InReview – Issue 49

Serving Two Masters?: Reflections on God and Profit by C. William Pollard; New York, Harper Collins, 2006; xiii, 262 pp.

C. William Pollard was chairman of ServiceMaster from 1990 until 2002, and CEO from 1983 to 1993, and from 1999 to 2000. ServiceMaster is a collection of service companies providing industrial and hospital cleaning services, pest control, maid service, among others. They were recognized by Fortune magazine as the No.1 service company in the Fortune 500. This is his third book.

This book consists of 49 short pieces (five to six pages) written by Bill Pollard and presented at board meetings for ServiceMaster over a 25-year period. These pieces focus on aspects of what it meant at ServiceMaster “to honor God in all we do,” one of their four objectives. It is unusual for a publicly traded Fortune 500 company to have an objective to honor God, and this collection of essays (with points to ponder and questions to consider at the end of each one) represents Pollard’s efforts to explain this objective from many angles.

This book is not just for those who share Pollard’s faith. It provides a rare glimpse into the mind of the CEO of a large corporation as he struggles with the growth of the firm, strategic direction, international law, corporate culture, profitability, and many other thorny issues.

What comes through loud and clear is that being a CEO is not easy. And unlike some who would duck the tough issues, he faces them head on with all their messiness, ambiguity, and tension. He willingly admits mistakes and lays out his thoughts on tough issues. The objective “To honor God in all we do” can create conflict with other ServiceMaster objectives such as “growing profitably” or “developing people.” Pollard confronts these tensions in his discussions.

This is a terrific book, and I highly recommend it.

Reviewed by Al Erisman

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Human-Built World: How to Think about Technology and Culture by Thomas P. Hughes; Chicago, The University of Chicago Press, 2005; 203 pp.

Thomas P. Hughes is the Mellon Professor Emeritus in the Department of History and Sociology of Science at the University of Pennsylvania, and a distinguished visiting professor at MIT. He has written extensively on technology and culture. His work is frequently referenced by scholars.

Human-Built World is a journey through history with a special focus on the complex interplay between technology and culture. Hughes starts by retracing the concept of the “Second Creation,” which was especially popular among early American settlers. He then progresses through the Industrial Revolution, the development of large technological systems in the mid-20th century, and concludes with a critical look at our current human-built world. The book also contains a fascinating chapter on the relationship between technology and art, architecture and philosophy, with a special focus on 20th-century Germany.

The two main themes present throughout this concise and insightful book are creativity and the human-built world. Hughes argues that human creativity drives technology, despite our tendency to overlook the creative process. Human creativity allows us to control our world in godlike ways by transforming the landscape and extending human attributes.

Each chapter revisits this human-built world theme. Hughes shows how Western civilization has transformed the natural landscape through the use of technology. He points out that we need to reevaluate the ethical implications of these transformations as we too often use our technology recklessly, without thinking through consequences. Hughes argues we can use our creativity to develop a more positive human-built world that he calls the “ecotechnological environment.” He suggests that greater public participation in decisions that affect our landscape, and improved technological literacy will move us toward this goal.

Since Hughs wrote Human-Built World for a general audience, he includes a useful “bibliographic essay” (vs. a traditional bibliography), organized by the layout of the book. Each section has an annotated resource list to guide those interested in further reading.

Human-Built World is a very good introduction to the underappreciated field of the history of technology. Despite Hughes’s enthusiasm for technology, he also does an excellent job of debunking the utopian myth surrounding it. Anyone who thinks technology can solve all of our problems should read Human-Built World to gain an insight into the roles technology plays in our culture.

Reviewed by Heidi Gautschi