manufacturing. They never stand still. We give our energy to the improvement of the making.”

This is CONTINUOUS IMPROVEMENT. Ford has great trust in industrial progress and anything could be made better.

After Ford spoke, I left the table; leaving these two continue their debate. And while I was walking to my reality I thought about what they said and I compare them with today’s industrial state. It was gently raining and well, it was a long walk home.

Chapter 3: And Today…

If it was the Fordist era before, now we are in the Post-Fordist era. Fordism used to alienate workers and did not require for them to think but today it is all about taking initiatives even at the shop floor. Mass production has evolved into mass customization which is enabled by flexible production systems. Standardization is still one of the most important keys to success but adding customized elements that differentiates the products is the reason why we choose to purchase one singular item. Everyone may have an i-phone, right? But you can choose any type of casing for your phone, different in color, sytle… And that particular casing would differentiate you from other i-phone users. Today individuality is supported by customization.

I have two more quotes here before I conclude the story, one is from Huxley and one is from Ford. Could you guess which quote belongs to whom?

· Power and machinery, money and goods, are useful only as they set us free to live.

· Technology should not be used as though man were to be enslaved to them.

Well, it is kind of tricky to say because essentially both say the same thing. The first one is Ford’s and Huxley said the second one. These two men finally agree on something but one’s vision of future becomes another one’s worst nightmare.

Chapter 4: Conclusions

In order to wrap it up, in the movie our protagonist had an insight. The present could be a little unsatisfying because life itself is a little bit unsatisfying. But he decided to stay at his present embrace his reality with all its imperfection and perfection. After all it is his own time.

We can also relate this to the conversation I have just narrated. Was the Fordist system perfect? Of course not. Post-fordism is imperfect as well. But that does not necessarily imply that we are moving towards Huxley’s Brave New World. The important thing is to always try to move forward, try to improve the current state. Because there is always a better way. There is always an immense opportunity for innovation, for improvement. And today’s industrial progress is all about them.

If you enjoyed this article just a little tiny bit you might find these books interesting: Brave New World by Aldous Huxley and My Life and My Work by Henry Ford

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