Friday, September 12, 2014

Chapter 19 - The Time-Binding Club: Part 2 - "Poly"

Korzybski: A Biography (Free Online Edition)
Copyright © 2014 (2011) by Bruce I. Kodish 
All rights reserved. Copyright material may be quoted verbatim without need for permission from or payment to the copyright holder, provided that attribution is clearly given and that the material quoted is reasonably brief in extent.

If Keyser could be called Alfred’s formulational father, then Polakov (whom Alfred usually addressed as “Walter” or “Poly”) qualifies as Korzybski’s main intellectual ‘brother’. Polakov grasped more quickly than most the overall shape of Alfred’s developing work. After all, for Polakov—a lover of mathematics and a practicing engineer with a strong sense of social responsibility—Alfred’s work seemed more than anything like a clarification and confirmation of what he already felt and knew. Walter became close with both Alfred and Mira. He also became friends with Keyser, Loeb, and many of the other people Alfred was also meeting at this time—indeed he introduced Alfred and Mira to some of them. Soon after he met Korzybski, Polakov began to study Keyser’s work and many of the other works Alfred was also discovering at this time. Polakov’s studio in upper Manhattan become a place where Alfred could share his views, receive criticisms, and get suggestions. Polakov not only contributed to Alfred’s formulating, he also became the earliest significant popularizer of the world view and methodology Korzybski was trying to delineate through the 1920s—although Polakov’s published writings are now relatively unknown. 
Walter N. Polakov

Polakov was born in Luga, Russia in the same year and month as Alfred. Apparently Jewish (his name appears in the 1922-1923 American Jewish Year Book in the listing of “Jews of Prominence in the United States") (3), he seems to have had a completely assimilated upbringing. (None of his later published writings or letters show a trace of Jewish background or interest, although he certainly did not seem antisemitic—just indifferent.) He got his degree in Mechanical Engineering at Dresden’s Royal Institute of Technology in 1902, and did advanced graduate work in psychology and industrial hygiene at the University of Moscow. After working for the Tula Locomotive Works and as Chief Engineer and Naval Instructor in the Russian Department of Navigation and Harbors, he emigrated to the United States with his wife and a daughter in 1906, just after the first Russian Revolution. He quickly became proficient in English and became well-known in the U.S. as an expert in power plant operations and in industrial engineering and management. (4)

Before he met Alfred, Polakov had already come to a clear understanding of the power of a form of representation to affect behavior and the added importance of using a dynamic form of representation (adequately accounting for the time factor) to represent dynamic events. His work with the Gantt Chart, which focused on the element of time, no doubt enhanced this. He had worked closely with H. L. Gantt to develop this system of project management during the war and was rightly considered one of the world’s leading experts in its use. (Polakov helped edit and supplied an appendix to Walter Clark’s definitive book on the subject, The Gantt Chart: A Working Tool of Management, published in 1922.)

In his consulting work, Polakov was obsessed with reducing waste in industry—defined as restricted, reduced, interrupted, or lost productivity. Since for him the ultimate waste resulted from workers getting treated like animals or commodities, his use of the Gantt methodology required worker involvement and brain power. Indeed, as indicated in the title of a talk he gave at the December 1921 meeting of The American Society of Mechanical Engineers, he considered “making work fascinating as the first step toward reduction of waste”.(5) The connection to Korzybski’s emphasis in Manhood that “Man is not an animal”, seems obvious. Polakov’s career as an industrial engineering consultant to businesses and governments could be summarized in a credo he had gotten from Gantt: the purpose of technology and business was “rendering rigorous service”. Both he and Gantt belonged to a larger movement in 1920s America among socially-conscious engineers and management thinkers.(6) In applying the notion of “making work fascinating” to industrial management, Polakov qualifies as a precurser to the movement for Total Quality Management.

You may download a pdf of all of the book's reference notes (including a note on primary source material and abbreviations used) from the link labeled Notes on the Contents page. The pdf of the Bibliography, linked on the Contents page contains full information on referenced books and articles. 
3. “Jews of Prominence In The United States”, Compiled by I. George Dobsevage, in American Jewish Year Book, Vol. 24 (1922-1923), pp. 109 - 218. American Jewish Committee Archives, 

 4. Daniel Wren’s 1980 article “Scientific Management in the U.S.S.R., With Particular Reference to the Contribution of Walter N. Polakov” provides many details of Polakov’s career and early life. D. J. Kelly’s 2004 article, “Marxist Manager amidst the Progressives: Walter N. Polakov and the Taylor Society” analyzes in more detail Polakov’s work and ideas in relation to the beginning of the scientific management movement. 

5. See Polakov 1925, p. 205-–227. 

6. Best, p. 88. 

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