Academic journal article ETC.: A Review of General Semantics

The Unbinding of Time: On Bureaucratic Counter-Productivity

Academic journal article ETC.: A Review of General Semantics

The Unbinding of Time: On Bureaucratic Counter-Productivity

Article excerpt

[B]ureaucratization' is an unwieldy word, perhaps even an onomatopoeia, since it sounds as bungling as the situation it would characterize.

--Kenneth Burke (1984, p. 225)

Count Alfred Korzybski (2001) delineated three classes of life on the planet: chemistry-binding, space-binding, and time-binding. He suggested that life, most broadly and fundamentally, consisted of "chemistry-binding." The binding of chemicals is required by organic life in all of its forms. Molecular bonding, cell growth, and photosynthesis are obvious examples. To that basic level, he added a second, what he called the "space-binding" of animals. Animals are binders of space because they roam to forage for food. They traverse and meaningfully integrate space ("bind" space) as they flee from predators, hunt prey, and look for mates. Third and finally, humanity occupies the unique location within nature designated by the term "time-binding." We humans are organic and volitional life forms who fall into history and open to culture. Memory, cognition, and consciousness of abstracting take us beyond instinct and beyond mere recollection of familiar pathways and feeding grounds. Our neuro-semantic processes bring us into worlds of imagination and possibility, of cultural achievement, art, music, mathematics, science, and philosophy.

Korzybski's notion of "time-binding" offers a realistic account of how humanity differs from the rest of the natural world and also outlines the possibility of a more "sane" future. In and through time-binding, humans can take up where previous generations have left off, and ideally, make the world a better place-a more hospitable place-one that has taken sociohistorical advantage of the passage of time. One of his concerns about time-binding was that humans may not recognize or adequately appreciate this aspect of themselves. People can underestimate the role that time-binding plays in human affairs; they can neglect time-binding to their individual and collective detriment.

This brief paper addresses the concerns mentioned above by investigating countercurrents to "time-binding" within modern bureaucratic workplaces. These countercurrents serve to "unbind" time. By the notion of "unbinding time," we refer to more than mere forgetfulness, disregard, or neglect of the past. Instead, we mean particular kinds of "anti-productivity" or "counter-productivity" that undermine the health and well-being of organizations and their members. This counter-productivity can be best understood by considering three different forms of dysfunction; (1) "make-work," (2) "passive-aggressive information-withholding," and (3) "the cow path." Individually, these dysfunctions can interfere with the productive functioning of a group and undermine its integration. When combined, and when amplified by communication technologies, effects of these dysfunctions can grow exponentially, further entrenching counter-productivity throughout the modern workplace.


"Make-work" is a broad category of human action referring mainly to pretend work, irrelevant work, inessential work, or work that is not meant to make any real difference. Make-work takes many different forms, but all varieties amount to keeping up the appearance of being busy or industrious, not openly wasting time or sitting idle. Make-work can include taking longer than necessary on everyday tasks; mystifying others regarding what is involved in doing what has been done; and overexaggerating the amount of time, effort, or energy that some project took, would take, or is taking. Make-work can also include hanging around on committees or task forces that barely meet (or hardly do anything), having more meetings rather than deciding and implementing decisions, and covering over how some tasks were completed before any official time was allocated for them. In short, whether accounted for or not, make-work is largely about "the performance" of work or the "image of being busy" rather than about actually, concretely, completing tasks in the best interest of the organization. …

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