Vickers’ Predicament … Society

The fourth paper in Vickers The Undirected Society University of Toronto Press 1959, after The Needs of Men, The Criteria of Well-being and Is Adaptability Enough?

The Predicament of the Industrial Society

    Well-being is an imprecise concept and the effects of industrialization upon it are largely indirect and extended in time; they are many and conflicting; they may be self-correcting or cumulative; and their character may change with their intensity. The future cannot be predicted from the past.

Though our methods and resources cannot produce in this wide field results comparable in precision with those of more limited and intensive surveys, the results should be the same in kind. They should confirm or shake existing hypotheses or suggest new ones about the relation between industrialization and well-being; and in so doing they should deepen our understanding of the two terms.


For a time it was supposed that these conditions, unlike the political conditions of well-being, would spontaneously generate themselves if left unregulated. There was never much theoretical justification for this belief and practical experience soon showed the need for other regulators.


An example … is to be found in the resistance of the unscientific to being scientifically managed or studied or even “understood,” a tendency often encountered among workers under scientific personnel management. Underlying more specific reasons is, I believe, a well-founded sense that the scientific way of knowing may be not merely barren but dangerous for the known.


[Galbraith has exposed] the reverent homage paid to risk-taking by those most successful in protecting themselves against it.

[I]n all societies some values are withdrawn more or less effectively from debate.

[They] protect the inner coherence of the system at the cost of its outward adaptability, a dangerous situation to perpetuate. Hence the inclusion among our political conditions of well-being of the freedom to spread facts, however unwelcome, and to express ideas, however unpopular.


While this is ostensibly about industrialization, it has relevance to a wider range of complex dynamic situations, including other aspects of ‘progress’ such as financialisation and globalisation. The key features are:

  • The future cannot be extrapolated from the past.
  • One cannot rely on well-being spontaneously self-generating.
  • So-called ‘scientific’ studies and management are limited, and can be dangerous if taken too literally.
  • Some will benefit in the short term by distorting or hiding the truth, but this is dangerous ion the long-run.


The Round Table in Retrospect and my overall comments.

Dave Marsay

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