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– The Management

The Internet Has Gone Foul. [Part III of IV]

…Now, the story that I want to tell you began in 1971, in the middle of the year. I’d been going around, using this model that I have explained to you, in big companies, in agencies, in all sorts of places. And then I suddenly got a letter which very much changed my life. It was from the technical general manager of the state planning board of Chile [CORFO] – remember, 1971, President Allende was in office. He, er, remarked in this letter that he had studied all my works, he had collected a team of scientists together, and would I please come and take it over?

I could hardly believe it, as you can imagine! But this was to start me on a journey which made me travel 8,000 miles, over and over and over again, I was commuting between London and Santiago for two years. While that model of the viable system is in your mind, let me tell you what happened when I first explained it to President Allende himself.

Allende was a doctor, a medical doctor, as you may know. And therefore it was very easy to explain the model to him in terms of neuro-cybernetics: as the way of controlling the body. And then I went into the business of controlling the state. And so I said to him: “Let us suppose that these [System 1] elements of the state are the big departments of state, like Foreign Affairs, the economy, Home Affairs, so on. And then, we will have those, and the following things will happen, and then we must have a System 2…” – and I built it up on a piece of paper lying on the table between us – “then a System 3, and a System 4”, and I got that far…

And then I got to System 5, and I drew a big histrionic breath, and I said – I was going to say – “this, Compañero Presidente, is you!”. Before I could say it, he suddenly smiled very broadly, and he said “ah, System 5, at last: the people!”.

That was a pretty, er, powerful thing to happen. It had a very big influence on me. Ahh… I can’t go into that aspect, the political aspect in this, er, program; it’s not what it’s about. But I’m sure you’ll bear in mind that I don’t have to go and work in places where I don’t want to be.

What happened when I got to Chile, and took over this team? Let us look at a little diagram to show how I set about things…

— Stafford Beer, January 21, 1974 (133 days after Allende’s death)

I have only ever earned for myself a very minor reputation as an academic, but it’s one I’ve come to treasure all the same.

This little notoriety stems from my only published scholarly work – a slim nine pages, it first appeared in the tenth volume of Young Scholars in Writing in 2013. The journal had been founded a decade prior as “the first international undergraduate research journal in rhetoric and writing studies” by Laurie Grobman and Candace Spigelman, both at Penn State Berks, but at this point it was edited by a team based out of the University of Missouri-Kansas City (the journal remains in print today, though now based out of York College of Pennsylvania).

In the ensuing years, Semantic Scholar claims that my article has been cited five times by other, peer-reviewed works. Google Scholar has that figure at twelve (theirs includes thesis papers and the like), with the earliest citations dating back to 2015, and the most recent having been earlier this year. Also – it is here I must confess to occasional egosurfing, and thus being insufferable – my work has now appeared on the “required readings” lists of post-secondary courses on a range of subjects, taught on campuses across no fewer than four continents.

"Robert J. Holt is a recent graduate of the University of Winnipeg, having majored in Rhetoric, Writing, and Communications as well as Politics. For those who are curious, additional details about the author can likely be found online, as he keeps fairly lax control over his online privacy."
The contributor bio that I – a theoretical adult and actual human being – submitted to a peer-reviewed journal. I absolve my editors.

A not-insignificant part of me suspects that this relative success mainly comes down to what you might call “academic search engine optimisation“. By that I mean that I chose a rather catchy (and, in hindsight, keyword-dense) title for my paper – “Social Media and the ‘Perpetual Project’ of Ethos Construction” – and that great pains were taken during the editorial process to ensure that my premise would be obvious from the abstract onward (my premise being, in essence, that “hey, the ways people communicate through emerging ‘social media’ platforms, right now, are sort of interesting to interrogate, aren’t they?”).

This has made my paper something of an ideal source for other researchers to cite, often paraphrasing my work somewhere in the preamble of their own, gesturing vaguely towards it as if to say “See? We can talk about these things!”, and then proceeding to discuss whichever far more interesting things they had meant to from the outset. That is, to my mind, the best theory by which one can make sense of the sheer breadth and depth of fine scholarship in which my own thoughts and research have, to greater and lesser extents, now figured.

Not that I’m complaining – far from it! With rare exception, and inasmuch as I’m able, I feel both grateful and glad to have contributed.

Pulling The Pin Out

Don’t let the hairline fool you: I only turned thirty-four this year. That means twelve years (or so) now separate myself, the author of this post, and that promising undergrad who self-described as keeping “fairly lax control over his online privacy”. What, one might ask, ever came of him?

Well, at some point in the last year, it seems that I changed the date-of-birth on my Facebook profile to January 1st, 1977 (I don’t recall the when or the why of it, but it seems like something I’d do). The only trouble came when a relative took the time to wish me a happy birthday, several weeks early, and then somebody else, and at that point it’s far too awkward to go about correcting anyone in specific, because why even would your birthday be wrong?, and then a week goes by, and you think “hold on, if I change it back now, will people think I’m fishing for happy birthdays?”, and then springtime comes, then summer…

In short, he tripped and fell as have so many promising young minds before and since into a career in advertising, and a decade spent at that vocation has rendered him paranoiac. Of course, that’s not his term for it; he prefers to say “mistrustful”, since “paranoia” suggests a degree of unreasonableness, which he roundly disputes. On his socials, he is currently passing for a Gen-X Capricorn, and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.

The final season of Curb = the last time I let my subscription to Crave auto-renew.

Meanwhile, his alma mater allowed the theft of personal and financial records on every student enrolled over the past five years, and every employee of the institution over the past two decades. Owing to the nature of his work, he is acutely aware that the administrators responsible can only bear up to $50,000 in individual liability for any such breach under Manitoba law, regardless of its scale, whereas the University of Winnipeg could now be open to administrative fines as high as $30 million (or one-sixth of its total annual revenues last year), were they held to the same data-protections standards as their European counterparts. So, despite my better efforts and against my better wishes, it seems that my “contributor’s bio” was prophetic: additional details about the author can likely be found online, for those who are curious.

Occupational hazards, perhaps. Yet it is only thanks to these lived professional experiences, and the convictions which they’ve engendered, that I now feel prepared – finally, and at long last – to address a topic that my younger self could only gesture vaguely towards, by way of this brief and desultory footnote:

It should be pointed out that while media theorists (such as Marshall McLuhan or, more recently, Ben McCorkle) have argued that the form of media necessarily affects the communication which takes place through it, and certainly the same case could be made concerning social media, a larger discussion of how social media platforms themselves act as another “author” by influencing the communication of users is beyond the scope of this essay.

In hindsight, this latest series of blog-posts – what started out as an unabashed love letter to the 1973 Massey Lectures – reads like my own good-faith best effort to return to, and grapple with, this very concept. In Part I, I offered up my perspective on the “state of the industry” when it comes to marketing via the modern commercial Internet (TL;DR: it’s a disastrophe!). In Part II, I listed out what I see as the more salient afflictions the marketing industry faces (TL;DR: exorbitant waste, propelled by ever-greater scales of data collection, transacted through opaque markets, wherein buyers routinely misinterpret signals and misapply knowledge, all to dubious net benefit). Those issues have remained nearly as constant and unchanging over my decade of professional practice as has the list of major firms, platforms and publishers which dominate the global “attention economy”.

Having already addressed each of those topics with due attention and care, I feel we can proceed to try and identify the underlying causes of these “afflictions” (as I called them just now), in order to better understand how they arose, why they persist, and what might yet be done about them. So. Off we go!

Variety: the Spice Melange of Life

The ironic intent behind the title of Designing Freedom‘s fourth chapter, “Science in the Service of Man”, is made apparent almost immediately. Stafford Beer begins with a few brief sketches intended to convey the myriad ways by which, to his mind, “science and technology are driven relentlessly forward towards a society of conspicuous consumption, since this is the only development that our economic machinery can countenance… [b]ut I believe that the society of conspicuous consumption is proving to be the most alienating force the world has ever known, and that the fantastic consumption of drugs (both legally prescribed and illegally acquired) is a useful index of the degree of alienation now in evidence”.

IT IS BY THE JUICE OF SAPHO THAT THOUGHTS ACQUIRE SPEED; THE LIPS ACQUIRE STAINS; THE STAINS BECOME A WARNING.

That’s the gist of Beer’s opener, anyways. I’ve summarised it here in part so you can skip reading or listening for yourself, but mostly because it helps to tee up these next few vital excerpts:

What does this brief analysis purport to show? It argues that the sense in which people accept that science serves man is a false sense, since science is in these typical ways being used to destroy man—in his humanity and in his joy of living. Moreover it is getting through to decent people that on a planet the resources of which are only now becoming recognized as finite, prosperity for all is a delusory goal. We buy increasing prosperity for we few at the expense of the many who can never attain it. As the alienation grows, there is increasing resistance to the idea of yet more science, with the result that new proposals for handling old problems by the use of computers and telecommunications are often greeted with something approaching public hysteria. I am thinking of electronic files on the citizen, or the kind of governmental control system that I described [in the preceding lecture]. The point is that this panic is well justified, so long as society continues down the existing path, following its technological nose. Yet if societary institutions are to escape the fate of catastrophic instability, we shall very certainly need new systems of these kinds.

It follows that science has to be handled in a new way. There is only one solution that I can see. It is to remove the control of science and technology from those who alone can finance its development, and to vest its control in the people. As to scientists and technologists themselves, they are truly servants of that public; whereas the present tendency is to turn them into an elite instrument of those who have the economic power over scientific systems themselves. That way lies technocracy, and we are perilously close to it already.

— Stafford Beer, “Designing Freedom” (1973), p. 28-29 [emphasis mine]
From Beer’s “Notes in Support of the Fourth Lecture”

…Obviously, I am trying to dig beneath the surface layer of science and technology as we know it in society, to uncover new strata of scientific potentiality. The societary use of science we have is threatening; it becomes oppressive and alienating. The societary use of science we could have is a liberation. To grapple with that idea, I well understand, needs courage and resolve; the risk is that folk who see the very real dangers will turn their backs on the whole difficult business. But how safe would our great-grandparents have felt if plunged suddenly into a modern home, a modern street?

We have had three or four generations in which to adapt to a house alive with lethal electricity, a road alive with lethal trucks. We have had barely twenty years to adapt to the inventions and discoveries that these lectures discuss. Then no wonder the adaptation is not coming along too well yet. No wonder people feel at ease with an automobile that they literally dominate, and ill-at-ease with the computer which they do not. The interesting thing is that a majority (perhaps) of automobile-dominators do not understand exactly how those machines of theirs work, and yet use a similar ignorance of the computer’s viscera to explain their distrust of it.

Be that as it may, the problem of rapid adaptation for the individual that has now emerged is a similar pattern—in cybernetic terms—to the problem of rapid adaptation for the institution. Let us try to analyse the modern individual’s problems in the language that we have been learning, because this problem is indeed a problem of effective organization.

The first thing we have to face up to is quite a tough proposition for people reared in our culture. It is that whatever we humans can do is mediated by our brains, and those brains are finite. We have in the cranium a slightly alkaline three-pound electrochemical computer running on glucose at about 25 watts. This computer contains some ten thousand million (that’s ten to the ten) logical elements called neurons, operating on a basic scanning rhythm of ten cycles per second. Then this is a high-variety dynamic system all right; but it really is finite. It follows from Ashby’s Law that we can recognize patterns up to a certain limit, and not beyond. Thus if something is going on that involves a higher variety than the brain commands, we shall not recognize what it is. This is the old constraint of requisite variety again.

There are practical consequences to this. For instance, I am sure that the reason why we are making such a hash of the problems of global ecology is that we cannot understand them. I don’t just mean that they are awfully difficult, so that understanding will take a lot of research. I mean that we can not understand at all, ever. Very likely this goes for many problems of government too, especially world government. It may even be true at the level of recursion where a corporation is managed. May I recall that the level of recursion is simply the focus of attention at which we contemplate any viable system, and that one level is contained within the next. So here is an unpleasing thought: maybe it is also true at our personal level of recursion. Perhaps we cannot actually understand our own lives, our own environment, any longer.

Now with or without full understanding, with or without the requisite variety to detect vital patterns, we have to cope somehow at all these levels. Of course we do it by making mental models. We simplify, so that the system we are considering will map onto our own brains. But that can be done only by attenuating variety, and we have no guarantee that we are not throwing the wrong information away. It is fairly evident that we shall become accustomed to discarding information in set ways, and to eliminating inputs that do not seem to fit very well the models we have developed. I think this must mean that what we all refer to as “reality” is a version of the universe that is very much cut off at the knees. To be rude about it, you could say that our humanity exists in sharing a delusion about the way things are.

At this point I would love to start talking about mysticism, or about psychosis, or about psychedelic drugs—especially I would like to talk about the relations between them. Because these three things have this much in common: they claim to deal with aspects of reality which our shared delusion filters out. But the point I was really after is this. The currently explosive rate of change produces perturbations at intervals that are shorter than the relaxation time of our institutional system: that was my earlier hypothesis. I have pointed to its realization in Chile. I now extend that hypothesis to cover you and me as individuals. Can it be, perhaps, that we all suffer from a variety overload that we cannot map onto our models, and from an ungovernable oscillation in our search for mental equilibrium? In short, is our species facing the same threat of catastrophic instability as I earlier argued that our institutions are?

— Stafford Beer, “Designing Freedom“, 1973, p. 29-30 [emphasis mine]

Towards the conclusion of the lecture, Beer returns to this theme with even greater bluntness:

The brain is a finite instrument that mediates all our experience. It has high variety, but not necessarily requisite variety for handling an environment of exploding complexity. It has a relaxation time that was fast enough to deal with a world in which perturbations came at a particular rate, but it is not necessarily fast enough to offer a guarantee of equilibrial response in the current world.

This brain has certain powers, and these are essentially computational, which make it the most developed regulatory system the world knows. But my cybernetic interpretation of the evidence from biology, psychiatry, pharmacology, and criminology, is that this brain (and again that just means you and I) is by now seriously threatened by a possible catastrophic instability. Finally, this brain simply does not have the powers of untold resilience or infinite self-improvement to which three thousand years of pre-scientific culture have laid a spurious claim.

Please now hear me when I add that these considerations make no commentary whatsoever on matters that may (or may not) lie outside the physical domain. If mankind can indeed receive the divine afflatus, the point remains as I rather carefully put it just now—that the brain is a finite instrument that mediates all our experience, and is therefore limiting. As a personal aside, let me say that I am more interested in the fact that I could not recognize an angel if I met one, because my brain does not have requisite variety, than I am in the illegitimate scientific argument that angels do not exist because I have not recognized one yet.

— Stafford Beer, “Designing Freedom“, 1973, p. 32 [emphasis mine]

The Arcane Art of Parsing Charts

Let us depart, for illustratrative purposes, from our usual subject in this blog, to address a topic of more general popular interest. It doesn’t matter which, so I’ve gone with “crime”. You’ll certainly never find yourself short on Winnipeggers ready to offer up an opinion on the subject, so here’s mine:

I don’t feel any less safe today, in a general sense, than I have done over my decade (or so) living in the city. It’s true that violent crimes have been on the rise over nearly that entire time, and that there is far greater visible poverty in our city than at any time I can recall, but it’s not that much worse today than it ever has been. Not really. Not in the grand scheme of things.

There you have it. And now, here is a little chart to show you what I mean:

Control charts” such as the one above were first developed in 1924 by Walter A. Shewhart, at that time an employee of the Hawthorne Works, and soon thereafter as a founding member of Bell Labs. Shewhart was a mathematician and engineer by training, and his innovation was to apply two interrelated (and highly useful) principles drawn from statistical theory to the assembly lines and factory floors of the Bell System:

  • The central limit theorem holds that, for a given “random variable” under observation, the total population of samples will come to approximate a “normal” or “Gaussian” distribution – better known as a “bell curve” – as the number of samples increases. Shewhart had recognised that oftentimes, the measured “outputs” of Bell’s industrial processes, such as the number of defective units produced on a line each day, tended to be nearly, though not truly, normally distributed.
  • The three sigma rule holds that, for a given (normally distributed) random variable, roughly 99.7% of all observable data-points will fall within three standard deviations (that is, ±3σ) of the mean (that is, average) value of observed samples. This is also known as the “empirical rule”, or the “68-95-99.7 rule”.
  • Given the two points above, one can predict with high belief that the observed output of a given process, with respect to some given real-valued quality characteristic(s), will tend to remain within “three sigma” of its recent “process mean”, provided that the process being studied remains “stable”. Shewhart referred to this as “the state of statistical control“.
    • When a data-point falls within this range of values, Shewhart called this “chance cause” variation. These results are normal and foreseeable, based on past performance.
    • When a data-point falls outside of this range of values, Shewhart called this “special cause” variation. These results are atypical, or “out of control”, and often signal some significant change in the underlying process which warrants further investigation and/or action.

This is a bit (but not much!) of an oversimplification, and I’ve probably explained some of it poorly. Sincere apologies to any actual statisticians who might be reading (to say nothing of anyone actually employed in formal QA/QC), but that ought to be just about all of the grounding in theory one really needs in order to gainfully interpret (most) control charts.

Anyways, we had been discussing local crime earlier. I’ll tell you something that does worry me, though: murder. Not so much for myself, mind; my personal circumstances are such that “homicide” remains unlikely as my cause of death. No, what worries me is how it’s become abundantly clear that, whatever other benefits might come from pouring more than a quarter of the city’s annual operating budget (and growing!) into its Winnipeg Police Service, “fewer Winnipeggers being murdered” is not one of them. It is rather worse than that, I’m afraid: sometimes it feels like ever since the pandemic, the murder-rate has been out of control.

Again, this is fairly dull, uncontroversial stuff – you might find these sorts of opinions anywhere in a city with intermittent claims to the title of “Canada’s murder capital”. And here, again, are some charts to show you what I mean, and why I feel so confident in opining so. The raw figures I used were drawn from Statistics Canada surveys, but I have augmented these with upper and lower “control limits”, which I computed and plotted based on the forty-year period from 1981 to 2020:

My point in sharing the above graphs is not to prompt some general alarm over my local murder-rate (I will grant that alarm would have been appropriate eighteen months ago, among the relevant power-people, when such information would have first been available to them). Nor do I hold them up as certain proofs of the correctness of my opinions, for indeed you could jiggle the parameters a bit and wind up with “proof” that no, actually, the homicide rate was still inside control limits, so its fine actually, it’s fine, now please go away. Rather, I offer them so that you might spend a few moments interpreting and appreciating such “control charts” for yourself, and reflect on whether (and to what extent) they succeed in their overtly rhetorical aspects:

  • What “arguments” does the chart make about the process and/or data being plotted?
    • In essence: “here is the range of values which are likely to occur in the near future, given our recent experience, and provided that no substantive change is made“.
  • How would one know, according to the chart, if and when there’s a problem with the process?
    • If the next sample data-point falls somewhere between the control limits, this outcome was expected. Continue to monitor the process, and integrate new data into the model.”
    • If the differences between the samples grow larger, then the standard deviation of the set will increase, meaning future performance will be less stable/predictable.
    • If the process’ performance exceeds the ‘control limits’, something has changed. Investigate and resolve.
  • What is the “ideal state” for the process, as communicated by the chart?
    • In some contexts, the operational “target” might be to reduce process variation, since this will lead to more consistent, and thus predictable, outcomes in future.
    • In other contexts, one might instead seek to achieve some result which exceeds the known “control limits” of the process under study, to the operator’s advantage.
      • Returning to our previous example, one can predict that Winnipeg’s annual homicide rate will rarely, if ever fall below 0.65 per 100,000 population (or about six total homicides in a single year), so long as the existing system we are evaluating remains unchanged. This figure, then, would make for a sensible “target homicide rate” for the relevant stakeholders to adopt for themselves. It is, in any case, a far more sensible and useful target than is the much more popular (and overtly political) sentiment, often espoused by police spokespersons and public relations teams, that “one is too many“.

I would pose another question, further to these: can you recall having ever seen your local crime statistics expressed or presented in this manner before? Indeed, can you recall having seen any species of data expressed to you in this way? I have chosen “crime” as my example here, but we might just as well have been discussing the cost of housing, or the rate of inflation, or game-day attendance for your preferred major-league sport franchise…

I am asking you: can you recall having ever seen a “control chart” on, say, your local newscast? Or reproduced in your local paper? Heard of this-or-that elected official boasting of some recent success, or defending some recent failure, through the framing of having “exceeded the upper control limit based on the past eighteen-months”? Of course these are rhetorical questions, but they are also questions of rhetoric. I ask them so as to prompt you to reflect on the myriad examples of “statistical rhetoric” with which one is confronted daily, and whether these prove any more or less illuminating to you than their readily imaginable alternatives.

Over the past few years, I’ve found ample opportunities to create, maintain and monitor “control charts” in the course of my professional work, as online advertising also involves large volumes of messy, noisy data being collected from, and about, highly complex and variable processes. Recall from Part I that the complexity was the first point I wanted to address when discussing this work with a class of aspiring marketers.

More recently, I have been struck by the notion — as you might now be struck — that the paucity of any comparable data-visualisation tools from the “media diet” (so to speak) of the average thinking Canadian should not go unexamined, nor unremarked.

To emphasise that point, here’s how the Winnipeg Police Service opted to share its crime stats with the public last week, when — in a bit of serendipity — it released its 2023 Statistical Report. The city’s local news media then set about the work of amplifying these same charts and data-points, largely undecorated by journalism:

“The city grew by about six per cent in 2023, so… so things are… bad? Are things bad? Or are they good? Also, here’s that cheque you asked for. Yes, sir. Thank you, sir.”

Third Fourth Time’s the Charm

We have finally arrived (three posts and some fifteen thousand words later) at a point where I feel able to tackle Beer’s notion of the “electronic mafia”, which had sparked my interest in writing this series in the first place. However, since this entry has gone on for a little more than five thousand words already (with more to come), and even though I was hoping to avoid it, this one will be extending into a four-parter. I’m very sorry.

With this post, I’ve introduced Stafford Beer’s view on the essentially finite nature of the human mind, and on the “proper” role of the sciences and technology in a free and democratic society. I felt it necessary to then make a digression into “control charts” (with origins in Shewhart and Deming‘s work in “statistical process control”) as a comprehension tool. I did so because I hoped to offer a glimpse of the solutions which might readily be brought to bear against the kinds of challenges I describe (and Beer described, half a century ago), but which remain quite firmly entrenched as “live issues” in our present.

Before you go — and in light of this being National Indigenous History Month — I have one last story to relate:

In 1793, at the age of nineteen, James Monkman – who hailed from Whitby, Yorkshire – boarded the Prince of Wales as it embarked on its maiden voyage to York Factory, along with this brother. The two were not “servants” of the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC), however; rather, they had stowed away while the vessel was at port, and only made their presence known once the crew had been many days at sea (the Ships’ Logs apparently attest to this, but I’ve not read them myself; the curiosity of James having signed his contract with the Company upon arrival in “Rupert’s Land”, rather than while still in England, would also seem to support this version of events).

Over the next twenty years, James would embark on a career as an HBC sailor and fur trader, eventually serving as an Assistant Trader at both Severn and Island Lake. Around 1804, he was wedded à la façon du pays to “Mary”, a Swampy Cree woman whose other names are not recorded. When James retired from HBC service in 1816, aged forty, he and his young family moved to the area of the Red River Settlement, on “Selkirk’s Grant” (Lord Selkirk was, at about this time, the HBC’s majority shareholder, and controlled roughly one-third of all company stock). Circa 1818, James and his family would establish the “Monkman’s Salt Works” near Lake Winnipegosis, on what is today known as Salt Point, Manitoba. Mary and James would go on to raise nine children (of their own) by the time they were church-wed in an Anglican ceremony, held in present-day Winnipeg in 1827.

I’ll skip ahead by thirty years. In 1857, the British and Canadian governments, each seeking to learn whether there might be any useful lands to be annexed in this part of the world, funded “scientific” expeditions to the Red River Valley and beyond. The Canadian party was led by Henry Youle Hind, and departed from Toronto on 23 July, 1857. Just over two months later — October 4th, according to Hind’s account — the Canadians arrived at the saltworks, and were greeted (and thereafter guided for a time) by John Monkman, James’ youngest son.

Here is a relevant excerpt from Hind’s account of the expedition:

At the “Works” there are two small log-houses and three evaporating furnaces. The kettles, of English construction, are well-made rectangular vessels of iron, five feet long, two feet broad, and one foot deep. They are laid upon two rough stone walls, about twenty inches apart, which form the furnace. At one extremity is a low chimney. The whole construction is of the rudest description, and at the close of the season the kettles are removed, turned over, and the furnace permitted to go to ruin, to be rebuilt in the following spring.

The process of making salt is as follows: When a spring is found, a well, five feet broad and five feet deep, is excavated, and near to it an evaporating furnace erected. The brine from the wells is ladled into the kettles, and the salt scooped out as it forms, and allowed to remain for a short time to drain, before it is packed in birch bark roggins for transportation to Red River, where it commands twelve shillings sterling a bushel, or one hundred weight of flour, or a corresponding quantity of fish, pemican, or buffalo meat, according to circumstances.

The brine is very strong, — thirty gallons of brine producing one bushel of salt; and from one kettle two bushels of salt can be made in one day in dry weather. There are nine kettles at the “Works,” seven being in constant use during the summer season. The Half-breeds engaged in the manufacture complained of the want of fuel—in other words, of the labour and trouble of cutting down the spruce and poplar near at hand, and the difficulty of hauling it to the furnaces, — an objection of no moment, but characteristic of some of the people, who are generally unaccustomed to long-continued manual labour.

It will be seen that the processes employed in the manufacture of salt are of the rudest description, so that without any outlay, beyond a few days’ labour, the quantity might be largely increased. I spoke to John Monkman, who now makes salt here, of pumps and solar evaporation. Of a pump he knew absolutely nothing. He had heard that such an apparatus had been contrived, but had never seen one. He readily comprehended the advantage to be derived from pumping the water into shallow troughs, dug in the retentive clay near the springs, and strengthening the brine by solar evaporation. An Indian guide, who accompanied us up the Moss River, assured me that all along the west coast of Winnipegosis and Manitobah Lakes, there are salt lagoons and springs. The Indians we met on the Dauphin Lake made the same acknowledgment, but declined to give precise information, alleging that the manufacture of salt drove away the game, and spoiled their hunting.

— Henry Youle Hind, Narrative of the Canadian Red River Exploring Expedition of 1857 and of the Assiniboine and Saskatchewan Exploring Expedition of 1858, Vol. I, Chapter 25

I find myself reminded of my great-great-great-great-great-uncle John, who helped to run one of the biggest “industrial” sites on the Canadian Prairies in his lifetime, but apparently would not live to see (or use) a functioning water pump. I assume as much, at least — he died in 1861, after being stabbed by one Paulette Chartrain (a distant relative of MMF President David Chartrand) in a dispute over a salt kettle. Chartrain would later be tried at the Quarterly General Court, and sentenced to ten months for manslaughter (of which he served six). James Monkman would survive his youngest son; he died in 1865, and is buried at the Old Stone Church in St. Peter, Dynevor.

I am reminded of Hind — an unambiguous racist, as has been shown — dismissing out-of-hand the complaints of the local Métis workforce as “of no moment”, while in the same breath declaring their worksite to be “of the rudest description”, and asserting that with only a modicum of effort and know-how, their operations could be made far more capable and fit-for-purpose. “By the employment of simple artifices”, Hind would remark elsewhere in his report, “the yield might be greatly increased, and its market value reduced to one-fourth the price it brings at the settlements”.

“The ruins of the Monkman Saltworks in 1889, at the time of a visit by… Joseph Burr Tyrrell
Credit/Source: “Salt-Making in Manitoba” by Virginia Petch

One hundred and sixty-some years later, we face altogether different challenges than those of our forebears; our worlds, our technologies, our labours and our anxieties are unalike. However I do not believe for a moment that we are greatly changed, for all the intervening years. People can still be relied upon to be people, for good or ill… but, here is a pump. I have tried to explain its workings to you, as best I can. May you comprehend its advantages readily!

We’ll wrap this up next time, I promise,



-R.